One of our staff finally got a chance to be an intern on an Earthship building project. The intern shares his impressions of the event as well as describing what goes into an earthship that makes it such a self sufficient dwelling. First and foremost an Earthship is thermal mass. Thermal mass keeps temperatures nearly constant. It seems the earthship designer's idea was to make as much thermal mass as possible by using dirt filled tires then coating with countless bags of Portland cement mix. The intern will discuss several topics ranging from daily tasks to the finished earthship.
It took place in north east Wyoming, USA. The state of Wyoming has a very low human population density and is mostly open range land for cattle. It is mostly low rolling hills several several mountain ranges, including those contained within the Yellowstone National Park and the Continental Divide. The earthship build was on the north east slope of one of the mountain ranges just 8 miles west of the town of Buffalo. The husband and wife restaurant owners had been planning the earthship for over 10 years. Us interns, from all over the USA, came in on the second and final stage of the earthship build. The shell of the structure, including the tire walls and roof, were in place when we arrived.
The earthship was set into the top side of a hill that dropped off at least a couple hundred feet with beautiful views of pine covered peaks surrounding the property. The owners ranched a herd of Yaks on the property, which were harvested for meat and fur. The yaks, from the Himalayas looked very much like cattle, but, according to the owners do not damage the land as much.
The area is also open range for many wild animals such as antelope, deer, marmots, wolves, mountain lions, and coyote.
No experience was required. We just learned as we went. Most of the building tasks were very simple. We were encouraged to be involved in as many facets of the finishing phase as possible. Many photographs were taken of various walls and such as completion of the earthship progressed.
If you are not accustomed to carrying heavy materials, the first two days are brutal. We were carrying buckets of sand or buckets of cement mix to be applied to the walls. After, day three or four your body starts to get stronger, but you may still be sore and tired. However, as we developed our skills and the finishing layers became thinner, we got stronger and the work became easier, and productivity increased. The Earthship crew explained that we were acquiring skills that we could pass on and teach others. The owners reduced the pain by offering food and beverages each night after work. On the first Friday they even invited us to free dinner in their restaurant. The earthship crew also stressed that you only need to build one and its done forever.
We became very familiar with sand, Portland cement, and water. At various stages of finishing the walls, the mix was called different names. If we were filling in spaces between tires, or stacking can walls, the mix was called mud and the process was called pack out. If we were putting on the finishing layers of the wall it was called plaster. Typically, mud was thicker and we would slap it against the wall to get it to stick.
The other main ingredient to the walls was soda and beer cans. These were used to fill in spaces to reduce the amount of cement mix needed. Aluminium cans were used essentially in two places: between tires and to build interior walls. Where two dirt packed tires lay next to each other, a v-shaped space exists that needs to be filled with material to make the wall flat. So enough mud was slapped into the crevice to hold one can. Then, after allow the mud to set, another layer of mud covered the can, then two cans were pressed to the mud.
The other use of cans was for building interior, non-weight baring walls. The process was to slap several hands full of mud on the wall, then use pinched cans to compress the mud into place. The process continues until the wall reaches to ceiling. Nails or screws are applied to the ceiling to adhere to the mortar in a zigzag fashion, called "porcupine".
Several jobs were declared, so that one intern could be doing something completely different than another one. Some were dedicated to mixing cement. Some carried buckets or wheel barrels of materials such as sand and mud mix. Others became skilled at mixing, even to where they could refine to the wall finish stage. Some dedicated themselves to wall finishing. Still others spent time doing floor finish and digging trenches for plumbing. Towards the end of each day those who were finished with their task would help others that were trying to finish a section they were working on. It was great teamwork all the way. Everyone was enthusiastic about working on an earthship, even though they may have been tired.
The number of interns that registered for the event was far more than actually showed up to work. We were short about 20 people, so the Earthship crew focused on finishing the big items that needed to be done. This included the flag stone and wood floors, and the black water - septic system. Most of the walls still needed finishing, but we left them to be finished by the owners. Most of the house floors were to be covered with large pieces of red flag stone, which required skill, patience, and physical strength to place. Each of the four main Earthship crew members took one room: Seth did the largest room. which was the living room, along with 4-5 interns. Vince did the greenhouse walkway, which was about one meter wide by 12 meters long. Michael worked on what they called a floating floor in the master bedroom. The floating floor required a perfectly flat layer of sand as its foundation, wide painstakingly required more than two days to complete. Mike had the help of two hired wood carpenters. The other bedroom was completed with flag stone by Damien.
Beautiful pieces of red flagstone were laid on a bed of 5-6 inches of cement. The cement mix for the flagstone floor included one inch sized gravel with the normal mortar mix we had been using all along. The pieces of flagstone, some 2 by 3 feet large, were fitted in place first, then removed. Then the cement was laid down and the flagstone fitted again. Water was applied to the bottom side of the flagstone before laying it on the wet cement. A level and mallet were used to remove air pocket and assure the piece was flat. Some pieces needed to be cut with a power blade, which made the house very dusty.
