Earthships & Sustainable Housing

Earthships & Sustainable Housing

Disclaimer: Late Summer Mama is not affiliated with Earthships in any way. There are no affiliate links on this post. Everything published here is my opinion and a true belief in the principles behind the designs of Earthships.

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

from the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Down the Hobbit Hole

One of the sentiments I see time and again about going zero waste is this feeling that you have to make a ton of sacrifices to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Frankly, it’s just not true.

Not yet.

Yes, it would help to reduce your overall consumption of animal products but you don’t have to be vegan. And yes, the concepts of minimalism and zero waste living do compliment each other, but you don’t have to be an extreme minimalist to live sustainably. Yes, it is preferable to buy glass over plastic containers but it’s almost impossible to avoid plastic entirely. Yes, it would be better to eat at home every meal but time restrictions and busy schedules don’t always make that possible.

So what is a girl (or boy) to do?

That is a question I’ve been trying to find an answer to for most of my life. And I believe that I found an answer to it about five years ago. And with today being Earth Day, I thought this would be the perfect time to talk with you about it.

Have you heard of Earthships? No?

Then let’s get started!

There and Back Again: A Girl’s Tale

This is the amount of waste from making a few purchases over the weekend and cooking dinner last night.

So far in the last five months “going zero waste” (although I’ve been living a sustainable lifestyle for much longer than that), I’m finding the biggest challenge comes from accessibility.

Not all of us have access to awesome bulk sections, bakeries, delicatessens, farmer’s markets, and even thrift stores. So trying to live up to the fit-all-of-your-waste-in-a-mason-jar ideal that many zero wasters advocate, is just setting most people up for failure.

While I have significantly reduced the amount of waste my family creates and continue working towards reducing more, I cannot claim it fits in a mason jar for more than a day or two at most. Of course, the best way around most waste is to make these essentials yourself. However, there is only so much time in a day and you can’t do everything yourself. I know I can’t.

Also, sometimes money is tight and not all things zero waste actually save you money. Many zero waste lifestyle changes do actually save you money such as buying a durable blade for shaving or reusable cloth diapers. But I have found, on multiple occasions, the over-packaged foods are much cheaper than those same items at the butcher’s shop or bulk bins. Bringing your own containers can be more costly than using those plastic bags since most big chains do not weigh the containers beforehand and plastic weighs significantly less than glass.

So don’t feel bad if you can’t do the ideal. You do the best you can until the infrastructure catches up.

Besides, I think that is only the tip of the melting iceberg anyway.

The Housing Conundrum

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.”

– Winston Churchill
Photo by Breno Assis on Unsplash

While reducing your waste is a great goal, I personally think that it isn’t the endgame. It’s like missing the forest for the trees. If you really look at how modern houses and multi-family residences are structured, they are built to be wasteful from the beginning. Look at the architecture and engineering with the high-vaulted ceilings, the wasted space, the bermudagrass lawns, the chemically treated lumber, the plastic light fixtures, and the asphalt roof shingles. At least in the USA, most houses are not made to last or use resources efficiently.

As the saying goes, you cannot build a strong house on a weak foundation. If the house is built to be wasteful, then how can anyone expect the lifestyle of the family that lives within to not follow suit? The game is rigged from the start. And it is unnecessarily costing you money and burdening the environment.

The Problem With Tiny Homes

Photo by Nachelle Nocom on Unsplash

And then there are tiny homes.

My husband and I looked into this when we were trying to find a more affordable place to live here in Portland. Tiny homes are definitely a very affordable option for housing especially if you are single or a couple without children. They compact your living quarters and bedroom into as little space as possible. And for a minimalist, they are perfect.

But what about families?

These structures just don’t seem very ideal when you are trying to raise a family. The problem we saw with them in that regard was the lack of closed spaces. There is usually a room with a door but any further rooms typically are set up more like a loft studio with a ladder or steps leading up to a smaller area big enough for a small bed. With that area not being closed off from the rest of the living space, maybe you could do this with young children but not an infant.

