Building An Earthship In Darfield, B.C.

We are a family of five living in Darfield, BC.
Our house is six hundred square feet in total and we are feeling cramped.

We have decided to build an earthship!

So starts the adventure ...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Clearwater was a winner!

On Thursday we hooked up the trailer and headed to Clearwater...46 tires! Unfortunately they shipped about 300 the day before. Bummed Chris out. We are now up to 141 tires and Chris has been working on the plans to make them three-dimensional.

On Tuesday we are going on a field trip to see two Earthships located in the hills south of us...the owners have no telephone but I managed to track down who they are and found exact directions...thank you John Sawatsky, Dan Poirier and Joe Scanlon, Carleton Journalism School profs who armed me and my classmates (about 20 years ago!) with basic investigative tools (all legal, of course). We are taking our friends Henry and Lee-Ann who are two of the most super friendly people in the world, and are blessed with the uncanny ability to talk their way into anybody's home. Hopefully we won't freak out these unsuspecting Earthship owners when we turn up on their doorsteps unannounced...I'll have to wear my Martian clothes...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Tire Gathering Continues

On Tuesday, November 25th, Chris and I hooked up the trailer and headed into Kamloops specifically for a tire "run". I had five tire shops lined up to set aside 235 tires so we decided to make a day of it and try to cultivate a few relationships while we were at it.

Our first stop was the Movie Gallery; we had forgotten to return "Iron Man" when we were in Kamloops a few days before. I was glad to see the end of it; Stephen watched it too many times lounging on the couch recovering from a stomach bug. Then, a few errands and we drove up to our first tire shop; a well known big box store.

Darren, the manager of the tire shop, had seemed interested in our house when I spoke to him on the phone. In the week since speaking to him, he had gathered six 235/75 R15 tires. Feeling our tire count increase exponentially, I backed the trailer out of the loading bay and we continued on our way.

An aside: I insisted on driving the car and trailer. It had been years since I'd driven our company 5 tonne delivery truck and I'd had little practice maneuvering a trailer, so I was game to practice.
On we went.

Before we turned onto the highway that would take us to the industrial parks across Kamloops, we realized we were minutes away from another big box tire shop. I pulled a successful "U"ey and we sauntered in. We had let our memberships lapse, but the card-checker lady let us in to the tire shop.

After several minutes of discourse we were told that due to liability issues that came from "regional" office, the tire shop could not give us any tires. Apparently if I took the tires and put them on a car and there was an accident, this big box store/tire shop would be liable. The manager was even asked if they slashed the sidewalls, if we could have them (we are considering cutting one sidewall out to ease the job of pounding dirt). That wasn't going to fly either. The manager was sticking to his guns on the liability concern.

Fair enough. But I felt it my responsibility to point out that my recycling effort was less wasteful than trucking all those tires 6 hours south, and then to spend more resources grinding them up and producing another product. Given all the tire piles we had seen over the last few weeks, I didn't try very hard, but I did leave with the number of the "regional" office.
On our way to the highway to get to the industrial parks, we almost passed another big box store with a tire shop. I make a point not to shop at this one, but since I was looking to receive and not buy, I made a hard right and pulled up to the door. This shop was agreeable to letting us have tires (and coming back for more at a later date) but the manager did say he wanted to be a "silent partner" as he wasn't sure the company policy meshed with what he was doing.

Ahhh.. a pattern was emerging.

Next stop: Back to the original tire shop in Kamloops to pick up the tires we could not fit in the CRV on Saturday. This time Terry was there and we had a good chat about tire houses. By this time we were up to a paltry 12 tires and Chris was seeing his dreams of a full trailer load disappearing in the dust.

We had a quick discussion outside another Kamloops tire shop and decided that we would ask for ANY tire with 235 on it. We figure as long as we stay consistent on size for each course, we would still have square walls, and we would reach our goal of 1,000 tires just a little faster.

Clayton, the shop foreman, was incredibly helpful, interested and offered to set aside all the 235 tires in the scrap area. He even told us that we could bring our trailer in on Saturday, park it at the shop and come back in the afternoon to load it, after our children's swimming lessons and our errands were complete.

By accepting all 235 tires (235/85 R16, 235/80 R17, etc), we now had a full trailer load and headed home. This brought our count to 43 tires.

Today we went back to our local tire shop and dug through the scrap piles for 235 tires and found 50 more tires. We almost starting pulling from its "used" pile (the ones they actually do re-sell) in our excitement, but luckily an employee stopped us!

Tomorrow we will go north to a tire shop in Clearwater and clean them out of tires.
I am going to stop mentioning tire shops by name because I don't want to get anyone in trouble for helping us out. It seems a really stupid thing to have to do because everything we are doing makes sense in terms of recycling these tires, but I guess that is the litigious society we now live in!

