CHAPTER I: “Just the Facts, Ma’am”

by Pratik Zaveri and Rachel Preston Prinz

One of the most difficult aspects of talking about the Earthships is addressing issues around the data presented as supporting evidence for the idea. The Earthship website and publications are a bit “fuzzy” and we want to clarify what we can so our readers can have solid information when making decisions regarding a potential Earthship home.

We call some of what happens in the Earthship books, website, and philosophy a “One-Way View.” Without realizing it, the literature points to reasons to use the model… that actually point to problems with the model. We have touched on some of these already. Earthship Volume 1 and the Earthship website both talk about indigenous materials being available around the world and then go on to point out that shipping materials great distances uses a lot energy and is therefore not sustainable. This statement, while looking towards an ideal that we all really want to meet, fails to address the economic and energetic inputs required to obtain and transport the materials required to build an Earthship, as we identified in The Myth of “The Most Economical Building Design in the World” section. It forgets that Earthships require triple or quadruple the energetic inputs of a standard building. It only sees what it wants to see – the ideal. This is a perfect example of a “one-way view” and it is based on a concept called “cognitive anchoring”. From Wikipedia: 

“Anchoring or focalism is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the "anchor") when making decisions. During decision-making, anchoring occurs when individuals use an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments. Once an anchor is set, other judgments are made by adjusting away from that anchor, and there is a bias toward interpreting other information around the anchor. For example, the initial price offered for a used car sets the standard for the rest of the negotiations, so that prices lower than the initial price seem more reasonable even if they are still higher than what the car is really worth.”
The many issues of not depending on traditional systems that the Earthship literature attempts to address are absolutely valid, as every day we seem to get nearer to an economic and cultural collapse that renders alternates not only ideal but necessary. However, the “better world” the Earthship ideal promises cannot be delivered through ideals and wishful thinking. It has to come from actions… and those actions need to be based on good science and good design.

Underlying Science

Especially in Earthship Volume 1, solid science is used to understand the movement of the sun and other natural processes. Yet, some of the most important details that could help builders to make the design more successful are omitted. For instance, soil is mentioned only briefly, stating the Earthships “must be built on undisturbed earth”, and yet, to build them, we disturb the earth. There is also no mention that thermal performance is degraded when the soil used in the berm is naturally wet, or that the Earthship needs extra design consideration when the inner-earth temperature is lower than that of Taos. This inner-earth temperature issue has led to critical issues in Earthships around the world.
Let’s look at this a little more deeply. 

The Earthship website points out that the Earthship’s technology is based on the sun, the earth, and the efforts of the people themselves. That is sortof true. The passive solar aspects of the design and the photovoltaics use the sun. There is earth in the berm. People build the Earthships. Earthships also use a huge number of solar panels, batteries full of toxic acids, and countless manufactured goods, many of which have extremely high embodied energy equal to and even well beyond that of standard buildings. As well, sophisticated engineering skills are required to design, install, and maintain the Earthship so that the technologies can work. So the ideal is really based on simple natural AND complex manufactured processes. 

Affordability and Do-ability

The ideal is that the Earthship is financially accessible by the common person, but experience does not bear that out, as we have illustrated previously in The Myth of “The Most Economical Building Design in the World” section.

It is stated in the Earthship literature that the Earthships are specifically designed with the intent of being built by unskilled people. While the methods of construction may not necessarily require skill, they most definitely require ability. Pounding tires is not for the faint of heart and building angled walls is really only work for a master carpenter. This is one reason why you may really want to consider using Earthship Biotecture’s teams to build your home if you can afford them - they are second to none in these skills.

Passive Solar and Wind Orientation

The Earthship books stress the importance of orientation towards the sun, but neglect that orientation is only relevant when you live in a place with ample sunshine. Cloudy days, which are not mentioned at all, can render the Earthship just another failed building, as we will see in Chapter 2.

Earthship Volume 1 talks about facing the Earthship north in Taos. How would a north-facing design even work? It would be a snow magnet and would hold ice and snow against the house when it needs to be in the sun to melt! Sure, large north windows are not unusual in Taos… when the artists arrived they wanted that pure north light so they built huge windows facing north… but these were not used in Taos until the late 1800s, because in order to pull off a completely nature-ignorant design, you needed a large wood stove to compensate for the cold north wind. The books do not address this needed heat source. The book goes on to propose a roof garden, in an area with a 140 day growing season, high winds, and tendency for drought. This is not the recipe I would follow for a house in Taos. Evidently, they figured out not to do that as well, because the Taos Earthships face south and there are no rooftop gardens that we know of.

