How Much Do Earthships Actually Cost to Build?

More and more people are becoming aware of their footprint on Earth’s resources and climate. Earthships offer many advantages to an eco-conscious homeowner, but it can be hard to decipher the cost of building one. How much does it actually cost to build an Earthship?

Earthships cost between $150 and $225 per square foot to build because of:

  • The high cost of necessary labor and custom work
  • The cost of the permits and excavation
  • High-cost items necessary for the design, such as large windows

However, that’s just a summary of the situation. In reality, there are a lot of factors that affect how much an Earthship will cost to build. We’ll explore the cost, the reasons for the cost, strategies to make it cheaper, and more in further detail below. 

How Much Do Earthships Cost to Build?

One of the main attractions of building an Earthship is the hope that it will cost less to build because of the methods used to build it. After all, a lot of the material used in the walls, floors, roofs, and overall construction of the house is made from items that should essentially be free, such as:

It’s one of the main points of an Earthship – making use of recycled materials. For the most part, the recycled materials are going to be a low-cost item in the budget. They likely will not be free, but they shouldn’t make up a vast majority of the cost. 

Earthship could cost anywhere from $20,000 to $1,500,000 depending on factors such as:

  • Labor costs
  • Required permits
  • Material costs
  • Climate and local environment

Those are just a few examples. That’s quite a broad range because there are just so many factors that go into the cost, which we’ll cover below.

Streamlined Construction VS. Custom Builds

Modern home construction often deals with premade patterns and house designs, unless the builder wants to pay for a totally custom home—which is not a cheap endeavor. While the “cookie-cutter” nature of modern suburbs has its downsides, the standard house construction process has several things going for it:

  • Standardized patterns make it much easier for workers to construct them repeatedly
  • The building plans are designed for fast and efficient construction
  • Mass-building of similar houses drives down labor costs

So, while the modern, potentially wasteful methods of building houses do have their downsides, the methods they use allow them to streamline costs. Custom-built houses, especially an Earthship, require extra cost and time to build due to the economics of scale.

Why are Earthships so Expensive?

We’ve covered how expensive building an Earthship could be, but that leaves a burning question: Why are Earthships so expensive?

The answer has multiple factors, all of which we’ll discuss below, but the general principle is that they cost so much because they are labor intensive, custom-built, and not made with industry standard methods.

They Require Specialized Labor and Lots of It 

Building any type of house is a massive project, and Earthships can be doubly so because of the unique methods used in building them.

The price of labor is often one of the highest costs of building an Earthship. The main focuses of Earthships are:

  • Using lots of recycled material
  • Being sustainable and eco-friendly
  • Being self-sufficient or off-grid 

Sometimes, in pursuing those goals, the construction process can be less practical than standard methods. 

While a practiced carpenter can put up a traditional wood-framed wall in a couple of hours, the construction of the wall of an Earthship takes far longer because each tire must be placed and then rammed full of dirt. Some people report it taking as long as 45 minutes to an hour per tire, and at several hundred tires for a decently long wall, the time adds up quickly.

That’s just one example of a place where the labor required, and therefore the cost of labor overall is going to be higher than a standard house. 

Getting the Correct Permits Can Be Costly

Earthships are more than a bit different from common modern building methods. This is great in some ways, such as their low environmental impact.

However, it can also introduce some issues, particularly with modern building codes and permits. Local governments all have building codes and regulations to ensure everyone living in their area is safe. 

Earthships can throw a wrench into these since they use non-standard methods to build houses. Earthships are safe to live in, but they are often not accounted for in the local building codes. For example, the rammed earth tire walls may not be on the list of approved structural elements.

Other things to think about when permitting an Earthship are:

  • Septic system permits
  • Zoning approvals
  • Valuation (estimation of the worth of the project)
  • Any building permits necessary

The cost of the permits and approvals is often minimal, at least not in the scope of the overall project budget. What can be expensive however, is hiring an architect or lawyer to assist you in making sure your Earthship will actually be legal.

You can do this yourself, as zoning laws and building codes are all available to the public—but there are still legal documents that can be difficult to follow. With time and effort, you can certainly avoid needing to hire help, but many people can find it hard to devote their time to that.