Composting and an Earthship

So ... other than the fact that I like the smell of compost (and Katie apparently does not), what possible tie in is there between an earthship and composting?

One of the principles of earthship design and living is food production within the building envelope. We have only just started wrapping our heads around the idea of a greenhouse being part of the living space. In principle I completely support the idea ... in practice I have only read about it.

We are neophyte gardeners. We just planted our first garden this year (a square foot garden), and we were reasonably pleased with the results. It took me a while to accept that some plants are going to die no matter what you do, and the quickest solution is to tear them out and replant!

We did spend a fair bit of money on store bought compost this year and we do not want to repeat the experience as we fill our planters in the house after it is built. I have embarked on an aggressive composting regime to make sure we do not!

I built a 3 bin composter (pictured above) this spring, and have been experimenting with it for the last seven months. The idea in this composting is to create large piles (minimum of 3'x3'x4') of layered compost. The compost pile is supposed to heat up (anaerobic composting) and composting should proceed fairly quickly. The more often you turn and mix the pile (hence 3 bins), the faster the composting should go as the material gets uniformly mixed and oxygenated.

A month into my first pile I turned it and discovered I was not watering enough. Some of the material in the pile looked as fresh as the day it went in. When I turned the compost pile over I had my son Stephen hosing down the pile continuously (this is the perfect job for a nine year old boy).

Our kids were in 4H (an agricultural youth club) and in August their sheep, and all of the other kids' sheep in the club, were sheared. I learned at the shearing day that all of the wool went to the local dump, and I could not pass up the composting opportunity. Consequently, at this point I added lots of wool, hay and sheep manure to my compost piles. Also, when I turned the piles this time they smelled wonderful (for a very short period of time). Wet compost seems to do the trick, and I cannot say that I have overwatered my compost pile yet.

Not many people think I will do well composting the wool. Experienced sheep ranchers claim that they have seen many year-old-piles of buried sheep wool look almost as good as the day it was buried. I added lots of water!

The image at the top of the post is me turning the piles last week. I had noticed that the piles slumped quite a bit over the last month, indicating that composting was occurring. When I turned the piles I was amazed. It was below freezing that day and steam was pouring out of the pile as I dug into it, and it was very warm. I did not measure the temperature but I know I have active composting! The sheep's wool also looks like it is breaking down nicely. The round drum in the right side of the picture is a tumbling composter that Sandra obtained from FreeCycle. It seems to work quite nicely.

By far our most expensive purchased compost this spring was worm castings (over $20 for a 35 litre bag). I used to keep a composting bin of worms, but had stopped about five years ago. This summer I bought 2 pounds of red wrigglers at $35/lb (ouch). I tried to pick up where I left off five years ago, but things did not go smoothly. I almost completely killed off the first 2 lbs by overloading the bin with compostables too quickly. I think the compost went anaerobic (i.e. hot) and essentially cooked and dissolved the worms (it was not pretty).

Discouraged and humbled I went back to the worm supplier and got another pound of worms. Raising worms and making my own compost was not working out cost effectively. I built the worm population up over the last six months in two commercially available composters that I owned (a wriggly ranch, and a City of Toronto worm compost bin from our Toronto years), and last week I added a third much larger composter that I built to the mix. If I can keep this up I should have plenty of worm castings this spring.

In the back of my head I have been thinking of integrating hydroponic food production into our earthship's gardens. Rather than have an inside cistern, I hope to use that space as a fish pond (say tilapia). My thinking was some of the fish food could be worms! I do not know the practicality of this idea, but I was just reading about an earthship called the Pheonix that is designed to use this approach, so maybe this idea is not as half baked as it seems to me!

The First Drawing of Our Earthship!

Over the last couple of weeks Sandra and I have been visualizing what our house will look like.

This is our initial floorplan.

The building would be slightly more than 2000 square feet.

I have drawn up numerous plans for our log house business, but an earthship definitely does not follow the norms. Consideration has to be given to the earthship systems (food production, solar gain and site layout, water management, materials), that are only touched on superficially in the usual design process.

I find myself full of questions that do not have the typical answers. I have not yet thought through the layout and integration of the systems that make up an earthship.

Water, Food, Waste Management and Gray Water
  • How many planters does a family of five need to recycle its gray water?
  • How effective is a composting toilet (what does it need)?
  • How much food do we want to produce in the building?
  • How do we lay out the pipes for graywater?

Solar Gain

  • How much sun can we expect in the winter? We live in a narrow valley that gets lots of cloud cover in the winter.
  • What will my backup heating system be?
  • Should we insulate the floor? There seems to be quite a debate over this issue in earthship design.