The wind diagrams in the book show wind coming from one direction, and it looks like it is usually assumed as from the south. The problem is… the wind in Taos comes from the North in winter and West in summer. Showing it coming from a direction it rarely does suggests that the ventilation will not work effectively. The research and commentaries from users indicates that this is accurate - many Earthships have ventilation issues, especially those where predominant winds come from less than ideal directions for the design. For the greenhouse’s low awning windows to functionally draw air into the space and up through the skylight there has to be some wind pushing into and away from the building from the right directions to force enough draw.

Materials of Construction

The Earthship website’s Construction Materials page talks about how for the vast majority of human existence, our homes were built of found indigenous materials including stone, earth, sticks, and grasses. That is true. But unlike tires, concrete, aluminum cans, and glass bottles… stone, earth, sticks, and grasses have extremely low embodied energy, as they can be found at just about any good potential building site. To add to that, the embodied energy of concrete, which makes up roughly half of the building materials used by volume in a modern Earthship’s construction, is staggering. (Refer to the Concrete section for more information.) Concrete is not a by-product of our civilization. It is a mined product that rapes the environment and diminishes our ability to breathe.

Indigenous is typically understood to refer to locally-sourced, raw materials, or local peoples. Indigenous is the epitome of simplicity. Tires, concrete, bottles, and cans are not simple, nor are they indigenous to anyone’s site that we know of. Shipping tires, concrete, cans, and bottles from wherever they are to your build site uses energy and removes these materials from the recycling stream. These misconceptions help to illustrate why Earthships are not truly sustainable.

The literature talks about wood being less than ideal as a durable material for building, as it is natural, lightweight, and porous, which will lead it to decompose quickly. The people of Bavaria, who have lived in some of their wooden houses for 400 years, may disagree with that. As would the builders of the Hōryū-ji temple pagoda in Japan, which still stands after the wood was felled in 594AD! That is nearly 1,500 years old! Wood can last a long time when it is felled at the correct time, is the right species for its use, and is well cared for over its life. And not all wood is light and porous. Generally, we use heavy and dense deciduous hardwoods on the exterior of a building and evergreen softwoods for interior framing. Plus, to be fair… Earthships use a boatload of wood. 

The literature goes on to complain that manufactured materials dictate the way buildings are built, and then goes on to suggest that the reverse should be true, implying that housing should dictate the nature of materials. And yet the primary building block of an Earthship is the tire – a highly manufactured material.

Embodied Energy

What the Earthship literature offers as a means of explaining embodied energy is not a complete picture of what embodied energy is. Embodied energy is the amount of energy it takes to take a raw material, get it to a manufacturing site, manufacture the finished product, and then get it to you. Embodied energy can be high – aluminum, a common component of solar panel installations as well as an Earthship’s can walls, contains an enormous amount of embodied energy – it has to be mined, to the tune of 8 tons of ore per 1 ton of usable material; shipped great distances for manufacturing; designed; then takes a great deal of heat to produce a usable product – which also means a great deal of fuel; then it must be shipped to a warehouse, to the supplier, and then to the build site. Whether that aluminum is in a reused can or a brand new window, it still had to have all of those processes applied to it. There IS embodied energy in an Earthship. Just because we are reusing the embodied energy required does not negate its existence. In fact, the reality here is that reusing cans in walls requires more materials to be mined and manufactured because the first-generation cans are being removed from the recycling stream. 

The literature also states that one of the main goals of the Earthship ideal is to use materials that require little or no manufactured energy. And yet, the building blocks of Earthships… the tires, cans, bottles, concrete, wood framing and vigas, roofing, cooling tubes, insulation and thermal wrap, cisterns, interior finishes, glazing for two walls of windows, shades, glass doors, appliances, and the mechanical and plumbing systems… have manufactured or embodied energy… and lots of it.
The literature makes the case that the Earthship is using such simple materials that it makes sense for large-scale production for low-impact living. Except, large scale production of the currently extremely oversized Earthships is not sustainable. Earthships have gigantic footprints, in terms of the amount of land required to build on, as well as square footage, as well as embodied energy. They are also too expensive to be viable for large scale development.

Reliance on “The Machine”

The literature goes on to discuss the ideal of not relying on natural gas, but many Earthships at latitudes above and including Taos have been retrofitted with propane or gas to stay warm enough in winter. 