The other real strike against a tiny home from us was the price tag for what you get. These homes are cheap compared to a conventional house but they are not cheap when you look at the cost per square foot. For example, a modest home that is around 225 sq.ft., is going to cost you about $80,000. That’s roughly $355 per square foot (more than what you get for a house in Portland). Downsizing can often mean premium features like a tankless water heater, hence, the steep price.

But there is also the problem with resellability. Unless you plan to stay put in that home for the long haul, there is a very low demand for these types of houses. And potentially this might only be a fad and that could drop the value even more.

Please keep in mind, I am not against the idea of tiny homes or anyone who wants to buy or live in one. I am only talking about the reasons we decided a tiny home wasn’t for us. And as I stated before, living a sustainable life doesn’t mean that you have to make a ton of sacrifices or live such an extremely minimalist lifestyle. There is another way to build a home that is not only as close to zero waste as you can get but might save you money at the onset and will save you money in the long run.

[ enter Earthships, a true sustainable housing solution, stage right ]

Going Down the Hobbit Hole: Sustainable Housing

Hobbit hole on the left and an Earthship on the right. Look pretty similar to you?
Hobbit hole photo by Sheldon Nunes on Unsplash
Earthship photo courtesy of Earthship Global

Earthships are a type of house built with recycled and natural materials designed to have minimal impact on the environment. These houses are designed to produce water, electricity, and food completely their own. Sounds very Sci-Fi, doesn’t it?

In fact, it is far from it. In essence, you are living in a hobbit hole. The house itself is built using old tires, other recycled materials, and dirt. Now, I know you must be thinking that doesn’t sound appealing (unless you are a weirdo like me) but just hear me out.  

The design principles of Earthships are amazingly efficient. And it all starts with dirt. Think about how cool a basement can be even in the hottest part of the summer. Plants and burrowing animals have relied on soil and it’s insulating capabilities for eons. Soil saved the mammals who inherited the earth after the K/T extinction. In short, soil is one of the best insulators on the planet. It is everywhere and it’s free.

But to utilize soil, it has to be given a solid structure and that’s where tires come into play. Tires are the perfect form of a rammed-earth brick according to Earthships Global. And there is no shortage of old tires as least for now. In 2003, according to the EPA, the US collected approximately 290 million scrap tires. These old tires (or “thermal mass “bricks”) are packed tightly with dirt and staggered to form the load-bearing walls for the roof and the tires themselves are wide enough to eliminate the need for a concrete foundation. These bricks form the mass for three sides of the structure with the south sidelined with windows. The sun enters through the glass to heat up the floors and walls and in the evening, when temperatures drop, the heat stored in the walls and floor release back into the space. In the summer, the building stays cool with the constant temperature of the earth.

Solar and wind electricity are used to make up the power supply for each home. With the low energy needs of these homes (Earthships only need about 25 percent of what a conventional home uses), it keeps solar panels and windmills affordable for residential use.

A water collecting and a filtration system are put into place that flows into a solar water heater and pressure tank to be used for bathing, washing dishes, and laundry. Sewage is then collected and filtered through plants to be used for toilet flushing (that’s 40% of a household’s water use alone in a conventional dwelling by the way) which then goes to a septic tank. Then the water from the septic tank overflows into a rubber-lined botanical cell filled with exterior landscaping plants. In essence, the water that the Earthship collects is used ultimately four times and makes it possible for a home to thrive without taking water from the ground or municipal sources.

This is part of the Phoenix Earthship contained sewage system. Photo courtesy of Earthships Global

Greenhouses are also utilized inside the newest Earthship designs so that a family’s nutritional needs can be supplemented through organic produce. Imagine picking fresh produce straight off the vine within your very own home!

Earthships are the future of sustainable housing for everyone. Additionally, it’s within reach and here’s why.

