We recently sat down with Mat Holroyd to discover more about sustainable buildings – specifically Earthships. Don’t let the name fool you – in 10 years time you could well be living in one.
What are Earthships? What differentiates an Earthship from other types of (sustainable) housing?
Earthships are buildings designed to minimize the fuel and resources needed to run the building, while reducing the waste that leaves the house. Earthships typically collect their own water, generate their own electricity, and the grey water is treated onsite. Additionally Earthships are typically built with recycled material, and when you put all these aspects together, the houses are often labeled as “sustainable”, “environmentally friendly” etc.
I should mention Earthships are the houses invented and built by the company Earthship Biotecture. Anyone who’s interested to learn how to build Earthships can buy their books or study at their academy.
As to what differentiates Earthships from other sustainable houses, probably the most distinctive feature of an Earthship is that all the different systems (electricity, water, sewage treatment, growing food, heating/cooling, recycled materials) are cohesively integrated. That is to say, Earthships are well-designed machines, that have been tweaked over decades to bring all those systems together in a practical yet pleasant package. Because of this Earthships have a very distinctive look – they often look like a glasshouse built into a mound of dirt or a hillside.
What advantages do Earthships have over traditional housing?
Earthships do not require outside electricity or water supply, and do not need waste water treatment. Hence the bills for running the house are cheaper, but it also means you can build these houses where those services are unavailable. The temperature of the house stays a steady 21°C all year round, whether they are built in Sweden or outback Australia. Parts of the buildings can be built with recycled materials, cutting costs and removing landfill. Earthships have interior plants beds that can grow food, which can be enough for 50%+ of the inhabitant’s needs.
There are more advantages, but these are probably the most important to people.
That said, Earthships do have their limitations. Foremost, the design of an Earthship is not as flexible as a traditional house. An Earthship needs a glasshouse on one side, the side that faces the equator, which shouldn’t be in shadow. In essence, an Earthship is a machine like a car – you can’t just change things around without affecting the performance.
Apart from that, Earthships that look and have all the trimmings of a modern house are more expensive then a house with equivalent floor space. Some of those costs pay off when future bills are reduced. Additionally a lot of the skills for building an Earthship are easy to learn, and people go on to build (or volunteer to take part in builds) outside those guided by Earthship Biotecture.
You went to the Academy build at the start of the year in Argentina – what was the experience like?
It was awesome. The academy consisted of 2-3 days of classes a weeks and 2-3 days of working on a building site per week, for four weeks. The atmosphere was great, all enthusiastic people ranging from 20- to 60 years-old – it had a school-camp like feel. It was affordable too – around US $1500 for the course, with a lot of the skills being useful for decades to come. E.g. I now know how to collect, store and filter water; collect, store and deliver electricity efficiently; building tire walls; plaster; basic carpentry skills; mix concrete and other building materials; and many other things. The academy also happens frequently within the US.
You said Earthships remind you of Bitcoin – how so?
When I made that comment, I was thinking of how Bitcoin enables people to take charge of their own financial services (savings, trade, etc), an Earthship enables people to take charge of their own living services (water, electricity, etc).
I’ll give two examples to illustrate my point. In early 2013 in Cyprus, hundreds of thousands of private citizens and businesses who held money in banks had part of their cash seized under government order. Any savings held in Bitcoins (or for that matter, gold in personal possession) were immune to that order. Now take the current situation in Ukraine. The Ukraine government cut off water to part of the country that is under control by pro-Russian people. If you were currently living in that part of Ukraine, what kind of house would you rather be in, a traditional house requiring state provided natural gas, water and electricity, or an Earthship?
These are extreme examples but they highlight how dependent the average person is on the government, whether they are in the Europe, Australia, US, etc.
You recently set-up some solar panels at your city apartment – what was the purpose of this and what advice do you have for other city dwellers?
A solar system on the ground level of a city yard is a terrible idea if the goal is to save money. There isn’t going to be enough sunlight to offset the cost. However, as a learning experience – it was great! My purpose was to see if I could do it, and it was really easy. Anyone can do it. You only need four components: solar panels, charge controller, batteries, and an inverter. There are heaps of guides on the net telling you how to hook it up.
If you have a yard with less shade, or can get access to a roof, go for it! I got most of the parts off Amazon. Also, I think in places like Australia, Europe and the North America, the price of the setup is such that the cost will be offset by the energy savings after a decade or less.
How can people find out more?
The first place to start is by visiting earthship.com. There are many documentaries about Earthships. The one that introduced me was Garbage Warrior (trailer here). Garbage Warrior doesn’t explain the systems that go into an Earthship in great deal though. To help with this lack of info, I setup an unofficial wiki while I was doing the Academy. There is a bunch of information about the systems in there, but it’s a bit hap-hazard and not complete.