The importance of not relying on modern food systems is discussed, yet the food growing system as designed most often cannot provide the quantity of food that makes self-reliance possible. What is offered is an extraordinarily expensive system that cannot provide in grocery savings what it adds in cost.


The literature speaks to the common house using “monstrous systems” and states that the modern house cannot function without systems. Reynolds likened the standard home and its large systems to being a patient in ICU being “plugged in” at a hospital: If the lines were cut, then what? 

Yet, nothing is ever mentioned of the standard systems used in an Earthship, which deplete resources, cost a great deal at outset, are prohibitively complex to maintain and repair, and still do not work when something goes wrong. All of this costs money and resources. To compound that, backup heat and power are required in nearly every build because most Earthships do not work as intended. Systems are a reality for the vast majority of owners.


The literature goes on to discuss the Earthship in relation to a car, addressing the very real concern that reliance on cars is part of what is wrong with sustainability in our world. Yet, Earthships are often located out in the distant expanses and do not work as intended, forcing users to depend on a car far more than the average homeowner – to get materials, water, groceries, gas, to get the kids to school - and, because they are “out there” where it is legal to build experiments, oftentimes owners must travel further distances to do these things. My grocery store is 2 miles from my home. I travel four miles total to get down to the store and back. Greater World is 15 or so miles from the grocery store. That is 30 miles total. Even if we both only need a carton of milk, my cost and time investment is dramatically lower. Multiply that mileage times 40 trips to the store a year. Now multiple it by the number of trips into town you must make to get supplies, get water, take the kids back and forth to school… 

Saving the Rainforests and Oxygen

The literature notes that when we cut down the rainforests, we cut off our own oxygen supply. This is such an important issue and that fact cannot be argued. The first book goes on to imply that Earthships are minimizing the impact on deforestation to resolve this issue. However, Earthships use huge amounts of wood, which results in forests being cut down. Is this ideal really being met here?
Earthships also use as much or more concrete as that used in a traditionally constructed home. Concrete uses oxygen to cure over its life and it gets that oxygen from the air we breathe. The manufacture of the Portland cement used in concrete contributes to between 5 and 10% of the world’s greenhouse gases.

So, in principle the Earthships are saving the rainforests, while in practice they are making them work harder. 

Impacts on the Water System

The literature addresses the issues of the global water supply and its impact on the ecosystems that affect fish. This concern is justified, as we continue to poison our oceans with untold numbers of toxins. Yet, the leeching of the tires and the septic systems in an Earthship build has the potential to affect the health of the aquifers from which we all drink. A common admonishment in the professional and academic tire research is that the places we store tires are supposed to be isolated from any contact with the water supply via sealed EPDM pond liners. 

Thermal Comfort

The commonly held belief that Earthships are comfortable is supported by the Earthship literature stating that the temperature ranges from 65-76 degrees with no backup heating or cooling. This is just not accurate, as we have described in the Myth of Thermal Comfort section.

The Thermal Mass section of the Earthship website states that a lightly-built house (presumably one without earth-sheltering) “obviously” takes more energy to heat and cool. Only, that is not accurate. A light house with good insulation and located in the right climate needs less heating and cooling than an Earthship.


Landscaping is critical to great design, for important tasks like turning winds into breezes; turning sunlight into food energy and shade; and for minimizing the reflection of the sun off the ground. Yet, the only hints of how to address landscape that are provided in the literature are effectively “do not puncture the roof”, “slope the berm away from the building”, and “do not plant trees within 20 feet of the tire wall”. But this makes the building more dependent on systems to perform and offers no advice on how to make these ideas work. 

It is suggested that locating the building on a sloping site can keep water from the inside, but there is no guidance on proper site design for this. In fact, the Hut designs create major water ponding issues right at the front door. Positive drainage - the design of a site to shed water away from the building - is a challenging thing to do even for an architect or designer with lots of experience. We have spent days designing a site for positive drainage before. See our Landscape chapter for tips and tricks to resolve these issues.

There is a section about harnessing the power of natural springs, but no mention is made about how springs can become rivers with rainfall, or how water tables rise and fall though the moon’s cycles. These are all manageable with good design. 


The Earthship website talks about the Earthships in regard to Earthquakes. This section specifically addresses horizontal movement, and suggests using “rubbery” and resilient materials for building rather than brittle materials like concrete because they crack.

