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Introduction

The current state of the planet is alarming. Turn on any news station or look on the internet and you will be bombarded by images and articles about overpopulation, climate change, earthquakes, floods, droughts, and so much more. It is clear that the Earth is sick, and the rising popularity in “thinking green” is a sign that people are acknowledging that fact. A change of the current systems is required in order for us to heal our planet and in turn save humanity. We cannot keep going the way we have been. The rate of consumption of resources and the growing amount of waste and pollution has created a vicious cycle that seems nearly impossible to reverse. Michael Reynolds, the creator of the EarthShip, has found a way to live in harmony with the environment by creating a completely self-sustaining home. Reynolds has also made these houses accessible to people of all locations and economic status. By spreading knowledge of these Earthships through books, presentations, internships, websites, and more, Reynolds and others have made a major step towards changing the world.

The Problem with Modern Housing

Before we can truly understand the necessity for Earthships and similar low-impact housing, it is imperative that we understand the deficiencies of modern housing as it is today, particularly in countries like the United States. The main issue is that such housing must be plugged into “the grid”. This causes two problems: First, the owner of the home must pay the power corporations to draw massive amounts of electricity every day. Second, if the grid experiences a power failure, most modern families are at a loss of what to do. Usually the centralized water system is also attached to that grid. The sewage systems waste 80% of grey water that could be reused (Reynolds 6,vol.1). Modern houses are made of unsustainable materials such as wood (which takes much longer to grow back than we allow) and often these materials are shipped many miles. Housing aside, the residents have to pay rising utility bills to heat or cool their space and use electricity. And then on top of utility bills and rent, the residents have to travel to a grocery store to buy processed food that was shipped many miles from distant countries. The Earthship seeks to solve all of these issues by not relying on any of these modern systems. If more people start living “off-grid” and refusing these systems, perhaps they will one day change. The Earthship is its own system within itself that provides its own electricity, water, waste water treatment, heating and cooling, and even food. It is made of sustainable and reused materials. To top it off, the creators of the Earthship have claimed that it will eliminate utility bills. Now that is a house that is both economical and sustainable.

Design

Every aspect of the Earthship is designed to get the most from the renewable resources of the Earth – the sun, the wind, and the rain. Even the location is a key factor in creating sustainable housing. Earthships are faced to the south with the windows tilted to reflect the sun in the summer and let it in during the winter. Every EarthShip is designed with a greenhouse in the building to provide food. The design of the Earthship can be reduced to a simple module that is repeated in a sequence. Each module is shaped like the letter U with three material walls and one glass wall. Usually the U is partially submerged with earth supporting each wall for more insulation. There is always a skylight above the U for maximum natural lighting, which can also be opened for air circulation. Generally each module does not exceed 18 feet in width and 26 feet in depth. To make a house, the modules (rooms) can be lined up in a row sharing a common wall. In this case, the greenhouse (glass wall) becomes a hallway and a heating duct. Or the modules can be staggered so that they do not cast shadows at any point in the day. This design acts much like the straight row in that the greenhouse acts as hallway and heat circulation. Yet another variation has the units on a slope so that the sun reaches them at the same time. There can be many variations to this design incorporating rows or staggered units. Really the user has many options when designing an Earthship so long as they are conscious about the orientation to useful natural phenomena.

Natural/ Sustainable Building Materials

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Earthship is the prospect of using waste materials for building. The primary building block of an Earthship is a rubber tire packed with dirt. This is an ideal resource because it is readily available in any populated area and there is no other use for a used car tire. Tires filled with earth are durable, resilient, and great for insulation. They create walls that are 2 feet and 8 inches thick, in stark contrast to 8-inch walls of normal housing. These tires are also a good choice for building material because packing tires with dirt is a skill just about any human can learn within an hour or two. It requires no manufacturing, no special skill, and a few common tools. For the inner walls, another common waste material is used. Aluminum cans are lightweight and durable and are simple to plaster over. Any other materials used for flooring or ceilings must be indigenous to the area in which the Earthship is being built. Not only do Earthships eliminate the need for chopping down trees for building, but they also utilize materials that the civilized world has written off as waste. In addition, the use of indigenous material is a more sustainable option than having materials shipped over miles.

