Earthships 101, an introduction: Eco from the ground up

CC image courtesy of dominicspics on Flickr.

Looking for the ultimate in eco-friendly home design and construction? While buzzwords like net-zero energy construction and sustainable building practices may be new words to our culture, net-zero sustainable homes called Earthships have been around for over 40 years.

An “Earthship” may sound like a science fiction term, but the phrase Earthship Biotecture was coined in 1972 by a young radical architect named Mike Reynolds as he described his recently completed (and first) recycled materials home—The Thumb House. Starting from scratch where no architect had worked before, he perfected some of the early techniques for using recycled building materials including the 1973 patented aluminum can building block.

Today, Reynolds’s Earthship Biotecture has grown into a world wide phenomenon; and it’s easy to see why. Not only is an Earthship eco-friendly, they can be built anywhere, in any climate and are completely free from utility bills of any kind. Reynolds’s Earthship Biotecture design uses these six basic elements, grabbing the golden ring of eco-friendly and sustainable building—zero environmental impact.

The first of these design elements is the use of natural/recycled/local building materials. Some Earthship Biotecture uses a combination of waste materials like old tires and rammed earth from the building site to create a no-new materials substructure for the building.

PEW Center on Climate Change studies show that Americans use over ¼ of their electricity on lighting the home. The use of solar and wind energy to power the Earthship helps to create a zero-energy home. Lighting, electronics and other general appliances are powered using this second design element of Earthship Biotecture.

Heating and cooling our homes contributes to even more energy use—up to 55 percent of our electric bill. By orientating the Earthship in a southern-facing direction for solar gain and digging down into the earth for geothermal gain, the Earthship maintains a constant temperature around 68-70 degrees year-round.

Where Earthship Biotecture excels beyond basic green building techniques are through on-site food and water production and recycling waste water naturally. These three Earthship Biotecture design methods all provide the ultimate in net-zero energy and resource consumption, limiting your homes planetary impact forever.

Earthships can be designed to not only fit seamlessly into any environment, but also to suit any homeowners basic needs. From the simplest and cheapest of DIY constructed homes like Oscar and Lisa’s Earthship hut, to the ultimate million dollar Reynolds’s designed Earthship mansion like actor Dennis Weaver’s Earthship “Sunridge”, Earthships can be built to suit any homeowner’s level of comforts, styles and tastes—and budget. Whether you build a small hut or a huge mansion, one thing is for certain with an Earthship; it’s the ultimate in environmentally sustainable building.

But let’s get down to brass tacks. Earthship Biotecture sounds practical in theory, but what are the true costs? In monetary terms, material costs exceed conventional building by roughly 15 percent, as stated in Mike Reynolds’s 2008 interview with Forecast Earth. The initial expense is easily recouped in a few years time since all utility bills are eliminated. With the addition of water reclamation and on-site food production, an Earthship quickly pays for itself in savings.

But the real benefit of building an Earthship is how it helps reduce our consumption of resources and creates a consumption-neutral environment for us to live in. According to The Pew Center for Global Climate Change, Americans spend $15 billion each year on air-conditioning alone, accounting for 5 percent of our annual electric bill. That equates to 140 million tons of extra carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere annually—and that’s just for our air conditioners. With numbers like that, it’s easy to understand why Earthship Biotecture has become recognized as a legitimate, viable and necessary alternative building method to the wasteful practices of the conventionally built home.

Eric Brennan is a second generation master carpenter with over 20 years of construction industry experience. Since 2005, Eric has also been a hard at work honing his skills as a home improvement writer. In 2009, he was given the Associated Content award for best home improvement writer. Eric is currently a featured green and home improvement writer for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and editor of Construct101. He has produced thousands of articles on everything construction, remodeling, interior decorating, green building, and many other home improvement related fields for countless websites and blogs including the DIY network, P&G Tide,, AT&T, Huffington Post, and Yahoo! News.