CHAPTER I: The Earthship Reality Project: Opening

by Rachel Preston Prinz, Pratik Zaveri, and Asha Stout

n Earthship is constructed of three exterior walls (west, north, and east, in the northern hemisphere; west, south, and east in the southern hemisphere), of used automobile tires rammed or compacted with 300-400 pounds of soil, and stacked, bricklike, to a height of 8 feet or so. The floor plan of an Earthship averages about 1700 square feet (SF) or 160 square meters (SM). Interior plumbing walls are traditionally-framed and the remaining walls are most often constructed of salvaged aluminum drink cans or glass bottles placed in concrete. The houses are large and feel organic in their form.

In most Earthships, there is a slanted glass greenhouse on the south face of the structure which opens to the main body of the house. Due to the overheating this causes, in the newest models, the greenhouse - which now has nearly vertical or true vertical windows - is separated from the main body of the house with a wall of windows and doors. The greenhouse hallway between the outside window wall and the interior window wall is used for growing plants and vegetables year-round and it is intended to perform the function of a solar thermal battery.

The metal panel roof collects rainwater and an underground piping system funnels it to cisterns usually located in the sloped earth berm behind the house on the north. The water is filtered and pressurized to provide running water for sinks, showers, and baths in a system called a Water Organizing Module. If the water is stored for long periods of time, it is treated to prevent microbial growth. Greywater from sinks and showers is cleaned via a grease trap and delivered to interior planters, and then to toilets. Water is then moved outside to a septic tank or a blackwater botanical waste treatment cell and then, if required by Code (most often it is), to a septic field.

In the Earthship concept, photovoltaic panels and/or small wind turbines store enough energy to supply all the houses’ power needs. In principal, the Earthship’s main heating source is the sun, captured via the greenhouse on the south face of the structure, and cooling is provided by natural ventilation. A berm on the north side of the structure is intended to provide thermal improvement, helping to maintain the Earthship at or near a comfortable inner-earth temperature near 58 degrees. A recent addition to the model - long vent tubes passing through the berm - are intended to bring fresh air into the structure to improve occupant comfort. These passively-inspired design techniques sometimes work, and sometimes do not… requiring additional heating and/or cooling depending on location… which we will explain in some detail in later sections.

According to the Earthship website and literature, Earthships are sustainable, use recycled materials, will work anywhere in the world, and will give us everything we need to survive. They also aim to be the most adaptable, affordable, fastest, and easiest to build building in the world, and they will give you the best resale value of any other options available.

However, if this was accurate, we would not be writing this book.

It can be said that the Pros of the Earthship model are:

  • Energy efficiency: the buildings utilize solar and/or geothermal heat, cooling and hot water, and provide rain and greywater harvesting.
  • Self-sustainability: you can grow veggies inside, use and reuse water, and minimize impact on the environment.
  • Ease of construction: in principle, anyone can build an Earthship. If you can pound dirt, you can do it.
  • “Recycling”: some of the materials used come from waste products that would otherwise fill up a landfill, or are made from recycled materials.
  • Natural light: these buildings have it in abundance.

Not all of these pros are as pro as they seem. As we come to learn more about what the underlying processes are, maybe not. What follows through the end of this chapter may be considered the Earthship’s cons.

We should mention here that many of the titles that follow are in quotes. When that happens it is because we are quoting the various theories presented in the Earthship films, website, and literature. When you see something in italics, it is a direct quote from the listed source. Also, because this book is written from the point of view of a conversation between friends, we use the term “you” when what we are talking about is something we cannot help you with here, and “we“ when it is something this book can help you with or is an approach we take in our offices. 

I use “I” when sharing something from my own life. 

Please also note that because many of the Earthships are in Taos, we talk about the Taos climate in detail. We do that because we want to show you how the design works in this climate, so you know what to look for in your area. But we focus on helping out most… in the place we know best.

by Rachel Preston Prinz and Pratik Zaveri

Noun: mythos; plural noun: mythoi
1.        myth or mythology.
A set of beliefs or assumptions about something.

The term mythology used in reference to a type of building may seem surprising. But it is really not so far of a stretch. The Earthship is just that – a building ideal based on beliefs and assumptions that are passed on by the use of traditional storytelling elements. 

Mike Reynolds and Earthship Biotecture have used traditional storytelling in the form of sharing both established and new myths to illustrate their story to their fans since the beginning of their efforts to birth Earthships into the world. These stories have become part of the mythos of Earthships worldwide. 

Reynolds says in Garbage Warrior that his hero is the Biblical character Noah, a reiteration of the story Earthship Volume 1 opens with: the story of Noah and the Ark. In the relating of the story, the book talks about “the fact” that Noah saw the clouds before the great flood and knew he needed to build a ship before the coming deluge.

This is relevant, when we start to ask questions about how the Earthships work. Because, like the Noah story, the factuality of which has been debated since that story was written down hundreds and maybe even thousands of years after it happened, if it happened… what IS – how the Earthships work and if the buildings do what they aspire to – and the ideals they are inspired to make happen … are not yet in agreement. 

But that is the beauty of inspiration: it leads to salvation. At least, in the Noah story it does. Hopefully, eventually, the Earthships and other sustainably designed buildings will help us to achieve a better lifestyle than that which we have been offered. 

And that is the whole point of having an ideal, and a story, isn’t it?