What It's Like Building & Living in a Sustainable Earthship Home

What It's Like Building & Living in a Sustainable Earthship Home

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Adrienne Breaux
May 5, 2016
(Image credit: Taylor Bode)

Taylor and Steph, the owners and builders of a small, sustainable "Earthship" home in the mountains of California, have a lot of advice to folks considering building their own home: "Forget about normal and make designing and building fun. Don’t let the process stress you out. Get creative with materials, forget about the ‘rules,’ and rethink what is possible..."

Name: Taylor & Steph
Location: Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Size: 560 square feet
Years lived in: Owned 3 years

"... Don’t justify every decision by evaluating only cost and speed. That way of thinking is why so many of the buildings we see today are so horribly uninspiring. ...when building, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You WILL make mistakes. Lots of them. Just figure out how to fix your blunders and keep moving forward. You’ll be amazed how your confidence as a builder will grow when you stop fearing mistakes and embarrassment. Oh, and above all else, get in touch with nature and build sustainably."

Taylor and Steph share more thoughts, tips (and even a little relationship perspective) about building (and living in) a Sustainable Earthship Home:


(Image credit: Crystal Maglio)

Our Style: Simple. Sustainable. Soulful.

Inspiration: The inspiration to build came from a recognition that through architecture, we can address our issues and create a positive alternative to the conventional lifestyle. We sought a greater connection with nature and believed that through simple, self-sufficient homesteading, we could empower ourselves, limit our expenses, and transcend the debilitating economic constraints that tend to cripple our souls. We believed where we live, to a large extent, determines how we live, and we wanted to create a healthy lifestyle via a simple, sustainable home. We wanted to prove that building a shelter and living simply is something that ALL of us are capable of, and that doing so with sustainability and artistic self-expression in mind is a remedy for so many of the ills we face as a society. Building an Earthship in the woods was our call to action—our turn to walk the walk, so to speak. It was our own, unique Walden Pond-esque lifestyle experiment (“Simplify, simply, simplify.” - Thoreau).


THE REST OF THE SERIES


(Image credit: Taylor Bode)

As for the design of the house, the inspiration to use unconventional building materials and passive solar/thermal mass design elements came directly from our involvement with Earthship Biotecture. We spent a year prior to building our own home attending the Earthship Academy in Taos, New Mexico and working on more than a dozen Earthship projects throughout the US. The rest was inspired by…well…not having any money, but also by a strong desire to build with ‘waste’ rather than create more of it. We successfully scavenged for free materials on Craigslist and used things like tires, cans, and bottles whenever possible. Our house cost less than $10,000.

(Image credit: Taylor Bode)

Favorite Element: Functionally, our favorite element is the comfortable year-round temperature inside the house. Maintaining a desirable temperature without relying on fossil fuels is a rewarding and liberating feature. There’s an inherent connection to the Earth that comes from relying solely on nature for comfort.

Aesthetically, the octagon-shaped window surrounded by earth-tone bottles on the west wall is probably our favorite part of the house. Steph found the window laying in the woods under a pile of leaves while we were hunting for materials. We thought it was so cool that we pretty seriously altered the design of the house—even knowingly sacrificing some performance—to make it a focal point

Biggest Challenge: Building any handmade house is a marathon, but building an Earthship is like an Iron-Man Triathlon. The walls of our house are comprised of rammed earth automobile tires, each one pounded full of approximately 300 pounds of dirt. Using five gallon buckets to load dirt into tire after tire, one-by-one, Steph and I took turns pounding each one with a sledgehammer until it was fully compacted. Each tire would take anywhere from 10-20 minutes of continuous pounding. We used nearly 500 tires in the construction of our home—all of which were otherwise destined for a landfill. While we did receive some enthusiastic support throughout the build (thanks to everyone who helped!), the majority of the tire work and back-fill was done by Steph and I alone. For several months, sun up until sun down, we would do nothing but fill buckets, pound tires, and move piles of dirt by hand. Pounding that last tire was a major accomplishment, and it was all down hill from there. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

