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How To Build An Earthship

Updated on February 28, 2008

What do you get when you put together pop cans, glass bottles, old tires, chicken wire and concrete? Would you believe, it's a house? This would be a special earth friendly house design called an Earth Ship.

Michael Reynolds is the architect who developed the original design which has now been constructed all over the world. It is the ultimate for those interested in sustainable living. The concept is to take waste materials like pop cans, glass bottles and old vehicle tires and recycle them into a valuable commodity, something everybody needs, a house. The resulting house costs nothing to heat or cool, can be built by the owner, has no utility bills, can grow vegetables year round, and is a very earth friendly structure because it becomes part of the land rather than just being perched on top of the land.

Michael Reynolds introduces the Earthship

An Earth Ship can be as simple as a one room with a loft or as complex as a multi-family apartment complex. One of the most famous Earth Ship homes was built by the actor Dennis Weaver and cost millions of dollars to complete. A small one can be constructed for a few thousand dollars, basically just the cost of the cement mix and if you are in a climate that is compatible with adobe type construction, and will do the labor for yourself, even less.

So, how is an Earth Ship constructed?

The design concept utilizes modules that can be mixed and matched to form a unique finished product. For those wishing to build on a shoestring, the modules can be added as you go, allowing for the expansion of your living space as money allows.

The simplest way to describe how and earth ship is built is to walk you through the construction of the basic module called "The Hut". The structure forms a circular "tower" so to start off you would lay out a circle of whatever size you wanted for the interior of the building. A break would be left in the circle on the southern exposure for the greenhouse front.

10 Steps to building a simple earthship.

 
  1. On the bare earth, mark the outer walls in a circular or U shaped layout.
  2. Lay the first row of tires, shoulder to shoulder along the wall line.
  3. Using the dirt from the inside of the wall line, firmly pack the tires until they are solid bricks. The earth cliff on the inside would be excavated down to roughly three feet in depth.
  4. Stack the second row of tires, in a staggered layout, on top of the first, paying attention to keeping them level with each other. Continue this pattern until the walls have reached the desired height.
  5. Fill any voids with empty pop cans and/or glass bottles and cover the tire walls, inside and out, with mud adobe, cement or stucco to create a smooth finished surface.
  6. The roof can be domed shaped, formed from rebar that is wired or welded together then covered with chicken wire and cement. Other options would be log beams or even traditional trusses. A skylight/vent is included in the design to the rear of the structure to help regulate internal temperatures.
  7. The front of the structure is a sloped greenhouse wall built upon a low wall of earth rammed tires and includes a large planter box on the inside. The glazing is recycled sliding glass door panels or similar materials. The entry door is constructed at either end of the greenhouse hallway.
  8. Any interior walls are constructed of a cement and pop can matrix that is covered by an adobe finish. All the planter boxes are built the same way.
  9. The house systems include a rainwater catchment cistern, a battery bank, solar panels, power inverter and a composting toilet. The kitchen waste water is filtered via the greenhouse planters which grow fresh vegetables year round.

Finishing touches include tile or flagstone floors, glass bottle accent windows and wood inlays. Two story designs can include spiral staircases and just about any kind of custom design feature you can imagine.

The exposed surfaces on the outside of the structure are coated with a layer of cement, mud adobe or stucco as the climate demands. Most of the external tire walls are earth bermed and the roofing material is chosen to facilitate capture of rain water for use inside the house. Of course attention must be paid to things like drainage and choosing the best southern exposure for the greenhouse front of the dwelling, but otherwise it is a pretty simple design.

Would you like more detailed instructions?

Several books have been produced to walk the do-it-yourself homeowner through the process and offer pictures of finished homes as well. Below is a selection of books on the subject that can take you step-by-step through the process of choosing the site all the way to customization of the finishing touches.

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    • cyberburnz profile image

      cyberburnz 9 years ago from Sedro-Woolley

      you might want to cut down on the rss feeds that are displayed

    • profile image

      Cubicle Dropout 9 years ago

      A friend of mine has a hybrid earthship house he built. Very cozy.

    • Digital Bard profile image
      Author

      Digital Bard 9 years ago from The Beautiful Pacific Northwest

      This is my dream home design. We live in the Pacific Northwest where it rains a great deal and our building department isn't too keen on the idea of giving us a building permit. Anyone else had success with a reluctant building dept?

    • PCaholicDotCom profile image

      PCaholicDotCom 9 years ago from USA

      Excellent Hub :-) very interesting topic!

      Peter :-)

    • ArtCantHurtU profile image

      ArtCantHurtU 8 years ago

      I love earthships

      It is amazing to me that I can rent the crappiest apt in any city - pay a fortune to live ther, be cold in the inter and hot in the summer, yet for some reason I am not legally allowed to build my own earthship to live in, goodness knows we have plenty of garbage to build it with!

