When I tell someone that our family lives in an Earthship, I generally get one of three reactions — confusion, excitement or a judgment of disdain because we must be idealistic hippies.
We moved here last June, and I've been surprised that just about everyone has an opinion about how we are living our lives. It's like being pregnant — as soon as you start showing, it seems that people come out of the woodwork to offer opinions. Most concern comes from a lack of public awareness about how an Earthship works.
As I describe on our Facebook page, Monument Earthship, "this is our water catching, passive solar, food growing self sustaining home." Even more simply put, it is a self-sustained home built from recycled tires and cans. There is no need for a furnace — even though this home sits at 7,400 feet above sea level — because we have a passive solar heating system. The sun comes in through a wall of windows, heats up the earthen floors and walls and keeps the home at a fairly constant temperature. It also keeps food growing all year round; the entire length of one side of our home is a greenhouse. We harvested red, ripe tomatoes this November. Simply amazing. We do have a wood stove, and as the temperature has plummeted to -15 degrees this winter, we have only used it for supplemental heating on days where the sun didn't come out.
The biggest difference between a conventional home and an Earthship is that the structural walls are made out of recycled tires pounded with earth to create bricks and the non-structural walls are a honeycomb of recycled cans and cement. The part that I like best is we have no heating bill, no cooling bill and no water bill.
Some people assume that we have to be giving up so much, in terms of everyday luxuries and conveniences, to live the way we do. We have a dishwasher, washer and dryer, jetted tub, locking doors, flushing toilets, beautiful mountain views, and a year-round garden. This doesn't seem like suffering to me.
I'm not saying that this lifestyle is for everyone. This home is like a living creature; if properly taken care of it will take care of us, which has taken some reading for us to understand it all. This particular Earthship was a rental for the four years before we bought it, and needed tons of TLC to bring it back to its optimum working order. When we moved in, the dirt in the planters was mere dust and full of cat poop and glass. Wheel-barrow load by wheel-barrow load, we have removed and replaced the top feet with soil. So far we are growing snap peas, carrots, tomatoes, paddy pans, basil, oregano, jalapenos, lettuce and a banana tree, with lots of room for more.
Water is probably the hardest for most people to understand:
"There is NO way you can get enough water for a family of four from your roof!"
"You don't drink the water do you? Cisterns are really bad for drinking water."
"You're going to need a well!"
"Here's what you're going to need..."
We have done calculations (there are actually square footage calculators on the Internet which will do this for you), and when 1 inch of rain falls on our 3200 square-foot roof, we collect approximately 4,000 gallons of water. The average precipitation for this area is 22 inches a year. We have two 5,000-gallon cisterns that store our water. During the height of our watering season in Denver this summer, we used approximately 3,000 gallons to keep our lawn growing and our vegetables green.
Our home has a gray water system. All the water from the sinks, dishwasher, showers and washing machine goes through a particle filter, then flows through a filtering system of rocks, sand, and eventually peat moss which is incorporated into the planters. The "gray water" is getting filtered while also watering our food and then eventually goes to our toilets which we flush directly to our septic tank.
Because of this system, we use approximately 2,000 gallons of water a month. Where we're sitting right now we have enough water to last us 5 months. And that's if we don't get any precipitation. In our neighborhood, wells often run dry and some of our neighbors have never hit water. If they have, it is so full of iron that they don't even drink it. Most of them also use cisterns too. But we don't have to transport our water in the back of a truck, nor does it cost anything since it falls from the sky. Instead of buying bottled water for drinking, my husband found a raw water filtering system that sits on the counter. It's classier than an office-style water cooler and it tastes better than bottled water.
My personal interest in environmental health started young. At the age of 14, I helped organize a community river cleanup for Earthday. We had a barbeque for the volunteers, a contest to see who could gather the most garbage and a prize for the strangest piece of garbage found. When the article came out in the local newspaper the next week about the cleanup, there was a large photo of my younger sister picking up garbage. At the age of 14, my jealousy almost overshadowed what I had done for the beautiful Kinnickinnic River in River Falls, Wisconsin.
Still, my passion for the environment never died and 20 years later I realized that I felt guilty whenever I stepped over trash and kept walking. We conducted cleanups of our neighborhood in Denver, but the next day it would seem as though we had done nothing. Our efforts felt futile. My husband Bryan and I started talking about doing something more personal and direct — buying land and building an Earthship. We had just watched "The Garbage Warrior" about architect Michael Reynolds and the sustainable living, energy-independent housing movement, and we were sold.
Bryan found a couple of Earthships in foreclosure. We realized that maybe we didn't have to go through the hassle of obtaining building permits and the painstaking process of building a home and immediately contacted our real estate agent (who had never even heard of an Earthship).
What better than a home made out of recycled material, than to recycle one that was already built?
My favorite part of this house is that we are living authentically. We are living within our value system and teaching our kids to do the same. We are taking responsibility for mother Earth and doing our part to change how she is treated. We have significantly reduced our own carbon footprint. Just yesterday I gave a tour of our home to a retired neighbor and he said that soon enough everyone will want to live like this.
Best of all is that we have the opportunity to tell others how this works so they can see how easy it can be for them too.