Australia falling for Earthship marketers
by NICK ROSEN on MARCH 14, 2012 - 20 Comments in COMMUNITY, SELF-SUFFICIENCY, URBAN

Work for me

Boasting an outer shell made of stacked car tyres packed with earth, an Earthship claims to be a cutting-edge, sustainable green home made from recycled materials. In fact there are serious design flaws: from off-gas from the tyres to overheating in ultra-hot places like Australia. All in all, having an Earthship in your life is like having a particularly sensitive pet – which needs constant feeding and excercise.
But that has not stopped shameless American architect Michael Reynolds touring Australia’s North Coast, preaching his particular brand of Earthship.
In Melbourne, he is in league with the Ceres community in Brunswick East which has a small project where you can pay to experience Earthship construction techniques. The Group, which always relied on volunteers to build its empire, has now found a marvellous new idea – get people to pay $160 ozzie dollars for a weekend ramming earth into old tyres.

Reynolds, who did not invent the Earthship concept, says its “a vessel sailing on towards tomorrow.”
Reynolds told audiences in the Rainbow Region: “Earthships are designed to be self-sufficient, passive-solar homes. They are buildings that heat and cool themselves, harvest their own water and use growing plants to treat their sewage.”
Designed with solar arrays to harness the power of the sun and using inverters to provide electricity to household appliances, Earthship homes are not designed to go off planet, but they are designed to go off the grid. Reynolds took the design from another architect, and has been building them all over the world, providing solutions to affordable housing in third world countries and in countries like Haiti, which have been devastated by natural disasters. “He really milked that Haiti thing” said one Taos resident who has watched Reynolds over theyears. “He does not even live in an Earthship himself.”
“In the 1970s, before the word recycling was invented, I saw garbage as affordable resources,” Michael said, apparently unaware of the history of this english word. “When I looked at mountains of old car tyres, I saw a reservoir of raw natural materials and started experimenting with ramming dirt into them with a sledge hammer. They are the best building materials for structural walls; they don’t rot, termites don’t eat them and they are not affected by earthquakes and can withstand the forces of the wind.”
However eminent architects and academic experts like Plinky Fisk, a former Professor of Architecture at Texas A&M, disagree. Its a very labor-intensive way to build, and suffers from the fact that it is impossible to disassemble and reassemble an Earthship. You can read more about Reynolds bizarre antics and Fisks crtique of him in my book: “Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America.”
Basicually, Earthships work best in temperate climates. “These rammed earth bricks, when used to build the curved walls of an Earthship, provide thermal mass which keeps the indoor temperature constant while outside temperatures fluctuate. It’s based on the cave concept, similar to how the adobe buildings in New Mexico are constructe,.”says Reynolds, who lives in Taos. But its not really the case.

With the finished constructions rendered with adobe or cement, and with earth ramparts build up around the outside, Earthship homes inthe New Mexico desert blend in with the surrounding landscape much more than conventional buildings. Whether that is the case in Melbourne may never be tested.
“The tyre wall is entirely backfilled with soil in such a way that there is a waterproof rigid curtain of insulation surrounding the backfill and the house becomes an energy sink and keeps the temperature at the right comfort zones for people,” Reynolds said. “Because Earthships don’t need to use fossil fuels to stabilise the temperature in the building and they generate their own electricity, the costs of living are reduced.”
The Earthship’s design uses rainwater, captured from the roof to make it easy for people to grow their own food in their homes and also treat sewage by reusing the water in numerous ways.
At one stage in his career, his architectural licence in the US was revoked when the authorities found his innovative designs too challenging for local building compliance regulations. These days, with his licence now reinstated and his innovative designs now being taken up all over the world, he has moved beyond architecture and has created the Earthship Biotechture Academy where the principles of Earthship construction are taught.
“The profession of architecture is not living up to the needs of the times,” Michael said. “I invented the profession of biotechture because these days people need the home they live in to take care of them.”
Michael’s Earthship designs come in a number of different models, from the cheapest ‘Simple Survival’ model, to the larger and more expensive ‘Global’ or ‘Custom’ models. The costs in building an Earthship home vary, from about $50,000 to several million dollars, depending on how big and lavish they might be.
“The cost of building an Earthship is about the same as building an equivalent quality of home in the world now,” Michael said. “The difference is that an Earthship home has no utility bills.
In a brilliant marketing wheeze, Reynolds has also been promoting the retro-fitting of existing houses to incorporate the “six principles” of Earthship design.
“Sometimes the greenest thing to do is to ‘green up’ what you have,” Michael said. “We cannot tear down the billions of buildings on this planet; we have to slowly change and evolve the buildings we have to be in line with these principles. No matter how good our Earthships are, we want people to undertake to retro-fit old buildings as well as integrate the six principles in all new building designs. If we address the problems facing the planet now, there won’t be panic when the situation worsens.”

