Super Sustainable Buildings via Thermal Dynamics & Passive Solar.
An Earthship is a type of passive solar house that is made of both natural and upcycled materials (such as earth-packed tires). Earthships can be completely off-grid or partially off-grid.
Earthships can be built in any part of the world, in any climate (with a permit) and still provide electricity, potable water, contained sewage treatment, and sustainable food production.
Earthships are thermal mass homes first,
passive solar homes second.
Whatever temperature goes into an Earthship, it will hold… and since it is also a Passive Solar House, it is also very tight and interacts only with the sun and the earth for heating and cooling, providing stable comfort year-round in any climate.
Thermal/Solar Heating & Cooling
Earthships maintain comfortable temperatures in any climate. The planet Earth is a thermally stabilizing mass that delivers temperature without wire or pipes. The sun is a nuclear power plant that also delivers without wires or pipes.
Comfort in Any Climate. Keep the building warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Comfortable with little to no utility bill/fossil fuel.
This increases both psychological and physiological comfort.
Solar & Wind Electricity
Earthships produce their own electricity with a prepackaged photovoltaic / wind power system. This energy is stored in batteries and supplied to your electrical outlets. Earthships can have multiple sources of power, all automated, including grid-intertie.
Earthships contain use and reuse all household sewage in indoor and outdoor treatment cells resulting in food production and landscaping with no pollution of aquifers. Toilets flush with greywater that does not smell.
Contain & Treat Waste Water. Treat and clean greywater. Flush toilets with treated greywater, clean, and clear. Improves and adds to conventional systems without replacing. Liquid Waste Water Planters provide for prolific Food Production.
Natural & Recycled Materials
House as Assemblage of by-products: A sustainable home must make use of indigenous materials, those occurring naturally in the local area.
Think Global. Act Local. A sustainable home must make use of local (indigenous) materials, those occurring ‘naturally’ in the local area.
Earthships catch water from the sky (rain & snow melt) and use it four times. Water is heated from the sun, biodiesel, and/or natural gas. Earthships can have city water as a backup. Earthships do not pollute underground water aquifers.
Potable Water. Generally speaking, a sustainable building with the methods outlined uses about half as much fresh, potable, drinking water as a conventional building.
Earthship wetlands, the planters that hold hundreds of gallons of water from sinks and the shower are a great place for raising some of the fresh produce you’d like to have in the winter but find expensive or bland tasting from the supermarket.
Grow your own food. Earthships use interior greenhouses for the treatment of greywater, as well as to grow food and enhance the natural beauty of the home.
Rebuild safer with Earthships in Bushfire Zones – Australia
Recent disastrous bushfires have rebooted debate about how to (re)build in the Australian bush. Questions are being asked about building standards, whether a fire-proof home is possible, the value of fire bunkers when it’s too late to leave, and if we should even live in the bush any more.
I suggest homes and community buildings in bushfire-prone areas can be made much more fire-resistant, perhaps even fire-proof, by adopting earth-covered, off-grid structures – known as Earthships – as the new standard.
Built for survival
Houses sheltered by earth have a higher chance of survival in a bushfire. This is because earth-based constructions are non-flammable (while topsoil can burn and smoulder, clayey, sandy and gravelly soil does not).
A typical Earthship design has double-glazed windows to the north to let in the winter sun, while mounds of earth, pushed up to roof level, protect the south, east and west walls. Taking this a step further, an earth-covered house includes a layer of earth over the roof.
The north-facing double-glazed windows (an essential element of passive solar design) is the only part of the building that needs some other protection.
Bushfire building codes and standards already demand that windows have extra-thick, toughened glass to resist burning debris and intense heat. Double glazing (two layers of glass separated by a small air gap) offers extra protection. In very high-risk areas, bushfire shutters are a requirement.
Although not demanded by building codes, automated sprinklers could be used to spray water on the windows. But automated systems are problematic during a bushfire when power and water supplies are likely to fail.
In 2009, Michael Reynolds, an architect from the USA, visited Martin Freney’s property in the Adelaide Hills. Together with 20 volunteers, they created a knee-high wall with used tyres filled with earth. Little did Freney know, that six years and 800 tyres later he would have built the first DA-approved Earthship in Australia.
An Earthship is a unique, earth-rendered building, with the northern wall made of glass. One wall is built into the side of a hill and lined with earth-filled tyres, which are hidden under earth render. The other walls are dotted with used, glass bottles of all shapes and colours, giving the building a rounded mosaic look. The house is totally self-sufficient and not connected to electrical, gas, sewerage or water mains.
Electricity is generated by solar panels lining the roof and batteries to store the electricity generated, but no energy is required to heat or cool the building.
“In the summer, instead of 40-degree heat, the soil temperature [of the walls] is 20 degrees. That soil temperature conducts into the building,” says Freney. “In winter, the walls feel warmer than the air temperature. It’s conducting the heat out of the earth and into the building.”
