A Beginner’s Guide to Building an Earthship

Setting the Stage

About 4 years ago I bought land in southwestern Colorado. 40 acres of vacant land on top of a mesa, above the valley’s irrigation ditches in the high desert, a simple landscape of junipers and sagebrush and gorgeous views everywhere you look. Oh yeah, and stars, sooo many it makes you wonder where they have been hiding all this time. No lights, that’s the key. The whole mesa top is “off grid.” No connection to city water or electricity.

At first I was overwhelmed by the prospect of figuring out all the infrastructure that would be needed in order to do more than camp on my land. I want to live there full time in a few years and I will admit I have been pretty spoiled, having had running water, electricity, and garbage pickup my whole life. Not only that, but my sewage magically disappears at the touch of a button. I’ve decided to build an earthship for a few reasons. I can’t get a loan to build a house, I don’t have the cash to pay people to do everything I need and want on the property, but most importantly, I want to do it myself. I want to learn to build. I want to know how all the different systems work and how to fix them. All my life, I’ve felt a little helpless and deflated whenever I had to call in a plumber, an electrician, a chimney sweep, a window specialist, a floor finisher, a garage door “guy,” an HVAC “guy” (it’s always a guy), the list of different “guys” needed to run a modern house is astounding, not what most of us imagined in the initial excitement of home ownership, not to mention the size of the invoices. So at age 50 and on my own, I wanted to finally truly be the mistress of my domain, not dependent on some “guy” to do some simple thing to get my system back on track and hand me a fat bill. But I wondered how the heck I was going to build a house from scratch, figure out a water system, sewage system, electrical system, and what to do with my garbage and recycling. It felt too overwhelming to begin, I got “paralysis by analysis” every time I tried to plan out where to start.

two flat spots and a driveway came with my land
sagebrush and juniper

Some types of learners can read and research and watch youtube videos and then just go and do the thing, but me I am either a different kind of learner or I just don’t have the confidence that comes from experience to start in, I’m too worried I’ll do it wrong and not be able to fix it again. I learn best when someone does it with me the first time, then I try on my own and know I have someone I can consult with if I meet a road block. Once I have a little experiential understanding, watch out! I get excited and whereas many people want to take their time and do a really good job, I rush right in and am quite happy with “good enough.”

Lucky for me, I have a friend who is a man but so not like a lot of guys. Enter Eric Darby, unlike any guy I’ve ever met. Not macho. So not a dude. No “Man ‘Splaining” involved. Humble and sensitive and supportive, sitting back and waiting, never charging in or taking over, not condescending, a coyote teacher who drops clues along the way, tells stories and asks questions instead of lecturing so you are learning without even realizing it. We had been friends for 8 or 9 years, ever since I started bringing my yearly farm camp groups to his property to soak in the different way he lives and thinks. Lucky for me, he loves to support and mentor people who are excited and want to learn and work. I had always admired and felt very warm towards him and I could tell he liked and admired me too. He appreciated the very qualities I usually berate myself for, my tendency to rush in half-cocked, which he saw as can-do. My naivete, which he saw as open-hearted. My simple-minded goofiness, which he saw as innate happiness. I appreciated in him many of the opposite qualities, his careful, safe, slow way of doing things right and thoroughly, his attention to detail, his quiet confidence. His humor. Mind you, I do not advocate for and did not myself set out to find a male mentor or boyfriend to take care of me or help me build a house. When the land next door to his came up for sale, I had a clear and powerful feeling that it was part of my path. I didn’t know the details of how I was going to do it, I just felt it was the right next thing. You never know where you will gain experience and find friendship or love, it could be a male or female of any age. It is wonderful to have friends to do physical work with and to know people who you can ask for advice when you get stuck. It could be anyone, from a relative to someone at the lumber yard or hardware store. Now you could probably even find just the perfect building advisor-friend on a dating app!

normally we subsist just on rainwater, but when we have a group coming we fill the water trailer for their cooking, showers and everything.

We decided it would make sense for me to first build a tiny house on a trailer, since Eric had the tools and the solar panels to run them on his property. I could build the tiny house there, learn a whole lot of skills in the process, and then roll it over to my place and stay in it while I built my permanent house, which at the time I thought would be a stick frame cabin. Building the tiny house was so much fun, and slow going because even though I grew up watching my dad build cabins in the wilderness, first one in Virginia and then two in Alaska, I didn’t have experience building myself, so combined with my good-enough attitude, I had some learning to do to make it all come together. Also Eric’s coyote teaching style and the process of us deepening our relationship didn’t speed up the building process. Added to that, I was driving back and forth between the Front Range and the Western Slope to spend the majority of each month with my two teenage boys. After two years my tiny house was finally finished and in place and I was ready to start thinking about my “real” house, which by this point I had decided was going to be an earthship.

the “blimp hangar” Eric built for framing in tiny houses
My first building, the tiny house named “No Biggie.”
two king-sized lofts with light and air
fold out couch for first floor sleepers
tiny house landed

Why an Earthship?