Structure

Why is it called an Earthship? Michael Reynolds often refers to life in an Earthship as “sailing”. The main difference between the structure of an ordinary house and that of the Earthship is that they are made of earth and joined with the earth. This allows the Earthship to “float” with the earth, able to move fluidly with the earth’s crust. This makes them much safer than conventional houses which have heavy loads attached to concrete foundations that can crack if the earth moves at all. The massive walls of the Earthship are in effect their own foundation, and inherently distribute the weight evenly. They are much less likely to be affected by an earthquake. The bottom of the walls are also buried deep below the frost line, eliminating the danger of thermal movement. The roof is structured with beams running from east to west, distributing the loads to the massive walls. The greenhouse is designed as a lean-to which rests on the southernmost beam of the roof. However, the greenhouse is also supported by a mass wall made of tires. Partition walls made of cans are simply set on foundations the same width as the walls. The design and structure of the building all contribute to its functionality.

Heating/Cooling

Because the Earthship’s walls are built of thick rubber tires packed with earth, they provide thermal mass with excellent insulation. This idea of interacting with natural phenomena to get the most benefit completely eliminates the need for heating or cooling systems at all, saving the resident from having to pay extremely high electric bills in order to be comfortable in his/her own home. If the person lives in a cold place like Tahoe, a fireplace or a wood stove is the only heat they should need. The Earthship likes adobe fireplaces, but recommends using local material. The dense thermal mass of the walls is warmer than the air in winter and cooler than the air in summer, keeping the house at a moderate temperature. Cooling is provided through shading and gravity skylights. The simple concept of the gravity skylight banks on the fact that hot air rises and cool air sinks. Each module of the Earthship is designed so that fresh air may enter low, and escape through the skylight creating a natural airflow and getting rid of the need for expensive fans or heaters.

Solar Power

Should the resident require electricity to power small appliances, lights, or any of the other modern luxuries that are dependent upon it, the Earthship provides all its own electricity from photovoltaic solar panels. It is recommended to use a combination of DC and AC power. Many lights are available that run on DC power, while AC is used mainly for appliances. This allows for a back-up in case the AC inverter malfunctions. The Earthship has a power center where the AC and DC breaker panels, the gauges, the controllers, and the inverter are all kept in one place. The Earthship company mass-produces a unit called the Power Organizing Module, which is more economical and reliable. The solar panels themselves are usually mounted directly on the Earthship in a place where they can be adjusted to be perpendicular to the sun in each season. Reyes recommends having a back-up power system if you are new to solar living. This could be a gas or propane generator, or an electric hookup that can be switched on in emergencies. The most important aspect of solar living is adjusting your lifestyle to live in harmony with the weather. This can mean limiting appliance use on cloudy days, and only showering when the sun is out.

Water Harvesting

That brings us to the component of water harvesting. In these days, unless you are lucky enough to live in a place like Lake Tahoe the water that comes out of the tap is not even drinkable, and is filled with chemicals such as fluoride and chlorine. We depend on electricity to deliver the water to us, and the usable greywater is wasted, causing us to have to pay for more water. In an Earthship, this is not the case. The Earthship is designed to capture its own water from rainfall or local water reservoirs. There are several different options again varying on the location of the Earthship that use very little to no electricity. The first option is a common well that uses a solar-powered DC pump to transfer water throughout the day into a cistern for storage. The water can then be pumped from the cistern into a pressure tank using another DC pump. This step can be avoided, however, if the Earthship is on a slope with the cistern higher up on the hill. In that case the water in the cistern is pressurized and delivered to the home by gravity and only one DC pump is needed. If the Earthship is in a windy area, a small windmill can work as a pump instead. Another option for catching water which uses no electricity whatsoever is to catch roof run-off or hillside run-off in a small reservoir, located high above the pipes so that gravity can deliver the water to the home. If in a cold climate like ours, the cistern should be on a south-facing slope to catch snow melt. Hillside run-off provides a large amount of rain or snow water, but it needs to be filtered to catch any mud or gravel. This can be done in a couple different ways, including building a small dam out of rocks in front of the cistern with a small pool behind it to catch the debris. This way the water overflows into the cistern after the particles settle to the bottom of the pool. Another way to catch the particles is to filter the water through a series of rock barriers varying in size from boulders to gravel as it flows toward the cistern. Once the water has been collected in the reservoir, a flexible pipe should be suspended between the top and bottom to avoid catching any remaining debris or silt in the pool. If the Earthship is in a place with significant precipitation (10” a year or more), the roof run-off has the potential to collect enough water that a hillside reservoir is not even necessary. The roof would need to be made of metal or, if rubber, coated with one layer of acrylic paint and one layer of organic paint in order for the water to be drinkable. The roof would be sloped to the south and collected in a south-facing gutter which has a screen to filter the water, then deliver it to a storage tank half-buried in the ground to prevent the water from freezing. Then, a solar-powered D.C. pump can work the pressure tank and transfer the water to the house in an underground pipe. Once again, with all of the options presented to catch water, it is important to be conscious of how much is used. Simple lifestyle changes like taking showers every few days, saving laundry until a large load is needed, and turning off the sink while washing dishes can make a big difference in water consumption.

