Building an Earthship for Off-the-Grid Living

Recycled tires and rammed-earth walls make this passive solar style of home building efficient, sturdy and relatively cheap.

| April/May 2005

I have always thought of myself as a fairly conventional, average sort of person, but I have to admit that my home, located near Breckenridge, Colo., is not at all average. About 10 years ago, I decided to move from my three-acre property to a larger, more remote piece of land. I was searching for ideas about energy-efficient, environmentally friendly houses when I stumbled on an article about Earthships.

An Earthship is a type of rammed-earth house, sort of a modern version of a Native American pueblo dwelling. It’s a trademarked name and design, conceived by Michael Reynolds of Earthship Biotecture, a company based in Taos, N.M. The walls of this eco-friendly house are made of discarded tires, which are tightly packed with dirt using a sledgehammer, and then stacked like giant bricks. Mud is packed into the scalloped spaces between the tires and then usually finished with adobe, plaster or stucco.

Earthships are passive solar homes, which makes them extremely energy efficient. They are built with south-facing walls made almost entirely of glass — many people incorporate a greenhouse into this part of the house. During the winter, the sun is at a low angle in the sky, and sunlight streams in through the windows to heat the house’s heavy walls, which act as thermal mass for home temperature control. When the room temperature drops below that of the walls, they slowly emit heat to warm the house. With windows and operable skylights for ventilation during the summer months, the building maintains a relatively stable temperature year-round. Many Earthship owners use woodstoves for backup heat, but otherwise their houses are heated entirely by the sun.

I was so intrigued by what I read that I journeyed to Taos for a two-day seminar. There I got to see a completed Earthship, and I thought that its wonderful greenhouse and exotic plants gave a warm, comfortable feeling to the house. I quickly decided that I could — and should — build this type of home.

Building An Earthship Home

I purchased 35 acres in the mountains, selecting the site for its southern exposure, remoteness, spectacular view and large, interesting-looking boulders. Several of those factors ultimately made construction more difficult than I had planned, particularly the steep slope of the site! I purchased Earthship plans and put my existing house on the market. To my surprise, and somewhat to my dismay, it sold in three days, and I had six weeks to move. I quickly made plans to erect a fence for my dogs on the new property, and a friend was generous enough to lend me a pop-up camper, but life was still a bit rugged. I had no electricity and hauled all my water by hand

Most of the heavy work on the house was completed within the next 16 months. Fortunately, I was able to take advantage of the warm summer weather for construction because that’s when I had time off from my job teaching high school physics, math and electronics.

7/24/2018 7:57:17 AM

Good morning. I am so interested in alternative housing, own a small ranch-style home (just under 900 sq. ft.) in New York City, and would like to know how I can build an earthship home with limited funds on a lot size 50 x 100 feet. I don't have any building experience at all. Any advice or contacts would be extremely helpful. Thank you.

6/7/2016 6:27:34 PM

I have a half acre property on a canyon hillside at about a 45 degree slope. The lot measures 160 ft wide, and 100 ft deep. I would like to excavate into the hillside and have the house (at least a 3 bdrm - 2 bath) measure ~60-70 ft wide, and between 30-40 ft deep. My goal is to have minimal visual impact from the roadway apx 20 ft behind and above the dwelling. I would prefer to use ICF's in the construction, and be able to support from 2-10 ft of earth on top of the structure (actually built INTO the hillside). I'm looking for input, ideas, drawings on this project. Open (front) of house will be South facing... Solar Powered, Heated, with backup (off grid).

Chris Robichaud
3/28/2013 4:08:20 PM

My mistake, I see there is an image gallery however is it very hard to see details because they are so small.

mother earth news fair 2018 schedule


Next: September 14-16, 2018
Seven Springs, PA

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!


Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

Money-Saving Tips in Every Issue!

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter flipboard