Excavation Brings Extra Costs

When most people think of Earthships, they think of a house built by hand with a small team of dedicated people without the loud, diesel-guzzling equipment of a typical construction site.

While this is true for a large part of the construction, there are unavoidable tasks that require heavy machinery. Excavation in particular, is a large task which necessitates the use of a backhoe or other vehicle.

Excavation has to happen for a few reasons:

  • To grade and level the site for the house
  • To collect enough dirt to build the house
  • To dig deep enough for a solid foundation

You could technically excavate by hand, but that’s a monumental task, even for a large team of people. It’s much better just to hire a heavy equipment company that can have it done in a day or two. Additionally, you should keep in mind the climate. Wetter and colder climates require digging deeper to find a solid foundation for an Earthship as a result the excavation costs will be higher.

Concrete Can Be Pricy

A huge portion of the material used in an Earthship is recycled or repurposed junk, like tires and tin cans. However, concrete always has to be used for a few reasons:

  • To reinforce the rammed earth walls
  • To help seal the dirt inside the tires from moisture
  • To conform to modern safety and structural security standards

Concrete doesn’t have to be a major expense, but it is definitely something that contributes to the higher prices of Earthships. Because of the non-standard pouring areas and the time and difficulty of laying concrete in and around all the nooks and crannies of the earthen walls, expect to pay a decent price for a team to do it. 

Just like with the zoning and building codes, you can do much of the concrete work yourself. However, you won’t be able to do it as quickly as an experienced team. Before you start, you’ll need to learn proper ways of using concrete and how to work with it safely and effectively.

A Large Toolbox Costs Money

Tools cost money, and you will probably be buying a lot of them. This doesn’t just apply to Earthships, but any DIY building project. If you plan on building your own Earthship, but you’ve never done any serious construction work, then chances are very high you only own a few of the dozens of necessary tools to get the job done. 

In the early stages, expect to make a few big purchases as well as other smaller tools. These are likely to include:

  • Table saw or circular saws
  • Drills and bits
  • Sawhorses
  • Sledgehammers
  • Concrete trowels and other concrete working tools

If you are just handling the basic construction, then the major power tools are going to be your biggest cost. However, many people plan to do the electrical or plumbing work by themselves, too, without realizing the added cost of the tools required. Tools such as:

  • Different types of wire cutters and trimming tools
  • Multimeters and other measuring or diagnostic tools
  • “Fish tapes” to drag wire through the conduits
  • All sorts of pliers—channel, linesman, diagonal, etc. (some are just extremely useful while others are necessary)

That’s just a few examples of electrical work. Other trades work, like plumbing, will also have some extra tools you’ll need to purchase.

So Many Windows Means More Money

One of the key pieces of an Earthship’s design is passive solar heating and lighting. It allows the house to make use of all the free energy shining down every day.

The downside, however, is that windows can be expensive. Really expensive. When you’re buying dozens of large, double paned, door-sized windows for the solar heating portion of the house, this can rack up huge bills.

Several things contribute to the cost of the windows:

  • The dimensions—larger windows obviously cost more
  • The shape—odd shaped windows or irregular cuts will drive up the cost significantly
  • Their features—double or triple paned, tinted, or otherwise treated windows cost more

There are some ways to cut down on this cost, which we’ll talk about in the cost saving section below. Still, an Earthship isn’t an Earthship without lots of good sun, so be prepared to fork over some dough for your windows.

Plumbing Challenges Cost Money to Solve

As we’ve stated, Earthships are decently far removed from standard building practices. This is often due to their construction, such as the rammed earth tire walls, but in other scenarios it’s because they actually add features that normal houses don’t have.

One of the key things in the more modern Earthship designs is the use of an internal wetlands to capture, detoxify, and purify grey water that comes from your home. Grey water consists, in short, of any water other than sewage, like runoff from:

  • Showers
  • Sinks and floor drains
  • Washing machines
  • Dishwashers

This presents a new plumbing challenge. Not only does the grey water need to be captured and diverted to the wetland area of the house, it also needs to be collected on the other side (depending on your design). While standard plumbing almost always relies on water pressure to move fluids, most greywater systems include pumps.

It may not sound like much, but routing greywater from the bathroom sink to the other side of the house into a wetland is probably going to require more in-depth plumbing than normal construction.

