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Earthships Explained

An Earthship is a building with a soul.  It is designed as a self-contained, low impact  land-based ‘ship’ – constructed largely from what others throw away and designed to work in harmony with our environment using simple physics and common sense design.

It is defined by its originator, Mike Reynolds, as a building that conforms to the following six principles:

  • Built with natural/recycled materials
  • Thermal/Solar Heating and Cooling
  • Solar & Wind-generated (renewable) electricity
  • Water Harvesting
  • Food Production
  • Contained Sewage Treatment

Its also an answer to many of the problems that have been allowed to develop through the industrialisation and ‘modernisation’ of society into a mass consumer species.

Its a positive statement, a home that aspires to be more than a building – a sustainable and responsible way of life.

On the practical side

An Earthship is typically made up of an external wall of rammed-earth tyres, with a fully glazed, equatorially facing frontage; to maximise the passive solar gain from the suns rays.  The sides of the Earthship are surrounded by banked earth, creating a large thermal capacitor with which to store the thermal energy.  Throughout the day, when the air is warmer, than the earth thermal mass surrounding the earthship, thermal energy is absorbed into the tyre walls.  When the air cools, especially at night, the thermal energy is released by the tyre walls, equalising the temperature and providing a consistent ambient temperature throughout the year.     The typical layout is (but not limited to) is a series of modular U-shapes, providing an optimal depth to the building to ensure that the rear living areas are comfortable, whilst the front atrium ‘super-heats’ in the sun and yet not too far away to prevent the heat transfer into the rear tyre wall.  The design allows low winter sun to penetrate further into the building, whilst the high summer sun is contained at the front.  This is combined with natural ventilation openings to allow air to circulate, a further tool to regulate the internal room temperature.

Non-loadbearing walls may be constructed from numerous forms of recycled or natural materials.  Bottles and aluminium cans are often used to provide a honey-combed structure to the mortar or ‘concrete’.  The previously mentioned atrium formed by the full-frontal glazing, provides a prime habitat for food production.  Typically planters are constructed along the inside of the atrium, providing food, texture and shade for the occupants.

The roof structure is made of timber trusses, covered with a suitable material for capturing potable water.  This typically drains off the roof into large cisterns.  It is from this capture method and these cisterns that the water starts the first of four journeys through the Earthship.

(1) The water flows through the Water Organising Module (WOM) where it is filtered and pumped into a traditional header tank.

(2) From here it is distributed as water for drinking, cooking and cleaning.

(3) The used water then becomes “grey water” that is course filtered and feed into the planters, providing water to the plants

(4) Grey water that remains after it has been though the planters is then pumped into the toilet cistern, where the resulting “black water” is flushed into a septic stank where it is broken down and allowed to leech into a reed bed, feeding the surrounding soil.

Hot water can be provided by solar hot water panels mounted on the roof of the Earthship or integrated solar PV with heat pump technology.

Electrical power is provided via micro generation on site, be it solar, wind, mini-hydro or any other creative, renewable means.

The resulting building does not rely on typical mains utilities and does not contribute to the impact attributable to these large scale distributed systems.  As a result typical operating costs for an Earthship have been estimated at approximately US$100 per year.  This in itself affords a better quality of life with reduced living costs.

See a selection of earthship videos here and visit the Earthship Biotecture website and Utube channel for more information.

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6 thoughts on “Earthships Explained

  1. I would be interested in reading about how the methods employed to build earthship relate specifically to colder parts of New Zealand. I am interested in building a house constructed of recycled materials, however am concerned that the methods employed in building earthships which I understand have been historically built in much different climates would not cope with NZs climate…Please inform me! The thermal mass concept seems well suited to climates with extremes of temperature ie desert climates with extreme heat during the day and cold nights. How would an earthship perform in NZ where heating is a primary concern and the sun during the day may not provide enough energy to ‘charge’ the thermal mass?

  2. I also would like to know more about how earthships perform in the opposite climate to where they were first designed. New zealand – wet, cold, with the primary concern being heat.
    Also how do the NZ councils go with resource consent on earth ship construction. Any comments would love to hear them. Cheers

  3. [Just to be clear this website is not run by the Gubb’s, but I understand they visit this website just like everyone else]

  4. Hey

    I am a built environment student at Wintec, Hamilton and i am currently writting a report on earthship homes. Though i am having trouble finding information on the foundations for earthship homes. Would you plaese be able to tell me what foundations are normally used and any requirements. Also if you know of somewhere that i would be able to find futher information that would be much appreciated.


  5. Hi there –

    Just curious as to the cost of building an earth ship? I hear they are usually around the $100,000 mark. Also what are the changes made to them considering the New Zealand climate is quite a bit more humid and damp in comparison to the New Mexico climate where the earth ships originate from?

    Who can I contact to find out information on having an Earth Ship Built?

    Many thanks

  6. Hi, I live in Kai Iwi, north of Whanganui, NZ. I’m interested in building an earthship on our family land out at Taipake Marae. Can anyone give me any clues about how best to deal with the Council? Thanks.

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