First of all, what even IS an Earthship? It’s a type of “earth sheltered” house, one that is partly buried in dirt. An earthship uses the constant temperature of the earth and heat from the sun to maintain a pretty constant temperature inside year round. Meaning it needs NO heating or cooling systems. Meaning you have NO heating or cooling bills, nothing that can break and force you to call a “guy” to fix it. Meaning you can show up any time of year and not jump around shivering while you are waiting for the fire to heat things up. Meaning you will never be rolling around in bed trying and failing to sleep because it’s too hot or too cold. Inside an earthship it is comfortable and grounded feeling, solid, cozy but surprisingly light and lofty. So, the other super lucky thing besides knowing Eric Darby was that my entire property is on a south-facing hillside, which makes building an earthship way easier. If you have a hill that faces south, you “just” (like it’s easy!) dig into the hillside to create 3 of your earth-sheltered walls, the back and sides, rather than having to pile huge berms on all sides of your house. Facing south, at least in the northern hemisphere (in the southern hemisphere you want a hill facing north), you get the low sun shining into the glass front of your house to heat up the house during the winter, and in the summer, of course, the sun is mostly overhead, so your house doesn’t overheat.

I had seen earthships in Taos, all made of tires filled with earth and then concrete or “cob,” (clay mud, sand, and straw) covering the tires so it ends up looking sort of like an adobe house. The ones in Taos tend to be very organic, lumpy like a giant patch of mushrooms that has emerged from the earth. I thought they seemed impermanent, like a strong rain would erode the earth plaster right off them. They also seemed kind of complicated, with their steamy indoor gardens and no straight lines anywhere, bottles set into the earth walls, too weird, like only extreme people, super hippies, would want to live in the dirt like glorified cave people. But Eric had an earthship as his main house and inside it felt just like a regular house, with stick framing and drywall so you wouldn’t even know it was built out of tires unless you looked behind the walls. I got used to it and came to really like the feel of facing the southern all-glass front wall with the earth at your back and sides. There is something instinctively safe feeling when you can see anyone or anything approaching your dwelling. Maybe I’m more of a cave woman than I thought.

Diagram of a Regular Earthship Design bermed into the hillside, using  Passive Solar and Geo Thermal Principles for he… | Earthship design,  Earthship, Earthship home

Here’s the kicker. An earthship is built mostly with labor, with no need for engineers and architects, so if you like to work outside and have a can-do attitude, some friends who can help on occasion, and you’re good at finding used materials, you can build an earthship without a lot of experience OR a lot of money. I’m talking about ending up with a beautiful comfortable house that doesn’t require paying bills or much maintenance for about a fraction of what it costs to hire a builder to build you a house with new lumber and everything. This depends of course on how much you want to learn to do yourself and if you buy new or used windows, roofing and appliances. And if you have access to an earth-digging machine like a back hoe for digging and moving the dirt around.

Where to Start?

Well, first you need a piece of land that is south facing. Also important is to find land in a county with relaxed or even better, no building codes. Here is information about counties with no building codes: http://sustainablebuildingcodes.blogspot.com/2010/09/no-building-codes.html. I live in two counties that couldn’t be more different in terms of building codes. In Boulder County, the codes are very restrictive and no matter the type of house you build, you will end up spending many thousands of dollars just on permits, inspections, etc. whereas in the county in southwestern Colorado there are no building codes. You can wake up one day, pick a site, and start building. That is a freedom that cannot be underestimated. If you can’t afford to by land on your own, perhaps you could find some like-minded people to share the cost of a property and help each other build. Of course, that can become more complicated. Sometimes you could buy a larger piece with others and then subdivide so each person has their own and if you can subdivide enough, you could even make some money back by selling part of your land.

Once you have land to build on, you want to choose a south facing hillside that has unobstructed sun exposure and views, if possible. Then you’ll need to clear the site of trees brush, cactus, rocks, even rake up sticks because if sticks and rocks and cactus are mixed in, the dirt will be much harder to work with and you’ll spend a lot of time sorting it later. We spent two full days with 4 friends clearing the site, which for my house is about 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep. The inside of my house will be a bit smaller than that because the walls will be very thick and take up space.

this is what the land looked like before we took down about 15 big junipers, 20 sagebrush, and 10 big patches of cactus, as well as about a thousand rocks from small to giant.
Boy am I glad I have friends who like to work hard!
the cleared land. the dog contributed only joy and relaxation
the piles of branches and firewood we pulled off the site

Building and Relationships

Like I said, I sure am glad I have good friends who like to work hard. My friend Ande, who I’ve known for 23 years, recently called me and said “I know you’ve been wanting to re-do your front landscaping. Let’s do it, I’ll be over tomorrow at 9am.” I had been complaining about being the eye sore of the neighborhood because my 9 year-old landscaping was more weeds than anything and I couldn’t keep up. For some reason, I couldn’t do it myself, but with her energy and inspiration, we worked hard for 4 days and got it done all by ourselves, no “guys” involved (well except for the time she talked her husband into helping for a couple hours). My friend Juliette is a farmer and chef who also loves to do hard physical work. These two skinny women can work harder and longer than I can. They are my inspiration. They are both excited to build a house for themselves too, so we decided to do this one together so that we can all learn. Between the two of them and me and Eric, we are excited to see what kinds of interpersonal dynamics come up between you. We have decided to be as open as we possibly can about our feelings so that we can grow together and hopefully deepen our relationships through this project. In a couple weeks, we finally get to start the part I’ve been eagerly awaiting, digging the hole with a backhoe and skid steer! Stay tuned…

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