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Home Forums General Discussion Earth Ship Reply To: Earth Ship

#68018
apophasis
Participant

Hi everybody, just found the site, my first post here.  I have to chime in about Earthships.  As a young hippie, I heard of crazy kids building houses in the desert out of garbage, and I had to check it out.  In ’95, I arrived in Taos, NM, and shortly went to work building Earthships.  I read all the Earthship books the first month I was there.  I was a heavy-duty earthship kool-aid drinker!  What follows is my experience and my opinion alone.  No disrespect is meant to anybody except those who richly deserve it, but I feel that the truth must be spoken, and I wish somebody would have told me this when I went all starry eyed into the world of Earthships:

There are a lot of great ideas behind the Earthship design, like recycling; using easily available materials; transforming garbage into building materials, catching and reusing rainwater as drinking water and greywater; solar heating; earth mass thermal storage; food production; “organic” (curvy) design, and more.  Yes, great ideas veritably hang incense-like around Earthships!

The problem is that the Earthship design translates almost none of those ideas successfully through to actual implementation.  The responsibility for this lies, of course, with the designer, just as the success or failure of a business is ultimately the responsibility of the “decider” at its head.

It would be very, very easy at this point to bring up a lot of personal faults, shady business dealings, etc, etc, but let’s leave M.R. and S.S.I. out of it to the extent possible, which in my opinion is the best place for them.  It’s embarrassing to see the way “Garbage Warriors” treated the subject, but I suppose that’s what hagiographies are for.  Bluntly, he’s not a good guy, and it’s not a good company, IMO.  But this isn’t personal, so let’s just talk about the design itself, which is what matters to anyone thinking about building their own.

I’ve helped build multiple Earthships, worked on lots more, lived in a few, and visited a bunch.  After that experience, I would prefer it if I never saw another one.  I wanted so much to love them, but they are just awful, awful things.  They simply do not work.  The list of fatal flaws, in no particular order:

The angled south glass lets in way too much light in the summer, and you can’t shade it.  Some people have retrofitted huge shades for theirs as a very expensive way to make their “eco”-palace actually habitable in the summer without a few kilowatts of A/C.  I guess lately SSI is finally building some with vertical south glass, which is an improvement over the unnecessarily expensive and frankly absurd original design, but still are not using overhangs.  Oh, and in addition to being expensive and unnecessary and poorly performing, they all leak.

For anyone interested, here is how you do it right:  Vertical south glass with an overhang arranged for your latitude such that winter sun is admitted and summer sun is excluded, perhaps in combination with some seasonal vegetation at the bottoms of the windows.  That way, in the winter you get sun and in the summer you get none, automatically.

It ain’t rocket surgery, but there are some very smart people who’ve been working very hard over the last thirty or forty years especially on actual science-based high-performance housing, and they’ve worked out some great stuff.  The New Mexico Solar Energy Association offers these guidelines, for example.  Do yourself a favor and look around before committing to an Earthship.  If you are currently actually seriously considering building an Earthship, I guarantee that you can do so much better for so much cheaper that it would blow your mind.

In an old school Earthship, you get massive insolation (sun a-comin’ in) because the solar gain from the huge, angled south glass can’t be regulated, ever.  Not surprisingly, the house overheats in the summer.  Who could have seen that coming?  Then, there’s a garden inside, with lots of dirt and greens and plants.  Neato!  Oh, wait, I’m living in a greenhouse.  Actually, muggy and compost and spider mites are not what I prefer for breakfast, but because of the design, that’s what you get.  The sun shines on the garden and you get steamed compost every morning, yummy.  The right way is to do what sane people do and keep your home separate from your greenhouse.  If you want it attached for extra solar gain, fine, but make sure you can separate your home air space from your greenhouse air space when you want to.  Earthships make better cold frames than homes, IMO.

Earthships use an ungodly amount of concrete.  They are frosted very thickly with concrete.  Those “bottle” walls are actually concrete walls with some bottles in them.  This method of construction is expensive and very, very eco-unfriendly.  There’s over 5 gallons of gas worth of petroleum in every bag of concrete, so how “eco-friendly” is an Earthship?  Not at all, is the answer.  Nor is it cheap.  At all.

Another embarrassing secret of Earthships is that they’re built using slave labor.  Yep.  SSI actually asks people to pay money to “intern” for months pounding tires, which is really excruciating, difficult work.  Lots of people contribute free labor and subsidize SSI in various ways because Earthships are “cool” but I don’t see anything cool about slave labor.  Fact is, you can’t build an Earthship anything like affordably unless you use slaves or free/cheap labor of some sort, and even then the result is grotesquely expensive for what it actually is.  Pack the tires yourself?  Mwahahahah, good luck, see you in a decade!

There are concerns with tires outgassing toxic stuff, and there’s the huge work input necessary, but the thermal performance of the Earthship, its whole raison d’etre, the earth-mass thing, just does not work for a home, IMO.  It does, as I said, make a great cold frame which will never freeze, but here’s the thing:  The “body temperature” of the Earth is around 58 degrees F six or ten feet down, pretty much anywhere on earth.  As you go deeper, it gets hotter.  So the Earthship, being directly coupled to and essentially thermally one with the Earth, will never freeze.  What it will do, however, is try to drop to somewhere a bit below 58 degrees, (lower than the ground temp because of thermal losses through the structure) anytime it’s colder than 58 outside and the sun is down.  The thermal mass does store some energy from the day, but because it’s coupled to the infinite thermal mass of the earth at 58 F or so, it always bleeds away its heat.  Unless (and sometimes despite) you stoke(ing) a fire all night long, they are often chilly beasts in the winter.  When you touch a wall, it’s cold like concrete (usually because it is concrete) and does not warm to the touch.

The craftsmanship and details in many earthships are stunningly poor, which might be better or worse if you built it yourself, but the skill level necessary to pull off a decent Earthship is far, far higher than that needed for cob, straw bale, or more traditional framing, because of all the weird angles, materials, etc.  Lots (all?) of them leak, for various reasons.  They are quite expensive and labor intensive no matter how you do it.  The larger fancier ones are really consumptive of materials, especially because of all the odd angles and weird carpentry required.

Next, good luck finding a place that will actually let you construct one outside of Taos County and a few other places around NM.  But then, why would you really want to?

In my opinion, there are always many better alternatives to an Earthship.

My favorite design for the Southwest is a radiant-floored monolithic slab (which uses just a fraction of the concrete that goes into an Earthship) plumbed into a solar panel and woodstove backup for heat with recycled/recyclable, super strong, super quick to assemble steel frame, straw bale infill, superinsulated roof, large south facing windows with engineered overhangs, and a Russian mass stove inside the insulative perimeter envelope where thermal mass belongs.  I love straw bale, but there are also other things like rastra block and papercrete that are great.

Mainly, IMO, you want massive superinsulation, the more the merrier, on your perimeter, with thermal mass inside that, no matter what climate you are in.

Can’t I find a single good thing to say about Earthships?  Sure!  I can find two:

The water catchment and grey water systems are great ideas.  They can be implemented in any style of building, so they’re not really an earthship-specific feature, but they’re great ideas, and really necessary for off-grid, especially in the desert.  Wind and solar are great, as well.  :)


@MJ
and anyone in a similar situation:  Run, don’t walk.  You can find anything you need to know for free online if you look around.  In my opinion, charging people money to be slaves is just grotesque.  Don’t be a part of it, and don’t let your friends be.  Why not get together and help each other build a tiny house eco village?  That’s what I’m doing…

Earthships are over, in my opinion.

Again, no disrespect intended except to those who have earned it.