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


Ellen built her off-grid Earthship home in 16 months.

Photo courtesy Ellen Craig

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.

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.

chris robichaud
3/28/2013 4:07:19 PM

Great article, I would love to see some pictures of your completed home!

mirna falkner
3/28/2012 6:34:21 PM

The article on Earthships was fantastic!!! It inspired me to watch the documentary and now I’m hooked! I’m so happy I read it and can’t say enough about it to everyone I know. In the past I have been let down by the solar and wind power industry only to FINALLY realize it’s not the technology but the house it’s self. If I get my way, my next dwelling will be an Earthship! :D

michael g. o'brien
5/31/2010 12:48:10 PM

Great article on building the most "green" house of all. I designed and built my own in 1999-2001, also totally off grid, in my spare time, and with the help only of my young son and wife. It helped that I was a master carpenter foreman and multi-tradesman with 25 years experience or so. Ours is also in Colorado, at 8880', but was built as an outbuilding to a log sided small cabin with rammed earth tire retaining walls addition blending into the Earthship guesthouse/greenhouse which is up 3' above the rest, and with a 6' clearance. At the time (1997), I could only get a loan for conventional construction. The solar power paid for itself quickly and the mortgage was also paid off quickly from being such a small part compared to the sweat equity, and having no bills except property taxes, propane, satellite TV, wireless DSL, telephone, and most food. Our Earthship gardens provide year around vegetables, but not all of them. The summer outdoor gardens help, too.

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