Rammed Earth Tire Dwellings, aka Earthships

Question:

If you shut off all your mechanical means to heat your home in the winter time at say -25 below, would you find it mildly chilly or would it be completely uninhabitable?

Monica Holy and Nicole Chayka in front of Pat and Chuck Potter's Earth Home, aka Rammed Earth Tire Dwelling, Earthship, in Ontario, photo by Monica Holy

We’ve been in the Pat and Chuck Potter’s Earth bermed Home in Bancroft, Ontario in December under just such conditions so the correct answer would be: “Pass me my sweater it’s getting a bit cool in here.” but that’s about it. I have trepidations as I begin this article mainly because I am somewhat invested in this form of architecture. You see we intend to build one so it’s going to be difficult to write an unbiased post given that I think they’re bloody brilliant, however, I will try to keep my biases in check. Don’t expect any miracles though.

Experimental House Builder Michael Reynolds, Creator of Earthships aka Rammed Earth Tire Dwellings,Michael Reynolds Earthship, aka Rammed Earth Tire Dwelling

Michael Reynolds started building these things some 30 years ago, and has therefore trademarked the name Earthship under his company, ‘Solar Survival Architecture’. If you consider yourself a visual learner then go to YouTube and check out ‘Earthship on the Weather channel’ for a primer.

DVD 'The Garbage Warrior' by Michael Reynolds, covering his Journey building Earthships aka Rammed Earth Tire DwellingsIf you have more time on your hands rent the documentary, ‘Garbage Warrior’ which chronicles part of Michael’s journey navigating the obstacle course of legal dogma and antiquated building codes as he attempts to work within the system. It also shows in great detail what an Earthship is and how it works.

Second row of tires at the Eco Ark Saskatchewan Earthship workshop, aka Rammed Earth Tire Dwelling, image by Monica HolyOne 'U' of the Darfield Earthship construction, a Rammed Earth Tire Dwelling, image by Monica HolyChis Newton and Reiner Derdau overlooking the Darfield Earthship, a Rammed Earth Tire Dwelling, image by Monica Holy

Rammed Earth Tire Dwellings are generally created as a series of U-shaped walls, built out of earth packed tires placed one row upon each other, strong enough to be load bearing.

Diagram of a Regular Earthship Design bermed into the hillside, using Passive Solar and Geo Thermal Principles for heating and coolingThe structure needs no foundation to hold it up and is placed directly on the ground to take advantage of geo thermal principles. Later the walls are partially bermed on the outside acting like a beautiful wool blanket from the Hudsons’ Bay Company keeping your home warm in winter and cool in summer. The glass wall of the greenhouse stretches along the entire east/west side of the house which is oriented towards the southern sky. This allows sunlight to enter the structure all day where the planters can benefit, and the substantial thermal mass collects, stores and releases the heat of the day slowly at night when most needed. The interior walls are finished with natural adobe clays or plasters giving it an organic feel, and many room dividing walls use re-cycled glass bottles in the wall itself creating a dazzling ‘stained glass’ effect as the sun shines through the walls and into the spaces within.

Earthship aka Rammed Earth Tire Dwelling, outside Taos New Mexico, using the Architectural design for Passive Solar and Geo Thermal Principles for Natural Heating and CoolingEarthship aka Rammed Earth Tire Dwelling, in winter, using the Architectural design for Passive Solar and Geo Thermal Principles for Natural Heating and Cooling

While Michael pioneered the concept and continues to refine it in the only Earthship Community that I’m aware of (in Taos New Mexico), rammed earth tire dwellings have begun popping up everywhere on the planet modified to the uniqueness of the area’s geography. Only two main factors prevail overall from one place to another. The foundation is the earth itself so you must be careful to choose a site that doesn’t have a moisture issue. Also, the site must have direct-unfiltered sunlight. You must orient your home passively towards the southern exposure to capitalize on the benefits of the structure’s design. This factor was never more obvious to us then while driving through Vernon, B.C. as we had heard that an Earthship home had been started (but not finished) in the area. As we drove through we understood why. The builders had not observed their ‘site’ through all seasons, and while it must have looked drenched in sunlight during the summer months, here it was at the exact altitude to be floating in the cloud cover during the winter months. Doh! My heart went out to them. A classic newbie mistake. Sit on your land through all seasons and observe the arcing of the sun to see if there will be an ‘obstacle’ to receiving direct sunlight year round is grade A advice.

