I'm not the Mike Reynolds who invented the Earthship, I'm the Mike Reynolds who thinks Earthships in Canada and other cold climates are a bad idea. A coincidence of names; just putting that out there so The Garbage Warrior doesn't get hate mail that belongs to me.
Where did the Earthship come from?
It first showed up in New Mexico back in the early 70s as the brainchild of Architect Michael Reynolds. They called him the Garbage Warrior, and he was a pioneer of low-impact living in a time when few such visionaries existed. His work creating self-sustaining houses mostly out of garbage inspired countless others to build on his ideas. He continues to work tirelessly in drawing attention to the irresponsible waste of resources that plagues the globe.
What defines an Earthship?
It should be noted that "Earthship" is a registered trademark. You can build one and tell your friends it's an Earthship, but a home whose construction was not authorized by Earthship trademark-holder Michael Reynolds cannot officially bear that name. So don't mistake this for being a fluid and collective movement advancing the cause of eco-harmonious housing; this is a branded, for-profit enterprise led by a larger-than-life figurehead.
The Earthship in a nutshell:
- Tires filled with packed soil are used to build the main support walls; aluminum cans and mortar, along with glass bottles, are used to build interior walls.
- Earthships (by their own definition, at least) are passively-heated from the sun and thermal mass; the north side is buried underground, though buildings in colder climates seem to include wood stoves.
- Power is generated onsite by photovoltaic solar panels and wind, propane is typically used for cooking, and in colder climates water heating.
- Rainwater is collected, stored in large plastic cisterns and filtered for residential use; waste water is treated on site and used for growing food.
- The south-facing wall is all windows and acts as a heat collector and greenhouse where food is produced all year.
That's all great stuff and it seems to work fine in New Mexico, but now they want to take the show on the road, and this is where it can get a little touchy. If it's as good as they say and suitable for all climates, then it should stand up to scrutiny one would think. But, pointing out flaws in either the design tends to offend Earthship enthusiasts, or 'green disciples' as Reynolds calls them.
Building a house is a huge investment and there are too many false assumptions and obvious contradictions to accept the Earthship at face value when all empirical evidence says that it can't possibly do what its designer says it does when exported from a desert to a cold climate. So at risk of ruffling some feathers, we think this needs a close look before it takes hold in Canada as Reynolds hopes.
My background: I worked for Greenpeace, I had long hair, I drove a VW microbus and I loved everything about the Earthship in the late 80's. I did not dive into this looking to shred it just for kicks, but to look with fresh eyes beyond the image and holistic appeal that I remember from decades ago.
Earthships in appropriate climates:
New Mexico has a mild, arid/semi-arid climate, which is characterized by light precipitation, low-relative humidity and an abundance of sunshine, so there is no better place to build an Earthship.
The website still claims they are 'comfortable in all climates' and there is endless talk about how they are built with natural and recycled materials, have no energy bills, use no fossil fuels, are passively heated and cooled and occupants live in harmony and balance with the earths natural cycles. This is nothing near to how they are actually being built anymore, but facts seldom interfere with the spreading of a familiar and comforting gospel.
Just so you know we are not putting words in his mouth, here is Mike Reynolds speaking a couple of years ago in a video titled 'New Solutions Guide'. The following quote starts, of all places, at about the 4:20 mark.
''Each building is a living breathing cell that is getting everything that its inhabitants need from an encounter with the natural phenomenon of the planet, like the sun, like the rain, like the gravity, like the wind, the condensation, the convection, all of the natural phenomenon of the planet are studied and observed and built into these buildings so that they, through encounter with the natural phenomenon become a living breathing organism that takes care of people, and doesn't need fossil fuels.''
Variations of that are repeated anytime a microphone gets turned on at an Earthship site, even in buildings where none of that is even close to happening. Like an Alberta Earthship owner, whose intentions I have no doubt are the purest, echoes much of that sentiment while stoking a wood stove in a house insulated with foam panels that has a propane-powered clothes dryer, cook stove and water heater.
Here is how Mike Reynolds described that very house in the Calgary Herald- “Canada is tremendously interested in this kind of a building,” he said. “A building that does everything for itself, totally off of every grid and they’re warm. It gets very cold (in Alberta) and the building has no backup heating whatsoever, it doesn’t need it.”
How does a wood stove not qualify as backup heat? And when did propane stop being a fossil fuel? You don't have to dig very deep here to realize that what is being claimed is not what is actually happening. If you wake up in a house that is 14°C (as these lovely people do) and you need to keep a fire going all day to warm it up, your house is not staying warm by itself.
In reality, an Earthship in Canada is a predominantly passively-heated home that burns biomass and fossil fuels for supplimentary heat and power; it is insulated with foam panels on the walls (we found no mention of floors) and includes thermal mass inside of the building envelope.
I'm not here to criticize the fossil fuel use or foam insulation, but it's no more a 'natural phenomenon' or 'living breathing organism' than a normal basement with exterior foam insulation.
Unfortunately for many Earthship owners around the world, including insulation in the design was a revelation that only occurred to Reynolds after 30 years of telling people they didn't need it.
Reynolds describes the addition of insulation as 'turbo-charging' the Earthship, and in a 2009 Youtube seminar he describes it. Even though it was in about 2005 when this design improvement happened (which was decades after basement insulation was already standard practice), he speaks as if insulating below grade thermal mass walls was his own idea, and gave home insulation a new name - Thermal Wrap.
"If the Earthship were a gasoline engine, Thermal Wrap and double or triple greenhouses would be fuel injection. I am ready to race any conventional heating system." - Michael Reynolds, Earthship Biotect.
Thermal mass does store and release heat, but the magic happens by separating the interior and exterior environmental temperatures, not by joining them. He seems to have realized that now, at least with walls, but being late to the game he is also a bit behind in knowing the amount of insulation that really should be installed as well as where to put it. Example:
The three images below are thermal models showing what you could expect from a concrete floor in a typical Canadian or cold-zone climate in northern USA; first un-insulated, the second insulated to meet Building Code (R10) and the third insulated to R20, the minimum we would recommend in Canada or colder States for comfort and a good return on investment.
Modelled using a 4-inch concrete floor, you can see that in the first image on the left (un-insulated as an Earthship is) the extended colour gradient from warm to cold shows that heat lost to the ground below is evident to a depth of many feet, while in the images with insulated floors you can see that much more heat is contained by the insulation. Also worth noting is the light red colour of the Earthship floor, indicating a cooler temperature that the white-coloured insulated floors, which is less comfortable for occupants.
As the ground in Canada is below 7°C in winter, if an Earthship in Canada truly did warm a house to a comfortable temperature, it would disprove the second law of thermodynamics which states that heat moves from warm bodies to cold. If heat were able to move from areas of cold to areas of warm – like from 7°C ground to any house kept at 8°C or higher - then one could also expect to see lakes freeze over in summer.
We all know that doesn’t happen, yet Michael Reynolds is still convincing Canadians that our frozen landscape will somehow heat their home. Believing that requires dismissing the basic laws of physics, and you would have just as much luck roasting marshmallows over a block of ice. Cold things won't make you warm, end of story.
With mechanical assistance and an input of energy (like a heat pump), you can extract heat from the ground in a cold climate, but Earthships don't have heat pumps.
If you still think the Earthship is the answer then please read on before you drop your life savings on one, even if you're already cheesed-off at me for having the audacity to pop the hood on this thing to see how it runs. If you find flaws in my analysis then please make mention in the comments below where you think I screwed up and I'll be more than happy to discuss. If you are here reading because you want to live in a home that harnesses heat from the sun and ground to keep you warm, we can help you with that in our passive solar home design pages.
1. Thermal mass:
The biggest flaw in the Earthship design can be traced to the misconception that the ground will keep you warm in all climates. Yes, the ground will add warmth to a cold house, but only up until the point that the temperature of your house and that of the ground reach thermal equilibrium, meaning they are equal. This is known as the Zeroth law of thermodynamics.
According to Ecohome Engineer Denis Boyer, "The ground temperature in the Montreal-Ottawa corridor at a depth of about 10 feet would range from 6.3°C (43°F) in January to about 3.4°C (38°F) in April. At a lesser depth, the ground would be even colder during that same time frame."
That's a reasonable average to assume for Canada, and much cooler than the 58° Fahrenheit listed on the Earthship website that claims an Earthship works anywhere in the world.
Rather than the ground being a source of heat, in a minimally-insulated Canadian Earthship you will be dumping heat into the ground without insulation under floors anytime the indoor temperature rises to about 7° Celsius, which is pretty much every house in Canada one would hope.
According to Reynolds, the key to the 'Thermal Wrap' design is putting the insulation several feet further back from the tire wall to increase the dirt mass of the wall (to about 7 feet he said in a video), which is said to improve performance, which it simply does not do.
Denis Boyer goes on to explain - "Except for water and other materials with very high conductivity, due to the relatively subtle variations in temperature that any passively-heated house could expect to see over a 24 hour cycle, only the first 6 or 7 inches of the wall would show any noticeable temperature change through absorbing and releasing heat".
That means only the front third of the tire wall is acting as thermal mass in the way Reynolds claims it is, and none of the several feet of dirt behind it. Putting the insulation so far back means you now need to buy more eco-friendly styrofoam insulation boards to insulate the top of that 5 foot strip, for the entire length of the building, or the Thermal Wrap would do nothing at all. And more heat will also escape through the top insulation, so the only tangible result of that design modification is increased material costs and increased heat loss.
2. Reducing pollution:
If your local grid is fed by renewable sources such as hydroelectric or wind power, then there is no need to install your own system to reduce your personal emissions. Again, go ahead and set up a solar array and battery backup for your own security of power, but if going 'off-grid' means you need to burn fossil fuels instead of tapping into clean energy from the grid, you are increasing your carbon footprint, not reducing it.
All of Quebec is on renewable power, as is much of British Columbia and a growing percentage of many other provinces. Clean power currently provides a total of 18.9% of Canadian electrical needs.
3. Material conservation and re-use:
It is obvious that the clean stacks of XPS foam boards I saw in several Earthship videos were not recycled, and they certainly didn't come naturally from the earth. That would then require the purchase and shipment of petroleum-based products that use blowing agents with very intensive greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). This is obviously not a critique of home insulation, but I do question his choice of XPS foam over less environmentally harmful products.
Alex Wilson, founder of the Resilient Design Institute on XPS foam- Blowing agents create tiny bubbles of gas that are, in effect, the insulator in foam. They used to be chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were banned for damaging the ozone layer, and were replaced by HFCs [that] don't cause ozone damage, but are more than a thousand times worse than CO2 as greenhouse gases.
The only way choosing XPS foam over other types of insulation will make the planet greener is by helping frozen tundra come back to life. For help choosing the most Eco-friendly rigid foam insulation panels, see here.
'We have been doing it now for so long that we really can't find better materials to build with" - Mike Reynolds, Earthship Biotect
It's not that he couldn't find better materials, he just walked right past them without knowing it. Right next to XPS foam in any building supply store would be a stack of EPS foam that uses different blowing agents that have much lower emissions, and they're much cheaper as well. Beside that would be a stack of rigid mineral wool, a board insulation made from stone dust that has no chemicals and contains a minimum of 75% recycled content. Or go with something completely natural like Hemp Insulation Panels.