Water Heating

Despite every effort to be water-conscious, a certain amount of hot water is required in order to have a comfortable human life. There are several options for heating water ranging from the “fanatic” to the “conventional”. The conventional method of course is inefficient and uneconomical. For the fanatic, one might move to the southwest, or the Sun Belt, and use a solar heater which will provide hot water on sunny days in the late morning. For people living in cooler climates, a gas demand heater may be used which heats the water in a coil only when the tap is on. This is far more efficient because it only heats the water when you need it instead of all the time. Another option is to use both a solar heater and a gas heater, using one or the other dependent on the weather. This is a bit more expensive but allows for lower gas costs and gives the luxury of hot water whenever you want it. These two could also be combined with the addition of an insulated storage tank, where the solar heater warms the water allowing less gas to be used for the demand heater. It all depends on what kind of heater you get and what your location allows.

Sewage System

“The truth is there will be no such thing as waste water”, Michael Reynolds claims in the third chapter of Earthship, Vol. II. The Earthship captures and reuses all water used in the house, without causing any pollution of underground aquifers. With our modern way of life, many people would cringe at such a thought, especially when considering the toilet. Toilets are one of the biggest wastes of water we have today. Each toilet uses 5 gallons of water to flush, producing 5 gallons of sewage that must be treated which is then dumped in with usable “grey” water (from sinks, laundry machines, etc.), creating twice the amount of “black water” that must be treated. The best recommended method to avoid this waste altogether is to purchase a composting toilet, which use no water to flush. Instead, they evaporate the water already present in human waste, releasing it through a vent, and decompose the remaining material into useable fertilizer. If that thought makes the owner cringe, another option is to use a low-flush toilet that only fills with reused grey water. While black water must be treated, grey water can be used immediately if the owner of the dwelling is conscious about what they are putting into it. The premise is that all of this used water will be put back into the earth and used to feed plants and beneficial bacteria. Thus only environmentally-safe soaps and detergents may be used. Instead of a garbage disposal, a kitchen sink planter is used which captures organic material and turns it into plant food. The typical Earthship has two sewage systems: an “interior botanical cell” and an “exterior botanical cell”. The Interior Botanical Cell, which was created by Earthship Biotech experts who have been working on these systems for over two decades, consists of a small unit called a gWOM, or a Grey Water Organizing Module. After the water has been used, it goes to the gWOM to be cleaned and treated, and is then sent to the toilets as flushing water. After it goes down the toilet, it goes to a small septic tank which is solar-heated and has a glazed south side. The water is treated with an anaerobic (bacteria) process and is then sent via line to a drain field where the natural material is cycled back into the earth and can be used for landscaping.

