CHAPTER I: The Myth of Build-Out Time and Reality Check: There is no such thing as a Global Model

While the legend is that an Earthship can be built in a few weeks, that does not seem to be most people’s experience. Most often, builder-led projects take from a few weeks to 2 months. When doing it on your own, an Earthship can easily take 2 years to build. 

The design and permitting process can also take years - first, learning for yourselves, then training the local code enforcement officials. With planning and permitting, a build can as long as 5 years. Are you ready for a multi-year camping adventure? Can you afford a hotel/rental for that time? Regardless of HOW you do it, you need a plan as well as cash flow to pull it off.

The Myth of “Will Perform as Expected in Any Part of the World, in Any Climate” or, Reality Check: There is no such thing as a Global Model

We love the idea of a convenient one-size-fits-all approach to design. However, the Global Model promise is one that fails to deliver, in Earthships, and an every other kind of architecture. The reality is: Not every building works in every climate. There is a thousand years of architectural and archaeological evidence in New Mexico that backs up this fact, and tens of thousands of years of evidence from around the world. Cultures migrated and modified their own home designs as they went. They did not do so because they were trying to be stylish or to merge with the new culture. They adapted to the new conditions because they needed to stay warm in winter and cool in summer. The only things they had to work with were natural forces like the sun and physics (gravity, thermal and liquid dynamics, etc.), the materials and tools they had available to them, and history. It was anything but convenient to have to adjust, but they did, because they needed to in order to survive. 

Let’s try an exercise. We are going to give you a new religion. We will not tell you what religion it is, but it is not from here, and we do not care what you were brought up as. We just want you to start being that religion, today. OK? Ready Set Go! What? You do not love that idea? Good, because we are not going to ask you to do anything of the sort because it is preposterous. It is, however, a decent metaphor to illustrate just how absurd the concept of a Global Model of design is for architecture. Many of the underlying reasons why a Global Model is infeasible are the same as why we cannot adopt a new religion from somewhere else around the world on a whim. 

First, there are cultural concerns. People around the world are building on traditions that have been developed over 10,000 years of their own settlement and technology patterns. They would be wise to be reticent to adopt a new building technology that is not proven, culturally appropriate, or technologically feasible. I think back on several projects I have worked on where sophisticated technology-based systems like water filtration systems, have been donated to worthy charities in third world countries. At first, wow! How they changed things for the better! New school uniforms were purchased from the proceeds from the sales of purified water, and a bustling business was born. But, then, a tiny plastic part broke. Suddenly, that awesome system turned into an expensive piece of wall art because the people who were gifted the technology did not have the knowledge, parts, access to alternatives, or technical know-how to repair it. 

Another great example to technological appropriateness in design came for me on a project I worked on in Peru. A non-profit organization wanted to build a 20,000 square foot multi-level concrete building and ceremonial space in a jungle that is only accessible by a 2 hour powered canoe ride. I kept asking, “How are you planning on building that?” knowing that cranes and a pump truck would be required. Someone would justify how it could happen using experimental technology that was not available in Peru. We could always have tried - spending huge amounts of money and effort to buy and ship the systems there and experiment with making it work. Finally I quit the project because I realized that my approach to design was too “traditional” and it would be an uphill battle to go simple within the context of these very big dreams. I stayed in touch, however, because I love the organization’s work. A year or so ago, I received a newsletter that announced they had finally built their facility in the jungle. When it came down to it, they built a 1,500 square foot building out of local materials and that was built by locals. However, it took them 2 years to break away from the big idea and back to something that truly worked for its place. The best news of all (for me) was that humble little building supported local crafts, culture, economies, and because of all that – it was both affordable and easily maintainable. That was good design. And it was sustainable.

Climate is another important criteria for why there can be no Global Model of architecture. There are different climates around the world and different microclimates within those climates. While ideas that work in Iran may a great place to start for ideas what might work in New Mexico, because they share similar climates, the wind directions, snowfall and rain amounts, soil types, and geography play important roles in differentiating how the designs perform. We can see this illustrated quite easily. In New Mexico, where many presume we are “all in the same climate”, there are actually 6 diverse bioregions that have different water, climate, agricultural, soil, and architectural properties. The architectural systems especially cannot be made to “fit” in all these regions. In the flat and hot desert, our traditional adobe homes with flat roofs placed directly on the ground are ideal. But in the mountainous regions, they utilize small easy-to-heat log buildings on sturdy foundations that elevate the homes out of the snow in winter. To ignore the sun or landscape is to risk overheating and/or water infiltration.

