Image of the Earthship at Stanmer Park in Brighton, UK. Photo: cc-by-3.0, Gazzat5

Image of the Earthship at Stanmer Park in Brighton, UK.
Photo: cc-by-3.0, Gazzat5

The name ‘Earthship’ may sound like something out of a sci-fi book, but it refers to a style of home construction designed to be self-sufficient and off-grid. Earthships are designed to use solar power and other sustainable technology, and to minimize waste during construction and throughout their use.

The concept was pioneered by architect Michael Reynolds, who has been developing his green home building designs since the early 1970s. Earthships make use of recycled materials, such as old tires and bottles, to reduce waste and keep garbage out of landfills.

Tires are packed with dirt to form load bearing walls with high thermal mass. Long sun facing exposures with windowed surfaces capture solar heat, which is stored in the walls and released when surrounding temperatures drop. Interior and non-load bearing walls often incorporate plastic and glass bottles arranged in artistic fashion, which allow light to pass and enhance the beauty of the designs.

Bathroom at the Phoenix Earthship Photo: cc-by-sa-3.0-migrated, Earthship at en.wikipedia

Bathroom at the Phoenix Earthship.
Photo: cc-by-sa-3.0-migrated, Earthship at en.wikipedia

Earthship designs incorporate systems for managing water, electricity, temperature, sewage, and even food production.

Water and Sewage Treatment

Earthship Water Catchment Gutter Photo: cc by-sa 3.0, Amzi Smith

Earthship Water Catchment Gutter.
Photo: cc-by-sa 3.0, Amzi Smith

Earthship Water System. Photo: cc by-sa 3.0, KVDP

Earthship Water System
Photo: cc by-sa 3.0, KVDP

Water management makes maximum use of rain water or snow melt. Water is captured from runoff on the roof or from hills, filtered through silt and stored in a cistern. The water is then pumped and filtered into a pressurized storage tank to provide potable water for drinking, bathing and washing dishes.

Instead of dumping this water straight to waste, it is cleaned and used a second time for growing plants inside the earthship.

That water is also not wasted, but used a third time to operate flush toilets. The water from the toilets is used a fourth and final time to water exterior plants, which are not for consumption.

Earthship grey water planter. Photo: cc0 1.0, Victorgrigas

Earthship grey water planter.
Photo: cc0 1.0, Victorgrigas

Electricity

Electricity is generated through solar panels and wind power. The Earthship team has even designed their own vertical axis windmill, called the Dynasphere.

Earthship Biotecture sells pre-packaged electrical systems that are designed to meet building codes and integrate smoothly into the home’s power system. Their Power Organizing Module (POM) can be installed by any licensed electrician; they don’t need to be familiar with solar and wind power systems.

Temperature

Interior of the Solaria Earthship in Taos, New Mexico Photo:  cc by-sa-3.0, Domenico, Karena

Interior of the Solaria Earthship in Taos, New Mexico.
Photo: cc-by-sa-3.0, Domenico, Karena

Earthship temperature control adapted for cold and wet northern hemisphere climates. Photo: cc by-sa 3.0, So9q

Earthship temperature control adapted for cold and wet northern hemisphere climates.
Photo: cc-by-sa 3.0, So9q

Earthships are designed to provide comfortable and stable interior temperatures by balancing heat from the sun and the thermal mass of the earth. Heat is admitted by allowing the sun in. Homes can be cooled by admitting the cooler temperatures of the ground.

The designs have been adapted and built in many parts of the world, in different climates.

Plants and Food

Earthship greenhouse. Photo: cc-by-sa-3.0, Amzi Smith

Earthship greenhouse.
Photo: cc-by-sa-3.0, Amzi Smith

Earthships use interior greenhouses for treatment of grey water, as well as to grow food and enhance the natural beauty of the home. The choice of what to plant is highly individualized by the owners and what works in the local climate. Food growing plants aren’t strictly required, but it aligns well with the spirit of independence inherent to earthship design.

The Green Future of Construction

According to a McGraw-Hill Construction market report released in Feb. 2013, about half of worldwide construction firms globally are planning for more than 60 percent of their projects to be green by 2015. There is an increasing demand from the market to build green.

While earthships represent only a small portion of current green homes, if you are thinking about building your own home it is worth doing some research into this style of construction. You can find more information at the Earthship Biotecture website.

Andrew Terranova

Andrew Terranova is an electrical engineer, writer and an electronics and robotics hobbyist. He is an active member of the Let’s Make Robots community, and handles public relations for the site.
Andrew has created and curated robotics exhibits for the Children’s Museum of Somerset County, NJ and taught robotics classes for the Kaleidoscope Learning Center in Blairstown, NJ and for a public primary school. Andrew is always looking for ways to engage makers and educators.


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