The six principles of Earthship design

Thermal/solar heating and cooling: Earthships maintain comfortable temperatures in any climate.

Solar and wind electricity: Earthships produce their own electricity with a pre-packaged photovoltaic/wind power system.

Contained sewage treatment: Earthships contain use and reuse all household sewage in indoor and outdoor treatment cells resulting in food production and landscaping with no pollution of aquifers. Toilets flush with grey water that does not smell.

Building with natural and recycled materials: House is an assemblage of by-products; a sustainable home must make use materials occurring naturally in the local area.

Water harvesting: Earthships catch water from the sky (rain and snow melt) and use it four times.

Food production: Earthship wetlands, the planters that hold hundreds of gallons of water from sinks and the shower are a great place for raising fresh produce.

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20 comments

1 Len { 03.14.12 at 8:50 pm }

Interesting article, but no real information. From reading the article the earthship looks like a good thing. Just the small bit at the top says otherwise giving as it’s only reference the author’s book…. Ah! I get it, we are trying to sell a book. I personally would not build an earthship, but there are a number of it’s ideas I would use and have seen used in other kinds of projects. PAHS is not yet a well understood technology. It needs research, research costs, nobody is willing to spend money on research they can’t make lots of money on. Nobody, but the homeowner/occupant stand to gain from these things, so research comes from people building them the wrong way for the area they live in and being disappointed. Yes, any offgrid home takes care and feeding, on the grid someone else does it for you… for a price. Our planet is falling apart, that grid is failing, we best learn now how to feed and walk what will replace that grid sooner rather than later.

P.S. It is much easier to find fault with something than to come up with a solution.

2 Nick { 03.15.12 at 9:46 am }

Forget about Earthships if you’re commited to building with earth, unless you have a lot of helpers, or lots and lots of time – go the earthbag way, instead. You can fill, place and tamp down 5 – 10 bags in the same time it takes you to fill, pack and place one tire. That’s a difference of putting up a house in a matter of months, versus years, if going at it alone.

Even easier earth building is buying a hand operated press to crank out compressed earth blocks, and when you’ve built your house you can sell the press for what you paid for it, or close to it.

3 Carol Ranellone { 03.15.12 at 5:19 pm }

Having rented and stayed in various Earthships, I purchased and completed one . That was 6 years ago and I love it more all the time . NO off gassing and my utility bills are next to zero. What ‘s not to love ?

4 Steve Byrne { 03.16.12 at 11:07 am }

A bit disingenuous, I feel, Nick. He may not have invented the Earthship, but who are we to knock him for developing the idea and making a living from it. Not so different from flogging a book about living off the grid, really, and I do seem to remember an ad on facebook selling ‘the van that started a movement’….which isn’t really so different, is it.
The design may not be perfect for all climates, but Reynolds has done much to promote off grid living, as well as more sustainable and inventive ways of building.
You’re both very good publicists, and fair play to you for raising the profile of the ‘movement’, but don’t knock the guy for sharing your love of a good story to sell product.

