It seems the interest in Earthships has increased recently. Many people are looking for environmentally friendly, self-sustainable homes with off-grid capabilities, and Earthships check all these boxes. But they are still considered alternative homes, and there are only a few for sale around the country, so you may have to start from scratch. But how long does it take to build an Earthship?
A crew of experienced builders can construct an Earthship in about two to three months, depending on its size and location. Building an Earthship yourself will take longer and depend on several factors but expect it to take at least six months. If you cannot work full time on the Earthship, the process will take two or more years to finish.
In this article, we will look into what it takes to build an Earthship from scratch and why it takes relatively long.
Table of Contents
Before we go into the details of the planning and construction process, let us consider the factors that affect how long it will take to build an Earthship:
In cold and warm climates, you will need more thermal mass to even out the extreme outside temperatures. If it’s very hot, you need to insulate against the cold, and in a hot climate, you want to keep your home from getting too cold. In deserts, the significant temperature swings between night and day also require you to use thermal mass along with efficient cooling.
However, in milder climates you will need less thermal mass, meaning it will takes less time to build an Earthship.
The planned location of your Earthship will impact how easy or difficult it is to get the needed building materials. It can be hard to find available materials in some places, while these are abundant and affordable in other locations. Also, consider how long it takes to deliver the materials to the building site.
Another factor is how many hindrances the municipality will put in your way. Some places have very few regulations, and you should be able to get the necessary permits in no time. At the same time, regulatory authorities in other locations will make you go through extensive red tape and headaches – and in some places, you may never even get the permit.
Tools and Materials
How much heavy machinery will you be using? To many, a self-sustainable and human-powered construction process is an essential part of Earthship building, and you may prefer to take the time instead of speeding it up with machines. On the other hand, machinery will be able to move tons of earth in a very short time, whereas manually moving it will take days or even weeks.
Consider to which degree you prefer to save time by utilizing modern machinery and who what degree you want to use your own two hands.
How Big Do You Want Your Earthship to be?
A small Earthship requires less wall construction and will save you some time. Although, a lot of the additional work, such as roofing, earth berms, glass facade, etc., will still need to be done, only on a smaller scale. Many of the processes involved with building an Earthship are almost the same regardless of their size. If you do want a large Earthship, it is probably not worth it to downscale just to save some time during construction.
How Many Builders?
Perhaps the most crucial factor determining how long it takes to build an Earthship is how many people will be working on it. Building Earthships is very labor-intensive. If you are just one or two people making the entire construction yourself, this is a massive task that will take a long time, especially if it is only done in your spare time.
On the other hand, a big group of people can finish a building project relatively quickly. As a significant part of the work involved does not require specialized skills but rather physical strength and endurance, a group of motivated and fit builders can accomplish a lot in just a few days.
Planning the Process
All Earthships are custom-made and constructed on-site. In addition, as Earthships are made from recycles local materials, every build will be unique. This means you certainly can take inspiration from other Earthships, but you will likely not be able to copy an existing build.
It is highly recommended to plan the process throughout before you start building, as Earthships are very difficult to change once they have been built. And compared to traditional homes, where the energy used for climate control comes from the municipal grid, Earthships are made to be autonomous. Therefore you need to consider several factors to keep the right balance of inside temperatures relative to the surrounding environment
An important part of planning is figuring out how to build it in a self-sustaining way. I.E., how to adapt your plans to your particular environment in a way that keeps it cool during summer and warm during winter. Here insulation and thermal mass are key, as well as making sure you will be able to keep humidity down by ensuring sufficient ventilation. You also need to decide if you want to build a bermed house (where earth is bermed up against one or more walls), underground, or a combination of both.
Another central principle of the Earthship design is the ability to collect water and utilize greywater to grow plants in the indoor greenhouse – which also serves as the primary source of light and heat. Integrating the greenhouse into your design will require some considerations.
As mentioned above, it is also important to study the climate of where you want to build your Earthship. Since Earthships are made to store the sun’s heat during the day and release it during the night, it is necessary to consider your home’s orientation. In cold climates, you will want the obligatory “open” glass facade of the greenhouse facing south, while in warm climates, you want it to face north.
It is also necessary to plan how you wish to integrate utilities. If you want to be off-grid, you may also want to integrate solar panels, gravity-fed water systems, etc., into the construction.
Permits and Paperwork
As with most other homes, you will need the right permissions to build your Earthship. This very much depends on your location, but in many places, this can be quite a challenge as Earthships are alternative home types and not fit for standard building codes or zoning regulations. It is not a coincidence that Earthships originated and took off in New Mexico during the 1970s and ’80s when building permits were cheap and very easy to get.
The good news is that more and more local governments are becoming supportive of sustainable home types, but you may have to spend some time making your case. Contact your county clerk and ask what it would take for you to get the necessary permits.
Using mostly locally available recycled materials is a must when building according to the Earthship method and philosophy. This means you can’t just order most things from the hardware store but will have to source the materials from multiple locations and through different means. In some locations, the tires, in particular, can be difficult to find in sufficient amounts, and obtaining thousands of bottles and used cans can also be quite a task that often requires many trips to various locations.
The good news is that recycled building materials are usually much cheaper than new materials, meaning you can save a significant amount of money. But you will also have to spend a lot of time finding it and bringing it to your location. Here is an article on 10 ways to get free or cheap building materials.
Constructing the Earthship
A significant part of the building process is packing all the tires with dirt. The dirt has to be fully compressed into the tires, which is hard and time-consuming work that has to be done right to keep the walls from collapsing. A typical Earthship requires 700 to 1,500 tires to build an Earthship, depending on the size and style. It takes around 30 to 60 minutes to pack a tire full of earth, which means around 750 hours of work for 1,000 tires.
A pneumatic tamper will make the works easier and speed up the process slightly compared to the traditional way of using a sledgehammer to compress the dirt, but it is still a time-consuming job. An Earthship that consists of a large number of tires will take a long time to finish.
Earthships theoretically do not have to be made from used tires as other materials can provide the same results. But tires are the most common and a great material for making a solid thermal mass construction of recycled materials.
However, stomping dirt into tires is not all it takes to build an Earthship, you will also have to plaster the tires and many auxiliary tasks. The roof, greenhouse, interior walls, floors, and many other things require some skills and will keep you occupied for quite some time.
Advantages of Earthship building are the option to utilize resources that would otherwise clutter up landfills, plus a great degree of freedom of expression. But they are also very time-consuming to build. Expect to spend much more time than you would if you built a standard house without necessarily saving much money.