The interior walls are certainly beautiful, but sequestering thousands of aluminum cans in a wall is not necessarily a great use of metal in an age of resource depletion. In 1972 no one was using them, or old tires, so he was in fact doing the world a favour back then, but not anymore. Mineral extraction is quite harmful to the earth, and that metal would serve the planet better if it were recyled.
4. Water conservation:
The Earth already has a natural system for treating and storing rainwater, though out of necessity Reynolds reinvented that system using plastic pipes, filters, plants and huge plastic cisterns. Kudos to him, that was a brilliant move to supply water to a home in a desert. But it is completely pointless in most remote areas of Canada and results in unnecessary costs, increased maintenance, and more embodied pollution due to the purchase of huge plastic tanks and equipment.
The ground will automagically take your waste water and turn it into clean drinking water that you can access with a well, so let the earth do its thing. That is the entire premise of the Earthship, no? This is one of the more obvious head-on collisions between ideology and common sense, where homeowners are burdened with unnecessary complication and cost for no reason other than maintaining the image of the Earthship brand.
You can still harvest rainwater that falls on your roof, all that takes is a rain barrel, and an outdoor garden to make great use of it.
5. House Dimension:
The shape of an Earthship is typically very narrow and very long. This is by no means an optimal shape for material conservation or energy conservation. Example - a 25 foot deep house by 80 feet long would be 2,000 square feet and would have a total of 210 feet of exterior wall. Compare that to a 40x50 foot house, which is also 2,000 square feet, but has only 180 feet of wall exterior wall. That translates into - less building materials to purchase, less labour, less exterior wall for heat loss and the same amount of living space. Take a look at Passive solar home design page to learn how to passively heat a home.
6. Health risks:
The tires of an Earthship may release brominated flame retardants (PBDEs) into the air of an Earthship, which is a synthetic material derived from petrochemicals that is toxic to humans through long-term exposure.
Mike Reynolds says it's safe, but he says a lot of stuff that doesn't add up so I personally would want to see some research on healthy indoor air quality before I spend the rest of my life living inside a stack of old tires.
• Allergic rhinitis, asthma, respiratory infections, eczema and rheumatism are all diseases that are linked to mold exposure, which is a common problem with poorly-insulated homes, particularly poorly-insulated basements with high-humidity that have not been designed to manage moisture properly. This is pretty much the definition of an Earthship in the way it would perform in Canada.
Growing food in a cold-climate greenhouse creates a very humid environment, and a fundamental principle of the Earthship is food production on the south facade and transferring that heated air into the living space. So in order to take advantage of that passively heated air, you will greatly increase the interior relative humidity of your house.
Combine that with un-insulated exterior walls and you have the ideal environment for condensation to collect and mold to form. And as it requires more energy to heat humid air than dry air, higher relative humidity will also lead to increased heating demand or make your home feel even more cold and miserable.
We are strong proponents of greenhouses, even in cold climates and small scale food production, but they are not an environment that is sensible for human habitation as they won't heat in cold climates.
According to health Canada, the optimum range of relative humidity for a healthy indoor environment would be between 30 and 55 RH, above or below those levels increases the risk of respiratory issues. © Health Canada
Heat recovery ventilators (HRVs) are mandatory in performance rating systems like LEED, Novoclimat and Passivhaus. They are also mandatory in some regional building codes, but they are not found in Earthships. Instead, an Earthship gets ventilation through what they call earthtubes, and ventilation openings in the roof.
In the Earthship Seminar 2009 video, Reynolds speaks of 'ventilation without heat loss' in winter, right before describing how it works - you open the greenhouse skylight and the hot air rushes out, creating a vacuum and drawing in fresh air through the earth tubes.
If you intentionally release heat you worked hard to collect, to me that qualifies as heat loss, especially if you have to compensate by burning fossil fuels to warm your house again. A good quality HRV can extract up to 90% of the heat from exhaust air; the 'earth tubes' in an Earthship extracts none. Depending on the zone you live in, you should even check the difference between HRV & ERV systems to see which to choose.
8. Passive heat vs. growing food:
Earthships are equiped with a greenhouse for producing food throughout the year. A humid environment like that should be kept separate from living spaces for home durability and the health risks mentioned above, in which case you would be choosing food production over passive heat gain in living spaces.
To know if that's really a good idea for the planet, you would need to realistically calculate how much food you could produce in that space compared to how much heat could have been passively generated and decide which improves your carbon footprint. We would argue for the heat gain.
To have any reasonable semblance of feeding yourself and your family you would need a garden somewhere in the area of 10,000 square feet. Growing a bit of food in your living room is wonderful, but it will not offset your carbon footprint anywhere near as much as a passively heated house would. Earthships don't produce anywhere near enough food to merit basing your entire home design around it.
The thing is, if you're thinking of building an Earthship you'll need a fairly large piece of land, so why not go for the healthier and more efficient passive heating option and build a greenhouse somewhere else on your property? The reason you can't is because it doesn't fit with official ideology and image.
9. The cost of building an Earthship:
This is not a cheap or easy way to build, period. Along with significant material costs, the labour required is nothing short of biblical in proportion as you will need to ram dirt into some 800+ tires with a sledge hammer.
Unless you have a year to kill and plan to fill those tires yourself, you will either need to pay someone to do it or have a small army of volunteers, which is how most Earthships seem to be built. This is a very powerful brand and there are no shortage of people willing to do hard labour just to be a part of it. Regardless of whether you pay them or not, this is an incredibly labour intensive way to build.
As for operating your home harmoniously using the aforementioned 'earthly phenomena', don't forget the cost of a woodstove, a generator, propane tanks, foam panels and tens of thousands for a solar array and battery backup system. You'll need a lot more than tires, dirt and pop cans. For an example of a Green Build that costs the same as a regular home build, see the EcoHome Edelweiss House.
Our conclusions on Earthships:
This is a concept born of wanting to tread lightly on the earth; we have nothing but great words to say about the motivation and ingenuity shown by Michael Reynolds in developing this building system some 40 odd years ago in a desert.
But it's hard not to conclude that he is now more focused on promoting his brand than the true cause of low-impact living. Otherwise the design would be adapted to specific environments and unnecessary elements would be omitted. Instead, he uses a loose interpretation of the laws of physics to create a very believable but inaccurate narrative to sell the Earthship brand and image in climates far beyond their functional range.
The leading edge of high-end Green home building design has advanced so far beyond the Earthship that it is simply irrelevant at this point. The same could be said of countless other brilliant inventions 40 years after their inception; pioneers in any field should feel proud when that happens. The Earthship deserves a place in the history books but it should also stay there, or at least stay far away from Canada.
For any design to really compete in Canada as a low-carbon footprint and high-performance building, it would need to include a significant amount of insulation, an airtight building envelope, triple-pane windows and a heat recovery ventilation system to name but a few features.
If you've read this far and are still hell-bent on building an Earthship, we would recommend installing at least twice as much insulation as he says, put it right against the back of the tires and put it under the floor as well (6 to 8 inches would be wise). Use EPS foam instead of XPS, it's much cheaper and will result in about 200 times less greenhouse gas emissions. And what is most desperately needed is an HRV or ERV for energy efficiency, durability and occupant health. If you have to, do all this stuff at night when he's not looking.
Some other reflections on Earthships around the globe:
''Most intelligent readers have an E.A.S. — that is, an exaggeration alert system (also known as a bullsh*t alarm). Unfortunately, Reynolds’ statements frequently set off my E.A.S. ''
- Martin Holladay Green Building Advisor
''The facts of habitation and performance in Mr. Reynolds’ presentation were very thin, all glossed over quickly as though they were undisputed truths ''
- Voussoirs Blogs on architecture
"The failure to insulate under the floor (on Reynolds insistence that is was unnecessary) was the result of the success of this strategy in New Mexico. Unfortunately temperature analysis of the Brighton Earthship has demonstrated that the lower ground temperatures in England cause an un-insulated floor to act like a bottomless drain on the internal heat rather than a store for it. The team have learned from this, but it is a mistake that could have been avoided had other advice been heeded."
"Because Earthships are not designed for their specific climate, they tend to have hot and cold spots. The Earthship literature tells us that “the average temperature in an Earthship is 70 degrees.” That sounds really comfortable, right? Except that temperature is based on an average of 365 days. The research and experience of many owners tells us that up to 70% of those days will include extended periods of over and under-heating - an Earthship is often hotter than comfortable between 10am and 7pm in summer and colder than comfortable between 7pm and 9am in winter."
-The myth of thermal comfort, from Hacking The Earthship Blog
Thanks for weighin in, and I'm curious how you think that is out of context - to repeat the quote from Michael Reynolds about that Earthship in Alberta - "the building has no backup heating whatsoever, it doesn’t need it”. 'No backup heating whatsoever' hardly seems accurate when the owner, sitting by a raging wood stove, says on a cloudy -15C day he has to have a fire going all morning to bring it to a comfortable temperature. (Here is the video)
According to that video (at the 1min 30 mark), 14°Celcius is a typical indoor morning temperature, which is not warm by any modern standard. Even with a wood stove and the sun beaming in it will take a long time to warm that much thermal mass. He also says in the video that it is a comfortable 20C, but Earthship advocates like to highlight the positive, so that is no doubt the temperature of the room he is sitting in and it could not feasibly reflect the temperature several rooms away from the fire that has been going all morning.
I would also point out that -15 Celsius and cloudy are hardly 'extremely rare' conditions in Canada as you suggest. This past winter over christmas, the temperature where I live barely climbed to -15°C for a stretch of about 2 or 3 weeks, with a lot of cloudy days in there. If I lived in an Earthship with no heat I would have had to wear winterboots and a parka the whole time, that would have sucked!
And I think you nailed in on the head when you say Earthships can be 'functional'. Yes, you can live in one in the north; people used to live in caves, tents, stone buildings, and we were still building unisulated wood framed homes less than a century ago. Those were all functional, but we continually improved them and built on the innovations of the past, making the previous generation of homes obsolete. So personally, I don't know why you would want to live in a house without floor insulation, balanced heat, or even an HRV to name a few of the more glaring deficiencies, it makes no sense to me. So make a case, I'm all ears.
Best regards, the other Mike Reynolds
Perfectly written for someone who has never lived in an eco-home. I live in and built my Earth Sheltered (not Earthship) home 6 years ago. We have massive concrete foundations and bare polished floors. The floors are cooler in the winter but only to approx. 15 deg. Celsius (59 deg. Fahrenheit) without heating the floor! That whole thing about 6 deg. Celsius floor temp is a load of BS! There are way too many variables in determining temperature of thermal mass (some of which you obviously missed). Oh by the way my house is LEEDS Platinum and is off-grid, and sells power back to the grid. One large part of LEEDS is durability...our vegetated roof should last ??? (Forever). Yes we use propane when we need it, but our biomass heating and solar thermal units work just fine thank you. We are extremely pleased with our "Hobbit Hole" and very comfortable when it dips to -25 here in Ontario. If you want to get real....just give me a call.
