Kicking off my truly green career with the earthships almost 9 years ago (after a very educational internship stint as an Green Education Exhibit Designer at the New England Aquarium) I envisioned a world filled with Earthship style homes with endless fields of Organic Agriculture ending somewhere we deemed fit to allow for natural preserves. This being once we stabilized our population growth through personal responsibility of course. Having heard a little bit about permaculture around the same time from my future teaching accomplice, “Ande the Elf” Schewe I envisioned a small sliver of perennial ag. to minimize work and soil erosion (which I still couldn’t calculate how we would over come that one) .
It wasn’t until I did my first full Permaculture Design Certification (PDC) nearly 5 years later (after the sale of my Earthship) at the Ecoversity in Santa Fe, NM with Scott Pittman that I realized the full potential of Permaculture. It was then that that imaginary line that kept us separate from nature dissolved and helped me recognize that “We are nature, working” as Penny Livingston Stark coined so many years ago.
It was also at this point that I began to recognize that all that I had recognized as fundamental and foundational in the Earthships for a sustainable future fell within the Permaculture Methods & Principles. After having studied Green building extensively for years I had also come to recognize that there was no single package of green housing that lived up to the standards of the Earthships, be it LEED or any other type of natural built home… and that was simply due to Mike Reynolds ability to cobble together and replicate such a successful fully off grid building style over and over again.
The Earthships are unique in that Mike & crew (which are all exceptionally talented guys and gals that make it possible for Mike to do his work, Whether its Ted Elsasser, Phil Basehart, Damian & Seth, Rory, or any others of his past or present crew of multi-talented workers) have figured out how to cobble together a house that takes care of the inhabitants needs (through various building methods, Mike & crew’s creativity or most importantly trial and error). Fundamentally it was Mike & crew’s unending determination & drive to find ways to live sustainably on this planet that made this possible.
So why are Earthships so harmonized with Permaculture? Well one must dissect the homes themselves to understand how they integrated Permaculture principles. We will examine them from the viewpoint of both Mollison’s & Holmgren’s Principle’s since both integrate fundamental realities of Permaculture.
To begin, the shell of the building utilizes the Principles of “Produce No Waste” (the reuse of Tires, Cans & Bottles), “Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services” is witnessed (the use of minimal timber and Adobe -albeit not really a “renewable resource per se), and “Catch & Store Energy” (passive solar design combined with capturing the ambient temp of the earth). From Mollison’s Principles Mike unknowingly uses: “Every Element Should Serve many Functions” by having the shell of the building not just serve as a structure to protect us from the elements but also to harness the elements, be it solar heating, cooling from the earth, or harnessing rain water off the roof. It also plays into the principle of pollution being an unused resource by reusing the “pollution” of tires, cans & bottles and turning them into a resource, just as nature would.
Utilizing the principle’s of “Redundancy” and “Capturing & Storing Energy” primarily, Mike heats the home via the sun’s heat, the earth’s ambient temperature, super insulation, and via the renewable resource of wood heat (of which I would love to see Masonry stoves in there to minimize the use of wood and maximize its heat capture.)
The water system in the earthships is some of the most impressive, developed by Mike and his former partner in crime/plumber, Joe Hoar, and constantly evolving system of maximizing water use in a place of scarce rainfall, a minimal 8″ of rain a year. They have developed a rain catch system that is first stored in Cisterns (admittedly they can be undersized, I always recommend about 10K gallons no matter where you are this day in age of extreme droughts & floods). The water is then pumped (which could be a simple gravity feed if properly designed with enough drop and head thus minimizing the need for mechanical parts) through filters. This becomes the drinking, shower and sink water. From there it heads to the grease & particle filter (which are always evolving in every house -at least when I lived out there) before heading to the grey water holding cell. It is here that as the water travels through the system of large rocks below and soil above that plants grow their roots to access the water stored in this system before being pumped out at the other end to fill the toilet. Ideally these plants are producing food as well. Once the toilet is flushed it heads to a septic tank where the solids are separated to let settle and decompose. The liquids overflow into a leach field where more plants (ideally food producing) turn those resources into useful resources that we can use. One can witness the principles of “redundancy”, “Everything is connected to everything else”, “Every Element serves many functions”, “Obtain a Yield” & “Produce No Waste” to name a few that are exemplified here. By Implementing these principles, albeit unknowing yet logically, they manage to turn a mere 8″ of rain into enough water to support a family, slowing the water as it heads from source to sink (another PC Principle) and capturing many resources along the way.
By designing the home to capture natural resources and recycling them many times to serve and fulfill our needs, Mike has been able to design down the need for Energy, be it Fossil or renewable. Fossil Fuel (propane to be exact) are only used to support propane powered fridges, stoves & Hot water tanks. These are typically a low budget option for Homeowners, as Solar Hot water heaters are more expensive initially but cheaper in the long run. When Using a Solar Hot water heater its good to have a gas on demand back up for long stretches of cloudy days. One could also have the hot water tied into a Masonry stove or wood burner as a back up, this can also serve to replace a Gas stove. As far as refrigeration goes, one can design a Cool Cubard, as the Holmgren’s did, that allows air to cool to the earths temp of 55 and uses convection to keep that cool air moving (this can be seen on the Cool Climate episode of Mollison’s Global Gardener) through the cubard. This minimizes the size of refrigeration space required. This could then be provided by a small Sun Frost Fridge, (which runs off of DC power, the type of power generated by solar panels and micro Wind turbines). There are also many other ways for food storage that can be found through many great books. Ultimately by designing down the electrical needs one can then live off of small alternative power systems, which is easier to fit within most people’s budgets. Mike has been able to power homes off of small $10K solar systems which are about the same cost of a typical HVAC system (which through appropriate natural design from the get go has been elminated). This is how Mike keeps his homes relatively price competitive with your typical new suburban build home. If one is able to design appropriately from the start then we can ultimately design more efficient homes, which Nature is the master of and Permaculture seeks to replicate. This is the future of our planet and the sooner we learn live with Nature’s Efficient Principles the sooner we’ll have an abundant regenerative future.
There is a lot to learn from all forms of Green/Natural building, but it always comes back to 1 thing, Efficient fulfillment of Needs of the user, of which Nature is the master of that efficiency, so learn how nature works and work from there…. this is what Permaculture teaches us.
To learn More about the Earthships please visit Earthship.com