Build an Off the Grid Earthship

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They may sound like science fiction, but earthships exist for a very good reason. Conceived in the 70s by architect Mike Reynolds, these passive solar shelters are made of a variety of materials, both natural and upcycled, and designed to reduce reliance on public utilities and fossil fuels. As a spaceship would be designed to be fully sustainable for those living aboard them, earthships were designed to keep inhabitants self-reliant.

Earthship homeowners enjoy an energy efficient dwelling constructed of waste materials that would otherwise occupy landfills. They usually feature structures that can recycle and treat sewage water, harvest and store rainwater for daily use, and support family focused agriculture. What more could an eco-warrior or off-grid individualist want?

As fantastic as these sustainable houses may sound, they have their limitations, such as the locations where they can be built. Dry, arid areas are more suitable for these buildings, for example, since mold can grow on the inner walls in locations that frequently experience high humidity.

While these homes may have initially been conceived as a way to live off the grid in a simplified structure requiring no specialized construction skills, the process of creating one is extensive, and it would speed things up to invest in some help when needed.

Gather Materials

It sounds like a given, but keep in mind that once acquired, these will have to be stored, which is no small feat for the amount that you'll have to procure. The walls are often made of old tires, and these homes are not designed for small space living—you'll not only be living there, but growing your food, collecting rainwater etc. You can see where we're going with this—you'll need a significant amount of materials.

pile of tires in a junk yard

And if you're planning to be as eco friendly as possible by rescuing materials from the landfill, this can be a lengthy process finding not only the tires, but the additional materials like sinks for the bathroom and kitchen, units for storage, windows for the south facing wall, cans and bottles for the interior bottle walls, and so on. Make friends with people at the dump and salvage yard. And save your wine bottles.

Excavation

Unless you own a construction company or have a friend with a backhoe and some engineering skills, you may want to hire this one out. Depending on your design, this can be more complex than simply leveling out the ground, especially if you encounter hidden obstacles like buried boulders. Again, you're using what you have around you, so maybe those boulders can turn into something useful, like structural elements for your landscape.

You'll need something beautiful to look out on while you're harvesting from your greenhouse. Plant some of the more prolific and hardy fruits and veggies for fresh eating, and preserve the leftover harvest for future meals.

Construction

Used tires filled and tamped down with earth typically form the outer walls of the structure. After being filled, tires can weigh up to 300 pounds, so these are often filled and stacked in place like bricks, larger tires at the bottom, decreasing in size as the wall is built up. Fill the gaps with additional earth and finish the walls with stucco. These exterior walls can be fitted with solar cells, solar collectors, and water filtration systems.

Inner non-load bearing walls consist of other materials like cans or bottles, often stacked and set in a honeycomb pattern. Allow for inner workings like pipes and electrical to fit in eventually. Depending on your location and the shape of your building, you may be able to design a green roof for veggies.

woman harvesting vegetables in a rooftop garden

Simplicity prevails in earthship design, so you don't need much more than the basics like the living/kitchen area, control room for batteries and water storage, and bedroom and bath spaces.

Harvesting Water

Harvesting systems for this precious resource can determine whether your earthship is a success or not—you'll need it not only for drinking, but also for growing food. Sources include snow, rain, or condensation. Harvested water is filtered and collected into a cistern and transferred to a water organization module (WOM) where bacteria and contaminants are removed, making it drinkable. A system for pushing water into a pressurized tank creates household pressure for daily use in sinks and showers.

The resulting graywater that's been used at least once from sinks and showers can be run through a grease and particle filter, then into a rubber-lined botanical cell where plants are grown. Plant roots continue filtering the water, which can then be cleaned again by trickling through peat moss so it can be used to flush toilets.

Water from toilets, called blackwater, can be reused for outdoor plants, but never for food plants.