The word "earthship" conjures up images of a new-age cult full of tree-hugging hippies, or maybe some weird new yoga trend. But the term isn't meant to represent some kind of literal or spiritual escape from reality. "Earthship" refers to strange-looking houses built with material like old tires, pop cans, and beer bottles, which are designed to be off-the-grid, with self-sufficient power and heating sources. The term is trademarked by American architect Michael Reynolds, who began todesign sustainable, off-the-grid houses that people without specialized construction skills could build.
"People think 'tire house' and they think you're living in a hovel sometimes," said Jim Knell, an earthship-dweller living near Belleville, Ontario. "Or a hobbit house since the back is buried."
But living in an earthship is much like living in any other house—with a few notable perks. To get a better idea of what these things are like, I talked to a couple of people who have been calling earthships home for several years.
Knell is far from the hippie type you might imagine would be best suited for earthship living. He served for nearly 20 years in the Canadian military before opening a recycling store that focused on salvaging everything from toilets to windowpanes from houses before they were demolished. He sold the stuff with in a recycle shop in Belleville, Ontario for 13 years before deciding it was time to retire. One day, a couple who was building their own tire house walked into their store to buy some homemaking supplies. The couple explained what they were doing, and a week later, the Knells were already looking for land. In 2011, roughly three years after they started building, their home in the farmland of Prince Edward County near Belleville—just down the road from one of the military bases Knell used to work in—was complete.
A lot of curious people drop by to check out the house, often for the novelty, and sometimes because they are interested in doing something similar themselves. "It's kind of cool to watch the people that come into the house and their jaws just drop," he said.
Keeping warm is the most essential thing for Knell and his wife, Lyn—who used to be a commercial pilot before she boarded an earthship—so they open the blinds on the large south-facing windows when they wake up. The houses, at least the ones located in the northern hemisphere, are usually U-shaped buildings with large, greenhouse-like windows facing south to allow for maximum sun absorption. The walls are often built from old tires filled with earth or concrete—any material that will absorb and store heat during the day and push it back into the house during the night.
"Everything revolves around the sun," Knell said. Earthships don't just look like a greenhouse—in a sense they are greenhouses, complete with a whole garden full of food behind the line of large windows. With limes, avocados, a kiwi tree, and a whole host of other herbs and spices, Knell's 28 square meters of garden is a source of instant breakfast when combined with fresh eggs from one of his six hens. "I'm looking at an orange right now that's turning bright," he told me on the phone. "It'll be ready to be eaten in a couple of days."
Around breakfast time, as the house starts to heat up (Knell explained that even in -20 C, he can usually walk around barefoot in shorts), he starts opening vents, windows, and doors in order to get air circulating. The greenhouse-like quality of the place means that it can gather a lot of moisture—enough that some mornings he wakes up and steps into a pool of water.
"You do have to control your house. You have to consider it a living, breathing thing," he said.
Housework often depends on the weather. He has a pair of wind turbines, but solar panels provide the majority of the energy needed for vacuuming, laundry machines, and other appliances that suck up a lot of power. A battery usually has enough power for him to watch TV and use the internet at night (the latter being the only utility bill he pays other than propane tanks for his stove).
He and his wife then usually head outside deal with crops, tend to their various farm animals, or work on building projects like a new greenhouse. They have four horses and an alpaca named Chester who provides a small amount of wool they stockpile to send off to yarn-weavers.
Earthships are built to make the most of their environment, though, and this means that what works for an earthship in rural Ontario may not work in a forest in Quebec.
For Helene Dube, there is no such thing as an average day. She had designs on building a cool house ever since she watched The Swiss Family Robinson, even if she forgot about the movie for years.
ButQuebec doesn't exactly enjoy the same immaculate weather of the South Pacific, and while working as a stock trader, Dube started to wonder whether it would be possible to live in a greenhouse in order to stay warmer during the winter months. She eventually discovered earthship guru Reynolds and his tire house designs. She quit her job and, with her husband, Alain, bought some land in Chertsey, a tiny place an hour and a half north of Montreal around 10 years ago. But unlike the Robinson girls who waited around in their pretty dresses for the boys to do the building, she dug in and the couple had built their home in the forest.
Living in a forest isn't quite as easy as the Robinson family's Disney lifestyle due to the kind of soil, which is less than ideal for growing. But Dube doesn't miss the city life.
"I don't find [the earthship] hard work compared to sitting over a computer, having a boss over my shoulder," she said. "I prefer to be outside chopping wood."
Dube also does a lot of work with the growing earthship community in Canada, teaching workshops and classes on her property to people interested in adopting all, or part, of her do-it-yourself life.
She and Alain still own a car and head into town from time to time, but she said she's gotten so used to the quiet life in the woods that going to the cinema gives her a headache.
But one of the problems is she doesn't have as much leisure time as she thought she'd have.
"I'm always busy, but busy doing the things that I like," she said. "It's not a boring life."
As far away from the city Knell may be, the urban environment still affects his way of life. While many earthships are built to collect rainwater in storage tanks for household use, Knell said that he didn't trust the air to be free of pollutants, being downwind from Detroit and Hamilton, so they dug a well instead.
For both couples, dinner is made easy by the garden, with tomatoes and some herbs within reach. While Dube forages in the midst of her daily dog walks around the area and does a lot of baking in homemade mud ovens, Knell is an opportunist. He keeps an eye on the ducks living in a slew on his property—some of them wander right into his front yard. If duck is on the menu that night, he'll knock one down with a good toss of a stick and wring its neck.
"We free-range everything out here," he said. He sometimes keeps domesticated ducks as well, though he still buys beef and other meat.
"We're not hardcore but we still like to not buy our meat in bulk," he continued. "We try to stay as pure as possible."
After dinner, Knell said they either hand around outside by a fire or stay inside and watch satellite TV until falling asleep to the sound of howling coyotes. Though the animals have given him trouble in the past—he's woken up to find nothing left from his birds but feathers and a few body parts strewn around the coop—the wild animals don't annoy him.
"It's actually quite nice. It's quite soothing," he said of the howling at night.
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