Solar and Electric Complications 

Much like the plumbing challenges, Earthships often require more detailed, or at least different, electrical work than a standard house. Much of this cost is related to the inclusion of a solar system, which requires:

  • The solar panels themselves
  • DC Disconnects for maintenance
  • Inverters
  • Battery Packs and charge controllers
  • Various meters and monitoring equipment

Of course, a traditional house with a solar system installed requires all those same things. However, we include it here because solar power is an essential part of the Earthship’s design and ability to be sustainable and off-grid.

Other electrical complications can come from the special understanding and design which goes into a low-power system usually found in Earthships, such as knowledge of mitigating trickle drains and phantom loads.

Everything is Custom

Last but not least, the custom nature of an individual Earthship itself contributes quite a bit to the overall cost of the project. Many people love them for their uniqueness, but that comes with a cost.

Another part of what drives modern home building costs down is the standardization of everything:

  • Building in boxes, with predetermined wall widths and stud spacing
  • Common window sizes and doorframe specifications
  • Predetermined kitchen specifications, like cabinet size, countertop spacing, etc.

That’s just to name a few. In short, it can go quickly and cheaply because the builders can plan around readily available, mass manufactured goods.

With an Earthship, however, lots and lots of items have to be custom made. Of course, you can still use things like standard window and door sizes, but the common methods to place them in walls are designed around wood framing—not beaten earth tire walls.

Additionally, these are a few other items that are often custom made for Earthships:

  • Bedroom furniture
  • Kitchen cabinets and counters
  • Bathroom fixtures
  • Skylights
  • Roofing solutions

Custom made items, fixtures, and solutions cost more time and money—especially if you aren’t doing them yourself.

How to Make Building an Earthship Cheaper

Now that we’ve covered why building an Earthship can cost so much, it’s time to look at ways to help defray the cost significantly.

Do the Dirty Work Yourself

The largest cost involved in building an Earthship is labor—hours upon thousands of hours of labor. It’s not necessarily even the professional labor costs that are the most expensive, like paying an electrician or plumber, but the more menial tasks.

Building an Earthship requires a lot of:

  • Collecting and refining dirt
  • Pounding that dirt inside tires
  • Laying concrete and plaster
  • Placing all the cans and glass bottles in the interior walls

These are all pretty basic tasks, but they take a lot of time. A single tire takes about two wheelbarrows full of dirt to properly pack, and a two-person team can only do ten tires in a day, give or take. With over 900 tires in a typical Earthship, you can see how paying two people to do that for you can rack up costs quick.

The solution? Do it yourself!

This isn’t a solution everyone will be able to use, unfortunately. Most people can’t put their life on pause to ram Earth into used tires for 10 hours a day. Only being able to work during evenings and weekends could extend the total build time for your Earthship by years.

However, if you can afford to be patient and do it all yourself, you could build your Earthship for a fraction of the cost. Craig and Connie Cook, who built their own Earthship, said:

“We tell people: there’s $70,000 in material, and $930,000 in labor.”

At the end of the day, it’s hard work, but you can rest at night knowing you build your own house and saved a lot of money doing it!

Learn to Do It All Yourself

If you want to take the DIY spirit even further, you can look into tackling the more specialized work yourself, too.

That means not only packing Earth and laying cement, but doing more technical trades, like:

  • Wiring the Earthship and solar elements yourself
  • Plumbing it yourself
  • Finishing the interior yourself, including flashing doors and windows
  • Roofing your Earthship 

While it may take forever to pound the tires for the wall, each of these tasks will likely take a similar amount of time (albeit in a different way). People spend a lot of time in trade schools and long apprenticeships in order to learn these skills, and you will need to spend a lot of time reading, studying, and generally learning about how to accomplish them all properly.

While taking this approach can save you more money, it’s generally not recommended for a few reasons:

  • A professional will almost always be able to do it better, faster, and safer
  • You aren’t just paying for labor—you still need to buy the wire/piping/any other materials
  • You will have to pay to have your work inspected and cleared by a professional anyway, for legal reasons

Unless you are really strapped for cash and have months of free time to learn the required skills, it’s better to hire a professional to do skilled work for you.

