It's Anarchy on the Farm

Friday, April 13, 2012

We're Building an Earthship!

Breaking Ground!
               There are so many “green” options for building a home that is absolutely astounding! I’m not talking about low-flow shower heads and low VOC paint from your big box store that mainstream society considers “green;” I’m talking about ditching conventional construction methods and forgetting about society’s conception of what makes a house.
                Whatever happened to building sod houses and living with dirt floors? We left those techniques behind in order to live the American Dream. After all, these techiniques were “dirty” and for the poor. We have since convinced the American public that we should feel wood, synthetic carpet, or laminate tile beneath our feet and our walls should consist of wood or vinyl siding and sheetrock filled with fiberglass insulation. Top it all off with more wood covered in asphalt shingles that need replaced every 10 years (at least in my unlucky experience) and you’re living the American Dream!  At least until you lose your job and can’t keep up with the mortgage. Or maybe a fire, flood, tornado, or earthquake comes through and leaves a pile of debris where your home once stood. Hopefully you had good insurance that will cover a new construction replacement. Or in the case of a large scale natural disaster the insurance company doesn’t go under and leave you with nothing. We should all remember the horrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when many insurance companies simply disappeared after the unprecedented amount of claims left them bankrupt. The more I think about our current housing crisis, the less sense it makes to take out a 30 year mortgage.  Talk about living beyond your means! Anything that will take 30 years to pay off is something that I don’t need!
                We didn’t want the huge amount of debt associated with a new house, but I also didn’t like the idea of building a house from chemical laden and synthetic materials. So we started to explore owner/builder green building methods. We’ve taken a lot of time to weigh the pros and cons of each method and decide what is right for us. There are a few things that we really want to include in our new home: we want a high thermal mass to naturally heat and cool the home; we want to build into a south facing slope to take advantage of passive solar gain; and we want to have windows positioned to allow the most natural light and minimize the need for artificial light. After considering all of the options available to us, here is what our top five choices were with the reasons why we didn’t choose them
5. Cob is a mixture of clay, sand, straw, and water mixed and laid into walls. They cob is then air dried and protected from moisture with generous overhangs. It is beautiful and inexpensive, but requires hard physical labor to mix and lay. Also, cob is a poor insulator which would not work for our cold winters.
4. Strawbale construction is another inexpensive method. Strawbales are stacked like bricks as infill between posts. Strawbales are good insulators but require an expensive post and beam structure.
3. Earthbag building was one of our favorites because of its simplicity. Feed sacks are filled with soil and tamped into place in a running bond pattern with barbed wire holding each course in place. Walls should be curved for strength and the entire structure is covered in plaster. It is very inexpensive and can be built with only a two person crew. It sounded like a dream come true but our heavy clay soil would need a lot of sand amendment which would be expensive to have brought to our farm.
2. Cordwood building is the process of using 24 inch lengths of firewood in beds of mortar to form thick insulative walls. We loved the aesthetics of this style and the labor is less physically demanding than some of the other choices, but it requires an large (i.e. expensive) foundation and the wood needs to cure for at least a year. We hope to have the house finished within the year, so cordwood was out although we love the idea so much that we might build a chicken coop or small barn using this method.
And the number one choice is. . . (drumroll please)
                Earthships combine all the features we want in one awesome little package. The houses are made from Earth compressed into old tires. Each tire weighs about 300 pounds and is stacked into a wall like a brick in a running bond pattern. The tire walls are built into a south facing slope and the front wall is made of large windows. This south wall of windows serves two major functions. First, it floods the home with natural light cutting back on the need for artificial light which keeps the house from feeling like a cave. It also allows for maximum solar gain that helps to heat all of the thermal mass during the day that will later give off heat during the chilly nights.
                Once stacked, the tires are then covered in chicken wire and plastered. Cob floors can be poured and coated in linseed oil for a beautiful finish. The end result is a home built from trash and dirt that looks like the traditional adobe homes of the American Southwest. The tires are used to build U shaped modules that are roughly 18 feet wide and 36 feet deep. A house can consist of as many of these U shaped modules as you like and are all joined by the front (south)hallway. The hallway also contains a row of built-in planters that provide some year round food production by taking advantage of the light provided by the front wall of windows. Additional interior walls can be built using aluminum cans and bottles that are mortared in place and plastered. As an added bonus, the glass bottles used in these walls create a beautiful effect.
                Traditional Earthships harvest their own water which is then stored in underground cisterns until use. They also recycle greywater for use in the planter beds and use composting toilets to avoid the need for city sewage treatment or expensive septic system installation. With the addition of solar panels, the Earthship can be completely off grid and self sustaining. There is so much more to building an Earthship but it would be hard to summarize in a single blog post. If you are interested in learning more about these unique buildings you can check out and browse the plethora of information they have available on their website. Click on the “designs” tab at the top for a few pictures of completed Earthships. The inventor of the Earthship, Michael Reynolds, is also featured in a new DVD:  Garbage Warrior that I can’t wait to check out.
                Although they are common in New Mexico where there are entire communities of Earthships, it is an unusual concept for our area. As far as I know, there are no completed Earthships in West Virginia and there are only a few in Appalachia. Our announcement to friends and family has had mixed results. People either think we’re crazy and laugh at the idea or they think it’s an awesome idea and want to know more about it. My stepdad thinks it’s a ridiculous idea that’s bound to fail but the man doing the dozer work was intrigued and thought we were doing something awesome. You never know how someone will react when you tell them you are building a house out of old tires and dirt. We know there will be a lot of negative and discouraging remarks made, but we’re prepared for it and hopefully we can open some minds before it’s all over.
Kids Just Love Dirt Piles!

