Off-Grid Housing: Earthships

So what is an Earthship? Earthships are houses designed with sustainable principles and are made from recycled and upcycled materials. They utilize passive solar heating, rainwater harvesting and water recapture, and self-contained sewage treatment. Not only do these houses take advantage of sustainable design, but they also look unique and futuristic.

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Earthship Design

Earthships are based off of six basic design principles:

  • Thermal and solar heating and cooling—With the aid of thick, earth-filled walls and careful design elements, the earthship is naturally heated by the sun and cooled by the earth.
  • Solar and wind electricity—Photovoltaic solar panels convert the sun’s energy into electricity, which is stored in batteries before it’s distributed to your home.
  • Contained sewage treatment—Water is treated and re-used for toilet water, which then goes to a revised septic system that is solar heated to help bacteria break down waste faster.
  • Building with natural and recycled materials—Many of the earthships have walls constructed of recycled auto tires packed with earth. You may also see walls made with aluminum cans or glass bottles.
  • Water Harvesting—Rainwater is collected from the rooftop and is filtered and cleaned in a cistern. Water is first used for basic purposes like bathing and washing dishes. Then, it is cleaned and reused for indoor plants. From there, the water is re-used for toilet water, reducing overall water consumption.
  • Food Production—Earthships are designed to support indoor food production. Annual vegetables and even fruit trees can survive and thrive inside the Earthship.

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Learning Opportunities

Earthship Biotecture is an architectural group based out of New Mexico that offers classes and hands-on workshops to help you learn design concepts, construction methods, and sustainable philosophy. At the Earthship Biotecture Academy, you participate in an intensive four-week course, six days a week at their site in Taos. The course costs $2,500 and consists of classes, labs, and hands-on construction.

Classes cover topics ranging from Earthship philosophy to the basics of electricity, and labs cover some of the more technical aspects to construction, such as plumbing and electricity.

Further opportunities include 2–8 week field studies wherein you help construct an Earthship. There may be fees, depending on the client. To “graduate” from the Academy, you would complete one training course, one field study, and an independent study.

Earthship Building Costs

Building costs will vary depending on the project, but you can purchase design plans and do the construction yourself. Construction plans can cost as little as $3,000, which include plans to guide you through the electrical and plumbing processes.

If you’re not into the DIY approach, there’s the option to commission an Earthship. A fully custom design is the most expensive, with initial designs costing $10,000, construction drawings costing $10,000-15,000, and actual construction at $250 per square foot. Another option is the Global Model Earthship, which starts at $5,000-10,000 for construction drawings and $225 per square foot. Additional expenses come in the form of travel and accommodations for the construction crew. The least expensive option is the Simple Survival Model, which supports bare essentials living. Construction drawings cost $2,000-5,000 and cost of construction is between $50,000 and $100,000. Expect DIY construction to reduce costs by up to half.

With the right knowledge and tools, you can build a home that has modern amenities but is designed to be off-grid. Using readily available construction materials such as tires, it’s possible to build a durable, self-sustaining home that looks beautiful and helps you live the dream of independent living.


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