Earthship homes one of the most sustainable approaches to the design, construction and operation of homes developed so far.
They are constructed using recycled and natural materials where possible and work in harmony with the Earth’s natural systems to provide heating, cooling, energy generation, water collection, waste water treatment and even food production.
(Image source: http://earthship.com)
They are designed to be autonomous structures, functioning ‘off-grid’ without the need for mains connections to utilities, although this isn’t always achievable.
This construction method is a fascinating one and something we want to try ourselves. If you are interested for your self build, be aware that it is new in the UK and will require additional effort, particularly in terms of planning and building regulations approval. Further research will also be needed to ensure that the systems will function effectively in our climate.
Earthship Homes in the UK
There have been two Earthship projects completed in the UK. A visitor centre in Fife, Scotland by the Sustainable Communities Initiatives (SCI) and a community centre in Brighton, England completed by the Low Carbon Trust.
Although these projects weren’t residential dwellings, the Fife Earthship received full planning permission and a building warrant (The Scottish equivalent to Building Regulations Approval) for residential standards.
In April 2007 planning permission for a residential development of 16 Earthship homes in Brighton was granted. The project has stalled due to problems with the land purchase but the permission is a promising precedent for Earthship homes in England.
The Application of Earthship Principles
Earthship homes apply the following 6 principles:
- Constructed Using Recycled and Natural Materials – The main structural walls are built with used car tyres, filled with compacted earth. Waste bottles and cans are also incorporated into wall construction.
- Thermal Mass and Passive Solar for Heating and Cooling – The North elevation of the Earthship is built into the ground with earth banked up the structure to keep the living space below the frost line and to utilise the higher ambient temperature of the sub-grade. The earth also acts as a thermal battery in conjunction with the earth filled tyres, storing and releasing heat or keeping the living spaces cool in hot weather.
- Electricity Generation from Wind and Solar – Wind turbines and photovoltaic panels are used to generate electricity, which can be stored in batteries if the property is off-grid. If it is grid connected, you could sell excess electricity back to energy companies through the Government’s Feed-in Tariff scheme.
- Water Harvesting and Re-use – Water is collected from rain, snow and condensation. It is filtered and stored in a large underground tank or ‘water organisation module’. The intention is to use this as drinking water but the Environment Agency does not permit this in the UK. The water can be heated by solar hot water and natural gas and is used for washing in sinks, baths and showers. The resulting waste ‘grey water’ is filtered and passed through indoor planter beds where it is cleansed. Water collected from these planter beds is redirected and reused for toilet flushing.
- Contain and Treat Sewage On-site – Wastewater from toilets is once again collected and directed to a solar-enhanced septic tank then on to exterior leach fields and planter cells.
- Food Production – The Indoor and outdoor water-treatment planter beds are used to grow fruit and vegetables.
The Man Behind the Concept
The Earthship concept has been in development since the 1970’s and the man behind the mission is the pioneering American “Biotect” Michael Reynolds. He has tirelessly pursued his vision to produce the ultimate sustainable home, which works in harmony with the Earth’s natural processes and is constructed using recycled and natural materials.
In the process, he has built Earthship communities in Taos, New Mexico, inspired Earthship projects around the world, deployed to disaster zones to help build shelters for those affected and has founded ‘Earthship Biotecture’ which designs and builds Earthships worldwide. There are now several thousand across the globe.
“Imagine a home that heats itself, that provides its own water, and grows its own food. Imagine that it needs no expensive technology, it recycles its own waste, and it has its own power source. And now imagine that it can be built anywhere, by anyone, out of the things that society throws away.”
- Highly sustainable.
- Flexibile and interesting design possibilities.
- Minimal to zero Carbon footprint. The use of recycled materials means that the Earthship has a negative Carbon footprint before construction begins.
- Construction uses waste materials that would otherwise go to landfill or be burned.
- Cost savings. It Is possible to get construction materials such as used car tyres at low cost or even for free. More cost savings can be realised with high levels of DIY input.
- Low skill construction methods allow anyone to get hands on.
- Use of passive solar and thermal mass for heating and cooling.
- The use of wind and photovoltaic panels for the microgeneration of electricity.
- Partial water heating with solar hot water.
- Rainwater harvesting reduces the environmental impact of centralized water processing and distribution.
- Efficient re-use of grey water and sewage treatment on site.
- Low or eliminated utility bills.
- We aren’t aware of any residential Earthship homes in the UK and this will undoubtedly make the planning and building regulation approval process a challenge. Not to mention finance, insurance and structural warranties.
- The system was developed in New Mexico and although it has been adapted for other climates around the World including Europe, further design analysis may be required to ensure the principles will be effective in our climate.
- Off grid homes which rely on wind and solar power can face periods where there is neither, resulting in power shortages.
- Rammed earth tyre construction is labour intensive.
If you are interested in self building an Earthship, we would love to follow your progress so please get in touch.
For more information, there is no better place to start than the source:
Michael Reynolds’ ‘Earthship Biotecture’.
The company was involved in all the UK projects mentioned above and will be able to advise you on the best way to proceed.
There are lots of books available on Earthship Construction.
The Earthship concept was featured on Grand Designs in The Groundhouse episode of Series 7. The episode saw Daren Howarth applying the principles of Earthship construction for his self build home in Brittany as well as recruiting volunteers (including Kevin McCloud!) for some labour intensive earth ramming. It will give you a good idea of the task ahead.
To compare Earthship homes with other methods of house construction for your self build, have a look through our house construction method section.
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