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Build Your Home out of Waste Tires!

Tire house walls being constructed for an earthship.

      Imagine building your own mortgage-free home out of old tires packed with dirt! Many of materials are free for the hauling, and with a good bit of grunt work to pack the dirt, you can build a low-cost, earth-friendly home. But more than just a "tire house," a dwelling built with this method can become a self-sufficient solar home, called an "earthship" by Michael Reynolds, the man who pioneered the design and construction of these highly integrated structures.

      The typical earthship is heavily bermed on three sides to protect the house from the weather, with only the south-facing side exposed and encased in glass. Inside, the house is alive with growing beds along the front, which typically include some form of greywater treatment system. In a sense, an earthship functions much like the self-sufficient "biosphere home" I describe in my own book, Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction.

      While earthships can be very low-cost homes, I visited one project that ultimately became cost-prohibitive for the builders. As with any project, keeping costs under control can depend on good planning, a little resourceful scavenging, and a lot of free labor. Here are a few good books to get you started in the right direction.

Earthship Basics

Books about Earthships

Comfort in any Climate
by Michael Reynolds

Comfort in any Climate - book cover.

      To learn the basic principles of radiant solar energy, observe a dog. In the summer he lies in the shade. In the winter he lies in the sun. As simplistic as this concept seems, it is often ignored in contemporary building design, where the prevalent view is that any issue of comfort can be solved through the use of more electric or fossil fuel energy. Thirty percent of all energy consumed in the United States is used to heat, cool and light our buildings.

      Comfort in any Climate is a quick guide to the basics of passive solar design for any climate in a highly pictorial format, giving the reader an overview of the essential principles necessary for high-efficiency homes. This is not a "how-to" book that shows you how to build a house. Rather it is a conceptual book that rapidly conveys the important ideas about how to build a house that requires little or no supplementary heating and cooling. In explaining the basic principles of conductance, convection, and radiance, the three ways heat is transferred to the environment, the author lays the foundation for an in-depth discussion of the principles of passive solar and earth-sheltered construction..

      Author Michael Reynolds breaks important sustainable design concepts down into clear, easily understood elements: thermal mass, insulation, heating, cooling, and ventilation. He explores in detail the relationship of mass and insulation in keeping a building comfortable. Comfort in Any Climate will help you create a comfortable space in any climate without the need for fossil fuels for heating and cooling. The book describes the difference between thermal mass and insulation, and how to apply these building components to a passive solar design.

      Reynolds has been designing and building sustainable buildings around the world for over thirty years. Based on his experience, the author uses architectural diagrams to show how buildings can tap into the temperature of the earth and relate to the angles of the sun. The book presents design variations from extreme cold to extreme heat, and addresses wet and dry climate considerations. The detailed illustrations throughout make it easy for the reader to conceptualize the design processes involved and to discern design differences in various climates and latitudes.

      While most of the book is oriented towards passive solar design in general, the last chapter in the book provides an overview specifically of "earthships" as one way of applying passive solar principles. Earthships are high-mass houses with walls made from recycled tires, which are packed full of earth and stacked in a brick-like fashion, before being stuccoed to make appealing interior and exterior walls. Black-and -white illustrations and photos are included throughout the book, with a special color section featuring earthship homes in the back. This is an ideal book for people that are new to either passive solar design or earthships and would like to get a better overview of the basics. Solar Survival Press. 2000. 72 Pages.

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Earthship Volume I - book cover.

Earthship Volume I
How to Build Your Own
by Michael Reynolds

      Imagine living in a home that costs nothing to heat or cool. Imagine building this home yourself. Imagine growing your own vegetables year round in this home. Imagine having no utility bills. Imagine having easily available and unlimited resources to build this type of home. Imagine your own earthship!

      An Earthship is a structure that is self-sufficient. It is a building that provides it's own heat, cooling, water, electricity and sewage treatment. In addition it is built with reused or otherwise environmentally sensitive materials, that are relatively cheap, readily available, and easy to use. Used automobile tires meet all of these criteria and make the basic building block for an Earthship. Author Michael Reynolds describes earthships, the theories behind them, and why they work. Then he dives into the details of how to actually build one.

  • Chapter 1 The Determining Factors of the Earthship Concept: This chapter elaborates on and develops the "independent vessel" concept as a necessary spark toward the evolution of habitat on this planet.

  • Chapter 2 Interfacing with local phenomena In the Northern Hemisphere, moss grows on the north side of trees and snow melts on the south side of mountains. If you want a log to float downstream, you must place it in the current, not near the shore in an eddy. Earthships must also be placed for optimum interaction with natural phenomena. This chapter explores the natural phenomena of the planet and explains how to interface an Earthship into the existing phenomena of the area.