So, a little Earthquake 101 here: an earthquake’s source, or epicenter, is always located along a geologic fault line. A well-known example is the San Andreas Fault in California. The fault line occurs where two tectonic plates meet. The plates are moving at different rates and different directions, basically grinding against each other along the fault line. But the fault line is not perfectly smooth, so the line ‘holds’ the plates from sliding against each other. When the forces along the fault line become greater than the ability of a part of the fault line to resist them … boom! The energy is released explosively as an earthquake. The energy is released as waves through the earth, very much like a wave in the ocean. When the waves reach the surface of the earth, where your Earthship might be perched much like a ship on the sea, your Earthship (or any structure) is tossed horizontally and vertically. We generally think of buildings as static – they don’t move about. When the earth moves beneath it, a building resists the movement. This is called inertia – put a salt shaker on a napkin and yank the napkin away – the bottom of the shaker is attached to the napkin and has to follow. But the rest of the shaker tries to stay where it was, and the shaker topples. The same thing happens to our buildings.

Earthquake-resistant buildings (anyone that tells you a building is earthquake-proof is uninformed or misleading) are generally both strong and resilient. Strong enough not to shatter under the earthquake forces, and resilient enough to “give” a little without breaking. It is a little counterintuitive, but it is that resiliency that usually helps buildings survive smaller earthquakes with little damage, and in a big earthquake, resiliency allows a building to bend rather than break, to tilt rather than topple, so people inside can get out.

The Earthship’s interior walls and the buttresses for the back tire wall are concrete. So the brittle material argument is moot. As to the insinuation of the “rubbery” quality of the tires… once they are packed with earth, the wall acts more like concrete than rubber. So this is moot too.


The Earthship books cover using wood for framing, but offer no clarification on the size or types of wood to use, or when it should be harvested. 

The website suggests that the aluminum can walls are very strong. However, the strength of the walls is not achieved by the aluminum, but by the cement that holds the cans together. While aluminum itself is strong, in this application, it has a smooth surface. There is no way the bond between cement and metal is stronger than that of, say… porous bricks, to which the cement can bind at the pore level… and hence it is not as easy to build a truly strong wall by this means. Also, the way the walls are built requires you to crush the can a little, decreasing the amount of space that is taken up by the can, and requiring more cement.


The roof design from Earthship Volume 1 is not well designed and uses a huge number of resources. Plus, roof framing should really follow the pitch of the roof for the best structural performance. Gutters should have a minimum slope so they work. 


Earth floors are recommended, but earth floors only work in some climates and they do not always work for passive solar design, which needs to be modified for the installation type and climate. Many Earthships now use flagstone or brick flooring.

Windows and Skylights

Awning windows at the base of the greenhouse against the ground can get buried in snow and cannot provide adequate ventilation unless they are cleared at every snowfall. That is a maintenance nightmare in cold climates, where some of our respondents noted that they had to remove snow as many as three times a day to insure adequate ventilation. There are some design issues with the standard skylight details too. They must be opened and closed by the occupant in order to regulate ventilation and solar heating. If left closed all day they can cause overheating, but if accidentally left open on cold nights they can vent too much heat. Both windows and skylights are also notorious for condensation problems. This often contributes to rot and mold issues.


There is just no way around it: Maintenance-wise, Earthships are on par with any naturally-built building, if not more so. Day-to-day maintenance on an Earthship can easily be double or triple that of a traditionally-built building. Earthship systems also require specialized repairmen that charge a lot for their knowledge and are sometimes difficult to locate.

Pets and Kids

Your pets may not understand that the planters are not their personal litter box or entertainment center. Or that the cistern, if left open to the building, is not their swimming pool or bathtub. Sometimes, kids may be equally susceptible. (I know I would have been.)


In the video From the Ground Up, there is a moment where we see someone using earth to plaster the wall and you can see bugs milling about in the plaster. That does not stop once the plaster dries. In fact, now the bugs have awesome places to build colonies - in the tires. You might as well prepare yourself early… centipedes, jerusalem crickets, moths, spiders, snakes, rats, mice… they will all be your friends in an Earthship. That is totally okay for some people. For others, it is a terrifying nightmare.

Products Offered

The books, especially Earthship Volume 1, are woefully out of date. Some of the products offered, like the Dynasphere wind turbine, are investments in less than ideal technology (see our Wind Power section for an explanation why). There are other places to look for more up-to-date solutions, and the majority of them are free online.