Front hallway garden in an Earthship, using the Architectural design for Passive Solar and Geo Thermal Principles for Natural Heating and CoolingInside main house of an Earthship, aka Rammed Earth Dwelling, separate from the hallway Greenhouse

For the rest of this article I am going to use a phrase coined by Canada’s first ever Earthship owner/builders Pat n’ Chuck Potter when I say that what heats and cools your home is ‘Mass n’ Glass’. Try laying that on your building inspector when he looks for the heating/cooling systems of the house. Once you dig down past the frost line, cover over the back and sides of the home with a nice earth berm wrap, orient your home to receive all the passive heat of the sun, and store that warmth in the mass of dirt filled tires which make up the retaining walls of your structure…your home maintains a year round temperature of approx. 58 degrees. Unlike most homes built above ground your home is regulated by earth stable temperatures not the wildly fluctuating air temperatures that vary from season to season above ground. You think that’s clever, you just wait.

Earthship aka Rammed Earth Tire Dwelling interior planters using Grey Water system for SustainabilitydadRecycling Grey Water not only makes sense it should be mandatory with the shortages we are starting to experience worldwide. You wash your dishes, your clothes and your body and then all that loveliness goes out to a septic field? What a waste! In this system grey and black water are treated separately using interior and exterior planters which act as the bio filters using the nutrients in the water. Of course you can’t put anything down the drain that would upset the plants which means a change in habits for which products you use. Ultimately ‘greening’ your home can only make for a better more breathable environment for your family.

Where does the water come from? Look up. If they can manage to collect enough water from rain, dew, and snow under desert conditions (Taos, New Mexico is in a desert) then there is enough to go around on this planet if we use it wisely. The roof of an Earthship catches and funnels the water to cisterns buried next to the house. The water is then pumped up and purified to be used and reused. Grey water not only feeds the indoor planters it also goes to the toilet. Why on earth use fresh water to flush? Then again why flush when you can compost but hey…that’s just me.

Since technologies are constantly changing so too are your options for how you power your home. There are wind turbines, an array of solar products and if you are blessed with a running creek or river on your property consider micro hydro. One room in the Earthship is used exclusively to house a panel, inverters and batteries to store your energy. Some folks still prefer to have a backup generator although as fossil fuels dwindle you may prefer to negate this option altogether. Finding ways to downsize your consumption can prove more valuable than trying to create more power. (Ex.) Use a clothes line instead of a dryer.

Earthships are completely self sufficient, and by that I mean they produce food, treat grey and black water on site, catch/store/filter rain water, create and store their own electricity on site, and heat and cool themselves for the most part passively due to their unique design. In short this home takes care of all your needs independent of the rest of the world except maybe companionship…you are still on your own for that. However, if you ask me, nothing is sexier than growing dwarf banana trees in your grey water planters indoors as it snows blustery cold outside.

Time to tally up the tab.

Thumbs up image for Middle Earth Home, photo by Monica Holy

Advantages of an Earthship dwelling:

• Tire homes reduce our footprint by minimizing our pollution and dependence upon resources

• Recycling tires takes them out of the garbage piles where they can catch fire

• Recycling tires as a building material gives them a second life

• Recycled tires reduces the need to use wood products to build with thus saving forests

• Earthships use indigenous and local materials near the site (dirt, mud plaster, recycled tires, cans and bottles) reducing our demand for foreign or far away resources with high embodied energy

• A truly self sustainable home that can be modeled the world over

• You create your own electricity thereby in time saving money on hydro bills

• By harvesting rainwater and judiciously recycling it we protect ground and surface water from pollution and depletion

• This structure is resistant to fire, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and vermin

• Blessedly quiet inside

• Dirt (to build with) can be found everywhere

• Reasonably easy to build as a DIY project given a workshop or two and some advice

• Non electrical homes can be built reasonably quickly in areas where disasters have occurred

• Can promote self sufficiently in developing countries

• In dry climates the humidity of the interior planters can be beneficial for breathing

• Earthships have a 30 year history have been accepted as a proven technology all over the world

• While the cost to build one is not less than conventional housing it isn’t more either, therefore its within reach to choose which one you prefer.

Thumbs down image for Middle Earth Home review, image by Monica Holy

Disadvantages of an Earthship Dwelling:

• Permit approval varies from place to place.

• Thermal mass requires sun to work. If you get cloudy, dark days you will need backup heating such as a wood burning stove to warm the house.

• A lack of experience can lead to costly errors for the DIY

• Pounding tires is labour intensive and if you are hiring the labour that can be quite expensive

• Overheating can occur unless proper care is taken to vent airflow, to use curtains when needed, or plant deciduous plants that shade in summer, but drop their leaves in winter when heating is desired.

• If kitchens are located towards the front of the home directly in the path of the sun then the area may overheat making refrigerators work that much harder.

• Since sunlight floods the home it can cause eye straining glare on computer screens.

• Tire dwellings have less liveable floor space than a regular rectangular home due to it’s U shape, and space used for the planters, therefore if you want 1000 square feet of useable floor space you will need to build a larger earthship.