  • Chapter 3 Following the directives of concept and natural phenomena Fast cars are designed in wind tunnels, i.e. the wind dictates the design of the car. Likewise, natural phenomena dictate the design of an Earthship. The design schematic of existing Earthships is presented in this chapter as it relates to local phenomena. Within these parameters, personal needs and desires are dealt with. The issue of performance versus tradition is discussed from the perspective of "Live simply so that others may simply live."

  • Chapter 4 The Skeleton of the vessel Economy and availability to nonprofessional builders are important determinants of an Earthship structure. This chapter presents the simple structural integrity of existing prototype Earthships via conceptual diagrams, photographs and three dimensional drawings. This structural system is both designed and explained in terms to which the nonprofessional builder can relate.

  • Chapter 5 The Primary building blocks of the vessel The nature of the materials used to execute an Earthship design is explored. The earth-rammed automobile tire is presented as the most appropriate method for its strength, economy, lack of skill needed, and the fact that it makes use of an otherwise discarded "natural resource." The aluminum beverage can used as a masonry unit for filler walls is also presented for similar reasons.

  • Chapter 6 The details and skills used to build the "U" module The fundamentals of how to build your own Earthship are presented here. A well illustrated and explained collection of easy to learn skills, available to all types of people of various strengths, shapes and sizes is presented. This includes how to lay the rammed earth tires, how to lay the aluminum cans in mortar, connections, mistakes commonly made, etc...

  • Chapter 7 How to build the greenhouse-hallway-heating duct The greenhouse-hallway-heating duct is mostly carpentry work involving relatively common carpentry skills to build the window framework on top of a tire foundation. This chapter takes you step by step through the construction and detailing of this part of the "U module.

  • Chapter 8 Assimilation of Modules & Details Now that you know how to build a "U" module and how to add the greenhouse hallway on it, you are ready to learn the details necessary to assemble more than one "U". This information, together with a few miscellaneous structural and mechanical details, will provide enough information for you to be able to build your own "Earthship."

  • Chapter 9 The formulas and techniques for various finishes The finishing techniques involve some do-it-yourself methods and some professional plasterer methods. The do-it-yourselfer methods are presented step-by-step with referrals to professional plaster contractors when applicable.

  • Chapter 10 How to Operate Your Earthship Owner's Manual Given that Earthships are a new concept in living techniques as well as construction, some specialized knowledge regarding operations and maintenance of an Earthship is required. This chapter will help you derive the most comfort and performance from your Earthship.

  • Chapter 11 The Prototypes This chapter features photographs of existing Earthships (finished and during construction), plus plans for some of them. Construction costs range from $20 per square foot to $90 per square foot and sizes range from 600 square feet to 10,000 square feet to an 80 unit destination lodge. A wide spectrum of earthship concepts are illustrated here.
      Solar Survival Press. 1990. 229 Pages.

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Earthship Volume II
Systems and Components
by Michael Reynolds

Earthship Volume II - book cover.

      While Earthship Volume I is about design and construction of earthship tire houses, Earthship Volume II is all about specific components of earthships: photovoltaics, water supply and wastewater, water heating, lighting, adobe fireplaces, stairways, . Author Michael Reynolds dives into the details about off-the-grid solar electric systems, out-lining the basics of how they work, and how to reduce your electric needs enough to make them affordable. In a chapter on water systems, he deals with the water supply and waste water, including wells and rainwater catchment systems, greywater systems and composting toilets, plus conventional and alternative septic systems. His use of planters adjacent to kitchen and bathroom sinks for immediate use of wastewater is especially ingenious for its elegant simplicity.

      Reynolds also covers the basics of hot water systems, emphasizing batch heaters for solar hot water, while advocating on-demand heaters or combination systems for individuals who want to guarantee a constant supply of hot water. The batch heaters recommended by Reynolds are well-suited for southern climates, but not the best choice for northern builders where freezing is a greater concern. In regards to lighting, Reynolds shows the reader how to design a house that is naturally lighted with properly placed windows and skylights, such that electric lights are only needed at night. Reynolds also introduces efficient lighting systems.

      Although earthships can be designed and built to not require supplementary heating, there is nevertheless, a great appeal to a fireplace, and Reynolds takes the readers step-by-step through the process of building a charming adobe fireplace.

