We have had a lot of questions asked since Kris and I first started talking about and working on our own project to build ourselves a Global Model Earthship as our primary residence. A lot of the same questions are asked on a regular basis and so we have created this page of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) to share with others. We don’t claim to be experts on Earthships but we know what we know about our own project and we’re willing to share and learn from others.
Earthships are sustainable housing solutions created from recycled materials and powered by renewable energy sources. The principle of the Earthship is such that it can be designed to suit any climate in the world, be economical and self-sustaining. Globally there are over 1000 Earthships in operation.
An Earthship is a type of passive solar house made primarily of natural and recycled materials. Designed and marketed by Earthship Biotecture of Taos, New Mexico, the homes are primarily constructed to work as autonomous buildings and are made of rammed earth tires, using thermal mass construction to naturally regulate indoor temperature. They also have their own special natural ventilation system. Earthships are generally Off-the-grid homes, minimizing their reliance on public utilities and fossil fuels. Earthships are built to utilize the available local resources, especially energy from the sun. For example, windows on sun-facing walls admit lighting and heating, and the buildings are often horseshoe-shaped to maximize natural light and solar-gain during winter months. The thick, dense inner walls provide thermal mass that naturally regulates the interior temperature during both cold and hot outside temperatures.
In 2007 during a particularly cold winter we were renting documentaries and incidentally we picked “Garbage Warrior” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrMJwIedrWU) and this was the beginning. Inspired by Michael Reynolds (the architect of Earthships) and the way he sees things – and couldn’t stop thinking about it, than talking about it, and finally acting on it. It’s one thing to believe in something and another to act on it – solution in action for us. “I feel like I’m in a herd of buffalo and they are all stampeding towards a 1000 foot dropoff and they’re just running over the edge and I’m in that herd. And I’m like I’m not going there – I’m not going down that way. I have to somehow affect the whole herd so they take a rightturn or left turn and not go off that edge. So if humanity takes the planet down the tubes I’m dead. So I’m trying to save my ass, and that’s a powerful force.” –Michael Reynolds, Garbage Warrior
This isn't just about building an eco-home - it's about a simpler way of living. Our home in the country is only one of the many projects we plan albeit it's one of the biggest ones for the moment.
We debated whether ‘land first’ or ‘plans first’ for almost two years. We finally went with the decision that we needed to get land. And in March 2012 we closed on our 66-acre plot of land in the RM of St Andrews. Once we knew we had land everything else started to go – financing, insurance, plans, sharing, selling our home – everything. And by June 2012 we had sold our house, got a building permit and started our build.
We chose to purchase plans for the Global Model from Earthship Biotecture (http://earthship.com/designs) for around $9000. Some people put their own plans together from books. Kris and I are not architects or design people or even have any real skills in this area. We were (and are) a little concerned about trying to put together our own plans. Why make the same mistakes that Earthship Biotecture has already made? We played it safe and bought out plans. We also feel we are supporting a good cause along with providing ourselves more peace of mind. Earthship Biotecture does so much good and charity work teaching people across the globe how to build sustainable homes for themselves out of what is around them and so much more. We did not need an architect.
For a 5 minute overview of the global model designs check out this YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2so9hyNWxc
Before we purchased land Kris met with a variety of Rural Municipalities and/or Building and Planning offices – he went with whatever plans he could and described our project exactly like it was (tires and all). We did this to find out who would support the project. Amazingly 4/4 that he spoke with all said we could build an Earthship in their area – all we needed to do was get engineer stamps. Before applying wehad to get our engineer stamps (structural and geotechnical). When we applied for our building permit it took 4 weeks to get it – the same amount of time it took anyone else applying for one. Michael Reynolds talks about “pockets of freedom” being locations where you don’t need a building permit. We think Manitoba may be a “pocket of freedom” where they will give you building permits for a green home.
We started out trying to work with a structural engineer. The retaining wall (tire wall) was so unusual from the normal that we needed more help. Kris works for a big engineering firm in the environmental division and one of his coworkers, a geotechnical engineer, got interested in the project. He ended up doing all the soil calculations and stamped our retaining wall. For anyone else in MB looking for a geotechnical to do the work contact Tim Krahn, Kris Dick’s sustainable home business partner (link to business: http://www.buildalt.com/about-us) – he would have done this for us. After that it was simple to get the structural engineer (Bill Hanuschuk http://www.hanuschak.com/) to stamp the roof (turns out that was pretty standard). And so we could apply for our building permit.
