Earthship Biotecture: Building the Ultimate Sustainable Home

Self-sufficient houses, designed to offer maximum autonomy to their inhabitants, are appearing throughout the world. Earthship biotecture goes one step further. Its additional ecological advantage? A structure built from recycled materials.

Imagined by the American architect Michael Reynolds in the early 1970s, earthship homes are easily recognizable by their architecture: large south-facing glass windows, earth walls and a partly buried structure. Their main goal is to make the most out of the natural sources of energy surrounding a house. It also aims at putting an end to the endless cycle in which on the one hand, we exhaust the natural resources of our planet while on the other, we produce large quantities of waste.

Living an autonomous lifestyle
Semi-buried, earthships are designed to retain heat. Their large bay windows, inclined to receive as much sunlight as possible in winter, allow for natural sunlight to enter the rooms plentifully. The heat then spreads into the greenhouse and throughout the house, where thermal inertia keeps it stored. The sun and the wind, another powerful and plentiful source of clean energy, can also be used to produce electricity. Solar panels and wind turbines can easily capture the energy needed to supply electrical appliances around the earthship.

The roof an earthship home is inclined to harvest rainwater that will be reused up to four times. A filter system cleans it before it gets into the taps. The pipes then lead it into the greenhouse, to irrigate the plants and steers it to the toilets, from where the “black” water finally exits the home to feed certain garden plants.

As far as food is concerned, although full autonomy is difficult to achieve, some earthship dwellers also raise a few hens and combine greenhouses and vegetable gardens, allowing them to push the ultimate off-grid, self-sustainable lifestyle to the maximum. Anything that can’t be produced in the domestic environment (flour, oil, etc.) must still be obtained by conventional methods.

Turning waste into construction materials

The aim of self-builders of this type of habitat is to use a maximum of natural local materials to minimize resource use. The concept also integrates waste reduction through the recycling of “garbage” into building materials. Many of the materials used in the construction of an earthship come from used products that would otherwise fill up a landfill. The less energy required to turn a found object into a usable building material the better.

Tires filled with compacted earth serve as thick walls that create a lot of thermal mass in the building, keeping the temperature of the house relatively stable. Aluminum cans, stacked on top of each other and surrounded with adobe or cement, make for very good bricks to build interior, non-structural walls. Glass bottles encrusted inside walls bring color and light inside rooms, creating beautiful interiors. While all the objects may be obtained free of charge, they do take time to collect. Other than that, the only major cost is the purchase of large windows and technical systems such as solar panels, wind turbines, pumps, batteries and filters.

Democratizing eco construction

Given the complexity of these systems, specific floor plans are needed. The Reynolds Company, Earthship biotecture, sells them online. Without these plans, an Earthship can’t officially bear this name, since the company has registered the trademark, even though many other constructions are in fact inspired by the earthship model. By the end of 2015, the Reynolds Company launched a mobile application, available for just $10, which provides a guide to building an earthship. Similar initiatives have been launched by the Habite Ta Terre association in France or La Serre du Futur in Quebec.

No need to buy or rent a backhoe loader to build your own home. In principle, anyone should be able to build an earthship. No specific construction skill should be required and the nature of the materials for building an earthship should allow for assembling skills to be learned and mastered in just a few hours. Self-construction sometimes hinders people who are attracted to the concept: without any building knowledge, it can seem like a difficult task to achieve. Also, not everyone is ready to take several years off to build a house. Often, it is a participatory process that allows for the construction of such buildings. For instance, their construction can be completed in just a few weeks with volunteers or an entire community mobilized around the project.