sustainably built home

Off-the-grid, sustainable home built from recycled materials

Earthships – custom-built, off-the-grid, radically sustainable homes built from recycled materials – are blasting off around the planet. Now one has landed in Australia.

Conceived in the early 1970s by architect Michael Reynolds of Taos, New Mexico, Earthships have since landed in every state of the US and nearly 20 countries on five continents. Thanks to Martin Freney, a lecturer in industrial design at the University of South Australia, Australia’s first Earthship has now touched down at Ironbank in rural South Australia.

A 30-minute drive from Adelaide, the Earthship Ironbank is built from earth-filled tyres, bottles and straw bales, uses solar power, rainwater, recycled greywater and recycled sewage and runs completely off the grid. The dwelling, completed in early 2015, was built to accommodate two people, took five years to build, is council-approved and was constructed almost entirely by volunteers.

"Earthship Ironbank will be a bed and breakfast open to anyone who wants to experience Earthships, says Freney, and it will be a test site where I can continue my Earthship research. Earthships are made only from natural and recycled materials and draw nothing from local water or power sources. They require no conventional heating or cooling but are comfortable in any weather. It's a wonderful solution to many of our modern problems."

Though each Earthship is highly individual due to the different materials used in their construction – and many are highly creative in their design – there are six principles that make an Earthship function like a living, breathing building that do not vary:

  1. Electricity from wind and/or solar power.
  2. Water catchment from rain or snow.
  3. Heating and cooling achieved using a combination of solar gain (warmth from the sun), thermal mass (building materials that store the sun’s warmth) and convection (air flow for warming and cooling).
  4. Grey water recycling and sewage treatment.
  5. Food production indoors in an internal greenhouse and outside.
  6. Construction using only natural and recycled materials.

Earthship Ironbank includes all the features you would expect in a standard home, plus additions such as a hot tub and walk-in wardrobe concealed behind a mud wall inset with recycled bottles. Filtered greywater from the sink, shower and bath is used to flush the toilets and irrigate food-producing plants in the internal greenhouse. Rainwater, collected off the roof, provides drinking water, and sewage water flows into a septic tank for filtering and later use for watering the gardens.

Electricity is produced by solar panels and stored in batteries. Photovoltaic panels convert the sun's energy into DC current electricity which is stored in "golf-cart " type batteries.

An Earthship Power Organizing Module (available pre-packaged from Earthship Biotecture) draws electricity from the batteries, inverts some of it for AC electricity and supplies it to the home. Freney, however, says very little electricity is required as the tyre and earth walls provide thermal mass that soaks up heat during the day and radiates it at night during winter, while in summer the orientation of the building provides protection from direct sunlight, and cross-ventilation allows cooling breezes for natural air-conditioning.

Heat generated in the north-facing greenhouse is also released through top opening vents, while cool air is pulled in through tubes buried beneath the structure.

Freney points out that a wood-fired combustion heater has been included in the living area, not for any functional need for additional warmth but purely as a romantic touch.

Earthship founder Michael Reynolds’ company, Earthship Biotecture, encourages people around the world to learn how to build sustainable housing on their own (that’s the Visitors Centre pictured above) and also completes several relief projects every year in poorer countries hit by natural disasters.

As a young architect, Reynolds felt that modern homes failed to meet the basic needs of their occupants and, in the early 1970s, he began using old tyres as a construction material and forming ‘bricks’ from recycled cans by pounding used cans into moulds. Reynolds’ dream was for others to be able to build their own home, without using expensive materials, having all the conveniences of a modern home without any reliance on local infrastructure.

Power Organising Modules (POMs) and Water Organising Modules (WOMs) as used in Earthship Ironbank, designs, structural drawings and more can be ordered from the Earthship Biotecture site.

Owners of Earthships report they have little or no mortgage payments to worry about; no electricity or gas bills or water rates to pay; the pleasure and health benefits of having their own supply of fresh fruits and vegetables year round; and a less stressful life overall.

Taking a look at many of the amazing Earthships already built, many of these people are also privileged to live in unique and extraordinarily beautiful homes that will last well into the future with little or no negative impact on the environment.