To get financing we had to have home insurance. Kris sent out requests with the details of our project to around 25 insurance companies – only one came back to us with a positive answer. Cooperators agent went to bat for us and we got home insurance (http://www.cooperators.ca/en/Insurance.aspx).
We didn’t want to wait to get going so we decided right from the start that we would seek a mortgage. This was a conventional solution for a non-conventional home and we needed to convince someone to finance our dreams. We started with getting a meeting with a credit union (Sunova Credit Union https://www.sunovacu.ca/index.cfm). We were upfront about our off-the-grid build before even getting the meeting – why waste anyone’s time? This paid off big – it took a number of meetings and us writing upa project plan (including planned costs broken out by construction phases), getting a letter from the building & planning division, letter about getting insurance, and approval that CMHC would finance us. And the credit union backed us. First, Sunova gave financing for the purchase of the land this was followed by approval for an owner builder construction mortgage. We had to do 20% down – but we had the money from the sale of our home in the city.
In Manitoba we have a tire-recycling program through Tire Stewardship Manitoba (http://www.tirestewardshipmb.ca/). People pay a levy when they buy tires and that goes towards the program for pick up at the shops that sell tires. We were able to get tires from most Fountain Tire locations (our pick) but in the end it was easiest to do runs to the local landfill (especially when we got picky and were looking for particular sizes).
For our global model build (approx. 1700 square feet) it took around 900 tires of various sizes (larger tires on the bottom courses getting continuously smaller as you reach the upper courses). We will use a few hundred more when we create our courtyard wall around the frontage of the Earthship.
Tires are packed with earth from your build site. The earth should be the same as what your geotechnical engineer (or other engineer) has approved as part of stamping your plans. You can also toss in some garbage (e.g., plastics) if its not biodegradable - this is a way to get rid of some build site garbage. Do not use organic material of any sort including top soil. This will degrade causing weakness in your structure.
For more information about tire pounding check out the blog on Tire Building Code by Earthship Biotecture: http://earthship.com/Earthship-Designs/tire-building-code.html
We pounded all the tires by hand using a bevy of volunteers over a 2 1/2 month period working almost every single day. We have seen people post designs for automating some of the process. We have only heard about one build having any success with a tire press and that is the Darfield Earthship in BC. They had all the pieces and created a tire press. The tires were still filled by hand but the compaction part was accomplished using a the tire press versus a sledge hammer. They said this was not a time saver so much as an effort saver (pounding tires is hard tiring work - it can easily take 30 - 60 minutes for an experienced pounder to finish a tire depending on the size). You can read about what they did at their blog: http://liveweb.archive.org/http://www.darfieldearthship.com/2010/01/reflections-on-our-tire-press.html
There are a number of uses for cans and likely many more you could think of. Some primary uses include: (1) used as bricks (laid on their side) to create walls, (2) used as bricks to create concrete forms such as the bond beam, (3) used as filler to save on concrete when doing things like packing out the space between tires in the retaining wall.
In Manitoba there is only a deposit for beer cans. So getting cans was not very hard. We started with people collecting them for us but then paired up with the 2012 Winnipeg Folk Festival the Campground Enviro Crew who separated out all the cans they couldn’t get cash for and gave them to us. That made up around 12,000-15,000 cans. We will use all of those and probably some more. We plan on asking for help again from Folk Fest in 2013.
Earthships are built in a way to self-regulate the temperature to that of the earth. From Mike Reynolds book "Comfort in Any Climate "Temperature can transform thermal mass from warm to cool or cool to warm while it has little effect on insulation The perfect wall for a shelter that embodies energy would incorporate both mass and insulation. Thermal masss would be on the inside to initially "capture" the desired temperature from any source [in Earthships passive solar transfer is the biggest source]. Insulation would occur on the outside to keep the desired interior temperature from escaping and to separate it from outside temperature. Temperature stored in the interior dense mass stabilizes the temperature of the living space creating comfort in that space." We will rely mainly on the Earthship design principles to maintain a comfortable temperature. However, we will have back-up heat source from Far Infrared Panels - these plug in and heat objects allowing the mass to store heat versus heating air which can escape quicker & easier. See some examples of these at http://www.sunnyheat.com/.