Anyway, the plans are started. I will start to tighten up the design and answer these questions (and more) over the next couple of months.

I am off to re-read Earthship Volumes I-III. I am also going to go and hang out at the post office and wait for my other two books ('Comfort In Any Climate' and 'Packaged Plan Option Book').

Any comments are welcome!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

All 235 Tires are not Created Equal

We now have five tire shops lined up for collecting tire size 235/75 R15. We started with our local tire shop, Insight Tire and Auto, located in Barriere, the community closest to Darfield. Owner Scott Kershaw told us to go right ahead and search through his pile.

The problem was, that the tire size I had written down on a piece of paper was in my work jeans and I wasn't wearing them. We still had not memorized the size but I was pretty sure what it was. Chris decided that since there were so many 235 tires we could mix and match them. After a brief explanation by Scott of what the tire numbers mean, we threw about six into the trailer; several 235/85 R14 and a few 235/75 R16 and R15's. When we stood them up next to each other we realized that we needed a longer explanation! The numbers did not mean what we thought. By this time I was getting cranky and Chris was determined to fill the trailer.

I insisted that we needed tires the same size; Chris vehemently insisted we could probably mix and match. I told him I wasn't too keen to demolish the stacks Scott had made (tire shops do this weaving thing with the used tires that looks impossible to duplicate). Chris was gearing up to look through every pile. I was getting hungry and irritated; ditto for Chris. Finally we decided we would only take the size we had originally determined we would use, so in two went, we tossed all the others back on the pile.

On the way home, I looked at Chris and said I wasn't sure we had actually got the correct tire size, thereby ensuring lack of confidence in my role of Quality Control manager. As we sailed into the yard and past our lone dump tire we craned our necks through Chris' window to read the tire. Crap! I told Chris to keep the 235/75 R16's and throw the 235/75 R15's back in Scott's yard.

How deflating...

Today, however, we stopped at Kal Tire in Kamloops where a fellow named Terry had agreed to start setting aside 235/75 R15's for us. Although we didn't have the trailer (kids swimming lessons today and lots of running around in town), we made sure the back of the CRV had nothing in it (all the groceries went in the Yakima Skybox). Terry wasn't there but a colleague took us back to the tire pile (having now visited a number of tire shops, I've concluded that we definitely have a problem with the number of scrap tires in this country). We manged to cram six of the correct tires in the CRV and drove home. So, now we have seven tires! Seven down and 993+ to go.

Next week Chris and I will hook up the trailer and go around Kamloops picking up tires at the other shops I've contacted.

For those who care, we will be posting our tire count at the bottom of our blog!

Also, for those who don't know and want to, a good explanation of tire sizes can be found at

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Earthship: What's in a name?

It's really too bad that Mike Reynolds named his creation an "Earthship". Not that it isn't a great name. After reading his books, it certainly does describe the dwelling. It's just that for the uninitiated, it sounds like something from outer space. In fact, when Chris first said, "Let's build an Earthship", visions of round, ET-type transportation vessels stuck in the dirt, came to mind.

The thought of throwing out, "Hey friends, we're finally going to build our house. It's going to be an Earthship," was slightly alien to me (pun intended). I tried it a few times in front of the mirror. Translation: Hey humans, I've just landed my UFO from Mars, how would you like to come and pound some tires in my Earthship???

Mildly apprehensive about how to introduce "Earthships" to family and friends, I began to think of other ways to describe them. "Hey, Katie," I said to our 10-year-old daughter at dinner one night, "how would you like to live in a house made of garbage?" Chris made throat-cutting gestures behind her, wildly waving me off with his free hand.

"Uh, are these those houses from that DVD you and Dad watched?", she asked, a doubtful look on her face. We had allowed our night-owl daughter to stay up to watch it with us, cringing on several occasions as she listened to a profane Mike Reynolds take shots at the Taos building authority...

Katie didn't say much after that. Apparently the "garbage" label wasn't a winner either. Several weeks went by and as we began to talk more openly with our three children about the concept of Earthships and our desire to build one, Katie remained somewhat silent. One night she came to us and said, "I don't want an Earthship, I don't want to have to tell my friends I live in a house made out of garbage!!!!" She was quite upset and it took us several months to undo the damage...

I continued to try to find a name to describe the house. Adobe Desert Dwelling with Glass Front, Solar Power and Grey Water House. I dismissed these as too wordy. At Peace with the Earth House. This one brought images of Chris sitting on the floor of the house, meditating. Green House. Too obvious and already taken. Scrap Tire House with Pop Cans. Hmmm. Shades of the Katie episode. Solar Ship, Hydrosun Ship, FloraSun Home....

