What Is an Earthship Dwelling?

Photo: Larry Myhre/Flickr.

Would you live in a home with walls made of old tires and recycled soda cans? What if we told you that the home would also come with solar panels and rainwater collection systems, be totally sustainable and be completely off the grid?

That's the Earthship in a nutshell – it's not a ship but a house, built entirely of natural and recycled materials in a completely sustainable manner. Earthships refer to the natural world like no other homes. They get all of their energy from the sun or wind turbines and all of their water from the natural environment. Sewage is treated naturally, while heating and cooling come from the sun (Earthships are heavily insulated, making them extra efficient to heat and cool). Even your kitchen can be off the grid in an Earthship, as you can grow all of your own food in, on and around the dwelling.

The brainchild of architect Michael Reynolds, the first Earthship was created back in the 1970s as a model of "radically sustainable living." They've come a long way in the ensuing four decades and are now being built all over the world, using plans from Reynolds' company, Earthship Biotecture. Reynolds has also written several books on how to build Earthships and offers frequent lectures about sustainable living around the country.

Most Earthships are lovingly made, do-it-yourself projects. Although many Earthship dwellings are located in fairly remote places, there is a community that has built up around these sustainable homes. Many Earthship residents maintain blogs about their construction projects. Others open up their doors so others can tour their homes or see the Earthships being built. The community also gives rise to massive volunteer efforts, such as one coming up this October to build an Earthship community center in Malawi, Africa.

Reynolds recently told USA Today that there are about 2,000 Earthships around the globe, and more going up all the time. "They are becoming increasingly mainstream because everyone is becoming more aware of climate change and dwindling resources," he said. "This is something that actually works and does not need fossil fuels."

Earthships vary by location, since they are built to suit the needs of each site using local materials. Many are built into hillsides, making them look kind of like Hobbit houses. Some are two stories high, while others look more like little bunkers. Large windows to let in natural light are common, as are greenhouses or enclosures for livestock. Some Earthships are testaments to the design styles of their owners, while other buildings are situated in sites where residents can enjoy wildlife or natural beauty.

While less expensive than traditional buildings, Earthships aren't cheap. It costs about $200,000 to build one – assuming that your local building code will allow to do it in the first place. Many owners spend years putting their homes together, so don't expect to move into one tomorrow. But once built, Earthships seem to quickly pay for themselves in reduced (or nonexistent) energy bills and home-grown food. Then you can sit back and enjoy.