Background and Methodology

An Earthship is a trademarked building type introduced in the 1970’s and designed by architect Michael “Mike” Reynolds through his firm Earthship Biotecture (previously known as Solar Survival Architecture). Because of the worldwide dissemination of the concept since, the term Earthship… generally accepted as meaning something to the effect of “underground house with a solar wall”… has become part of the common lexicon. It is as synonymous with calling a drink that is sparkly, sweet, and caramel colored a “coke” even if it is not the original Coca Cola product. We are going to use the common parlance in this book, and use the term Earthship to refer to any building built on the methodology, even if it is a modified version of the original trademarked design.

In principle, Earthships:
  • Use recycled waste tires, glass bottles, and cans along with natural materials and concrete to construct a structure that is intended to have minimal impact on the environment.
  • Make their own water using the roof’s gutter system to direct rain and snow to cisterns where it is stored. Then a gravity-fed Water Organizing Module filters, pressurizes, and pumps the stored water to sinks, showers, bath faucets, and sometimes to solar thermal hot water heaters.
  •  After the filtered rain water is used once, it is directed to rubber-lined greywater planters to be filtered and aerated. A pump panel at the end of the planter moves the water to the toilet tank for flushing. The blackwater from the toilet goes outside to a septic tank, and possibly a blackwater planter which cleans the effluent before delivering it to a septic field.
  • Produce their own heat and cooling, through using a combination of passive solar design, natural ventilation, a photovoltaic solar array, a wind turbine, and/or a gas generator.
  • Produces food via a “food forest” and “salad bar” grown in the indoor greywater planters.
An Earthship’s exterior walls are typically constructed of used tires filled with dirt to provide thermal mass “cooling and heating”. Interior walls are constructed of a honeycomb of empty aluminum drink cans or glass bottles set in concrete. Earthships are artistically beautiful and the houses appear to rise out of the earth as if by natural commandment. 

However, there is a disconnect between how the Earthships are intended to work and how they actually work. Around the world, groups and forums discuss the design’s many issues. In order to identify patterns within the issues, in early 2014, we started case studying Earthship builds around the world as well as here at home in New Mexico. We catalogued the issues and resolutions that expert builders and other researchers were finding. We studied the data collected from Earthship builds in 15 countries and visited 20 sites in the US… from the smallest tiny house Earthship to some of the largest and most palatial Earthships in the world. We read commentaries from builds, builders, and systems; digging ever deeper into the data - what research has been done? If not on this wall system, what do people know about the materials? What are the pros and cons? What is the embodied energy? We designed surveys and conducted interviews of owners, builders, and renters to find out what issues they were having and how they solved them. We started collecting weather data to see what tweaks make the homes work well in what climates. 

Then we branched out, finding scientific research and data to support both sides of every debate, conducting more interviews… we started collecting enough data to start to identify patterns in what techniques worked where and why. That the Earthships have some issues is an established fact. What was not fully established are the reasons or patterns that explained why. We analyzed the data and tried to figure out what it did, and maybe did not, say. Academic research is especially difficult to digest, so in as much as we were able, we translated that into plain English. We also found some places in the Earthship website and literature that were confusing, and we attempted to explain more of what was happening there. 

Our next goal was to document what design tweaks worked for people, and pair those tips and tricks with some solid design advice so that we could empower readers to design a space that meets their physical needs of food, shelter, and water; fiscal needs of value, budget, and schedule; and psycho-emotional needs of a space that supports you in becoming who you dream of being.

Then, we kept going, cultivating the list of “people to watch” in Earthships in particular and Natural Building in general. We checked out the websites, blogs, research, forums, and Facebook fan pages of the foremost experts in their fields. Some were professional designers and contractors and some were hobbyists who had learned by doing. We paid careful attention to their advice and problem solving tips, and then dug into the next level of data… the comments… sometimes hundreds, even thousands, from invested readers who were sharing their own stories of triumph over common issues raised. Too hot, too cold, just right - what they did and how they did it - we wrote it down.

Then, after reading Earthship Volumes 1-3, we realized that what people really needed was help a) deciding what systems worked for their climate and values, and b) learning how to utilize them. Finally, we consulted experts - architects, engineers, landscape architects, and researchers - to help us offer better clarifications and more useful design tools.

It is our goal to supplement the standard Earthship literature with helpful principles of design that can help elevate the Earthship ideal into its next generation, and hopefully help to make the process as painless as possible for would-be builders along the way.