The so-called Earthship is defined by a heavily windowed south facing wall passively absorbing the sun’s heat; a north facing wall buried in several feet of soil to create thermal mass; load bearing tires packed tightly with 300 pounds of soil; a botanical cell for growing vegetables indoors; and the means to generate electricity on site.
While the term “Earthship” is trademarked by architect Michael Reynolds and officially refers to the design he championed in New Mexico, it’s often applied to the spin-off structures he’s inspired across North America, some of which stand in the Maritimes. Reynolds is sometimes referred to as the Garbage Warrior given that his Earthships rely heavily on recycled materials, and suffer few, if any, bills.
Island resident Jayden Charlton was one of many inspired by the Garbage Warrior, and while sustainable housing in general always held his interest, Earthships are where he started.
“I was striving for the fewest bills possible,” he said, “and I saw Earthships were producing all their own electricity, food, and if you do it right you can seriously lower your heating requirements.”
In 2014 he assisted friend Jordan Cameron to build an Earthship in Wellington Centre, PE, to the exact specifications set out in New Mexico, and in 2016 began building his own in Cavendish, this time experimenting with personal designs. Only recently did he finish, leaving him with an informed perspective on the destiny of Earthships in Atlantic Canada.
The Local Climate
“I think they need to be tweaked,” said Jayden.
While the trademark design of Earthships in New Mexico might be ideal for that climate, it’s Jayden’s opinion that those built in Canada must consider the changing angle of the sun each season, and the swings in temperature that entails.
The more authentic Earthship built in Wellington Centre, for example, has an array of vertically set windows which allow sunlight to heat the house year round, but it also has a second array of windows set at a 45 degree angle, inviting still more warmth depending on the time of year.
“It can be tropical in there,” said Jayden, quoting temperatures of 30 °C in summer as well as in winter. He did away with the second array of windows when building his own Earthship, enjoying coolness even in summer heat.
Jayden’s Earthship supports a green roof which, again, he’d consider doing without in future designs, given the necessity of a wood stove for supplemental heat this far north. A green roof, with myriad layers of plastic and soil, makes changes to his roof, or the maintenance of his woodstove, extremely difficult.
Other aspects of a Canadian Earthship, like the depth of its main room, the thickness of the berm burying its northern wall, even the material making up its floor, could all be modified to better accommodate a northern climate, but in Jayden’s considered opinion, none of this makes the Earthship concept any less valid for our region.
“People like to claim it won’t work, but I think everything can be tweaked and everything can be adjusted. It just takes a little more know-how, a little more trial and error.”
All of these Earthship features Jayden has modified in his own design, but sadly the structure is located in a sparsely populated region and as a consequence, enjoys no road clearing in winter. Because of this he’s yet unable to live there year round and put his tweaks to the test. In time, he intends to make a fuller contribution to the “trial and error” of Island Earthships.
Tracey and Stephen Allen of York, PE, lost a considerable amount of their retirement savings in the economic crash of 2008, a misfortune which led them to sustainable housing and the affordability of Earthships.
There existed two problems, however. This couple was wary of the overheating issue endured by some northerly Earthships, and they were no longer in their 20s. The prospect of pounding tires full of soil did not appeal to them.
Eventually they decided on a hybrid, calling on local architect Robert Haggis to design an Earthship-Passive Solar combo which borrowed the more practical elements of both designs. As with Jayden’s Earthships it has a tall south facing wall with several large, triple pane windows and a berm burying most of the north wall, which stores heat. Instead of windows at a 45 degree angle, however, all theirs stand vertical and, during the warm season, are shielded from the high sun by an eve extending over their south wall.
They traded the botanical cells built inside Jayden’s Earthships for a network of raised gardens outside, so as to simplify home maintenance, and as yet they are still on the grid, powering a collection of appliances carefully chosen for their energy efficiency. All heating is done with two cords of wood in early spring when the sun is inconveniently positioned, but beyond that, the house conditions itself.
“The earth berming provides the natural geothermal heating and cooling we need,” said Tracey. “In the summer, the house feels like it is air conditioned but it is all natural; no heat pumps or AC. In the winter, this berm adds to the insulation to keep us warm. I feel it is a practical setup and sustainable in many ways, both for cost savings and resource efficiency in all seasons.”
Their choice of concrete walls (no tires), with four inches of insulation on either side, meant the house was built quickly by way of contractor. They moved in four months after construction began in April of 2012.
Dollars, Cents and Brass Tacks
“I usually tell people it was the price of a new car,” said Jayden while estimating the cost of his Earthship, putting the figure between $25-$40 thousand with the generous use of recycled and locally sourced materials. He was not able to secure a loan from any lending institution for the project and had to take it out elsewhere. Whether or not this was a consequence of the project’s uniqueness was never made clear. He has yet to try insuring his Earthship and enjoys immunity from building codes; rural PEI don’t have any.
The Allens, however, paid for the construction of their hybrid outright, with the sale of their previous home in Charlottetown. They actually received a discount on house insurance from The Cooperators since their hybrid lacks oil heating, and building codes in their region necessitated an air exchange system where they hoped to keep things natural.
But the signature appeal of such sustainable housing is the low lost of living and in both cases, these buildings hold up.
With his Earthship thus far, Jayden has received no heating bill, no electricity bill (his four solar panels are sufficient), no water bill, and pays perhaps $40 every few months for propane, used for cooking and heating water. The real test will come in winter, but for now, he’s off the grid.
“Our operating costs are low,” said Tracey of her hybrid. “Our electricity and wood are approximately $1,200 per year.”
Way of the Future
Both Tracey and Jayden say the Earthship concept has value for the Maritimes, but that rigidly following the design of New Mexico in not necessary. The former hopes to achieve a net-zero household someday with solar panels and a solar water heater, while the latter intends to experiment with tiny homes next, bringing still more sustainable lessons to his ultimate design of Island Earthships.
In the meantime, Jayden will be renting out his Cavendish Earthship to Island visitors and residents so both can experience something genuinely different.
“I want people to check Earthships out and see an alternative sort of building,” he said. “It teases people’s imagination when they see there’s more to life than dry wall and vinyl siding.”
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with Rural Delivery Magazine.