Food Production

I’m sure you are beginning to see that the Earth Ship is designed so that every part of it is used for something else, a cycle that imitates those of the earth. The grey water from the sink can be used to water an indoor planter, while the grey water from your bathtub can be used to water an outdoor water bed to feed willows, roses, or apple trees. One of the key features of the Earthship is that it has a built-in greenhouse which provides the resident with fresh, organic produce year-round. Not only are the plants useful to eat and beautiful to look at, but they also play a role in purifying the greywater that is recycled into the toilet. A wide variety of plants may be grown in the Earthship, from herbs to veggies to even banana trees. Depending on the location of the house and the conditions of living, a large, bountiful garden may supplement your menu year-round. Some models built on a slope even provide space for trees to grow as tall as two stories, inside. This provides more oxygen as well as a gorgeous living space. Planters on the single level of the Earthship do not require a bottom and can be set directly on the ground, taking advantage of uncontained earth. Upper-level planters are contained with a rock and gravel bottom to help it drain. The greenhouse itself has a tire foundation and one wall entirely made of glass to allow the sun in. It acts as a beautiful hallway between rooms as well as a heating duct. Some hardy plants recommended for beginner gardeners are geraniums, grapes, aloe, and succulents.

Maintenance

Perhaps surprisingly, Earthships are remarkably easy to maintain. After 20 years of development, the Earthship Biotecture has designed each component so that ordinary people used to ordinary housing will have no trouble living comfortably in their “vessel”. Components such as the Power Organizing Module and the Grey Water Organizing Module were made so that ordinary plumbers or electricians will be able to recognize the parts and work on them just as they would a conventional house. The makers of the Earthship do not expect each inhabitant to be a professional carpenter, plumber, and electrician. As for the house itself, site drainage needs to be inspected annually, just like with any dwelling. The mud used for the walls inside or outside the house might need to be patched once a year during the first three years, when the house is still settling with the earth. The only wall that might need real maintenance is the glass used for the greenhouse. Like any residence, if you take care of it, it will take care of you in return. Earthships come in many shapes and sizes and are used all over the world, in any kind of climate. A person interested in owning an Earthship can purchase the building plan and permits, and provide travel and accommodation for a team of workers to build the house in just one month. Or they can build one themselves using the readily-available information on the Earthship website or written in the Earthship books. Michael Reynolds, the creator, has made this housing accessible to absolutely everyone no matter what skill level or economic status. Ranging from expensive customized models to the affordable “Simple Survival” model created for disaster relief in Haiti, the Earthship can be enjoyed by anyone. The Earthship team also provides an option of “retrofitting” already existing houses with Earthship systems of electricity, water, and sewage. This makes your home much more energy and cost efficient.

Significance of the Earthship

While many people are currently living in their own self-sustaining Earthships, the significance of the Earthship is not limited to the number of residents they house. Earthships act as a symbol of change in a changing world. They represent a change for the better. They prove to the rest of the world that it is possible to live in a house that is self-sustaining and provides no carbon footprint. With countries all around the world discussing a zero-carbon future at the Climate Summit in Paris, the Earthship provides an example of one way that carbon emissions can be significantly diminished. The Earthship reminds us that we are a part of the earth rather than apart from it, and urges the dweller to seriously consider his or her use of resources. It reminds us to live with the earth instead of against it. It shows that building with trash instead of trees is logical and even preferable. It even provides ways that anyone in the world can make their existing home more environmentally friendly and efficient. It is my belief that as we move towards the future and see first-hand the economic and environmental problems with the existing housing system, Earthships and similar low-impact sustainable housing will become more and more popular and even necessary. The shift is already starting. We just have to sail with it.

Works Cited Chiveralls, Keri and Freney, Martin. “Spill-Over Effects for a Ship Shape Society: Earthship Ironbank as Cultural Catalyst?” Unmaking Waste:2015 Conference Procedings. (2015): 47-55. Web. 28 Nov 2015. Hewitt, Mischa and Telfer, Kevin. Earthships: Building a Zero Carbon Future for Homes. Bracknell, Berkshire: HIS BRE Press, 2007. Print. N.p. Earthship Biotecture. Brown Rice Internet. N.d. Web. 4 Dec 2015. N.P. “How do composting toilets work?” Let’s Go Green. Let’sGoGreen.com, N.D. Web. 5 Dec 2015. Reynolds, Michael. Earthship: How to build your own. Taos, New Mexico: Solar Survival Press, 1990. Print. Reynolds, Michael. Earthship: Systems and Components. Taos, New Mexico: Solar Survival Press, 1990. Print. Steeby, Donald L. Alternative Energy Sources and Systems. Clifton Park, New York: Delmar, Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.