Vents are also open and closed to regulate airflow, similar to the sails on a ship. The north-facing glass allows warmth and sunlight into the building in winter.
The building of an Earthship created a lot of interest, so much so that more than one hundred people volunteered their time with labour. “I lost count of how many volunteers we had,” says Freney.
Most came from Australia, but Freney had volunteers from Taiwan, Canada, and Germany who filled tyres, cut glass bottles, and rendered walls with mud. The volunteers camped on-site and Freney took out public liability insurance, fearing the worst, as many volunteers had little to no experience with building. Luckily, only a few bandaids were needed.
Filling the tyres is the most labour intensive part of the build, taking on average 10 to 15 minutes to fill and pound the earth with a sledgehammer. Freney averaged 10 tyres a day, so considering his house required 800 tyres, that’s a lot of pounding.
The volunteers provided free labour, but it also provided them with experience and educated them in sustainable building.
While the Earthship uses a lot of old bottles and tyres, it is a common myth that it is cheap and built entirely of recycled material. The biggest expense was the battery, solar panels, inverter, and renewable energy installation which came to $16,000. “The house is 10 percent more expensive, but then you don’t pay for bills,” says Freney.
One surprising problem Freney encountered, unique to South Australia, was the 10c bottle return scheme. This scheme encourages recycling but makes it difficult to locate empty glass bottles for an Earthship. The volunteers couldn’t even drink enough beverages needed for the house. In the end, Freney had to buy empty used bottles to finish his construction.
Another problem that had to be addressed for council approval was the greywater. Freney wanted to divert the washing up water from the washing machine and shower to water the indoor garden. After some wrangling, it was decided he could irrigate the trees outside with the water, but not the indoor greenhouse.
Freney’s favorite part of his home is the lush greenhouse. “The greenhouse is a beautiful indoor garden,” he says. “Last winter we harvested one hundred bananas, kale, and tomatoes.” The plants are planted into the ground along with the northern window, forming a long green corridor.
Currently, around the country, there are about eight Earthships under construction. But, could Freney see Earthships popping up in suburban Australia? “I sure hope so,” he says
Earthship communities in Kinglake, Victoria, in the aftermath of the Black Saturday firestorm.
Come and be a part of the Kinglake Earthship build, learn sustainable design techniques, and take away practical skills. Kinglake Earthship is Victoria’s first council approved Earthship designed specifically to survive bushfire threat using reclaimed/ recycled & natural materials.
Daryl Taylor has won 17 national and state awards for community and organisational development.
Dani Wolff-Chambers leads Agari Permaculture Farm.
Myth: Earthships are cheap to build.
Well, it depends…
Earthships can be cheap to build if you do it yourself as many of the materials can be salvaged and the construction methods are simple to learn. However, the value of your time and labour should also be factored in.
Many Earthships are built with volunteer labour, especially for tyre wall construction and rendering. This saves money compared to paying a builder but don’t underestimate the cost of feeding all those volunteers and providing toilets, showers, campsite etc.
Because Earthships are self-sufficient in power, water and sewage they have a lot of extra “systems” that provide these off-grid services. Hence there is extra cost involved for solar panels, batteries, greywater systems, water tanks, pumps etc. The good news is that these systems generally pay themselves off within 5-10 years because of savings on (non-existent) utility bills for power/water/sewage. Furthermore, these systems are quite small and scaled-down compared to the systems that would be required for other off-grid homes; because Earthships are inherently energy and water-efficient they don’t need lots of batteries, panels, water tanks etc. They are lean and efficient machines for living!
If you are paying a builder to build your Earthship home it will be a similar price to build the “shell” or “envelope” (walls, roof, floors without all the internal finishes such as bathroom tiling, kitchen installation etc) to an equivalent size home. All the “systems” are additional costs.
In conclusion, yes, you can save a lot of money if you do lots of the labour yourself perhaps with friends, family, and volunteers, and by salvaging a lot of materials and components rather than buying new and paying top dollar. But if you sign a contract with a builder it will be a similar cost to a home of the same size and quality of construction PLUS you need to pay extra money for the off-grid systems. Please see the MONEY AND INSURANCE section in the FAQ for more info about costs.
MYTH: You can’t get council approval for an Earthship
There are many examples of council approved “Earthships” and “Earthship Inspired” homes in Australia. See the Projects page of this website for those designed by Earthship Eco Homes.
Many people jump to the conclusion that an Earthship will not be approved by their particular council and never try.
Because we have a NATIONAL construction code the same rules apply throughout Australia with a few minor State-based variations to the rules. So the fact that Earthships have been approved in many States and council areas means you can be confident that your particular council/shire will also approve an Earthship. In fact, I guarantee your Earthship or Earthship Inspired project will be approved if you engage Earthship Eco Homes to design your Earthship and if you accept my advice regarding where compromises need to be made.
