Never seen an Earthship? Prepare yourself to be amazed.
Michael Reynolds began designing “radically sustainable” homes in a community just outside of Taos in 1971. Since then, his innovative, self-sufficient whimsically designed Earthships have cropped up around the world. Not only does the Earthship model find five ways to re-use captured rainwater, it utilizes both the sun and the earth to help regulate interior temperatures, utilizes discarded items like tires, bottles and cans as building materials, treats sewage and even incorporates growing food and beautiful plants. Ingenious, gorgeous and sustainable. I was completely bowled over and in awe.
The face of an Earthship is basically a windowed corridor, much like a greenhouse. (In our hemisphere, this is south-facing.) During the colder months, when the sun is low in the sky, the sunlight enters the windows, heating up the greenhouse. In this space, you can grow all manner of fruits and vegetables using recycled greywater. On the inside of the greenhouse corridor are the living spaces – spacious, stylish and temperate. Many of the interior walls are built using empty cans and bottles. Sometimes these are arranged in a pattern and allowed to show through, creating a whimsical effect. The roof hosts a rainwater catchment system, multiple solar panels and several vents and skylights that help with cooling and lighting. The back wall of the house is constructed of recycled automobile tires filled with rammed earth. On the inside, all of the walls are finished in smooth, inexpensive adobe. On the outside, the back wall of the house is covered in sloped earth, otherwise known as a berm, providing additional thermal mass.
When we were in Kentucky, we visited Mammoth Caves, one of my very favorite places on our trip. These extraordinary caverns are the largest mapped cave system on the planet with over 400 miles of explored caves. The entrance to the main cavern lies in a gully, surrounded by towering green sentinels of oak, cedar and hickory. As you walk down the steps you feel the chill, as if a giant’s maw had frosty breath. Once inside, the temperature is always just about 55 degrees F. I had no idea, but wherever you go on the planet, just beneath the surface, it’s the same. 55 degrees. All the time.
Using that steady 55 degrees, you can regulate the temperature of various types of structures. Getting hot in the Earthship? Open the vents on the berm side of the house and then the skylight vents. Hot air exits from the ceiling bringing cold, 55 degree air in from the earth. Getting too cold? Close those vents and make sure you’re getting maximum flow from the warmer greenhouse side. Certainly, these are not new concepts and techniques, but Reynolds has spent decades developing the various systems that work within the Earthship design to make it as self-sufficient as possible while at the same time providing modern conveniences and style.
Can’t wait to build one right? First, visit the Earthship Biotecture website and then check out some of the books:
And let me know when you are ready to break ground. JC and I will be there in a flash.
Next up… a primer on thermal mass.