      Great hub!

    • profile image

      Allison 8 years ago

      cool

    • jonwenberg profile image

      jonwenberg 7 years ago

      I want to make one too!

    • profile image

      wendy bright 7 years ago

      not leagally allowed to build your own earth ship???i can only think that is prob because theres no money for the government in it...so how did all the other people manage to build theirs?

    • profile image

      qingeer 7 years ago

      I reall want to build one before 2012 in China Inner Mongila. But if I build one in low rain aera how can I collect water with my earthship??

    • profile image

      jeff viands 7 years ago

      with tough times we the people need to come together we the people make up the US of A. the government does not make up the country the people do.i sit in my home feeling the cold coming from the walls. my heater struggling to heat my home during the summer time i feel the heat coming from the walls my ac struggling to cool my home.it only makes sence to build a home that is not cold during the winter not hot in the summer.no electric bill no water bill grow food less money spent on vegs at the store.sorry electric company sorry water company my money does no good in your pocket.sorry wallmart if i spend less money at your store.we need to move the government to pass a law that these homes can be built i live in North Carolina i am about to buy land was going to buy a house but saw this move garbage warrior so i only have 1 optin now because of this movie buy land build my own home .why because i hv a truck and a sledgehammer and the will to do it.i do not want my wife saying in the winter i am cold.if you live in NC call me we need to move our local government.3365776595

    • profile image

      carol 7 years ago

      earthships can be made in low precipitation climates because you can incorporate a drilled or dug well into your design; thus enabling you to access water with or without the help of rain, and your greenhouse will still be able to thrive and sustain you with this water. only thing is; drilled wells are pricey.

      the key to building without government: buy land in an unorganized township and you can do anything you want. your limit is your own imagination.

      dont rely on michael reynolds for any solid information though, unless you want to dig deep into your pocket books. thankfully there are a lot of other builders and institutes in this world willing and happy to share the trials and tribulations of their own underground creations. you just need to fish them out!

    • profile image

      Nolan Scheid 7 years ago

      Hello Digital Bard.

      Please take a look at the thin shell and papercrete sections of our site. You will find Robert Merrill that has combined tires and papercrete into building hybridized homes that are very nice. Good luck with your dream home.

      Feel free to e/m me if I can help you get started.

      Nolan

    • profile image

      Mat 7 years ago

      hi,

      I just had a small comment that I think is funny but relevant: I have lived most of my life in Africa and South East Asia. Making my Earthship is a great dream of mine, but I have to underline that in poor countries, these countries where earthships are most needed, recyclable garbage is more than recycled, it's sold by unit or by kilo, so using them has a cost; and the price of 2 empty cans or 2 empty bottles of beer is the same price than the price of 3 small red clay bricks. Scrap metal are sold by kilo and tires are already recycled for gardening or making garbage cans, soles of shoes...

      Earthships are really great but ironically they are a luxury of already developed countries... I just thought I'd clarify this a little.

    • profile image

      gary 7 years ago

      love the idea -- but my god its a lot of work there must be an easier way????

    • profile image

      Brandon 6 years ago

      These are awesome for America and other Highly developed countries, with the work you can do yourself, and at this point there are govt programs to assist via tax breaks.

      Mat, as for your problem, I definitely understand that lower developed countries are already double and triple using waste materials in order to sustain their struggling economies. However, using adobe bricks, mud bricks, or even straw bales would be an alternative option.

      Gary, Yes it is a lot of work, however if you have friends like i do, get them together with a few cases of beer, and their sledge hammers and as they get the tires rammed with earth they will be emptying cans that you can use later on to fill the gaps between the tires as well as for your walls. At least that is my plan, also if you live in or near older farming communities there are always barns in disrepair or that have fallen in, you can utilize most of the materials from those barns, and the property owners would be more than happy to have you remove large chunks of what they would eventually have to take care of themselves. the outside boards could be planed down for flooring, any of the beams that might be in good shape can be used for roof supports and columns through out the entire building.

    • profile image

      Robyn 6 years ago

      I live in South Africa, and wish that our government would consider building these ships here. Litter is a big issue and housing an even bigger issue. Such a large part of our citizens are living in shacks that burn down, flood and blow away. What an awesome awesome concept.

      In great hope that it will set fire in the minds of all the world. Truelly genious

    • profile image

      Willow 6 years ago

      We are in the process of building an earthship in Alaska, we haven't hit up Earthship Biotecture for any info but we did buy all the books written by Michael Reynolds. Luckily, they have been around for some years and the chances of finding them second hand are good. Pounding tires isn't as hard as it seems, once you get your technique down they really fly. People will want to come pound tires because the way of life that is possible once revealed is life changing.