Great work on doing a green roof, and congratulations for an excellent LEED rating. Generating power and feeding the grid is a great thing to do, particularly in a region that is otherwise fed by fossil fuel generated power. Sounds like a great house.
I'm not sure what has upset you so much about this article if you didn't build an Earthship. Is it the suggestion that your house would be more efficient and more comfortable with floor insulation? Without a doubt you would burn less wood and your feet would be more comfortable if your floor was insulated.
In a passively-heated house we just built (also LEED Platinum and a very cold climate) we insulated the floor to R32, and with that amount it seems to maintain temperatures between 18 and 19°C in areas not exposed to direct sun. We hoped that amount of insulation might be enough for comfort without floor heat but included radiant tubing in case, and we are glad we did. We run workshops out of the house and the consensus among socked-feet participants was that 19°C wasn't going to cut it if they had to sit and listen to me ramble on all day.
It would be great if you could back up your claim about 'BS', and explain the 'variables' I've missed in thermal mass. In the absence of that, for the moment I will try to clear up the ground temperature issue the way I see it in your particular case -
You may not have a radiant floor but you are heating the floor, and the ground below you, the air of your house is doing that. The concrete floors in the thermal images included above also have no in-floor heat, and you can see that the floor temperature is higher with greater insulation. That's why your floor is only 15°C. If you were to dig down you would find the temperature gradually falls off until it meets the natural temperature of the Earth. Where you are that is likely somewhere around or below 6°C in winter. These are just the laws of physics, I don't write them, I just try to explain them in layman terms.
When I first asked our engineer if I could quote him in the article, this is the email I got with what he wanted me to include, and I'm still not sure if he was kidding. I couldn't bring myself to include it above, but for you Can Adian, I will. If you want to tussle over how thermal mass and conductivity works, this is the guy you are up against and you'd be braver than me!
Best regards, the other Mike
As per Denis Boyer -
"Thermal mass is explained quantitatively using a few material properties, namely thermal capacity, thermal conductivity and density.
Two values are derived from the 3 above-mentioned properties :
The effusivity E = square_root( λ·ρ·c ) which characterizes the ability of a material to exchange heat with its environment, and
The diffusivity D = λ ⁄ (ρ·c) which describes how deep a temperature signal at the surface will be felt in the material.
where λ is the thermal conductivity, ρ is the density and c is the heat capacity. Since these 3 values are intensive properties (i.e. they don't depend on the amount of material), both E and D are also intensive properties.
Using these values, it is possible to calculate the depth at which the temperature will stay constant given a sinusoidal temperature variation in the environment."
Can Adian, you are quick to assume what kind of homes MR has and hasn't lived in. I think I know of which home you are talking about, I would like to remind you that this was never officially certified LEED (without the 's'). Please don't make false claims otherwise.
Why wouldn't you just use a geothermal heat exchanger for heating ?
90% of the work could be done yourself saving a lot of money and you're not dependant on a fuel source.
Good question Brad, thanks - geothermal is great, but unless we're talking about different things here, its rarely something that can be done yourself - If you have a farm and your own excavator you can dig a deep enough trench to install tubing yourself, but short of that you'd need a well truck to dig holes and that doesn't come cheap. Geothermal can easily help you cut your bills in half, but typically the cost for installation is in the 30+ thousand range, so you'd need some pretty high heating bills to recoup that investment.
Conversely if you spent that 30K (or even just a portion of it) on more insulation, you'd be able to drop your bills way more than half. It's a great solution for heating, its just that the cost is so high you really need a big heating bill to make cutting it in half worth the money. So its a great idea for larger buildings like multi-unit residential or commercial. But for your average sized home your money is way better spend on a better building envelope. An example would be our Edelweiss demonstration home with a very high-performing envelope yet still had a below average construction budget. The affordable EcoHome Edelweiss LEED Platinum V4 home overview
The entire heating bill is under $200 annually, so if it took 30K for a geothermal system to cut that down to $100, you're looking at a 300 year payback period. And most of us won't even live half that long:) Best regards, Mike
I do know of a few hybrids that don't suffer from these issues quite as much as a pure New Mexico earthship might.
They are usually made with more modern materials, but still use the same principles.
For instance, below grade still works, but you put your insulation on the inside, with the earth as the cold side, which stays relatively constant. This is pretty much how all modern building is done anyway.
Hi Brill, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Many of the concepts are great, it just requires using them appropriately and in locations where they make sense, and not being afraid to adjust them as needed.
We're completely in favour of passive heating, recycled materials, growing food, water conservation, etc, when done sensibly and in a suitable context. There is a lot to be learned from the Earthship concept, but encouraging builders to adhere to obsolete design ideas and expensive counterproductive features in much more hostile climates is where Michael Reynolds is not doing his clients or his brand any favours.
And to speak to your comments about below grade applications (even more specifically in cold climates), there are ways to do that to your advantage as long as you don't follow a creative interpretation of the laws of physics, which the Earthship in its standard form unfortunately requires doing. A certain amount of thermal mass can be advantageous, but a 5 to 7 foot thick wall of it does more harm than good in the overall scheme of things. Regards.
Howzit Can Adian? I'm another Canadian, also in Ontario, wondering where you are. Do you give house tours? I'm suffering from Multiple Chemical Sensitivities & am in dyer need of a place to stay for this winter that won't make me bedbound. There is no medically required housing in the province for me & you'll probably be reading about me in the newspapers soon! Please pm me if you want more details as I'm also a sailor & world traveller!
Okay, so in your post here you say that having a greenhouse on your house house wouldn't be good because of the humidity, but is there a way to counteract that? Like if your house is all dry, you can buy a humidifier. Is there like an anti-humidifier that would fix that problem?
Also, any ways you can think of to adapt something like it for cold climates? I like the look of earthships, hobbit homes, and houses like Villa Vals in Switzerland. I was wondering how I would change those to make them work in northern alberta.
So, have you seen this now? Seems to address some of your points rather well.
Thanks for the question Kurage. You are thinking of a dehumidifier, most basements have them, but trying to dehumidify a house with an integrated greenhouse won't work. The problem lies in the same thing that makes them appealing - having it as part of your living space. Greenhouses have humid air, homes should have drier air.
There is no denying the appeal of living among sunlight and greenery, the problem is that attached solariums and greenhouses pose significant durability concerns in our climate and they do not result in a net energy gain as is commonly thought, but a net energy loss. So the reality is, you are better off from an energy conservation, home health and durability perspective not to have an attached greenhouse. So while I am a firm believer in living your life the way you choose, it's hard to weigh in with recommendations :)
I would first recommend designing a conventional building envelope with nice big, south facing windows and growing a bit of food there, but keep an eye on the relative humidity of your house. I would also recommend having a detached greenhouse close to your house instead, and incorporate solar collectors and thermal mass (among other things) to keep heating requirements as low as possible.
If you told me you already HAD an attached greenhouse, I would certainly help come with some tips for you on how to mitigate damage and heat loss, but it's sort of a tricky spot - like if you asked your doctor how many fast food cheese burgers you should eat in a day they would probably say 'none', but if you said you were already eating a bunch, they would probably have some recommendations for you. Here is an article that addresses that issue better - Solariums won't heat your home in cold climates article
As for doing Villa Vals or a hobbit house look, that is more manageable. That would be similar to a basement and a green roof, you would just need to ensure proper drainage and control of moisture movement through the walls. We don't have many pages to offer on that but I will see about getting some information together.
Most importantly, is that you decide on a wall and roof system that works properly, and is suitable for your climate. If you are really at a decision making point in a home design then please contact us at [email protected] and we can help. And here is our DIY green roof video in case that's of interest, best Regards, Mike Green Roof installation guide with video
What you posted above was one of the many Earthship videos I watched when researching, and referenced it shortly below the title 'Earthships in appropriate climates' near the top of the article. This is the house Michael Reynolds describes as - “A building that does everything for itself, totally off of every grid and they’re warm. It gets very cold (in Alberta) and the building has no backup heating whatsoever, it doesn’t need it.”
Notice at the 1:30 mark the owner is sitting by wood stove, talking about how they have had the fire going all morning to stay warm? How is that not backup heat?
Also, to say this is a building that "does everything for itself" is entirely misleading. Beyond the wood stove, it also has a propane powered cook stove, water heater and clothes dryer.
The only difference, is that most homes that cook and heat water with fossil fuels have a gas line, whereas 'off the grid' gas has to be delivered by truck that burns its own fuel. I don't fault them at all, they seem like wonderful people living the lifestyle they dreamed of, it is Michael Reynolds who makes false claims about their home.
I am not sure where you are in Ontario, but we have a House 30 minutes outside of Ottawa that was visited by a doctor and her chemically sensitive patient, she gave it two thumbs up. We would be happy to give you a tour.
We intentionally used natural materials free of volatile organic compounds and formaldehyde, you can find product links on this page - Formaldehyde-free kitchen cabinets, why they're important & cost comparison article
I know that if I only had that little fireplace heating my conventional house I would be freezing.
Probably no more than they are, your house likely has more insulation, and less thermal mass to delay the warming process.
On a cold, cloudy day with that much thermal mass to warm, he could feed that fire all day long and still most of the house would be cold. In the video they say it is often 14 Celsius when they wake up, but that it "bounces back up to 22 Celsius on sunny days". Maybe by the end of a sunny day, you just need to keep a winter coat on until late-afternoon. I really think it's a case of Earthship advocates being so enamoured by the concept that they have adapted to define 'comfort' differently than the accepted norm. If you like a house at 14 degrees Celsius then I guess an Earthship is comfortable.
Don't let this clickbate nay sayer fool you. There are plenty of functional earthships in the great white north. Even the example quoted of the Alberta home using back up heating is taken terribly out of context as if you actually watch the video you will see that this back up heating was being used in an extremely rare situation of multiple days of low to no sunlight.
Further more there are many styles and versions of earthships around the world designed to make them adaptable to the environment and geographic location. As such why is it so strange to see that this is the case i cold conditions as well.
sounds to me that you want to rip Mike Reynolds's earthship apart...earthship was not new in the 70s...hahahaha they are thousands of years old :0) they were build all around the Earth in cold climates too...I would not use any tires in mine that's for sure...I was born in Hungary, where winter is cold summer is hot....in the villages people lived in cob houses, very similar ideas as the earthship...and the concept is true, it is realatively warm in the winter and cold in the summer...What a waste of energy trying to disclaim someone, instead of showing how it would truly work.....your concrete example of floor heat is wrong, there is no concrete used in a healhty living home!!!! you missed the point my friend. don't just repeat people's words and argue about it! Build one!!!! all the best to you
It would seem I have touched on a nerve with that article, and yours is by no means the first angry response I have received. I'm guessing by the tone of this post (as well as the second repetitive and profanity-laced one that we deleted), that you didn't really read the article, or at least you didn't let it sink in. This is not a critique of long standing cob houses, this is about the 'Earthship' as a building system when it claims to be a smarter alternative to modern advanced housing in cold climates.
