How to Build a Simple Earthship


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.

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.
  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 rain water 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 tirewalls 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.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.