Earthships Cost Less

photo courtesy of Earthships Global

The principles behind the designs of Earthships are as close to zero waste as any house can get. Everything is used in such an efficient manner that very few resources go to waste…ever. Likewise, it is self-sustaining enough that very little outside support is needed. Because of that, these houses can significantly decrease your basic cost of living.

The average household in the US spends annually about $1,340 ($111.67 per month) for electricity according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA)  and $661 for gas according to the American Gas Association in 2017 (about $2001 total). The average US household spends about $840 in water (assuming 100 gallons per person in a family of 4) in 2018 and about $7,700 in food (for both at home and eating out) in 2017. According to Earthships Global, a household in an Earthship will spend annually $300 in electricity and gas, $0 in water, and $3,600 in food. Going by those numbers, the average household would go from spending $10,541 in a conventional home to $3,900 in an Earthship. That’s a difference of $6,641 a year.

And since the materials themselves are cheap (dirt is free, remember?), the cost of making an Earthship isn’t as high as you might think. When looking at prices currently on the market at New Mexico Mountain Properties; the cost of an Earthship already built in Taos, New Mexico; ranges between $200k and $500k. For reference, a fully built Global Model Earthship (which is 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, and 2,200 sq. ft.) and piece of land (1.8 acres) are for sale currently at $369k. These prices are only current as of April 2019 and I only mention them to give you an idea of how much they cost. I highly encourage you to research prices for yourself.

This is the Waybee Earthship, this specific Earthship will cost you about $515,000. That is still $100,000 less than the price for a house in Seattle.
Photo courtesy of Earthships Global

I know considering a $375k home inexpensive is relative to where exactly you live. In some regions of the US and the world, a house costing almost $400k might seem a little steep but; if you live in an area like Washington, Oregon, and California; that is cheap. In Portland alone, you won’t find a house of that caliber and quality for that price (the median home value is $425k). In Seattle, the median home value is $675k and it’s $687k in Los Angeles currently this year.

Don’t live or want to live in Taos? You don’t have to!

Earthships are not limited to just living in a climate similar to the Southwest. The Global Model Earthship design can be built in any climate. They have built this structure in France, Germany, Canada, Mexico, and several places throughout the United States. You can hire the Biotecture team to come out and build an Earthship anywhere you want. Or, for much less, Earthships Global sells the construction drawings (with detailed instructions on how to do the entire process) so that you can build one yourself.

Earthships Are the Answer to Sustainable Housing

The Phoenix Earthship.
Photo courtesy of Earthships Global

Going back to my original point about the mason jar…So yes, reducing the amount of waste your household creates is a very worthy goal and one you can work towards immediately. However, I think the reason why it is nearly impossible for most people to accomplish the mason jar ideal is it works against the system that has been set in place by modern conventions. Even your very house is working against that concept by the sheer inefficiency and excessive waste it produces.

If the game is rigged from the start, how can you hope to win it?

Because of that, I believe something like an Earthship should be any zero waster’s ultimate goal. Not only will the house itself produce less waste by design but all the fringe benefits of living in one will reduce your overall waste without you having to put much extra effort forth.

It’s all connected. (I really sound like a hippie here)

You wouldn’t have to worry about using plastic produce bags if you are growing your own produce at home. Or need to work two jobs to pay for your living expenses (since you’d be needing $6,641 less every year), which in turn, makes you eat less fast food (and use less single-use plastic) because you have the time and energy to cook at home. And these are just a few examples of how sustainable housing would make for a more sustainable life. And these are the reasons that my family and I are working towards getting an Earthship of our own.

Photo courtesy of Earthships Global

Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

– Lao Tzu

If you have any questions or comments about Earthships or any topics discussed in this post, please leave me a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you!

Thanks for visiting Late Summer Mama!

Here’s a few more pictures just for kicks!

photo courtesy of Earthships Global
Photo courtesy of Earthships Global

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