Yes, the purpose was to dissect this building practice to hopefully dissuade people from making mistakes. As for 'ripping' on its founder Michael Reynolds, there are kudos in the article for the positive contributions he has made in the building industry, which are quite specific to his southern desert climate.
An igloo is another brilliant house design, one that works very well when built in its northern place of origin. But if someone were to promote building igloos in New Mexico for example, I would feel equally compelled to warn them of the climate limitations of that building technique. I would argue that recognizing the limitations of a building practice is not an insult to it, that is just common sense and if anything shows it respect.
If you would like to in turn dissect my analysis of it I am happy to address any points you have if you can express them with reason, and without swearing.
I would first start by correcting you, as the Earthship was in fact invented in the 70s. You are perhaps thinking about passive heating and cooling strategies, which do date back thousands of years, as seen in the image below (read more about the origins of passive house design here). 'Earthship' is a trademarked brand name owned by Michael Reynolds and he built the first one in 1972.
And as mentioned in the comment above yours, yes, an Earthship can be 'relatively' warm and comfortable, but that depends on what you compare them too. They are not warm and comfortable compared to a properly-insulated slab floor in a cold climate, you only need to ask an Earthship owner to find that out, one reader who lives in one in Ontario said her uninsulated floor was a 'comfortable' 15°C, which few people beyond Earthship advocates would call 'comfortable'.
As for your issue with concrete and that it has no place in a 'healthy' home, then you can take that issue up with the other Mike Reynolds as well, Earthship floors are made of concrete, the difference is they are cold, inefficient and uncomfortable when built in a cold climate because they aren't insulated. Concrete has a high carbon footprint, so there is an argument to be made for its negative climate impact, but a polished concrete floor is inert and on its own has no negative health concerns, it all depends on whether you choose the best concrete floor sealant to apply. But on the topic of healthy homes, an uninsulated concrete floor (like in an Earthship) will be cold, and more prone to accumulating moisture and therefore mould.
And the entire point of this website, along with this article, is exactly what you suggest - to give people the resources to build healthy, efficient, sustainable and comfortable homes. Dispelling myths is part of that. Best regards.
Wow great analysis. Thanks Mike. You've done a service to other readers who want to approach this logically. I for one have been facinated with the earthship concept and really there is a lot to like about it. But I was skeptical that it would work as described in our great white north. While I enjoyed the documentary Garbage Warrior and admired Mike for what he has done I think he has gone too far in self promotion and does not handle his critics well. Some of his clients in England sure wish he had.
You've done a service to other canucks that's for sure. There is an earthship that went up for sale over 6 months ago in Ontario about 2 hours from Toronto. It's up on the eco homes website. I was surprised the owners would sell it only after buidling it in 2008. You would expect them to keep it for much longer than that. I can only speculate but I have a feeling it has something to do with a wind farm that was put up in that area since they built. I would welcome your other thoughts on superior building materials and methods for our Canadian Ontario climate. I have also had interest in Hempcrete, passive solar and straw bale. I'm sure there are others I don't know about. Cheers. Sebastian
Thanks for the positive feedback Sebastian.
You are right that there are some very unhappy Earthship owners in England that feel they were duped into building an uninsulated home, I’ve read of a few such cases. It bothers me to think of people investing everything they have in a home design that is based on pseudoscience.
There are a lot of great wall systems and insulation materials that work well in a cold climate, among those are hemp insulation, and straw bale construction systems as you mention, you just need to make sure you understand their strengths and weaknesses and build accordingly. If you are moving into the design phase for a house, feel free to drop a question on our advice column and we can work out some ideas with you. We have a page on insulation materials that can also help you make suitable choices.
We will be building another house in the very near future, this one will have dense-packed cellulose walls and be sitting on an solar air-heated slab. UPDATE: Our new demo house solar heated radiant floor is underway!
Hi, I have been wondering about the toxicity of the tires as well as storing potable water in plastic underground tanks that heat and cool - thus leaching BPAs and other nasties. Not to mention the moisture and mould problems.
I do question your analysis of the provinces moving towards renwable energy. Ontario relies heavily on nuclear which is certainly not renewable.
That said, I thought your analysis was clear with a touch of sarcasm and possibly sanctimony.
Thank you for the analysis as it applies to Canada.
Whatever the grid mix currently is in a given location, there is still a long-term trend towards renewable energy that will continue, even if a current government (like Ontario) chooses to ignore climate realities. And regardless of the grid mix, it is still better to feed off a gas line than to have fossil fuels delivered to you home in order to live off-grid. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Hey Mike, read the article, still planning on getting one built, but I still really appreciate the criticism and had a couple plans in store for mine in a climate not unlike Canada (it's in the Chilean Patagonia, but not inside the southern snowbelt, so maybe Vancouver?).
I wanted to say I felt reassured that the tweaks to the design you mentioned were things I've already included in my plans (insulated floors, insulation next to - and on top of - the tires, and properly sealing the tire walls to prevent off-gassing).
Since you're familiar with earthships in a similar climate I'd like to pick your brain a bit with a couple questions if you don't mind.
1) what do you think about heated concrete floors (water heated or electrical) as a way to offset heat loss to the ground? Also, I plan on installing wood stoves as well (unavoidable in this region) but Im curious as to whether they'll be necessary with the heated slab, what do you think?
2) The region where Im planning on putting mine receives a lot of rainfall about 8mo of the year, so the external septic tank drainage seems problematic to me, are you familiar with any pros/cons on this?
3) My plans include the first floor starting about 12ft from the original surface, with at least an 8in slab (including insulation and heating element), what are your thoughts on this design? Would it be more bothersome/costly than worth the trouble?
4) To be honest, the houses down here are wood paneled, styrofoam insulated matchboxes, that people heat with roaring wood stoves that only heat the room the stove is actually so any design that provides a better look at this problem (and that is faster and cheaper than an Earthship is something I'm open to investigating), do you have anything else in mind?
Thanks for your thoughts
Saludos desde Chile!
Going into it with eyes open and tweaking it to make it better is the way to do it. And a milder climate that most of Canada is a good thing. I will do my best to help with your questions, but as you continue ‘fixing’ what is wrong with an Earthship it quickly stops being one, so it’s a tricky thing to answer but I’ll try :)
1) What do you think about heated concrete floors (water heated or electrical) as a way to offset heat loss to the ground? Also, I plan on installing wood stoves as well (unavoidable in this region) but Im curious as to whether they'll be necessary with the heated slab, what do you think?
Answer: If it were me I would definitely heat the floor. Cold feet are not happy feet, and as concrete is a conductor, it will always feel cool to the touch even when insulated. Heating the floor will not serve to reduce heat loss, but it sure will increase your comfort and quality of life. A properly-insulated and heated slab floor is your best bet for health, efficiency and comfort. Whether or not you should add a wood stove depends on whether the heat source for the floor can meet the demand of the entire house. And if the power source is not particularly reliable I’d probably install a woodstove anyway, I have one along with heated floors and I like the security of knowing I can stay warm in a power outage.
2) The region where I’m planning on putting mine receives a lot of rainfall about 8mo of the year, so the external septic tank drainage seems problematic to me, are you familiar with any pros/cons on this?
Answer: I would not be able to speak to that unfortunately, I would be sure to follow whatever recommendations the local building code or inspectors demand.
3) My plans include the first floor starting about 12ft from the original surface, with at least an 8in slab (including insulation and heating element), what are your thoughts on this design? Would it be more bothersome / costly than worth the trouble?
Answer: This is where it gets tricky to answer so I’ll go about it in a general way – myself I would want an insulated slab-on-grade with in-floor heating, and 8 inches is about as much thermal mass as you will benefit from in terms of balancing heat on a daily cycle, so don’t bother making it any thicker. If you are asking if I think the cost and hassle of digging down to build with tires then backfilling it is more hassle than it is worth, then the answer is a firm yes. I would build on the surface and save myself a ton of headaches.
4) To be honest, the houses down here are wood paneled, Styrofoam insulated matchboxes, that people heat with roaring wood stoves that only heat the room the stove is actually so any design that provides a better look at this problem (and that is faster and cheaper than an Earthship is something I'm open to investigating), do you have anything else in mind?
Answer: It's very tough to weigh in on cost in an area so far away, but I haven’t read anything credible about an Earthship actually being affordable when you factor the amount of labour. I just don’t get the tire thing, it makes no sense to me. You either need to do it all yourself or cajole an army of volunteers to help you, which in your case would be even more difficult if you are fixing the flaws, as it stops being an official Earthship.
And to address the typical house you describe, yes, a poorly-insulated and leaky house could easily be uncomfortable even with a raging fire. But so is an Earthship – under the heading ‘Earthships in appropriate climates’ near the top of the article there is a link to the one in Alberta which needs a raging fire to bring it up from a chilly 14C, so the answer is not an Eathship, the answer is to insulate your house properly.
And since you asked, yes, I have something else in mind that in good conscience I need to suggest – build a heated slab floor as you intend, but keep it above grade, and like the existing houses, use wood to frame walls and whatever type of insulation is best suited to that area and that is available and affordable. But make sure there is enough insulation and that it is airtight.
Making a fairly open concept design with a centrally located woodstove should be fairly comfortable as long as you have enough insulation. I hope that helps Jose, here are a few other pages to read that may help. good luck and thanks for writing! please let us know how you progress, and whatever changes you decide to make. I will do my best to help along the way.
Hi Can Adian,
Very interested in building an underground home. Can you please share info on who helped planned, design, developed and permits, by-laws. How to get started,? What's involved?
Please email me at
Or anyone else who can help me with this
I'm with you on everything but the humidity/greenhouse issues. Having lived my whole longish life in homes with forced air heating in northern Ontario I really want more humidity in my house in the winter. I also want fresh, green food I don't have to buy in a grocery store. There must be a way to stick a small greenhouse on or near a home that could increase but control humidity in the house and still afford the opportunity to spend time in the sun growing at least a few trays of sprouts, some tomato plants and a bit of spring greens.
Btw, on the green building materials front, I'm thinking strawbale or stackwall construction with a solar/wind array to heat water in a boiler for in-floor radiant heat (and for household power needs). Thoughts?
If your home is extremely dry I understand the desire for some humidity, it's just a matter of finding the balance that is comfortable for humans but that won't damage your home. Below 25 RH you start getting cracked lips and nosebleeds, and up around 55-60RH you start getting moisture issues, particularly in the cold climates. That's another reason why the greenhouse part of the Earthship makes more sense under a desert sun than during a Canadian winter.
They're great to have, just not so great when they're attached to a house. So when you said 'on or near' a home, they're better to have 'near' a home. Here is a page on cold climate greenhouses that should have the info you are looking for.
As for your other question, the thing about a straw home is that it's very important to get it right to ensure it stays dry and mould free. We don't have a ton of knowledge on straw bale construction, but we do have this article on straw bale construction. With luck this may give you some more info.