Few Earthships seem to place an emphasis on site selection for anything other than solar access and views. In one example of how this can go wrong, several Earthships were built at the Rural Earthship Alternative Community Habitat (REACH) near the Taos Ski Valley. The REACH community, despite the assertion otherwise in Garbage Warrior, is not entirely a success. Some of the Earthships at REACH are only used by the interns at Earthship Biotecture or as rentals during summer. Most often, the people staying there have no idea there are issues with these buildings because they are so happy to be part of the movement and living in the beautiful spaces with the stunning views in the summertime when the site is accessible. They most often do not recognize that those buildings are available to them for a reason – the spaces do not work for homebuyers. Homes in this prestigious area can sell for $300,000 or more – an expensive dorm room indeed! But the builders did not follow some basic but necessary design principles and thus, the buildings were difficult to sell. Not everyone wants to climb stairs in the dark to get into bed, to be colder than comfortable in winter, overheated in summer, or to go down a dark set of stairs into their closet. Or to listen to your neighbor’s conversations because the site acts like a natural amphitheater and the houses are placed too close together. Or have to abandon their essential veggie growing planters because their cat will not stop using them as a litterbox. Or to use the wench on their 4WD to drag themselves up an impassable snowboarding-worthy hill in the winter. REACH is an experimental dream that did not end up manifesting so well. Once it was removed from the Taos Plateau to a hillside just a few miles away from the original Greater World development, the weaknesses in the one-size-fits-all approach of the Earthship concept began to be revealed. Some of the issues were due to limited design understanding and poorly designed building details by novice builders, and some were due to the unique mountain climate and landscape that the design was not modified to respond to.

This is just one close example of how even small microclimatic variations can undermine the performance of a building. With every mile traveled away from Greater World, these issues become more challenging and more important to resolve. Once we get into the hot/humid regions, the idea implodes, and not just for Earthships. Buildings that work well in the high arid desert do not work well near the equator. Earthship Biotecture will go into areas hit by natural disasters to help them out by quickly building micro Earthships to try and assist in the rebuilding efforts. That is an awesome thing to do. The people in those areas need help now and they can assist, as well as attempt to work the Global aspect of their design out by modifying it for tropical climates. The only issue is that observers and users of these facilities report that the tropical models have issues, including lack of humidity control, lack of ventilation, poor lighting, wind channeling, mold, darkness, and worst of all… acting as a reservoir to capture hurricane water while shedding hurricane winds.

We need to utilize architectural tools here in New Mexico that you may not need where you are. In his article “Earthship Hype and Earthship Reality” on GreenBuildingAdvisor.com, building expert Martin Holladay points out that while a cistern may be required in New Mexico where we struggle to have enough water, a place like New England may not need the cistern because of the natural wetness of the climate and the predominance of springs and wells. Issues like this are why we need to pay attention to climate and not blindly follow the standard design when that standard does not work FOR us.

There are specific issues in the design of the Global Model Earthships. There are Code-compliance issues of not having a means of egress from every bedroom without passing through a secondary space. The new earth vents can render the berm dysfunctional and are, in some locations, wrought with snow, mold, and maintenance issues. The cisterns diminish the earth-sheltering benefits of the berm. Hidden hallways and an uninhabitable greenhouse account for an average of 50% of the space being unusable. Openings in the south wall in the living room render the greenhouse part of the space and thus create humidity and overheating issues which can rot furniture. This causes a demand for additional ventilation. The over-sizing of rooms and under-sizing of functional spaces, and the inclusion of the mechanical room and all of its noise and heat as part of the main body of the house are yet more design challenges faced by Earthship dwellers. We can do better.

The overwhelming evidence does not support a global model of design… and it is not a bias towards Earthships … neither Earthships nor any other building type works for everybody in every place. Evidently, Earthship Europe agrees, based on this quote from their website,
“…concerning the Global Model (one model for everywhere) I can only say:
‘Would you built an igloo in the desert?’”
Earthship Europe has modified the designs extensively to make them work for European climates, and their spinoff Flagship Europe has walked away from the Earthship concept entirely. That is one way that we can know if Earthships or any other new build type works in an area. We can ask how many more got built after the first one. And, if they changed things, what got changed? In many cases, Earthships are modified heavily so they perform adequately, often at great expense and over a long period of time. That fact is not advertised, or for that matter… even acknowledged. 

The most important factor we can suggest for those who really love this idea and want to make it work is to study everything you can about the vernacular architecture in the place you want to live. Visit every historic or archaeological site you can. Learn from these buildings and their relationship to their place, and adapt the design of your home to fit the area’s climate and existing building traditions. Then, think small. Design only what is needed for space, and then plan ahead for additions to make them easy. The Earthship firms will not guarantee that anything they design for you will be permitable, so you might as well tweak the design and make it work for you.