5 Nick { 03.17.12 at 12:20 pm }

I don’t have any axe to grind against Reynolds, but it’s undeniable that using tires as the retaining medium is hard, hard work.
My suggestion to use earthbags, or homemade compressed earth bricks was simply to help an eager off-gridder get a house up in 6 months, instead of a couple of years. I don’t sell bags, barbed wire, earth presses, or books, so I’m not biased for a financial reason.
If you don’t think that I’m right, get five old tires from a mechanic, five old bags from a farmer’s market and try it out for yourself. Pound out five tires, then five bags, and tell me which went way faster. I’ll trust to your integrity if you say tires, but I’d be surprised.

p.s. – you implied I’m selling a book about off-gridding, or selling a ‘van that started a movement’ ? Say what?

6 jedics { 03.21.12 at 9:57 pm }

wow what a cynical review, in the first paragraph you talk about ‘off gassing’ from tires. It has been proven there is zero issues with this as the tire has done all this during its life on the road not to mention it is rendered with a few inches of clay. Really shoddy fact research imo making this article as throw away as the mainstream building practices alive today.
to the guy talking about earth bags: the 2 biggest issues with them are the fact they require foundations while tires dont and that the earth in them needs to be stabilized which is no where near as easy as just shoveling in any old dirt into a tire. There are also ppl who have made compressors that ram about %70 of the earth in for you, all into the sides of the tire which is the hardest part to do leaving only the center space to be easily filled.

7 MKYADAO { 04.21.12 at 10:58 pm }

I don’t like Earth Ships because of ease of materials… It is easier for me to make an earthbag home. To each his own. If it works for the guy in the article, cool.

8 Jessi { 05.12.12 at 12:28 am }

I’ve been planning on buying a piece of property and building an earth sheltered home with a combination of earth bags and clay brick. I will likely attempt something of a hybrid. I have applied for an internship with this organization and have actually been considering going to the earthship academy, but I will see how I like them first. So far they don’t seem disreputable. Their houses sound very nice to live in but I’d personally prefer something more simplistic that I can make without requiring teams of builders and contractors. I plan on functioning with minimal electricity and incorporating a fireplace for my heating/lighting/cooking needs. Candles and lanterns would be fine too. But if I’m planning on living alone, hauling water back and forth and heating it seems like it might be too much for me to handle, so I feel it is necessary for me to learn their water cycling methods.

9 Kirk { 06.06.12 at 1:35 am }

Shoddy research, and no references to anyone who has actually built one in Australia and been displeased. Off-gassing is not an issue even though I can agree the method is time consuming and mixing it with other alternative building methods may help it become more mainstream.

10 Anita { 06.22.12 at 7:20 am }

I agree with many of the above comments. Sounds like sour grapes! Michael Reynolds is running a business – looking at his website, seemingly rather a successful one. He may have faults, but being mean isn’t going to make the world a better place! Earthships might though :)

11 zyzykwy { 06.28.12 at 9:08 pm }

I’ve spent 8 years researching and designing an “Earthship” type house and found there are several other ways to build the massive thick walls to serve as the heat mass that don’t use tyres. The method I’m using are precast concrete slabs spaced a foot appart and the space filled with dried dirt fill and gravel. works the same but goes up in weeks rather than years. For a Canadian climate with hot summers and cold winters it works perfectly.

12 Chris { 07.30.12 at 4:41 am }

Winge winge winge!!!! How bout you step out and design something thats better for the world rather than being a pessimist. If you see a potential flaw redesign it better!

13 Alex { 10.15.12 at 9:24 am }

If you actually believe that tyre offgassing is an issue first of all think about the amount of tyre on our roads…which is then washed into our waterways, and even then is hardly a big problem, not to mention the tyres are completely covered and cemented in with earth. This ‘issue’ has been tested and proven to be not an issue at all. In regards to the temperature problem…reynolds builds the earthships for the climate in new mexico. Obviously they need to be implemented differently in different climates. There as techniques you can use to create more shade in summer to deal with our heat, for example using deciduous vines at the front of the greenhouse. Use your mind and look at the positives and then change it to suit your specific needs.