As for generating hot water with wind or solar, you could stick a question in our advice column, and also enter terms like 'renewable energy', 'solar', 'solar thermal' or 'solar water heater' in our search box, there are articles in there that may be of value. we are also in the process of building our new demo house with the solar heated floor slab going in now, it will have thermal solar panels that heat the floor in winter but that also generate hot water in the summer. Best regards, Mike
Thanks for taking the time to put this up Mike. I've been very interested in this whole topic for years and came to your same conclusion years ago as well. I think the best places in Canada for an earthship- hybrid or not- would be the South Cariboo and Okanagan Valley down to Osoyoos, as it is a semi-desert that has a not-too-cold winter but is very sunny and has hot dry summers. In fact the climate and temperature ranges of the Okanagan are almost the same as Taos New Mexico where this all got started. Or the BC Gulf Islands, as they get the least rain on the west coast and have few days of freezing. I have a south facing piece of property on Salt Spring Island.
There was a Youtube video of an earth ship build in New Zealand and dozens of people flew in to "learn" when in fact it was just a free labour scheme. I spent 5 minutes, figured out that all the people flying in from all over the world polluted many multiples of CO2 and burnt fossil fuels, compared to the owner just pouring concrete walls. Plus it took a few months and all the food etc. Alone, I could have an ICF house up in 2-3 days, call in cement trucks and have a set structure up in 4 days. By myself.
On the note of ICF, I'd use single sided ones with the interior concrete exposed for heat gain along with an insulated slab, with the opportunity to heat it with solar thermal panels. Possibly ICF roof deck, for a green roof. And of course a calculated overhang so as to stop solar gain until a desired time in the calendar year. Could never work out how earthships deal with the massive solar gain in the summer with that greenhouse. I picture having a greenhouse off one end of the structure,but it would be sealed off unless it was warmer than the house. All of this just seems like common sense to me.
You’re right, if it were to work anywhere in Canada it would be our hottest and driest location like the interior of BC. But even there you’d best make a ton of alterations. And I agree with you that it is something of a scheme; you pay out of pocket to 'learn' how to bash dirt into an old tire with a sledge hammer, then hope others will come do it for you. That said, I imagine there is nothing but great intentions among those who volunteer, the ‘green disciples’ as he calls them.
And that is an interesting calculation about the net carbon footprint. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Dave!
Wow this was a great read including the 4 years of comments. Can Adian was sure pissed off...was hoping he came back on and replied to all the comments directed towards him. Great article and full of common sense ideas on what works and what won’t work in our Canadian climate. Not earthship related but there was a university professor in Ottawa who built an EcoNest home last year within the city. Wattle and Daub has always interested me as has cordwood, strawbale, rammed earth and earth bags...but not tires. Tires have never crossed my mind as something I would like in my house or on my land. Also loved your igloo comment...that was perfect.
Thanks Ryan! We're based in Ottawa and I know a couple of profs at Ottawa U and Carleton U so I may ask if any of them know of that house. We don't have a lot on our pages about rammed earth and I would be curious to see one. Best regards. Mike
I find your site both informative and inline with my findings. I was a builder in the Northumberland Hills (from Newcasltle to Trenton, MOL) from the late '70's till 2008 when I moved back to Central America (I spent my teenage years there) but, lately, I'm thinking of moving back to Eastern Ontario. I built my first home on an eighty foot bluff over Lake Ontario. It, basically, was a passive solar heated timber barn with an attached greenhouse. It was impressive and a heating and cooling disaster. Lived there 3 years, sold it and built the same thing again but earth-bermed and no green-house. That house worked like a charm. One of my all-time favourites. It had a lot of those features that you are recommending. I lived there for 3 years and then sold it. During that time I built about 5 more for clients but, unfortunately, most were a little tight with the money (like me) and, for the next 25 years, I built log homes for myself and others (much better financially). Sorry for the long winded story, but I am now toying with coming back to Eastern Ontario and building another variant of an earth sheltered home for myself which I am now designing in my spare time while waiting for my properties to sell. Keep up the good work. Dan.
Thanks for sharing that Dan and thanks for the kind words, I'm glad to hear you're enjoying the site. You sound like a builder that is not too proud to admit mistakes and to learn from them, so let us know when you are building a new one if you think of it, it would great to cover the construction of some sort of natural shelter that works properly. Best regards, Mike
I just wanted to compliment you on your article. It appears to be well-researched and gives sound advice. I can't tell you how many articles I've read about building houses that don't seem to include any discussion on insulation. I live in a climate with an 80C temperature swing from winter to summer (sub -40C in winter to more than +30C in summer). Insulation is kind of important. Even building in the desert you would need insulation so you don't roast in the heat of summer. My current home (small bi-level built in 1979) has an uninsulated concrete slab in the basement floor and I can assure that it is refreshingly cool in summer and absolutely freezing in the winter. That is with a high efficiency forced air furnace and triple glazed windows.
I took a look at that site, and it wouldn't be our first choice of construction methods but it looks like it would work. That is a SIP (structural insulated panel) of foam and metal, we always prefer to use FSC certified wood since wood is a renewable resource, and the embodied energy of metal is quite high. That being said, it does look like the metal would be recyclable at the end of it's life at least.
And we also lean towards natural insulation materials such as Dense packed Cellulose insulation or Hemp insulation whenever possible. But at least they are using EPS foam which is a huge improvement over the XPS foam which seems to go into most Earthship homes.
Thanks Barbara. No doubt an uninsulated slab in Edmonton would be highly uncomfortable in winter. If you want to improve your comfort and home efficiency and you have a bit of head room, it might be worth insulating and building up. Here is a page on healthy basement renovations in case it's of interest.
Best regards, Mike
I'm just reading into Earthship and other designs. I hope to build a eco-home sometime in the next few years (I live in Europe, currently renovating a 400 year old house, so I am familar with a lot of the concepts already)
Though this article, by the Other Mike Reynolds, has some solid points - such as insulation (serioulsly, how does you miss the need for insulation - floor or walls - in the northern climates ?), use of XPS foam etc, it also misses the point in some other cases so reads like it's a negative opinion piece rather than a fact based article, so I can see why EarthShip owners may take it badly. Thermal mass works, including in cold climates, you just need to do it intelligently. The sun will warm the thermal mass up, as long as it's insulated as well.
Water management, in any environment, can only be a good thing. Sure, in Canada, you might not need to do it to survive, but fresh water is a diminishing resource globally. And you might get clean water out of a well or other ground source, but why not use the grey water to flush your toilet and/or water your indoor grow space, regardless of the initial water source ?
Greenhouses (solariums) don't heat in winter ? The entire point of Earthship green house areas is it uses passive solar heating principles (maximised for winter sun, south facing, thermal mass..), even the link in the article says they can work, if designed correctly.
I think you catch my drift.
The basic Earthship concept is fine, it just needs to be adapted. Most, if not all, of the issues would be resolved with use of correct insulation. For where I am situated, we get heat waves of up to around 40c in the summer, and down to -15c in the winter (actually hit -23c at one time for 2 days in a row, but that was extreme) . I do wonder how the passive cooling Earthships employ would be used in humid climates.
Having said all this, I am surprised Mike Reynolds (the Earthship one) take so long to adapt his design - or realise insultion is needed. It's like he has all the 1970's concepts in his head, but hasnt taken a refresher course in the last 20 years or done research into modern techniques and concepts.
Thanks for a good read!
I'm interested if anyone here support the idea that EarthShips can be built everywhere and still work can explain to me how they could work in Sweden where I live?
Sweden has, in my opinion, great climate. Summers are hot and winters are real. During winter we get down to -30•C, the ground freezes about 10-50 cm down and we have only a few ours of sunlight every day. Add to that that during winter it's often cloudy, so we can easily have a month that is more or less in darkness.
Exactly how would an Earth Ship work here? Traditionally people built log houses in sweden to be able to survive.
There is really no climate where we would recommend anyone build one as there are much more sensible and 'eco' solutions for any climate around the globe, and certainly much better options for a climate such as yours.
As an example I would sooner point you in the direction of something like our LEED V4 Platinum Edelweiss House, which is built in a climate not unlike your own, and that house also experiences temperatures as low as -30 C as well. It is compact in design, airtight, passively heated as well as very efficiently heated. It would be far more healthy, efficient, comfortable and durable than an Earthship, and it would likely cost less as well to build as well as operate.
Ultimately you should focus on airtightness, an excellent thermal envelope, high efficiency ERV or HRV, and certainly a well insulated slab floor. None of those features find their way into Earthships unfortunately. We just built a new demonstation house in Wakefield Quebec that we sat on a slab floor designed by Legalett, they company orignates in Sweden, so right there might be a suitable starting place!
I was fully on board with earthships for the past year or so, till a near-crushing realization today stopped me: why is almost every earthship rented out when they finish building? Why aren't the majority of videos by live-ins? What's wrong with Earthships, there has to be something sneaky.
I don't know, the place I'm moving to has averages of 12" rain and 82% humidity yearly. Dry, I'd have to truck water in to fill my barrels, but humid and apparently moldy. Down to an average winter low of 19F. I may have to revert back to a heavily insulated geodesic dome plan.
I just can't find so far an honest long term assessment of earthship living.
I think the problem Jack, is that it is less about building an eco-friendly, sustainable and healthy home, and closer to a cult mentality, so I think it is hard for people to admit afterwards that it was a mistake. If you just dropped a quarter of a million dollars on one AND enlisted all your friends to help you build a house out of old toxic tires, you may be reluctant to admit that it is nothing like the brochure said.
So instead, you may find yourself huddled up by a wood stove talking about how it heats up by itself, and I guess hoping people don't notice the raging fire beside you that is required to get it up to a livable temperature.
If you build an earthship in a humid climate that drops to 19F, it will be cold, miserable and moldy. So it sounds to me like you have having a realization just in time, so breath a sign of relief and check out our building guide for more sensible ideas, and build yourself an energy-effient and healthy home. You can also pop a question on our discusion forum for more tips if you like.
Definitely. I live relatively sustainably as i go, so the actual building itself I don't care about sustainability-wise. Temperature regulation is my top non-negotiable priority. I was i to earthships because i was under the impression that they stayed comfortable year round.
A tour guide on youtube mentioned Mike's many lawsuits, brushing them off as 'the temp was a FEW degrees off what was promised,so he had to pay out via technicality'. The same guy said that Mike lives in an earthship, while other sources say he lives in a regular home. So there starts the subterfuge.
I'm very likely going with a monolithic dome instead. My building site is 82% average humidity, 90 in the summer.
Earthships are generally either too hot or too cold, so if regulated temperature is your thing, then an Earthship ain't your thing. You'd be best with a home that has a lot of thermal mass, but done properly. You also sound like a candidate for radiant heating as well, that is generally the most comfortable heat source. Here is a page you would probably enjoy - How to design a home for human comfort.
Thanks! Your web page was the tiebreaker to my indecision and saved me assloads of money and laborious building.
Just going to address your concerns about polyethylene rainwater storage tanks. Virgin polyethylene, which is what the rainwater tanks are composed of, are 100% inert - meaning that they are totally non-reactive and do NOT leach BPSs into water. Polypropylene, which is what the clear water and soda bottles everyone uses all the time, DO leach BPAs. I know this for a fact as a long time experienced rainwater harvesting system installer and distributor of tanks. We have underground polyethylene tanks that we installed 25 years ago that are working fine, and the rainwater tested (after particle filtration and UV sterilization) is far more safe and pure than any tested city, municipal, or well water it has been compared to. Try getting more information from places like the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association website to verify.
