Getting your Earthship Built: Managing Volunteers

One of the things we were not expecting to come up as part of our research was the issue of working with interns in building an earthship.

Many of the people who show up on earthship builds really DO love the ideals. They are believers in this big audacious goal we all share: the holy grail of affordability and off-grid living… a simpler way of being in concert with nature. Some have been WOOFers, worked on farms, volunteered at Habitat builds, or disaster relief efforts… they travel and work in exchange for room and board. Many have left regular jobs to do what they can to live their ideals of living lean and growing through experience. They have heard that anyone can build an earthship, so they come. The community of volunteers can oftentimes start to act and feel like a family. But as we all know, even family can be alot to manage... and have issues.

The reality is that some volunteers are just not going to be up to the wrenching physical labor of pounding tires. Or they will have no building experience. Or they have no money and need a place to stay. Which means, there needs to be a plan for them to stay, how to train them, and a plan for everyone to have a place and way of contributing with the skills they DO have. Several of the builders we talked to noted that planning for the interns is a full time job in itself. That’s time, space, money, and planning we need to prepare for.

A few of the questions to answer for a build plan include:

Housing Questions
  • How will we house our guests? Do we share our space with them?
  • Will we provide electricity? Gas? WiFi?
  • If they are camping, where? What happens when it gets too cold? What happens when there are storms? Snow?
  • Where do they pee and poo? Who maintains this?
  • Is there enough water for our family, the build, and our guests? If not, what do we do to get it? Remember to double the amount of water per participant in summer to be sure three is enough. Tip: The US Army and OSHA say that while working outside, a person requires 2 gallons of water per day.
  • Where do guests park?
  • What about pets?
  • What days are we working? What about off days?
  • What are “the rules”?
  • How do the family and guests interact? Do we ever want “just family time”?
  • Do we need a “group space” for people to congregate, eat, and chill out together?
  • What do we do with the kids during the build?
  • What do we do with volunteers if it gets too cold to camp?
Feeding Questions
  • How will we feed our guests?
  • Who is cooking? On what? Where?
  • When do they prep meals?
  • Do they need additional support? How many crew can we sacrifice to feed people? For how long?
  • Where do we get food? Does that require town runs? If so, how often?
  • What’s our budget for food?
  • Who determines the recipes? Have we included vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options?
  • Who determines the food buying list?
  • Who is responsible for the money?
  • Whose car is being used?
Finance Questions
  • Will we charge an internship fee to help cover costs?
  • How much will actually cover our costs?
  • What about people who show up and can’t afford the fee?
  • What insurance do we need?
Build Questions
  • Will we have a daily or weekly meeting?
  • How often will we bring in new guests? Tip: According to our research, builders find it often works better to bring on teams for specific build dates rather than allowing anytime volunteers, which can take a LOT of time in training people to get them up to speed by one of the “principals” which should be spent on working on the build itself
  • How will we structure the day to train interns?
  • What do we do with people with no building experience?
  • What do we do with people who cannot pound tires?
  • Is there someone here who can be the go-to person for questions?
  • Is there a “supervisor” who checks work? (MANY builders commented to us that oversight is a HUGE issue)
  • Who’s in charge? Who can make decisions? Who can approve changes?
  • What will happen when a volunteer gets injured?
This is just a first taste of what questions will come up as part of a community-built project. Hopefully this will help you to get started planning.

Request: As you evolve this list, please share your additions with us, as we’d love to share with others what you did to make your build plan shine!