Earthship homes: Living off the grid
Rural Virginia seemed an unlikely place for a green dream, as Melina Winterton and Larry Peck discovered when they told contractors they wanted to build an earthship.
“You want to do what?” was the common reply.
“They thought we were building a garage at first,” Winterton says.
No, they were building a home. But this wasn’t something out of science fiction.
Earthship homes, the creation of architect Mike Reynolds, have been around since the 1970s. Typically they’re solar-heated buildings constructed of tires that recycle water and are off the electric grid.
“They are becoming increasingly mainstream because everyone is becoming more aware of climate change and dwindling resources,” says Reynolds, the founder of Earthship Biotecture based in Taos, N.M. “This is something that actually works and does not need fossil fuels.”
There are about 2,000 earthships around the world, Reynolds says. Events such as 2012’s Superstorm Sandy illustrate the advantages of not being dependent on a traditional electric power grid. “We now have a client in midtown Manhattan,” he says. “It’s our first in a major city.”
As well as saving energy, homes with contained sewage treatment have the potential to solve pollution problems facing a number of U.S. cities, Reynolds says.
Many of his ideas are being used in more mainstream homes, particularly in the western U.S., which gets more sunlight to power homes.
Reynolds is a pioneer to Julee Herdt, a professor of architecture at the University of Colorado. “Mike Reynolds got people thinking of new ways of doing things,” says Herdt. “It’s good if you start extreme.”
Herdt also has developed homes made of bio-materials. Her Boulder, Colo., homes use 70 percent less energy than traditional homes. Solar power is popular in Boulder because it means lights remain on during power outages.
In contrast, the eastern U.S. is behind when it comes to sustainable homes, something Peck and Winterton, who have since moved to California, learned.
$200,000 to complete
An earthship home was a natural progression of an ecological lifestyle for Winterton. She is from a family of Greek farmers for whom sustainability and living off the land is a way of life. “We were composting before composting was cool,” she says.
In suburban Silver Spring, Md., the family grew produce and kept bees in the backyard. When Winterton moved from Maryland to Virginia to be with Larry, they wanted to live “off grid” and considered geodesic domes and yurts before opting for an earthship.
“We wanted to live near a lot of wilderness,” Winterton says. “That was important to us. We had little children and animals.”
Undeterred by skeptical contractors, unsympathetic banks and local regulations, the married couple built their earthship in Suffolk, Va., near the Great Dismal Swamp. It was the first permitted earthship home in Virginia.
They initially hired a contractor in 2003 but parted company because of a late delivery and did the rest of the work themselves, occupying the home in 2004 as they continued to work. “The contractor thought it was some kind of joke,” Peck says. “It was hard to find people understanding the vision of what we were trying to do.”
It took nearly five years and more than $200,000 to complete the 1,600-square-foot earthship and install windows, floor tiles from surplus pieces of granite, the 800-square-foot greenhouse, the indoor greenhouse planter, the porch, the green roof with its rainwater system and the kitchen with a sink salvaged from a restaurant.
The couple couldn’t get a mortgage with rainwater as the sole water supply; when they added a well, they obtained a mortgage.
There were other concessions: The local health department wouldn’t allow blackwater planters that use toilet water, so the earthship has a traditional septic system. Blackwater from the septic field was used to grow hay that fed chickens.
The earthship ended up being more mainstream than traditional earthship homes because of compromises to meet local regulations. For example, concrete was used instead of tires to comply with local building codes. And the home is “bermed,” packed with earth on three sides. Reynolds’ company offered design input, including advice to install the south side gallery of windows to maximize sunlight.
Rainwater was collected on the roof and stored in cisterns. A solar heater provided hot water. Grey water from the appliances and sinks was used in the greenhouse’s indoor garden.
Insulation provided by the berms, sunlight and a wood burner kept the house from getting cold, even in winter. The coldest the house ever got was 63 degrees, Peck says.
Summer in Virginia was another story. One day the temperature rose to more than 100 degrees and they “broke down,” in Peck’s words. They added air conditioning. The earthship was connected to the grid from the outset to power some appliances. But even with air conditioning, the family kept power bills to $100 per month. Earthship dwellers typically pay no utility bills.
The house was wired for a grid-intertie, which can connect solar systems to the electric grid and feed back excess energy. But the costs prevented the family from moving forward with the system.
Earthships can now be kept cooler by using air vents combined with angled windows to maximize the sun’s energy in the winter and keep out intense rays in the summer, says Reynolds.
From earthship to California
Feeling that Virginia was not geared to sustainable homes, Peck and Winterton moved to Berkeley, Calif., in November 2010 to live a car-free lifestyle. “We were green, living in the country in the conservative South. There was not a lot of support,” Peck says. “We were tired of being a light in the darkness.”
Today the Virginia earthship home is rented and also on the market for $350,000. Winterton says its selling points include low utility bills ($100 a month) and no water bill, beautiful views and a greenhouse that’s 80 degrees and warm on the coldest days.
The couple didn’t install solar panels in Virginia, but their new home in Berkeley will be solar-powered. California provides more financial incentives for solar panels than Virginia. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 12 energy companies or localities offer rebate programs for renewable energy in Virginia. That compares to more than 100 in California and 50 each in Colorado and Oregon.
The couple’s biggest regret is not hiring an architect in Virginia. Winterton says an earthship could be better built using Reynolds’ plans and a contractor. At times she misses the home, which she believes is a realistic sustainable-living model for families.
“You don’t have to be living in a tent eating tofu to be environmentally friendly,” she says. “The house was a calendar and clock. … We could tell what day and month it was by how far into the house the sun would come. That was awesome. It was like living in a sundial.”
BUILDING AN EARTHSHIP
Earthship homes are designed to be fully sustainable and use natural and recycled building materials (tires, bottles, stucco, etc.).
What to consider
- Compromises on materials might be required to meet local building codes.
- Each state and the District of Columbia use the International Building Code but local bodies handle approvals differently. For example, an alternative method approved in New Mexico applies statewide. But in Colorado each county has the authority to interpret alternative methods.
- Local deed restrictions may not permit earthship structures.
- Banks are often unwilling to lend money for earthships. Earthship Biotecture recommends shorter-term loans: personal loans, small business loans and lines of credit.
- Earthship Biotecture homes range in cost from the Simple Survival Earthship for $25,000 to the Phoenix Earthship at $1.5 million.
Source: Earthship Biotecture (earthship.com)