    • profile image

      Mona 6 years ago

      I think that earthships are beautiful...

      I'll just have to wait awhile to build one.. to bad

      I will though it's my job

    • profile image

      Ludwig Everson 6 years ago

      Thanks for this site. Please check our website on our Earthship project in South Africa.

      http://www.aardskip.com

      Regards

      Ludwig Everson

    • profile image

      jack knowles 6 years ago

      Why not build one if enough people got together I'm sure they could build an earth ship village? which would help with planning consent issues, also have any of you seen grand designs the earthship one in france t'was amazing, but I'm sure if enough people said it it would be allowed to build?

    • profile image

      Eco-housing Curacao 6 years ago

      Hi,

      We are investigating the possibilities of building an eco-village on Curacao. This eco-village will be a community where people live in earthships and share some facilities. Just like Jack Knowles mentions(above): we are talking about an Earthship Village! The project has just started up, so we are still looking for more enthusiastic people who want to live in such a community and who want to help building the earthships. So if you are interested in participating in this project, or if you want to help us, please contact us at ecohousingcuracao@gmail.com

      We hope to hear from you soon!

      Eco-Housing Curacao

    • profile image

      nick 6 years ago

      @ mat you should look up earthbag homes all you need is dirt, sandbags & barb wire

    • profile image

      Bob 6 years ago

      You people are weird love me

    • profile image

      Bryan Barfoot 6 years ago

      It would be nice to have a database with all of this info put in it to include those who have built their own and how they did it. All too often you have to pay through the nose just to get a little info on something new. We could start an earthship club nation wide. Anyway I have some land in Texas and I don't need a big house might just collect some stuff and try it out.

    • profile image

      Jager 6 years ago

      are resistant to water (floods ,heavy rain ect.)

    • profile image

      cpascal 5 years ago

      I recently stumbled upon info on earthships when I was looking for info on passive solar homes, and I'm seriously considering building one. Given the fact that they're much cheaper to build and maintain than standard homes, I'm surprised that earthships aren't being built by more people.

    • profile image

      Gary 5 years ago

      Are there people who will build earth ships homes for you if your disabled? Just asking.

    • profile image

      Cathy 5 years ago

      Are there Earthship builders? Would love to have one on my land in Texas!

    • profile image

      Theresa 5 years ago

      I stumbled on info on earthships by accident 2 years ago and fell in love with the idea. I am now a drafting and design student and would LOVE to bring earthships to the ozarks! I'm looking for all the info I can get ahold of for building them and dealing with getting permits.

    • profile image

      rastapasta 5 years ago

      looking for people and land to build our vission into reality. its been done by others so why cant we?

      i generate enough income for now to be able to build atleast one a year and go in on propery payments/owner-ship with others in oregon.

      justin.berlin@yahoo.com

    • Bldg an Architect profile image

      Bldg an Architect 5 years ago

      You should check out http://calearth.org/ and their super-adobe structures. Similar idea, but a different construction method.

    • profile image

      Ash 4 years ago

      wow, whenever i see this idea i just get all excited all over again!! cant wait till i can make one of my own! Do you need to buy the plans off the earthship website or is there another/cheeper way of doing it? I live in New Zealand so getting building consent really is a biggie (as in we have to get building consent on the plans or else we cant build). But having one of these would be a huge dream of mine come true!

    • profile image

      Farmgirl50 4 years ago

      We are doing it.

    • No Dough profile image

      No Dough 4 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

      Been reading comments regarding earthships. All I had to do is talk to a friend who lived in one several years ago during a very cold winter. I asked how much wood he used in Feb. and he said he had not even had to make a fire yet. I had already been through 3 cords. I am double walling my adobe and NO MORE building above ground. I will be doing my own preference of a earthship type semi subteranean soon but I do not want to use tires would rather use rock and mortar and the rock is on property. Both are far better than some rikety stick built house. The old non sustainable and padding the pockets of the energy extraction Industries along with the loan sharks has to end!

    • Pamela-anne profile image

      Pamela-anne 4 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      This would be a great idea to take to countries such as India and Africa where there is so many in desperate need of housing. These are the types of houses that we all should be looking into to help keep the planet green thanks for sharing this wonderful hub!

    • profile image

      Chris B 3 years ago

      i'm starting my build this year 2014. if anyone is interested in helping or learning please email laramie.earthship@yahoo.com

    • profile image

      mikeydcarroll67 21 months ago

      It seems that these are very popular for many individuals! Heck I am interested in owning one myself!

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