All aboard the Earthship: a sustainable off-grid home on the prairie
An Earthship is a long skinny bungalow with an earth berm enveloping the back and sides and a greenhouse on the front. The back and side retaining walls are made of tires sledgehammered full of dirt. Non-load bearing interior walls are made of aluminum cans sandwiched into a honeycomb of concrete.
Here’s the story of how a family built an Earthship in southern Alberta. After first reading about them in The Geography of Hope by Chris Turner, Duncan Kinney passed the book along to his dad Glen. He was intrigued so they volunteered on a build near Wheatland, Wyoming. Glen even volunteered on another build in Hundred Mile House in central B.C. the next year.
"It was invaluable seeing one built first-hand and meeting other volunteers and the crew"
A couple years later after everything was in place Duncan’s parents went down to Taos, New Mexico to check out finished Earthships first-hand. Suitably convinced they came back with plans for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom Global Model with a couple of modifications.
Michael Reynolds is the father of the Earthship movement. An architect by training and rabble-rouser by nature he was dissatisfied with standard home design and started building sustainable houses on the mesa using garbage. He used bottles, cans and tires alongside natural and conventional building materials. For the past 20 years Reynolds has been perfecting the design.
The design revolves around six core concepts: on-site electricity production and wastewater treatment, using rainwater into drinking water, passive heating and cooling, food production and using readily available materials. It has four walls, a roof, flush toilets and satellite TV just like any other North American home.
It generates electricity on-site with solar panels and batteries. Drinking water is caught by the metal roof and collected in four cisterns capable of storing 5,800 gallons of water. That water is treated and filtered to make it ready to drink. Greywater from the showers and bathroom sinks is used to water the greenhouse. That greywater is pumped back into the house and used to flush the toilets. Simple earth tubes and ceiling vents keep the house cool in the summer. Passive solar design, thermal mass, lots of insulation and sunlight keep the house warm in the winter.
The Kinneys hired the Earthship crew and Michael Reynolds to build the house in Lethbridge. With them came another 30-35 volunteers who camped on-site. Eight hundred tires were pounded and stacked by the end of the fourth day.
About 12,000 cans were used for interior walls, for the bond beam that sits on top of the tires and to help fill in and pack out the tires to get them to a level surface.
What began as a radical alternative in the New Mexico desert 30 years ago has evolved into an inspiring and surprisingly simple home. And the lessons learned from Earthships can be seen today in increasingly popular net-zero homes.