Use Whatever Windows Are Available

As we mentioned earlier, windows can be a big-ticket item. Earthships require lots of large windows in order for the solar heating and greenhouse features to be effective.

For windows, you have a few options:

  • Buy brand new windows
  • Design and purchase custom windows (often combined with the first option)
  • Shop for secondhand windows to lower costs
  • Look for free windows online and in local areas

Buying the amount of large, double or triple pane windows you need for and Earthship can be cost prohibitive. Triply so if you plan on having custom sized or shaped windows made for you. The last two options are the money savers. Secondhand windows can be great, especially if you don’t mind minor scratching or other damage. 

The cheapest option? Find whatever windows you can for free and incorporate them into your design! It will take some clever planning, but it will make your Earthship even more unique and one of a kind.

Read also: 10 Ways to Get Free or Cheap Building Materials

Plan Ahead

This last tip might sound odd, but planning ahead can save you a lot of time and money.

When it comes to building Earthships, using whatever materials or scrap you have on hand is key in driving costs down. But what if you don’t have any scrap, or very little? Running out of free scrap to use means you have to go and buy expensive brand new parts.

If you know you want to build an Earthship in the next few years, then start collecting useful recycled items now. Not necessarily tires or cans, but bigger things like:

  • Windows, like we talked about above
  • Scrap sheet metal, corrugated or otherwise
  • Secondhand tools or equipment
  • Cool things you can incorporate into your design, like odd shaped windows or bottles

Planning ahead and scraping the internet and local junkyards for freebies is a great way to make steps toward building your Earthship now and saving money at the same time.

Ongoing Costs of Earthships

Once you’ve gotten past the exciting phase of building an Earthship, the next part is just to live in it! Of course, we all know that day to day living has its costs, too. What does that look like in an Earthship?

For starters, your monthly bills should be drastically cut. With the power from solar and wind, passive heating and cooling, and even some of your food being grown inside, an Earthship can save you a lot of money in regular monthly costs. 

That’s great, because it means you can save it for repairs. There are several factors that make Earthship repairs more costly than normal:

  • The custom nature of Earthships presents new problems and challenges for each fix
  • The way Earthships are built doesn’t lend well to modifications or easy fixes for plumbing or electrical issues
  • Minor issues, like some water leaking inside of a wall, can turn into major costs since a large part of the Earthship’s construction is sensitive to moisture

In general, maintenance of an Earthship is likely to be less frequent than a normal house, but much more expensive when it hits.

How Do I Finance and Insure an Earthship?

We’ve talked a lot in this discussion about how Earthships buck a lot of modern building trends—unfortunately, this also extends to the process of financing one.

Since Earthships are very different from normal houses, it can be hard to convince a bank to lend you money to build one. This is because of issues like:

  • The novel ways they are built, which could raise concerns about their stability
  • Their resale value—Earthships are unique, and so are the people who choose to live in them. Most Earthship sales lose profit when they sell, which makes it hard for a lender to see how their investment is secure
  • It can be equally difficult to insure an Earthship for similar reasons, and the lender simply won’t lend that much money on an unsecured loan

So how can you go about financing an Earthship? 

Well, first, the news isn’t all bad. As they gain popularity, more and more financial institutions and insurance companies are willing to work with them. You also have the option of looking for private funding, like perhaps a local investor who is interested in the idea of an Earthship and more comfortable with radical eco-friendly construction methods.

How Much Does an Earthship Cost to Build?

Earthships have a long history of being an eco-friendly way to build a modern house. As more and more people become aware of their effect on the worldwide climate, they are growing in popularity. However, due to the peculiar method of construction of Earthships, and the wide variety of people building them, it can be difficult to know exactly how much it will actually cost to build one.

Modern Earthships cost between $150 and $225 per square foot to build because of:

  • The high cost of necessary labor and custom work
  • The cost of the permits and excavation
  • High-cost items necessary for the design, such as large windows

We’ve also covered a few ways to save some money during the process. The largest money saver is simply to do all the manual labor yourself because labor is a major cost in the building process.

However you decide to do it, and wherever you decide to build, you will end up with a self-sustainable, eco-friendly, and totally unique house to call your own.

Header Image by Biodiesel33 is licensed under CC AS-A U 3.0

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