• U shaped walls don’t include closet and storage space unless you incorporate that into the design.

• Humidity is a concern due to the planters, and if you dry clothes inside it can be intolerable. Unless you live in a desert where the moisture is helpful you will need to separate the planters from the living space with a barrior.

• The open concept of the home facilitates air flow but doesn’t stop sounds from travelling from one room to the next reducing privacy.

• It can be a challenge choosing species that will thrive in an indoor planter.

• White flies and aphids may go after your plants inside just like they would with your garden outside.

• Cats think your planters are their personal kitty litter box which you may or may not agree with

You can check out Monica’s detailed photos of the Michael Reynolds’ Lone Butte British Columbia Build we attended for two weeks, on Michael Reynolds website.

Looking to immerse yourself in Earthship culture?

Seminars, Workshops and International bulletin boards can be accessed through Michael Reynolds’ site at http://earthship.com/ or sign up for a newsletter http://earthship.com/earthship-newsletter

Check out the following books:

Earthship: How to Build Your Own, Vol. 1 by Michael Reynolds (Sept. 1990)

Earthship: Systems and Components vol. 2 by Michael E. Reynolds (Nov. 1991)

Earthship: Evolution Beyond Economics, Vol. 3 by Michael Reynolds (Sept. 1993)

Earthships: Building a Zero Carbon Future for Homes by Mark Hewitt/Kevin Telfer (2007)

YouTube:

Earthships 101, Part 1 of 10 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9jdIm7grCY

Earthships New Solutions Movie Trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEg74ZMP4tM

Earthship Documentary featuring The Potters http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zP43_w8jO2I&feature=related

DVD:

Garbage Warrior by Michael Reynolds:  http://shop.mydownloadportal.com/shopv5/shop.asp?clid=3260&prid=5654

Image credits: Monica Holy, David Hiser, Greenbridge blog, KVDP, theregeneration, jessicareeder, Lindsay Tan, marvins dad , Oldmaison


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11 comments on “Rammed Earth Tire Dwellings, aka Earthships

  1. Meghan on said:

    It was great to see this post… I’ve always skipped over Earthship descriptions because 1) the trademarked name seemed too commercial and restrictive to me and 2) I didn’t know they could work outside of a desert area… so we tentatively had settled on strawbale for above-ground structures and solid cement for earth-sheltered.

    But seeing the photos you posted and reading your descriptions… there’s so much in the design of these Earthships that’s exactly what we wanted to design into our own house… seems silly not to at least spend some more time looking into it and maybe we’ll luck out and find we can build one too! Thanks so much for all your posts about the various building methods, most of it is familiar but you do a great job of putting all the information (with beautiful photos!!!!!) in one place. :)

    And maybe, in a few years I’ll really be grateful for your post that prompted me to give a second look to Earthships. I’d love to hear any follow-up information from you on how you’re planning to mitigate the moisture problems… or are you building in a dry region? Guess I need to spend some more time looking back in your blog to learn more about where your land is located (besides someplace as cold as my current home in Minnesota!)

  2. Monica & Nikki on said:

    Hi Meghan, thank you for your comments, you raise some great points! We just completed a two week build and workshop as interns with Michael Reynolds and his amazing crew, here in British Columbia. It was their first time to Canada for a build. I took loads of photos of every stage, and some are currently posted on Earthship Biotecture’s website. You can also follow the build on our Facebook page under MiddleEarth Home. Having the opportunity to work with Michael and his crew was invaluable. After reading all his books, many questions regarding our cold climate were still unanswered. On this build, we learned of the many updates and tweaks since the books came out. We now know what model we want, including the modifications for our specific design needs. As for the moisture problem, the Darfield Earthship nearby is just now tackling a potential solution for that. We’ll be following their progress to see how it pans out on their site http://www.darfieldearthship.com/. For now we’ll be taking my photos, and writing detailed posts of all the building steps we participated in. There were so many tips not found in books, that just had to be experienced. We’re looking forward to sharing them here on our website.

  3. John Eisinga on said:

    Great information.
    I did produce a set of approved “Tire House” drawings for a neighbor of the Potter’s. The drawings met all Ontario Building Code regulations. A couple of major issues that your readers should be aware of are:

    1. At your door entry areas the foundation must be 4′-0″ below frost level.

    2. Grey water systems are a huge issue with the Health Dept. because they must be on the exterior of the house. Hopefully in the future this issue can be dealt with.

    3. The roof, if putting dirt on top of it must be sized and done by a Professional Engineer.
    Comment : I truly like the method and idea, the biggest set back is the smell inside the “Tire House” from the grey water system.

  4. Monica & Nikki on said:

    Hi John,

    thanks for sharing your experiences with Earthships in Ontario and the codes there.