The black water system is simple in concept, but difficult to install on this earthship build because of its location. The earthship was set into a cliff wall that was supported by a wall of tires, so there was limited space to dig for the system. The earthship black water system separates solids from liquids, uses the liquids to feed nutrients to plants, thereby simulating the cycle of life in nature.
The black water trench was difficult to build because the ground under and in front of the earthship was fresh loose fill from other parts of the property. The trench needed to be dug along the outside of the front of the greenhouse. One side, 22 feet long was dug and the system installed. Then it rained overnight, while the other side was still open. Large chunks of loose fill fell of the house side of the trench and put the home in jeopardy as well as cancelling valuable time spent digging the trench the previous day. The weight of the rain water must have pulled down the extra fill material in to the trench.
A number of observations were experienced while being an earthship intern. These are things you wouldn't realize by reading a book or web page about earthships. These observations range from the differences between earthship building and conventional construction to the people who work on earthships.
First and foremost, our impression of building an earthship is that there is no magic to it. All systems are very simple, and most are done with bare hands. Its almost like venturing into a previous century. Most energy is spent applying layers of thermal storing material, such as cement and soil, to create as much thermal mass as possible. From a resource point of view, the entire crew of about 20 people spent most of their time packing walls, finishing floors, and moving heavy materials around, while one person was dedicated to systems (plumbing, electrical, and so forth) installation. So, to build an earthship, you must be in good physical condition, or be able to hire a manual labour staff to help you out. Without a strong desire to be a part of an earthship build and what it stands for, the physical shock to your body the first three days can be overwhelming. Many interns, not expecting such a large physical outlay of energy, quit during this acclimation time. However, if you can sustain the initial aches and pains of the first days and keep your motivation level high, your body will get stronger, and then you'll realize you could do things you never thought of before.
An earthship is built to be abundantly self sufficient. That includes heating, air conditioning, food production, water supply, as well as waste water treatment. The earthship solves these problems by embedding the structure in earth and using as much temperature fluctuation dulling material as possible in the outer walls and floor. To achieve water supply, it harvests rain water from the roof and retains it in storage tank buried in the earth behind the house. To reduce water use, the earthship uses the same water three times before it is exhausted outside. The first use is as in a conventional home when you wash your dishes or take a shower. A water organizing system, pressurizes the stored water, so that you have a strong stream of water coming out of your faucets. The grey water goes from your kitchen sink or bathroom drain to a trough filled with soil growing plants. Water circulates through the garden, cleansing it enough to be pumped into the toilet tank. From there the same water can go into an outdoor planter for further cleaning. Sometimes the outdoor garden is replaced by a septic tank, depending on local building codes. However, more filtering can be done so that the leach field that peculates to the water table is non-polluting.
Interns came from every corner of the country. All different ages, religious beliefs and occupations were represented. From listening to the reasons why these interns were interested in earthships was not carbon reduction, so much as they are dis-satisfied with the current economic system that we are in. Many, including crew members desire to live in communities where your value is not determined how much money you have or how many things you have, but what you do help your neighbour when he/she needs help.
Two young brothers and a retired navy officer lead the building of the earthship. The retired navy officer, Michael, had a very strong personality and was an excellent teacher. He seemed to understand every aspect of earthship systems and construction, and could explain them very well in layman's vocabulary. The two brothers Damien and Seth have over 20 years of earthship building experience. The three of them make sure everything is done right, train the interns, and try to keep the project on schedule; while assessing and remaining flexible according to the overall intern's skills. There may be 35-40 interns that show up for a project, so its an intricate juggling act. However, with enthusiastic interns, who are willing to chip in and give it their best effort, its makes their job much easier.
Michael explained that the Greater World concept goes way beyond sustainable building. Oft times, a community member will host a weekend work party, in which neighbours will come over and work on the house the whole with only a BBQ cook-out as compensation. However, when someone else in the community needs work done they'll have no qualms about dropping over to help out.
Another point Michael made about earthships is that they require a certain level of physical adjustments. For example, ventilation must constantly be adjusted to keep the home comfortable. You must manually open the roof shutters to allow air to circulate on hot days. Some homes even have caps on the underground geo-thermal vents that must be opened and closed periodically. You must also be more conscientious of your water use. He manually captures face basin and kitchen sink water and manually caries it to his garden plants. He would rather use a manual pump for his cistern than an electric one. He says this keeps you physically active, which is good for your health as you age.
The interns came from New York City, Florida, Kentucky, California, and many other places around the USA. Many have intentions of building their own earthships someday. The gentleman from NYC said that earthships could be a solution to low cost housing for dis-advantaged citizens. Another intern from Colorado said she wants to build a flower shaped earthship, with six U-shaped room surrounding a circular room in the middle. Does she want to build this for herself? No, she wants to provide community services for the homeless and weary traveller. She wanted to help other get back on their feet by providing work-for-board services.
Yet another gentleman who served in the military on tours of duty to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places around the world. He became disenchanted when he realized that he was not fighting for the right causes.
Tags: Earthships, Alternative Building Materials, Tire Walls, Portland Cement, Recycled Cans, Off-grid Living, Thermal Mass, Greenhouse, Grey Water, Black Water, Ventilation, Cistern, Solar Panels, Rainwater Catchment