So I came across your article this morning via a Google feed and found quite a bit of it slanted and misleading. As a resident of Taos County, New Mexico I live not 20 miles from the primary Earthship Community known as Greater World. I've known the "other" Mike Reynolds for at least 25 years and am extremely familiar with Earthships as I have supplied Earthship Biotecture with the polyethylene rainwater catchment tanks that they have used in projects in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and even British Columbia among other places in the US and beyond. I've also been a licensed General Contractor and sustainable builder for almost 30 years.
The first problem I have with your article is that you categorically claim that "Earthships do not work in cold climates" and that they are not suitable for cold climates, only "dry deserts like New Mexico". Clearly you have no idea of what the climate in the Taos area is like. Greater World is located at close to 7000 feet elevation a couple of miles from the Rio Grande Gorge and in a high mountain valley surrounded by the southern Rocky Mountains not 10 miles to the east and the San Juan Mountains to the west. This area gets very cold in the winter, with 0 to 10 below degrees F common in winter. In fact, it has been in the 5 to 10 degrees F night time temperatures this entire week of late February 2020 and the daytime highs have been in the low 30s. If you go into an Earthship at these temperatures you will find yourself comfortably warm. The reason why is twofold - 1.) extensive south facing glass with solar gain; and 2.) the base concept of using the earth berm to the north with the ambient temperature of soil below the frost line of about 55 degrees. The earth is the primary insulation, although the roof absolutely does need insulation (as would any building in any construction style). In years of living in this area and being in contact with Earthship owners, not once have I heard any complaints about being them being too cold in winter. Warm in summer? They do get warm but between the opening of windows and the more recent idea of cooling tubes being placed into the berm, most people feel comfortable all year round. I'd also like to note that there are numerous other Earthships built at elevations up to 10,000 feet here in NM and in Colorado that have had no issues that I know of in colder weather.
Except - a lot of the information that "this" Mike Reynolds put forth is not accurate!
Very interesting. What's your view on offgassing tires? I can't find a solid stance. I've seen reports that theres nine/harmless, and found reports that they're toxic. I can't find a straight answer. Youtube comments of people who had tours said that they could smell tire when it was hot inside.
I haven't personally smelled off gassing of tires in professionally COMPLETED Earthships. I know in our relatively unregulated area od rural New Mexico earthship hybrids have been built WITHOUT the tires being 100% covered by stucco or some kind of membrane and yes I could smell a tire off gassing.
BTW I have a Prt 2 dealing with rainwater collection (my specialty) but for whatever reason I have been unable to post it as of Thursday evening 2-27-10. Tried since this morning.
Thank you Charlee, I'm including your points for clarity, my responses are in bold :
The first problem I have with your article is that you categorically claim that "Earthships do not work in cold climates" and that they are not suitable for cold climates, only "dry deserts like New Mexico". Clearly you have no idea of what the climate in the Taos area is like.
My apologies, let me clarify a bit - They aren't even a good idea in New Mexico. It is such a flawed design, that there is really nowhere that people should build these. I was just trying not to be too confrontational.
The Eartship website claims (or at least did until I pointed it out) that ground temperature is 58F, as mentioned in the article above, which is not the case in cold climates. They may *work* in a variety of climates, but so does rubbing two sticks together to start a fire, that doesn't mean that is a sensible use of time ever since matches were invented.
If you go into an Earthship at these temperatures you will find yourself comfortably warm.
At a precise time of the day, I'm sure they are. Even a stopped clock shows the right time twice a day. I like a home that is comfortable ALL the time, and a clock that works ALL the time.
The reason why is twofold - 1.) extensive south facing glass with solar gain;
which is separated from the living space and vented out, or provides a huge influx of humid air into a living space (okay in a desert but foolish in humid climates) but go on...
and 2.) the base concept of using the earth berm to the north with the ambient temperature of soil below the frost line of about 55 degrees.
No, which is explained above. I don't write the laws of physics, I just relay them, and build homes respecting them. The earth temperature (at the depth homes are built) is not even close to being a constant 55F.
The earth is the primary insulation,
Dirt is a very poor insulator, and not separating you home from the ground with a suitable level of insulation is pure folly.
although the roof absolutely does need insulation (as would any building in any construction style). In years of living in this area and being in contact with Earthship owners, not once have I heard any complaints about being them being too cold in winter.
No, you likely haven't. I think Earthship dwellers are so enamored with Mike Reynolds that they have redefined 'comfort' to consider 57F or 14C like the Earthship in Alberta, 'comfortable'.
Warm in summer? They do get warm...
Honesty! Thanks for that.
but between the opening of windows and the more recent idea of cooling tubes being placed into the berm, most people feel comfortable all year round.
Remember that *most* people that live in Earthships have redefined 'comfort' to include a much wider range of temperatures. There are much easier ways to keep a home naturally cool in summer and warm in winter, and with far less fluctuation in temperature.
I'd also like to note that there are numerous other Earthships built at elevations up to 10,000 feet here in NM and in Colorado that have had no issues that I know of in colder weather.
"that you know of" .... again, this boils down to the simple fact that Earthship dwellers seem to redifined comfort, so it is no surprise that the complaints are limited.
Thank you Charlee for addressing the question about the safety of water quality from the storage tanks. I would have no issue myself with drinking water from an approved storage container. That said, they are still an unnecessary use of resources and a pointless and expensive solution to water storage when you can simply drill a well and use water stored in the earth.
As for your other questions Tara - you are wise to question the toxicity of the tires. To my knowledge there has been no credible air testing done in an Earthship, with any luck Charlee will be able to provide us with some.
On Ontario power - currently about 33% of Ontario energy is renewable. Hard to say about the return on investment, bu the addition of solar panels to a home in Ontario is an environmentally responsible one in our opinion.
And... Sarcasm? Yep, a little :)
As for being sanctimonious, if that is what you go from it I am not offended, and if you find my attitiude a bit sassy, please know that it came after watching countless hours of Michael Reynolds' own sanctimony spouting his junk science to stroke his own ego and talk good people into building horribly designed and unhealthy homes. There are a few links in the article, have a look and you will know what I mean.
Glad to hear it Jack! Thanks for your comments below Charlee, much of them are based on your personal experience, and have been addressed. I thank you for admitting that you have a 'skin in the game' here in that you profit from the construction of Earthships. I have no interest here except to help people build sensible, healthy and environmentally responsible homes, that's my personal 'slant'.
About your comment Charlee Myers - ''I haven't personally smelled off gassing of tires in professionally COMPLETED Earthships.''
I haven't personally smelled radon gas, nor did the untold thousands of people who die each year due to radon contamination in their homes. When there is some credible air testing done in an Earthship please pass that along and I will update the page to say that living in a stack of old tires will not lead to dangerous indoor air quality.
You 'personally not smelling' air born toxins Charlee, is not good enough for me to raise my child in such an enviroment, and given that you are affiliated with and profit from the construction of Earthships, I find it very reckless of you to suggest that since you can't personally smell something that it is therefore harmless, when someone is asking about the potential toxicity of living in a stack of old tires. This is exactly the kind of irresponsible comment from Earthship promoters and profiteers that offends me to no end.
Charlee Myers - are you aware that Earthship Belgium has switched to using bags instead of tires for health reasons?
Thanks for your replies. I am not a huge advocate for Earthships but I do know a bit more about them than you do and I know people that have lived in them for 25 years with no health problems. This is just a fact. As for off gassing - unless you have testing results than your guess is as good as mine.
This site did not allow me to post the second part of my comments that applied to my specialty, rainwater collection systems, although I've tried several times. Your concern about cold weather climates is not served by the silly picture of an above ground olive barrel fed by a gutter as shown in the article. That barrel would freeze solid in any cold climate and is a poor example of sensible rainwater harvesting in cold climates. Virtually all cold climate rainwater systems should use underground tanks. FYI - I've installed hundreds of rainwater systems over the past 25+ years and also am one of the co-authors of the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association Rainwater Harvesting Manual that is used to certify installers across both the US and Canada. Also for the record, both my home, built of the ICF known as Rastra block, and my business structure, a 40x60 metal building, are 100% supplied by rainwater which despite our @15 inch annual rainfall provide pleanty of water for all of our needs. One thing that cannot be argued is that the Earthships have a well designed rainwater catchment system and an innocative wastewater system.
Thanks for posting the website, I'll check that out. Even if i don't go with Earthships, I'm still interested in harnessing rainwater.
About your comment Charlee - ''I know people that have lived in them for 25 years with no health problems. This is just a fact.''
It is equally factual that I'VE known people who have smoked for 50 years and not gotten lung cancer. Does that in your mind negate the preponderance of evidence that cigarettes are linked to lung cancer? Will you now feel safe smoking? I should hope not. I apreciate the sentiment but there isn't any relevance in such a comment.
And yes, my guess is as good as yours in terms of the health inpacts of living in a stack of old tires, the difference is that I lean towards caution when I make recommendations to would-be homeowners to safeguard indoor air quality to protect the health of occupants. And there is enough evidence to show that living in a pile of tires is a health risk, so much so that tires have been banned from use as a building material in many countries, and at least one Earthship community has already heeded that advice and no longer builds with tires.
And kudos to you for working in the field of rainwater collection, there should be more of that, particularly in dry climates. But I completely dissagree with you that small scale solutions aren't of value, if anything they are more valuable.
That type of barrel you find so silly takes all of 20 seconds to turn upside down in the fall and another 20 seconds to turn it upright in the spring. For all of $75 it allows any homeowner to harvest rainwater, which will reduce the amount of water they direct towards storm sewers and reduce the amount of municipal or well water they use to irrigate gardens. There is no need for excavation of your yard to install one, and no need for expensive pumping systems.
And not everyone even has space for such a system, where a rain barrel (or several as they can be installed in sequence) can be installed in most homes including row houses with the tiniest of backyards.
It would be wonderful if we all had the untold thousands of dollars it must take to hire a professional like yourself to set up an undeground rainwater storage tank, but we don't. The point of that image is to show that sustainable resource use is available to anyone.
Yes, Eartships have a well-designed rainwater catchment system, and in areas with insufficient ground water that is very sensible. Many non-Earthship homes use water which is filtered by the earth and stored in the earth, that comes from a well.
This back and forth with you reminds me of some wise words from one of the developers of the original Passive House in Saskatchewan -
Passive is better than active, simple is better than complicated, and moving parts fail.
I really appreciate this article as i just learned about earthships recently and was very interested. Yes, the designs need to be adapted for every climate that just makes sense. Im not an idealogue, i want something that works. Earthship people shouldnt be mad, he just wants better designs. Dont you guys? This is a very complicated idea, id hate to go through the building process only to find it doesnt work.
Im in CA, so my climate is much different. But this is the first critical thing ive seen about them. Thanks.
There are already much better designs is the thing. In the early 70s, the Earthship was a great step in the evolution of housing. And the VHS was a great step in the evolution of home entertainment, but Netflix is here now, so we don't need to drive to blockbuster, rent a movie then drive home, or build Earthships.