                We broke ground last weekend and the dozer is coming next weekend to finish the job. This is going to be a long summer of back breaking work but we are excited to get started. We will have lots of pictures and I will chronicle our journey here on the blog. And, as always, encouraging words are very welcome and greatly appreciated! J

Much Love from the Farm,

Some wonderful resources for planning a green home:
Building Green Clarke Snell & Tim Callahan
Cordwood Building: The State of the Art Rob Roy
Cordwood Masonry Housebuilding Rob Roy
Building Underground Herb Wade
Earthship Vol 1, 2, & 3 Michael Reynolds
Garbage Warrior DVD
The Natural House Daniel Chiras
The Handsculpted Home (Partial PDF version available online)
The Humanure Handbook (Partial PDF version available online)


  1. i've done enough "off the grid" things myself that I know exactly what you mean by peoples response. Best of luck, will check back for pictures of your finished home- when do you expect it to be completed?

  2. That's the question we have no answer to! :) We're going to work all summer to get the walls up and a roof over it. We don't expect to complete too much more than that before winter hits but hopefully we could work on interior stuff over the winter and be living there in a little over a year. At least that's the plan, but as I tell everyone, our plans are always done in pencil for a reason!

  3. I really want to follow your progress. I think it's great that you're trying something different. I'll have to look at the link.

    1. Thank you Kathy! We've had nothing but rain these past few weeks but the next few weeks look good so hopefully we'll be getting started! How exciting!

  4. Girl! I am so impressed! My cousin and I were talking about when we're crazy old hippy ladies and doing this in the mountains. I think it's so awesome! Can't wait to see the process...Good Luck!!

  5. Thank you! We're not really in the "mountains" but the house site is at the top of a big ole hill, so I call it a mountain! And as 30 approaches I've already began to call myself a crazy old hippie lady :) The house site is completely level now so hopefully we start pounding tires soon! Believe me, MANY pictures shall follow!

  6. This is cool! I'm happy for you! Would you consider answering a few questions I have about earthships? Me and my girlfriend are looking into buying land in and would love to meet like minded people.if anything you can give me some tips. If your interested here's my email.
    Thanks and have a great Xmas

  7. Is there an update? We are preparing to take on an Earthship project in North Central WV. Care to share notes?

  8. Update? I also plan to start on one within a year or two.