Check out the basics of passive solar heating at: http://www.alternative-heating.com/passive-solar-heating.html
And read up on the Thermal Mass principles at the Earthship Biotecture site (both photos are from the same article):
A bottle brick is a brick made out of two bottle ends taped together. These are used to create pseudo stained glass designs within walls of Earthships as a design feature to enable more light to transfer between rooms or from the outside to the inside.
We will easily use a few thousand of these bottle bricks in our own build.
The Andy Hickman of the Northeast Georgia Earthship has done some beautiful bottle work in his home. Here's a photo from his build an a link to his Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/pages/Northeast-Georgia-Earthship/172680859460013?fref=ts:
Since we have a lot of time on our hands between building Kris started making these in 2011 and continues to make them in the evenings. The cleanest method for this longer term creation of bricks is to etch bottles and achieve breaks through alternating hot and cold water. Kris is up to 99% success rate meaning the bottle breaks as expected and therefore is usable. Here's Kris's method for bottle brick making:
Kris Plantz Bottle Brick Making Instructions:
1. Get the labels off - Soak the bottles in water with a bit of dish soap. Some labels come right off and others require some scraping with a putty knife (depends on the type of glue used on the label). While soaking to get labels off if there is crap (e.g., dead moths, mould, sticky stuff, etc) in the bottom of the bottle you may also want to soak the inside to start cleaning that up.
2. Etch the bottle at 4" from the bottom - When etching put the bottle in a plastic tub big enough to work in - this keeps the glass dust contained. Our bottle etcher was ordered from Prairie Stained Glass in Winnipeg for around $100. You can buy the replacement blades for around $25. Once you have your etching style down pat you'll find your success rate will go up. Kris tips:
3. Alternate dipping in hot & cold water until bottle breaks at the etch mark - Kris's tip is to make sure the hot water is not boiling. He normally boils the water and than takes it off the stove and uses it shortly after. The cold water should have ice cubes in it. Dip in cold for a few seconds and than hot and keep alternating a few times until it breaks. Sometimes there are some uneven glass pieces sticking to the rim - you can remove these with some pliers after the bottle cools. More Kris tips:
4. Clean the 4" bottle pieces - Clean these out good and then dry them to 100%. If you leave any dirt or moisture you'll get to see this on the insides of your bricks after you install them. Not pretty.
5. Tape two same sized ends together using packaging tape - Use at least two layers of packing tape at the seam between the bottles. Best practice is to tape a clear end with a coloured end (or two clear ends). This will allow the most light transfer to occur.
You may want to wear gloves - especially when cleaning the bottles. Kris has cut his hands many times but not often anymore. If you're not so comfortable with sliced up hands then take precautions. There are other ways to cut bottles - if you need to do a bunch in a short period of time we suggest using the messier but faster tile saw approach (use a GOOD tile saw).
We are building a Global Model Earthship. Earthship Biotecture is always evolving the Earthship designs. Michaels Reynolds has said that no two builds are ever the same - they learn from every single one. Early on the designs involved creating "U's" of varying sizes from tires to form all the rooms. In striving to make building this style of home more accessible to the general populous the Global Model designs have made building easier (both the build part and getting permits).
I found this blog where they attempt to cover some of the differences http://bhudeva.org/blog/2011/12/01/what-is-different-about-global-model-earthships/ - but as a builder with the perspective of seeing a few different models we have a bit more to add. I'll summarize the differences as we see them:
We will be producing our own electricity from a solar system and so we will choose our appliances based on the most efficient way to use our power.
Fridge - We plan on using a DC fridge - could cost us up to $3K. To save some money Kris is investigating a DC/propane fridge like the ones they use in modern travel trailers.
Stove - Propane.
Washer & Dryer - Super high efficiency. We'll hang our clothes to dry whenever possible and do hand washing when we can.
It will cost us around $220,000 (excluding land costs) - this works out to around $150/square foot. To save on costs, for our global model build (approx. 1700 square feet) we are building as much as we can ourselves with the help of volunteers. We are using trades to help with plumbing, electrical and installation of the metal roof.
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