      Michael Reynolds extensively uses adobe-like walls made of aluminum cans mortared together, and shows how to build beautiful stairways supported by these walls. He also devotes an entire chapter to the detailed construction of no-leak skylights that hold heat in during cold weather, but can also be easily opened for ventilation during warm weather. Additional chapters cover the construction of doors and cabinetry, hand-crafted bathroom vanities and sculpted bathtubs, landscaping concerns, permitting issues, plus additional details on aluminum can construction of larger projects. Earthship Volume II is as essential as Volume I in the construction of an Earthship home. Solar Survival Press. 1990. 255 Pages.

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Earthship Volume III
Evolution Beyond Economics
by Michael Reynolds

Earthship Volume III - book cover.

      Earthship Volume III: Evolution Beyond Economics presents additional details and updated techniques to the art of building Earthships. Based on the accumulated wisdom of dozens of new Earthship projects from around the world, Volume III includes scores of new ideas and refinements to all aspects of designing and building efficient, low-cost Earthships.

      Specific topic areas include refinements to the walls, bondbeam systems for the top of the walls, home-made trusses, retaining walls, gutter details, mudstone and flagstone floors, additional details on doors and windows, adding rooms to existing earthships, indoor and outdoor rainwater cisterns, additional water filtering information, improved indoor wastewater treatment systems, better solar power organization, back-up heaters, mud stoves, a thermal mass refrigerator, home-made solar composting toilets, and built-in solar ovens. Also covered are temporary structures to live in while building your Earthship, retroffiting an existing cracker-box house into a module within an Earthship, ideas for planning and initiating Earthship communities, proposals to apply the Earthship approach on a city-wide scale, building code recommendations for owner-builders and inspectors, applications for developing countries, and adaptations for unstable soils or marshy conditions.

      In short, there is enough new essential information in this text to make it as essential as Volumes I and II. It compliments, but does not replace the material from the first two books. Solar Survival Press. 1993. Revised 1996. 250 pages.

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Water from the Sky - book cover.

Water from the Sky
by Michael Reynolds

      The volume of water on this planet is finite while human population continues to swell. As groundwater aquifers are drained or contaminated by pollutants or salt water, we move steadily towards serious water shortages in the future. Many parts of our planet, including parts of the USA, are already experiencing water shortages. Water from the Sky takes its readers from problem to solution, showing how it is possible--even in the desert--for a home to collect it's water from the sky, use it wisely, and downcycle the wastewater to new uses and treatment through living filter systems. The result is a veritable Garden of Eden on a meager supply of water. Step-by-step, author Michael Reynolds outlines how to solve the problem of water shortages through catching, storing, using, reusing and treating water.

      Water from the Sky is a significant expansion on water collection and treatment systems introduced in Reynold's Earthship books. The first part of the book delves into refinements of water catchment systems for Earthship homes, though the information could easily be applied to more conventional construction as well. Reynolds also expands on options for cisterns and proper filtering prior to use.

      The book also covers "botanical cells," which are designed to both utilize and purify greywater for indoor and outdoor gardens and lawns. The cleansed water can be used for additional irrigating with a hose, or routed back for use in flushing a toilet. Although Reynold's largely favors composting toilets, he also shows how "blackwater" from a toilet can be cleansed and safely utilized through plant rock filters. These are cutting edge technologies in household greywater treatment, and Reynolds has presented the material in an accessible format for the do-it-yourself home builder. Solar Survival Press. 2005. 204 Pages.

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A Coming of Wizards - book cover.

A Coming of Wizards
by Michael Reynolds

      Written by Michael Reynolds, father of the earthship, A Coming of Wizards describes a way of thinking and living that is vividly expressed in Earthship Biotecture.

      This book can be thought of as having three parts. Part one calls forth an appropriate state of mind from which to perceive the "Wizard Information." The journey begins here with the human condition and slowly moves out of it as the book progresses.

      Part two presents the "Wizard Information" along with a real and existing way of applying it in our reality, especially as it applies to architectural work. The third part moves beyond our own reality, via the "Wizard Information," into the univese and toward an image of God.

      Thus the book is a journey toward a state of mind from which the "Wizard Information" can be perceived. It then moves through that information and beyond the human condition. It is about finding and moving toward our potential. Paperback. 230 pages. Solar Survival Press. 1989. ISBN: 0-9614010-3-6.

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See also: Our Tire Bale Earthship: Building a Tire Bale Home.

      Looking for life-changing resources? Check out these books by Thomas J. Elpel:

Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams.
Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit
to Reality
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.
in Nature
Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat.
Foraging the
Mountain West
Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
in a Day
Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids

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