The idea of 'fixing' the Earthship is like trying to 'fix' the Blockbuster business model. There is no point, the market has moved on. High-performance housing, passive heating, home water conservation have all moved so far ahead that ''Earthship building plans'' are as valuable to the housing industry as a "how to fix a VCR" manual is to home theater.
So in California - go for passive solar, but DON'T attach a greenhouse to the front, let that heat into the home. Include lots of thermal mass inside the envelope (insulated from the ground, NOT integrated WITH the ground) Build below grade if you like, but design the wall properly. Use an HRV for fresh air, choose building materials with low toxicity, put PV panels for power, rainwater collection would be great, build a greenhouse beside your home to grow food!
To heat with solar but in a comfortable way with balanced temperatures in the house, see our recent LEED Platinum prefab demo house with a solar air heated floor. That house has a fraction of the carbon footprint of an Earthship, it's healthier, more sustainable, uses less environmentally-harmful building products, it's more affordable to build, uses less energy to heat and it will last longer.
This is what it looks like. You can live below grade if you like, but being above grade is sorta nice too, and you'll never have mold or flooding issues.
I think the majority of people are upset about the tone of your argument. I also think people are confusing your specific dislike of Earth heated homes in Canada, vs. a dislike of natural building materials in general. Puting a house in frozen ground doesn't make a lot of sense. If the frostline goes beyond 18inches (sorry I'm in the states) there are better ways to build passively.
I was most triggered when you were poopooing water collection, retention, and reuse. Lol. But for me there are other reason I think it's smart to check out of the grid, (like, the power company can't just roll a blackout on me) or my water has only what I put it in. Is it more work? Yes. Am I taking on risk? Yes. Also I would like to say, most people are choosing to build off grid in areas where there is no grid. If you are building an earthship where it isn't ideal, and you don't have too,(where power,water are available) is abit pretentious, and I can see where the author is coming from.
Hi Holly, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I would like to clarify a few points since I think we agree on way more than we disagree on, first -
No pooping on water retention in there, quite the opposite in fact. I say it is foolish to set up an expensive plastic high maintenance system when you can dig a hole and get freshly filtered water from the earth itself, and I stand by that. It’s cheaper, easier, less materials required, no less maintenance, more eco, full stop. I go on right after to describe how easy it is to collect and reuse rainwater with a link to read more about how to do that much more affordably.
If you want off -grid, go for it, pop that term in our search box and you'll find tons of helpful articles and products. In cold climates (and even warm ones I believe) these are not off-grid by the way, not do they heat themselves as Mr. Reynolds refuses to admit (which is the likely reason Earthshippers don’t like my tone, no one wants to admit their emperor has no clothes).
A Canadian Earsthip has to burn wood and propane to cook, heat water and stay warm. If you need deliveries from propane trucks, you aren't off grid! And propane is a fossil fuel! Most homes that burn fossil fuels get it from a pipe in the ground, Earthships need big diesel trucks to deliver it and there’s nothing ‘eco’ about that.
The Earthship 'Green disciples' are always mad at me, but those that read this before wasting their savings on this are usually incredibly grateful that I helped them avoid a disaster. I'm okay with that balance.
Thanks for your thoughtful post Holly. If you want to build an eco-friendly sustainable house that is an alternative to the Earthship, but one that actually is eco-friendly, healthy, efficient, sustainable, off-grid, affordable, passively-heated, you have a personal and genuine offer to help you do that. Pop a question in our ‘ask an expert page’ about "How to fix the Earthship" or something like that, and you and I can design an eco-earth dwellings together. All are welcome, let’s use common sense and keep what makes sense about the Earthship and ditch what doesn’t. Sound good?
And BTW - the house in the comment above is way more eco and sustainable than the Eartship, and could be taken completely off grid with solar panels. Check out the solar air heated floor it has if you really want to know how to harness the suns energy to heat a home. Heat is the biggest challenge with off-grid living in cold climates and that solves the problem.
Wouldnt cost be an issue Re: drilled well vs storage? I know from pricing a well it was north of c$10,000 where a storage system was in the neighborhood of c$ 5,000 =/- if installed by myself
i watched the tail end of mike reynolds and his crew building a earthship for a woman on the six nations reserve outside of brantford, ontario in canada. it was a humanitarian project, meanig they did it for free as this elderly woman had been living in poverty in a trailer for years on the indian reserve. i wonder how this is holding up in canadian winters? it's about the southern most part of canada so doesn't get the extreme colds more northernly regions do, but it can still get quite cold. it would be great to hear from the woman herself, but i don't know her and was only visiting family from ny and have no way of contacting her
Her quality of life will probably be better in that than the trailer she lived in before.
no doubt about that. my wife and i had planned to visit the greater world earthship community this summer and stay a few nights until covid hit. we were also going to visit arcosanti as part of the road trip. one of these days i'd like to take one of your courses - keep up the good work!
John Hait, passive annual heat storage. That is the critical piece missing to explain how an "earthship" type design can work in at least some parts of Canada without supplemental heat. The 20ft of earth surrounding the structure is kept dry and insulated and achieves somewhat comfortable temp year round. That said, I agree with much of what is said here otherwise
Hi other Mike Reynolds, I enjoyed your article. Esp re: growing produce and a nod to the true cost of a decent solar system! I grew up in New Mexico AND lived in a wonky off the grid house which spawned my first book: Utilities Nearby: Musings on the Off Grid Real Estate Scene of Santa Fe, Taos & Northern New Mexico. 2019. People assume just because its sunny in NM that off grid will be a complete delight and practically “free.“ I’m no Debbie Downer, but I was the Craigslist ranter on NM off grid rentals for a while. I get how the pandemic further attracts many to the “sustainable concept.“ (minus generator). Kudos to those that can handle off gridding in Canada. This is great info people. As an aside--is anyone truly growing bananas to feed an entire family from their NM green house? Pls write me. Does anyone actually grow 100% of their own food at home? Dabbling with tomato plants to a annual food supply, that’s some serious gardening time. Thanks!
I would look to what actually IS being done in the great white north. And don't forget Jean pain in the greenhouse.
I would agree that the Earthship model made for climates in the south US would not work here. However, that is not to say something couldn't be constructed. We have someone outside of Pincher Creek, Alberta (who passed away last month) who successfully used geothermal energy to heat his shop and pyramid. I believe he has two patents on his inventions. I hope to see more examples of homes that coexist with Mother Nature.
HI Jes, you sort of hit the nail on the head with your question about the bananas :)
Its a cute gimmick and nothing else. Yes, with effort, you can grow a banana in one, but you can do that in any window with the same efforts. There is nothing magical about the Earthship greenhouse, so it can't produce any greater selection or volume of food per square foot than any other greenhouse. You would stare at that banana plant for weeks or months and have a celebration when you peeled and ate it, then you would be hungry an hour later and have to wait months for the next one. There is simply no way to feed a single person, let alone a family, with a greenhouse that size. That's where this turns into 'green washing' in my mind, it gives people false expectations.
The ideas behind what the Earthship company attempts and claims to achieve are nothing short of wonderful. We fully agree, homes should take advantage of the cycles and energy of nature, this just doesn't unfortunately.
Hi Adam, the only way it could work in Canada without supplimental heat is with extreme levels of insulation, which they don't include. Our Engineer, Denis Boyer, did his thesis on just such a theory, and he determined that yes, it is possible to maintain a relatively comfortable home temperature year round in the Ontario / Quebec climate (meaning, somewhere between 16 and 24 °C ) using only passive heating, cooling and thermal mass, but the R values required to do so are about 10 times what I was able to find in any Canadian Earthship case study.
There is also a limit to the amount of thermal mass that is functional for storing and releasing heat. Think of it like Oregano in a sphaghetti sauce. It is an important ingredient, but more isn't always better. The amount they include inside the envelope actaully makes it perform worse.
I have taken on the challenge of a retrofit of an existing home (built in 2002) to make it an "Earthship" in Ottawa. This is a bit more difficult than building new but I have acchieved most of the ideal requirements except growing of food.
The YouTube gives a feel but since it has taken 5 years so far and I keep adding more each year, the performance keeps improving.
Hi Mike. Under '2. Reducing Pollution' you state that 18.9% of Canadian Electricity is made by clean power. Isn't it well over 50%? Or do you mean 'Energy' instead of 'Electricity'?
Mike, In one part you show the thermal gradient of the ground under insulated and uninsulated slabs and show heat escaping down several feet without insulation. In another part you poo-poo the idea of putting the back wall insulation 7 feet behind the tyres to give create more thermal mass because dirt is a bad conductor, claiming only 6-7 inches of dirt would show temperature fluctations. My bullshit alert started flashing with sirens at this point. I wouldn't even consider building an earthship in Canada, more of a passivhaus fan personally.
Read it again more carefully Phil and I'm sure it will be more clear. What I wrote was that 6 or 7 inches of thermal mass inside the building envelope is all that will really show temperature fluctuations over a 24 hour cycle.
That is an entirely different matter than the heat loss that you would incur from an uninsulated floor in Canada. Heat will continue to move from warm to cold as long as there is a termperature differential, so that heat loss from an Earthship floor in Canada doesn't happen in a day, you will be dumping heat into the ground all winter long.
Great comments and feedback. Loved the article and the comments by all. Personally visiting and staying in earthship branded homes in Taos, I can see the appeal. I think the point most are missing on the premise behind the ES movement, is the belief mankind is currently facing a "run away event." Your choice to believe the current circumstances warrants a domicile that has been proven (in certain climates for the article) to be more or less passively sustainable and or (arguably) economically feasible. IMO More so- gives the green movement more boots on the ground is a good thing. I've met the @realryanreynolds in Taos, and the dude is old school in his thought process regarding updated build materials, but he gets the nod from me.
I wasn't going to comment, but this was the first search item that showed up and was hardly related to my search. I find this disturbing because Mr. GreenP here is one of the most negative people I`ve read in a long time and I believe this article is well presented "disinformation". I believe this is an attack on the earthship movement, a morally righteous movement that has been banned in a lit of the United States, if not all of them. Next on the agenda is to stop it north of the border. I used to trust Greenpeace, but not anymore. They would block Canadian oil tankers from leaving port, meanwhile letting in the dirty oil from Saudi Arabia. They are now better know for spreading distractions, disinformation and serving an undisclosed agenda. I'm curious why the author writes temperature in Fahrenheit but claims to be an expert on Canadian climate. To use a blanket statement like, "Earthships don't work in Canada.", the author likely thinks we take dogsleds to work and sleep in igloos. Many places in BC, AB and other provinces have very warm climates that have orchards and vineyards. Would an earthship not work where fruit already grows? The title of this article is simply incorrect. All the problems presented could be easily improved upon with some minor adaptations the author deliberately isn't mentioning. I'm not buying it, and I hope this comment stays up to prevent this slander.
Hi Dan, thanks for you comment, hope you feel better getting that off your chest! I will address your points in no particular order -
I write in both Fahrenheit and Celsius for clarity since we have readers all over the world that use both scales. Personally I live in Quebec so I go by Celsius.
We don't know much about oil tankers. Except they carry oil. We don't like them though.