    Our friends dug down below the frost line in Lone Butte for their Earthship also to tap into the geo-thermal temps.
    Is that why you suggest 4 feet for foundation at the door entry area or is it due to a code?

    I was surprised to hear that there was a ‘smell’ inside the Earthship from the grey water system.
    I’m inclined to wonder if perhaps the owners haven’t worked out the delicate balance of using the planters properly as there should be no smell coming from the grey water system. Something somewhere in the system is askew. I will ask around.

    Putting the grey water system on the ‘outside’ of the house poses serious problems for the overall design.
    An Earthship house doesn’t function that way. If they are outside they are exposed and run the risk of freezing.
    Bad idea.
    Too bad when the permit police get involved and want to mess with the design…nonetheless….working with them is the only way to make these unique homes common place so good for them for being above board.

    Personally, my one issue with the old model Earthship as per the first three volumes is that there is no separation of space between the indoor planters and the living space.
    I found the moisture to be a problem. It was obvious that there was mildew and not enough ventilation.

    These challenges have been addressed in the latest, global model which has a glass wall between the living area and planters, and more ventilation avenues to tweak the air flow inside the house. To be sure if I build it will be a global model. I hope Michael Reynolds gets on with it and puts out his new book on the global model soon as it does address so many flaws we ourselves were concerned about in the older Earthships we had the chance to see in person.

    Any other tips and or info that you find of note I hope you will continue to send our way.
    Cheers and thanks for reaching out.
    Keep on spreading the word!

    Cheers from the West Coast

  5. Monica & Nikki on said:

    Thank you for your comments.

    In Ontario, the building code is one of the strictest in Canada, I heard that it was eventually going to be adopted across the country !
    Watch out for that one.
    Anyhow, Part 8 of the building code stipulates that a septic, including a grey water system is to be minimum 1.5 metres away from any residential structure.
    The trick is not to include it in your submitted drawings as such. Maybe one day they will include such features.

    As for ventilation, yes there is an issue. For the Ontario Building Code, there must be a minimum of fresh air ventilation and thus an HRV is the way to make sure moisture and condensation is managed properly.
    I have done a number of Geo-thermal residential designs,( all types, vertical bore holes, horizontal loops and lake loops) it is a lot better than oil or natural gas. Healthier also !!!!.

    As for the 4′-0″ of depth this is for penetrating frost protection.
    The only other method is to provide 1″ of styrofoam for each foot of depth of frost for various areas.
    So if you live in an area with 4′-0″ of winter frost then you could provide 4″ of Styrofoam and avoid digging down the 4′-0″ for a foundation wall.

    Cheers, John

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  7. Scott Stilling on said:

    I am curious about one thing. I see no perimeter drainage around the outside base of the walls.
    How do you deal with water flowing around the base of the structure or under it?

    Sorry I was trained in Civil Eng and carpentry and the drainage issue seems like a crucial one to me. I don’t want to build one of these things and have the ground under the walls or floors shift.

    Any info would be greatly appreciated as I have viewed many pictures of a number of projects and have yet to see perimeter drains in any of them.

    Thanks,

    Scott Stilling

  8. Monica & Nikki on said:

    Hi Scott,

    Very pertinent question, and you’re not the first with this concern!

    As we ourselves have not yet built our own Earthship, and only volunteered on other builds, I posed this Question to Chris Newton of Darfield Earthship.
    We often discuss how to approach certain aspects of building that are in question, however Chris is in a better position to answer your question, as he’s an Engineer, and is in the home stretch of completing his permitted Earthship in the Thomson Nicola District of BC.

    Here’s his reply:

    “We have a perimeter drain just below our base level of tires. I am pretty sure there are photos of this on the website. Regardless, the best solution here is to slope the ground away from the edges of the building, the drain is a backup to this.

    To clarify:

    The Earthship design as outlined in the Earthship Volumes does not specify a perimeter drain. From what I remember of the Lone Butte site they still do not specify a perimeter drain. This works well as long as your site selection is good … in other words you have chosen a well drained site, and you have no water table issues. The key to not using a perimeter drain is to ensure that you do not allow water to accumulate around the perimeter of your building by sloping the ground appropriately.

    The building code requires a building drain and I figure before you cover up the excavation it makes sense to put one in; the materials required are inexpensive and it is a day of work. Most of the builders in Canada that I have talked to put a drain in; from the Potters in Ontario, to a couple we visited on Vancouver Island. I have read of a few instances where people have installed a perimeter drain after the fact due to leakage into the building … I suspect this had to do with poor site selection or water table height.”

    For further details on Perimeter Drainage, you can read Chris’s full post at Darfield Earthship

    Hope this helps!

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