Category Archives: Permaculture Blogs

Truly Green Homes: Earthships; a Permaculture Architecture

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) .

Picture of My old house (far right) and my neighbors in the high density part of the community

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.

My good friend & former neighbor, Ted's house (he was Mike's right hand man and one of the best natural builder's I've known, which he built out of pocket over many years. He has done a great job of reclaiming the desert with no knowledge of Permaculture methods

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.

Ted, Ethan, Anna & Eli work on the Double Green House of the Phoenix, soon to house tillapia and Edible Plants

Building a Sloped Green house with Ken & an Intern

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.

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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

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Enhancing Nature’s Ability to Create

As we approach the highest heights that human population has known on this planet, created from exchanging nature’s capital for human growth and development, the time has come where the future expansion of human population (which, ultimately, each individual will need to learn to keep that in check based on respect for all humans), and more importantly consciousness, will only come from learning to enhance natures creative ability to lay the foundation of the source of life on this planet. This is what Permaculture seeks to do. It seeks to restore the source of nature’s stability via capturing natural energy (water, wind, sun, temperature, soil) and recycling it over and over again through biological processes, using the diversity of nature’s life, of which each individual plays an important roll in enhancing the stability of the system.

There are times when things get out of balance, as when one species is left unchecked and its population booms until something, a disease, a predator, or lack of resources draws the population of that species back in check. This is the importance of humans learning to develop resources in the likeness of nature, as we have wiped out diseases and predators (except for our own kind in wars) and thus the resources that we have learned to liquidate and turn into humans are running out. This is witnessed via population demand for more and more of the planets 2 billion year old savings account be it finite or renewable…. so much so that this current run on the Planet’s Bank account is threatening to undermine the bank itself, if you will. This is physically witnessed in dwindling finite resources like minerals and fossil fuel and in dwindling renewable resources via species extinction and ecosystem collapse.

So this leaves us with no choice but to learn how to enhance our local resource base and maximize our capacity to do so via Design thinking (aka creative problem solving) filtered through the lens of nature’s regenerative principles to create the world we want, a regenerative and resilient future for millenia to come.

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We can start this by enhancing biomass in our back yards, capturing and storing water in all capacities, and planting functional perennials outside of our kitchen gardens. Turning our yards into small scale, regenerative resource farms. We can replicate this model on a larger scale by using the same principles but acknowledging the ability to propagate larger slower growing resources, like nut trees, timber crops and integrating support plants (legumes, dynamic accumulators and the sort) along with livestock to enhance productivity and biomass recycling. We can also integrate earthworks to enhance water capture and thus increase biomass production. To reference David Holmgren, it is a functional use of Fossil Fuel to build earthworks as we replace fossil fuel (ancient super condensed biomass) with current regenerative cycles of biomass that will be enhanced by the water captured by the earthworks.

The acequia system in New Mexico is a great historical example of using earthworks to enhance biomass production. These are channel systems developed by the Spaniards in New Mexico hundreds of years ago. This allowed them to channel the Spring snow melt out into the desert and use it to grow grasses, (which would have been much better served if forests, especially food forests were grown as they prevent evaporation and enhance hydrological cycles, which is great out there, and enhance the slower release of the water through springs.)

Understanding nature’s ability to capture, store and recycle nutrients and resources throughout its system is priceless. Nature is amazingly and perfectly designed of which, we, a species with amazing capabilities to create and destroy, are just now learning to step into the roll and responsibility we have towards this planet and all its inhabitants, one of Enhancing every living beings ability to create more harmony, rather than destroying it all. So what are we waiting for?