14 Margaret { 01.13.13 at 3:57 am }

I can’t wait to spend some time in the Gubb Earthship, Ngaruawahia, New Zealand. This couple love their home, which they built themselves and from where they operate a bed and dinner, rather than a bed and breakfast. They prefer the dinner model as this enables them to engage with visitors in a more meaningful way, and allows them to share the journey of their build as well as introducing visitors to the beauty of local flora and fauna.

I have proposed gathering a group of like-minded women together to purchase a block of land, preferably coastal with some bush and creeks with a view to setting up a self-sufficient community, and a number of reliable people have put their hands up to be part of it.

I wish to be very clear about one thing; so far, those of us who see the merit of such a community are not hippy type individuals, we are women who want to live a self-sufficient lifestyle, but prefer for that to be in dwellings which are aesthetically pleasing, as well as comfortable and feel, at this stage, earthships meet that criteria.

At the moment, I am in love with the concept of earthships, and hope that research and exploration into the subject will prove they are deserving of my consideration, however, as with all things, as more information comes to hand, that could change, but for now, earthships have my vote.

15 marcus { 01.14.13 at 1:33 pm }

anyone have any info on the Utilites and what people use to cook with I have not found anything yet on wha kind of stoves are used I ned to know more about the infrastructure and what make this work so I was looking for Plumbing, electrical, etc any help would be nice.

16 Seb { 10.04.13 at 10:19 am }

Marcus, from what I’ve seen in all the online stuff most stoves are propane, so some resources are actually required. I have seen some wood burning stoves as well. The best one I saw online was an earthship in Quebec Canada where they put in a rocket stove. Works great for cooking and extra heating in the winter if necessary. Search youtube and you should find it. Google rocket stove mass heater for more info. I think it fits perfectly in the earthship concept.

17 Meadow { 11.01.13 at 10:57 pm }

I’m planning on using an induction cooktop in my earthship. Sun oven for baking.

18 NicholasV { 12.04.13 at 6:45 pm }

Reynolds sure is a big time marketing huckster, greedy and unethical. Just about every Earthship he built in Europe, except for the one in Valencia, Spain is a failure:
http://earthshipeurope.org/index.php/earthships/performance

But does it matter to Reynolds? No, he is still arrogant enough to market it as a one-size fits all, sustainable solution! He gets paid either way, the person paying is stuck with the lemon of an earthship that does not work and is not suitable for human habitation.

19 Cid Isbell { 02.21.14 at 2:53 pm }

Seb- the folks in Quebec who put in the Rocket Stove ended up ripping it out because it was too finicky. Bummer huh? They also installed a firewood stove called a Prairie princess. There are great comments on their site! http://www.canadiandirtbags.com/

20 levi { 07.27.14 at 3:04 pm }

ok so the biggest complaint I hear here is that it is hard, hard work. stop being scared of something that will make you stronger. Just because you don’t have the physical capacity or drive to accomplish something that both reduces your overall life expenses in order to survive and, limits our carbon impact on earth, isn’t a sufficient argument to denounce some body that is trying to make this a better place. When putting someone down for making a living off of building somebody a sustainable home that will over all benefit them, then you should be attacking the whole infrastructure of every government around the world. When you’re being charged for the most needed resource on the planet (water) someone is making a living of you just trying to survive. All in all I think this is a great idea. although all the kinks may not be worked out and they may not be for every environment as Michael claims that’s just an obstacle in the development processes. human beings didn’t make it to space on their first attempt it. It was through trial and error and innovation that got us there. What Biotecture is trying to accomplish is similar just on a different playing field. This isn’t just about living off the grid it is a revolution against building zone requirements and the limits that are put on our ability to progress in the field of our living environment.

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