Eventually I ran out of time, never coming up with something adequate enough by the time we started leaking our plans to family and friends. So, how would this "Earthship" concept be received by those who know us to be sane?

"What the heck is an "Earthship"? Will you be able to blast off or teleport people?" asked my friend Diane, producer of Information Morning for CBC Halifax. A true journalist, she checked out and pronounced the houses as "really cool".

"You're going to live in it?" asked a family member, who I could see was trying to process the idea of a relative (actually, five of them) living in the midst of a bunch of smelly tires and sticky pop cans. "And it's called an "Earthship?"

My father's eyebrows shot straight up and he didn't say much, but being an engineer, he had lots of questions for us the next time we discussed it. Not surprisingly, he knew a little bit about everything to do with a sustainable house...

He did remind me of a house in the Kootenays made out of glass embalming bottles, which we toured as kids. I did remember it, but decided not to tell Katie about it.

Chris' mom, Nancy, surprised us, correctly identifying Earthships with American actor, Dennis Weaver.

Except for Nancy, nobody within our circle of family and friends had heard of "Earthships". Although not surprising to us, there were many who were well enough read to have heard of sustainable housing, solar power, grey water recovery, and composting toilets, to be able to ask us very good questions about the houses.

We left our friends Lee-Ann and Henry for last. Their philosophy of life closely resembles ours and we figured that if anybody had heard of Mike Reynolds' "Earthships", it would be them. Also, Lee-Ann and Henry would never laugh behind our backs; they'd come right out and laugh to our faces!

So I gave it my best shot.

"Earthships... you know Lee-Ann," I prompted, "they're sustainable houses, solar powered, with grey water recovery, solar heated. This guy Mike Reynolds has been building them in the U.S. for the last 30 years.", I held my breath...

"Oh, I think I've heard of them," she said.

"There's one on the access road to Silver Star near Vernon," I ventured, knowing that she and Henry lived at Silver Star for many years .

"Oh yeah," she said, her voice rising half an octave, "we really wanted to buy that house when it was for sale. It was COOL, we really liked it." She continued to enthuse for a few minutes while I felt relief flooding through me. It was like finding the only other English-speaking tourist in Cairo.

Then she said, "What are they called again?"

Earthships. They are called Earthships. And we are building one.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

We started our earthship ... kind of ...

My wife and I have been talking for months now about building an earthship (see for details).

I was all set to start digging this fall, but Sandra talked me out of it. She insisted that we needed to plan to get things right. Picture me rolling my eyes and gnashing my teeth. I reluctantly agreed, put down my shovel, and unstrapped my tool belt.

Since then we have been talking, planning and organizing. I admit now that we were not ready to start this fall.

A basic premise in building an earthship is to build with used materials to minimize the manufacturing of new building materials to be used in construction. As such, the walls of an earthship are made of old tires rammed with earth. We have decided to use one tire size for our building as hopefully the uniformity will make stacking the tires that much easier. We have picked a tire commonly used on light trucks and larger cars (an 235/75R15), as this is small truck country where we live.

We decided to go and pick up our first load of used tires today. We noticed earlier this summer when we were at our local dump that there was a huge stack of tires there. We have been planning to go back --once we had a good method of hauling -- and see if they will let us take tires away for free.

We did not re-licence our pickup truck this fall as we are trying to manage as a single vehicle household this year. This has worked fairly well except we simply cannot picture hauling tires in the back of our CRV!

Today we finished rewiring our Honda CRV so that we can haul a utility trailer. The wiring was fairly straight forward, but getting access to the wiring harness was challenging. We had to remove three of the plastic panels in the cargo area. Even this was not too bad, except it was not obvious how to remove these panels, and we were quite anxious about pulling too hard and breaking them. After a bit of trial and error and some suspicious snapping noises, we managed to access the wiring harness without visible damage to the car.

With the car rewired we loaded up the kids, went up to the in-laws to borrow the utility trailer, returned home, loaded up our garbage from the last month (a small amount as we are composters and recyclers), and headed to the dump! The excitement in the car was palpable.

When we got to the dump we got our first piece of bad news. The pile of tires had just been hauled off to the local recycling dump. But the attendant had no problems with us picking over the now much smaller pile of tires as long as we promised to re-stack them when we were done.

We pulled our utility trailer up to a pile of about twenty tires. Not quite the massive stack of old tires from which I was planning to select my radial, steel belted building bricks. Not to be discouraged, we gamely searched through the stack of tires.

We found one tire that matched our chosen size! I must admit I pictured a utility trailer piled high with tires, and our one lonely little tire was a bit of a let down.

Our house may only be one tire and a vision in our heads, but we are finally started!