There is one particular aspect of Earthships that may be difficult to get approval for: the indoor greywater system and toilet flushing with greywater. There are a variety of approaches to overcoming the outdated, conservative building codes that prevent this Earthship innovation from being approved and this does not prevent the Earthship from being very water efficient.
In conclusion you can get approval for an Earthship in Australia but there are some compromises that must be made in regard to the wastewater system (unless you are willing to install a non-compliant system – which is another option). Building with tyres and bottles is not a problem as long as you take the correct approach to this.
About Earthship Eco Homes
I started Earthship Eco Homes in response to many inquiries about how to get approval for an Earthship in Australia.
As the owner-builder/designer of Earthship Ironbank I understand the process from beginning to end. Furthermore, my background in design and drafting, permaculture, and my recent Ph.D. studies, which investigated the performance of Earthships in various climates, equip me with the skills and knowledge to ensure your Earthship project is a success.
I can help with:
site selection and analysis
design for local climate
design for bushfire
design for termites
regulations and codes
drafting your plans for submission to your local Council/Shire
advice on how to get council approval
education and workshops
My approach is to work with Reynolds’ designs, adapting them to suit Australian building codes (bushfire, termite, etc), local climatic conditions and your site’s unique characteristics.
When requested, I assist Earthship Biotecture (Michael Reynolds’ company) with projects in Australia: site visits to assess suitability and to feedback important information about your site to Earthship Biotecture and, to act as a consultant on many of the issues dot pointed above with the objective of ensuring an expedient and successful Council approval process.
I operate out of my home office in Ironbank, South Australia, 40min drive from the city and I also work at the University of South Australia teaching in the School of Art, Architecture & Design.
The builder I recommend is Jackson Digney of Enduro Builders. Jackson has supervised the construction of the first completed Earthship in Western Australia – Earthship East Augusta. He is willing to work with owner-builders and volunteers, or he can undertake the whole construction process for you.
Dr Martin (Marty) Freney
Rebuilding in Bushfire Zones with Earthships
Fireship – the super fire resilient Earthship design
three bedrooms Earthship (with bathroom plus ensuite).
building footprint of 45m (east-west) x 30m (north-south).
suitable for flat(ish) site or north-facing slope.
“earth-sheltered” with earth-berm (earth mounded against walls) at rear and sides of the home.
“earth covered” with a green roof planted with non-flammable succulent ground covers or simply a covering of gravel.
no gutter – water is collected via the green roof which drains into an underground tank.
rainwater tank for fire fighting water is underground (behind the building, protected inside the earth-berm).
bushfire roller shutters on the windows/doors on the north side (optional depending on Bushfire Attack Level BAL).
battery and solar-powered fire sprinkler system to wet down the roof and front face.
safe room (utility room with off-grid water and power equipment) with SCUBA tank.
two car carport with a north-facing roof so you can mount extra solar panels for electric car charging.
solar panels on the green roof hidden behind a parapet bottle wall. This gives some protection to the solar panels from radiant heat. Furthermore, I’ve designed a simple “shutter” for the solar panels that be easily deployed ahead of a bushfire.
black-water planters out the front. These can be raised (as drawn) or set into the ground.
greenhouse for indoor gardening year-round.
earth-tubes to each room – natural air conditioning using underground pipes.
earth-bermed retaining wall at rear of the building can be made with;
earth-filled tyres (Earthship style) with a thick layer of render on bushfire exposed areas
gabion rock cages
sandbags or super adobe
precast concrete panels
Council approval guaranteed in semi-rural or rural areas!
Earthships are inherently bushfire resilient due to their earth-sheltered design (earth is mounded up around the south, east and west walls). Earth is a wonderfully sustainable and economical fire-proof material.
Only the windows on the sunny north side of the Earthship need protection which is easily done with shutters and or sprinklers. And because the Earthship is an autonomous, off-grid home you know you will have electricity and water to power your pump and sprinklers during a fire.
The Earthship’s greenhouse (atrium/sun-room) also affords extra protection as it creates a buffer zone between outdoors and the indoor living spaces. Add sprinklers to the greenhouse and you have a “wet buffer zone” offering even more protection. The plants will appreciate it too.
An earth-covered Earthship (i.e. with a green-roof or earth-roof) gives even more protection and makes the living spaces very air-tight which helps keep out smoke.
The end of the earth-tubes (the zero energy air-con system) can be covered with a wet fabric to filter smoke from the incoming air.
And a special “safe room” where you can control your fire sprinklers can provide a “bunker” style fire resistant refuge where there is no radiant heat (from windows) and the walls, ceiling, and floor are all non-flammable.
Can you think of a more fire-resistant, ecological (sustainable), and affordable home?