CHAPTER I: The Myth of Performance: Known Issues in Earthships Worldwide

It seems that Earthships have been somewhat stymied in their evolution due to the assertion that because they are “experimental”, they do not need to work. We believe you should have a home that does work. We want you to know that “better” is easily achievable if you approach the design armed with good information. 

We know that there are issues from decades of documentation of problems at builds around the world, as well as from Earthship research. See “Earthship Research Overview in Plain English” in Chapter 2 for more on this.

Here is a summary of what has been documented as having gone wrong with some of the larger and more well-known builds around the world:

EARTHSHIP FIFE in Scotland had moisture issues because of using wet soil when filling the tires, which at the time was thought to improve compaction. This trapped moisture inside the building. Once it evaporated and moved out of the tires, the moisture led to rotting problems with the wood framing in the roof system.

The VALENCIA SPAIN EARTHSHIP is known to suffer from summer overheating. This was resolved by adding external block-out shades over the south-facing windows and utilizing shading over the skylights in summertime. The greywater system was modified - a typical retrofit in many Earthships. Removing the kitchen sink from the greywater system seemed to resolve smell issues. Modern Earthships use a grease trap to attempt to combat this issue, but commentary from people utilizing the new systems suggests that because of the regular and “gross” grease trap cleanouts required, removing the kitchen sink from the system is ideal.

EARTHSHIP ZWOLLE in the Netherlands was built on a concrete slab to accommodate a high water table, yet still had significant water infiltration issues. Another issue with the design was using a north entrance, which contributed to thermal performance issues, as well as unanticipated weather loading and impacts on the structure. The failure of thermal performance has led to the building being closed during winter. Due to high humidity in the Netherlands, moisture became a real issue as did mold. A lack of construction expertise in the build team has also contributed to cracking in the concrete around the tires, contributing to degradation of the building envelope, as well as moisture infiltration and thermal performance issues. There are also issues in the building’s water catchment and filtration system, so these systems have been abandoned.

The STAR COMMUNITY lies at the end of eight miles of rugged unpaved roads nearly an hour from Taos. The community is so remote that many people will not even travel out there, let alone attempt to live that far out. People who have lived there will tell you this neighborhood is only really viable for a specific kind of person with a deeply self-reliant can-do attitude. 

The Earthship built in 2007 in BRIGHTON, ENGLAND is a “cottage” of over 1300 square feet built for half a million dollars. The Brighton Earthship been studied extensively, and various remedies applied for its thermal performance issues, which include regular under-heating for extended periods, as well as periodic overheating. This Earthships’ greenhouse does not extend the full width of the south fa├žade. It appears that a lack of thermal insulation at the floor, which is applied over a chalk soil substrate, is contributing to continued coldness during the winter. Evidently thermal bridging is a substantive issue in this building. Thermal Bridging has been documented as an issue in other Earthships at higher latitudes, including EARTHSHIP GER in Switzerland. A case study performed by EcoOpenHouses.org on the Brighton Earthship notes several improvement suggestions which might be useful for our readers, including using compact fluorescents in lieu of the undersized LEDs; replacement of the wood pellet stove in favor of a multi-fuel type stove to offer more fuel options; replacement of the less-than-ideally functioning wind turbine with additional solar PV panels (at considerable expense); using lime plasters in lieu of cement in the walls; and using adequate insulation. In 2015, Earthship Brighton began an online fundraising campaign to raise $40k Euros for new "improved" systems. Because what they designed didn't work.

One future product that we are compelled to address here is the EARTHSHIP IN THE SKY design for New York City. One of our pre-order readers sent the drawings for this Earthship to us and we promised we would talk about it, if only briefly, here. So here it is. Hoisted on a triumphantly arched concrete wedding cake topper, this fantasy Earthship requires more concrete for its base than many entire buildings. The design loses the berm, which makes it more of a concreteship than an Earthship, it will likely require OSHA compliance in the build which eliminates all those who would want to work on it unless they are certified for high-rise construction, and… it blocks out the light for neighboring buildings. This is illegal in many countries, as older buildings were designed to harness the light and heat of the sun. This Earthship raises itself above its neighbors and steals their sunlight and airspace, while also preventing the truly sustainable response to housing in a city where every square inch has value beyond measure. The sustainable thing to do here would be to house as many people and businesses as possible in the space below just as the neighboring buildings do.

The entry at the new Earthship Visitor’s Center at GREATER WORLD COMMUNITY has its own issues, not the least of which is the incredible number of wooden materials used. The design of the framing structure on this building, as with most Earthships, means thermal bridges that invite cold air into the building. The huge number of pieces of bent wood used presents challenges of building and maintenance for the less-than-expert carpenter. The vestibule wall shades the entrance area from the sun, which is great in summer, but it also allows snow and ice to remain in winter. The benches are not deep enough to sit on for most people. Each piece of glass in this door and sidelight detail is hand-cut and comes with that time, maintenance, and cost. The water-stained wood on the interior of the skylight assemblies suggests there are water intrusion issues in this Earthship as well. The last and most frustrating issue for visitors is that it seems like no-one ever bothered to plan for how the space would be used. The greenhouse is a dead-end when the movie viewing room at the end of that corridor is being used for its intended purpose. More than once, we have had to direct guests to walk back around through the greenhouse, or to gently push them through the dark space while people were using it. This made our guests uncomfortable; several noted they felt as if they were “interrupting someone”. The functional aspect of design… is exactly what we want to help you do better. 

The Earthship that everyone wants to point to, to say "Hey look, these CAN work" is THE PHOENIX. It is gorgeous! It is also for sale, and you can make it yours for $1.5Million, or $277 per square foot. It has some of the most beautifully detailed work ever done on Earthships. This palatial Earthship has 1/3 of its 5,400 SF floor area devoted to food production. An 1,800 SF greenhouse that costs $277 per square foot is an expensive greenhouse, indeed – that adds up to $498,000! We cannot help but ask - will the amount of food it produces ever add up to a half a million dollars’ worth, and thus justify the cost of this feature? Similarly to the awkward room arrangements at the visitor’s center, the Phoenix has one bedroom big enough for a king and a full bed, and then another bedroom with a built-in headboard that results in a closet/office space behind the bed that is so squished and dark that a normal person cannot even use it. There is also limited privacy in the house as nearly every room, including the baths, has an open ceiling. Would someone really pay $1.5Million for a home that does not work for the way people live? Or that isn’t comfortable? And affords no privacy? Or where half of the floor space isn’t usable? We overheard someone say that they “had probably invested around $1.4 million in making the house work.” If the Phoenix cannot achieve a high return on the huge investment that was made in it, what does that mean for yours?