(Image credit: Taylor Bode)

What Friends Say: The funny thing about living the way we do is that we’ve experienced pretty much the whole spectrum of reactions. Many of our friends are super impressed with the house and wish that they, too, could live in a cabin in the woods with beautiful views, fresh air, chickens roaming around the yard, and food growing in the gardens. Needless to say, our builder friends are stoked for us and envious of our opportunity and creative freedom. But we also have friends who just straight up think we’re crazy people. Some folks can’t fathom driving on bumpy dirt roads everyday, living with minimal power, having no TV, showering outside, or eating dinner by candle-light regularly. For more than a year we had virtually no electricity. I think they see us as weirdo hermit mountain folk stuck in the previous century. We get a good laugh out of this reaction. So, in short, some people think we’re absolutely living the dream, while others wouldn’t wish our lifestyle on their enemies.

Biggest Embarrassment: The self-inflicted limitations of our ultra simple house were at times, admittedly, pretty embarrassing. For the first year and a half or so, the only electricity we had came from a portable Goal Zero solar power pack. We figured out how to live with extremely minimal power needs, but we still ran out of power all the time, especially on the short winter days. This meant that we would regularly cook, eat, read, pee, etc. with a headlamp on. We’d be sitting there eating dinner, trying to have a conversation while blinding each other with our forehead light beams. Awesome for dinner parties.... Our bathroom was kind of an embarrassment at times too, especially when we would have company. Although we did get a beefed up solar power system eventually, we never hooked up a light in the bathroom (procrastination…).

Steph and I were so used to it that we were unfazed by peeing in the dark. But when friends would visit, we would hand them a little camp lantern and send them in. It didn’t help that one of our dogs made the bathroom his personal cave (and would hold his position no matter who entered). Nor was it helpful that our bathroom doubled as a walk-in closet to address our small space storage needs. We could only imagine what people were thinking as they’d try to do their business in the dark with a white dog panting at their feet and clothes hanging all around them.

(Image credit: Crystal Maglio)

Proudest DIY: With the house nearly finished, Steph and I were laying in bed one night looking all around the interior, at every corner, every piece of trim, every shelf, every funky detail. We looked at each other and I said, “we did ALL of this.” That was the first time it really hit us…when we realized just how much work we had put into this project. We’d given it everything—all of our time, energy, money. Everything. The entirety of the process is our proudest accomplishment. And the fact that we did it all together makes it that much sweeter. We’d heard over and over again how building a house can ruin a relationship. We’re going strong after 7+ years, we’re getting married in June, and we’ve never been happier.

Biggest Indulgence: Our flush toilet. To truly simplify the bathroom situation and conserve water when living off-the-grid, we could have used a bucket toilet with a humanure compost pile outside. This is a very popular option in the off-grid and alternative building community. We had access to a well and septic tank, however, so we went crazy and hooked up a super fancy throne that flushed all of our problems away.

Great reading recommendations for folks interested in this concept or aesthetic:

  • Architects: Mickey Muennig (Big Sur) and Mike Reynolds (Earthships)
  • Books: Any book by Lloyd Kahn and Shelter Pub.
  • Handmade Houses by Richard Olsen.
  • Cabin Porn by Zach Klein

Resources: Because of the resourceful nature of our project, this resource list doesn’t really apply. Big shout out, however, to Craigslist and FreeCycle, as well as thrift shops, yard sales, salvage yards, and curbs full of give-aways. Also, thanks to our friends at Alibi Interiors in Santa Cruz for the timeless redwood barn wood seen throughout the house. And a big thanks to our friend Colin Bergeron for milling and finishing our epic redwood slab dining table.


Thanks Taylor and Steph!!

Taylor and Steph are in the process of highlighting their alternative lifestyle and documenting the construction of their off-grid Earthship in central California in a book they are writing titled Nomadic Roots. You can follow along on their adventures on their Instagram account: @nomadic.roots


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