We are in no way affiliated with Greenpeace. But we do share their dislike of oil spills.
I am aware that Canada has warm seasons, including Alberta, its not the warm seasons that are the real problem.
Yes, we are hoping to stop homes designed for a desert at the northern border of this cold climate. We would also encourage not building Igloos south of the border. Glad you picked up on our motive : )
You are right, all the problems with an Earthship can be fixed. That's why I wrote the article, to help people avoid making terrible mistakes when building a home. You say I 'deliberately' don't list how to fix them, please see right above 'conclusions' where I listed 9 point list on how to fix them. Did you really read the article?
Ecohome built a home in Northern Quebec that won a ‘house of the year’ award from Green Builder Media and was called the Most Resilient House in North America by Alex Wilson, founder of the Resilient Design Institute. Earthships were designed to be built in a desert. Go with your gut in who you choose to trust.
Great to hear that it shows up first in google ranking, thanks for letting us know.
Yep, happy to leave your comment standing.
You may be better to have the *real* Ryan Reynolds build you a house than the *real* Michael Reynolds! He's for sure old school, and I think in his heart of hearts he likely means well, but I think he became too enamored with himself and can't recognize that there are much better ways to build now. He started a great movement 40 years ago, but that movement badly needs some new blood to bring it into the modern age.
All that is beside the point when you claim to be an honest author while having an incorrect blanket statement starting your very long and negative article. The whole thing seems like a personal attack on one man that devoted over 40 yrs of his life to get more people off grid. You're not looking like the good guy here. The fact is that there are already functioning Earthships in Canada that work. You could have wrote, "Earthships don't work WELL in Canada". By your title alone, the rest of the article is based off an incorrect opinion that shows up first in Google and may inadvertently stop people from trying to go off grid all together. If you are who you claim you are, this article hurts what you stand for. It should be taken down just for the title, or at least renamed. I wonder why so many are commenting? I suspect this article (from 2016) is being bumped to top because of the damage it causes for the off grid movement. I think you may be getting indirectly paid by natural gas companies. That's my opinion.
Click bate doesn't make good authors. You'd do well to remember that.
Correcting your false assumptions is 'beside the point'? Fascinating, but moving on...
It's pretty obvious you didn't actually read the entire article Dan, you certainly stopped reading long before my list of design flaws that could be remedied to fix the Earthship since you claimed I 'deliberately' didn't include any.
If I offend a few readers or 'green disciples' while pointing out the obvious falsehoods Michael Reynolds continues to spread, I’m cool with that. I feel I gave him sufficient accolades for the good work he started out doing, but that does not excuse the harm he is causing now by leading people into building poorly designed homes based on junk science.
And, you stated how Michael Reynolds "devoted over 40 yrs of his life to get more people off grid". Do you think that's a good thing? If an 'off-grid' house has to be build a long drive from society and needs a truck to deliver propane, it ain't green. Better to buy a condo on bus route if you want to lower your carbon footprint. Building a house off grid is a personal decision we respect and help people do responsibly, but being 'on the grid' is a more environmentally responsible decision. You will also find that explained in the article above if you decide to read it.
So, I will ignore your insults and extend the same invitation I have to others - we can discuss any point in the article where you think I’m of base, please just actually read it first. And include some sort or actual argument or statement of fact, currently you’ve offered none.
There are more comments than I care to read, especially as many are knee jerk reactions from people apparently married to an idea so strongly that they refuse to consider any discussion for fear of realizing that they just might have been wrong on some points. A huge part of what I got from your article was an admiration for the advances to more efficient housing design that the other Mike contributed through developing his earth ships. You have simply made a series of excellent points as to why a design from the 70's that worked in a particular environment will not work the same in a totally different environment, and in doing so you too have made a valuable contribution. How anyone who so admires the contributions of one person can dump on the well reasoned contributions you have made is beyond me. Even if everything you said was clearly wrong I would say kudos for putting your thoughts to print, though frankly I doubt that I could find anything you said to be anything less than completely logical. As we travel the world we see that people have gravitated towards building practices that best suit their environments given the constraints in materials, technologies, and wealth they face. I contemplate buying property in a tropical rainforest where earthquakes are common enough. An earthship would not be wise there either. I would want to find out what the soil temperature is, but if it is 80º for example than I would still like to explore an earth bermed or buried home using earth bag construction, but wouldn't dream of not insulating it while struggling with deciding just how much thermal mass to include, the purpose being to keep the home cool enough. Now, if I discovered that the soil temperature was around 72º all year, well, I suppose I could save the cost of insulating. The humidity there is close to 100% and the common means of mold prevention is to have constant circulation, but for bedrooms, sitting rooms and the like I would prefer to make those areas air tight and de-humidify the air I bring in as that would be both more comfortable and more healthy. My point is that we need to be very careful in deciding how to design our homes by ensuring we are intelligently addressing the actual environmental factors at hand. Your naysayers should take a moment to think. Imagine an extreme example of building an earth ship (or any earth bermed, uninsulated structure) in permafrost. Hey, they work everywhere, right, so knock yourselves out if you are so daft to ignore common sense. So, please accept my gratitude for writing a well thought out critique on a subject that I do think needed to be addressed. And to any further readers quick to dismiss articles like this, think before putting your reactions to print. At the very least, why not start with thanking the author for sharing his opinion, especially given his clear intention of preventing the rest of us from making expensive design errors.
Thanks Jules. The angry comments don't upset me, they actually fascinate me for many of the reasons you point out. I apreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts and support!
you do realize Earthship-Michael Reynolds said in the documentary that it gets down to -30 in the Taos desert winters...
i'm not sure if this has been brought up because I only had the patience to read half of your comments.
Looking to build a house for myself, I like the concept of an earthship and have found many of my concerns echoed in your article, my thoughts are to build an earthed bermed icf house with insulated and heated floors and a greenhouse on the front sharing an exterior glass wall. My thoughts in this are that the heat loss/gain to the earth or the greenhouse even at 6c or 7c would be a more constant and easier factor than the summer and winter extremes of air temp. from -30c to +30c as for rainwater collecting 1 tank for watering plants should be lots and is better than hard water from a well or even treated soft water.
Also have questions about solar air heated floors vs. solar glycol heated floors and the efficiency of air to carry heat and heat the floor evenly
The ground against a basement wall will for sure help balance temperatures year round, it just needs to be insulated which you will have with ICF. If you're going down to -30C then you're obviously pretty far north, so you would benefit from even more insulation, something that works on ICF well is ThermalWall rigid insulation panels that are designed to be attached to ICF walls and boost the exterior insulation significantly.
The greenhouse on the front will cut into your solar heat gain as you have to choose between introducing extremely humid air into your home (not so good), or not transfering that heat to the house.
As for the Solar air heating vs hydronic, that would be better if you don't mind to pop into the discussion forum.
Thank you, Mike. This is a huge service you've done.
While the goal is zero pollution, anything that is done to lower your footprint is very helpful. It can be done, but it would be very uncomfortable. Passive heat is just that, and much of the time, it is not enough for comfort. You can live with it, but there is a point, we are are not saints.
The real problems came when the suburbs were being built. Cookie cutter homes are not efficient, they are put on the land facing the street, not the sun. Civil engineers used to design and custom build homes and they would be sited to take full advantage of sunlight, prevailing winds, shade from the trees nearby, etc. Most of these were well known centuries ago. Thermal mass, getting airflow throughout the home by opening a vent at a high point to get rid of hot air in the summer, opening drapes in the morning to heat up thermal mass and closing them at night to keep the heat in are all great ideas that seemed to get lost in suburbia. Many of these ideas are very good ones, but others like rocket stoves(that have to be fed every 10-15 min), are OK, but not reasonable. I would build with a basement with south facing slanted windows to dark colored concrete for thermal mass with a thermastatically controlled opener/closer for the drapes, and a vent window/fan at the high point above the staircase that was also controlled thermostatically. Having honeycomb drapes for insulation, dual and tri-paned windows and doors and insulation in exterior walls with trees and shrubbery for shade and low eyebrow or patio covers over the south facing windows and doors, would do a heck of a lot. You would be amazed at the people that don't have this on their homes.
Earthships absolutely do work in cold climates, all the way up to Fairbanks, Alaska. It's disingenuous to suggest that earthship has only a narrowly specific meaning defined a corporate trademark, when nearly everyone since at least the 70s has understood it to mean the abstract concept of an efficient house based on Earth sheltering and solar gain, not even a specific embodiment of the idea. So then, is it possible to use the Earth to maintain a higher temperature inside during the winter than the air temperature outside? Is it possible to heat the house using solar gain? If the answer to both of these questions is yes in your climate, then the earthship works in your climate.
I fully agree with you that many people have understood 'Earthship' to mean a general concept, but you are mistaken. Earthship Enterprise Inc. is a brand and they profit from courses, lectures and selling designs, and they hold patents on their designs. You are not the only one with a romantic notion that clouds the reality of what is happening, and that is the successful marketing and image protection of a for-profit business.
If you wish to encorpate some design features from Earthships into a home, that is a great idea and our website is full of how to implement such solutions from passive heating and cooling, using thermal mass, harvesting rainwater water, growing your own food, renewable energy generation, material recycling and reuse. That can all be found for free in our pages, but unlike the Earthship brand, our pages are full of different suggestions based on different climates and you are not ecouraged to implement costly, false or pointless design features in order to further a brand's exposure.
Eartship Enterprises Inc. still spreads the falacy that a natural transfer of heat from the ground will warm a home in all climates. That is absolute poppycock, sorry. If you are going to build a house in Fairbanks, Alaska with no insulation in the floor (as promoted by Earthship organization for decades) hoping that the frozen tundra will warm you, be sure to save enough money for a parka, sleeping cap and some well-insulated boots to walk around your house in because it is going to be rather chilly.
Amazing how you totally miss the point that you're supposed to adapt the concept to the environment available. Kind of how several other countries have done. But enjoy your excuse for entitlement
It makes sense somewhere warm like Equator to live under ground. Atrctic circle above ground and the less ground contact the better. 45N North America half way in between. No berm and one should insulate floor to R72 for 3 days no sun. I am building a masonry earthship, no berm, no tires, 6/12 monosloped roof, and masonry heater. But on pause while I dig and start building a root cellar. Under the spot where the snow last the longest on property. 2 foot thick walls Richardsonian Romanesque 20' tall windows between columns 32x72 on earth ship size. Building a 32x24 section at a time. 8" concrete block Vermiculite in open cores, low perm one way moisture barrier, 6 inches of 2 kinds of mineral wool, another low barrier, 2" air gap and limestone rip rap veneer 12" batter to 8". R60+ with metal roof. Ground temp 48 degrees F. Insulated foundation than thermal mass over it. The concrete block could be replace with dolomite next 2 sections. All built to current code. Code was changed to allow boat and rv smoke detectors for off grid d.c. electric situations in U.S. Hoping winter sun will hit north wall in winter. The 32"x32" masonry columns should creat shadows to help circulate the air too. Code only allows 20" masonry column with out enigneer, using flat truss on columns to get the 4' to peak. Windows will be plum. D.c. led lights.