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 ...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Waiting on Permit Approval, reading and septic thoughts ...

We thought spring was right around the corner last week when we submitted our building plans, but the last week has been bone chillingly cold. We were down to -20 degrees Celcius on a couple of evenings and the snow is just not melting. The driveway is a skating rink and unfortunately it slopes down to the highway. It is up over zero today, and the long term forecast is for warmer weather.

The good news is that I have read some more books during this cold weather!

My copy of Water From the Sky (Michael Reynolds) arrived a couple of days ago. I truly wish I had read this book prior to laying out my plans. This book is detailed and clarifies a number of issues that were not well explained in the Earthship Volumes. The book also has color pictures which give a much better idea of what a finished home might look like. Also, it provides good examples of what has worked and what has not worked based on thirty years of building experience. Hopefully I will be smart enough to listen and understand what is being described. It has certainly given me a number of ideas as I think about my building.

I borrowed a book called Earthships: Building a Zero Carbon Future for Homes (Mischa Hewitt and Kevin Telfer). This book was written about two earthships that were built in the United Kingdom. This is a well written book that goes into some construction and technical details. It also has good colour pictures of finished buildings.

I have also now had a chance to review the Engineer's Report sold by Earthship Biotecture that gives structural support for rammed earth tire walls. The report cautions about using earth cliffs as descrbed in the Earthship Volumes. It recommends getting the advice of a geotechnical engineer if you are planning to use this construction technique. Thankfully, this is not a concern for us as we plan to fully level our building site. Otherwise the report is positive about tire walls with lateral restraint (a bond beam)!

I also stumbled across a video on the internet that talks about gray water recovery and the permitting process in California. This is a good primer on the subjet and has an excellent list of books for further reading at the end. Sandra provided a link to this video on a previous post.

Possibly my single biggest discovery of the week was a briefing document written about the regulatory environment surrounding gray water in British Columbia (it obviously also has some application to the rest of Canada). It is called REGULATORY AND LEGISLATIVE BARRIERS TO AN EARTHSHIP-LIKE WATER/SEWAGE SYSTEM IN BRITISH COLUMBIA. I have asked the author for permission to post a link to this document on the blog as I do not know how available it is, but I have not yet heard back from him.

We have spent the rest of our week seeing if we can prove that the existing septic system on site is satisfactory to support our proposed earthship. We are required to submit proof of an acceptable existing septic system or get a permit to build a new one in order to get a building permit. Because we are increasing the size of our home the septic regulations require a larger septic tank and field than what was previously acceptable. There is no allowance in the current regulations for composting toilets or gray water recovery in dictating the size of a septic installation. We think our existing system is big enough and hopefully the inspector coming next tuesday agrees with us. Otherwise, we might be looking at the installation of a new septic system that will barely get any use, and cost in the neighborhood of $15,000 dollars. Our fingers are crossed!


EAC said...

Hi Chris,

First and foremost, thanks for sharing all of your plans and info on this wonderful website! It has been very interesting to follow. My husband and I are in the initial stages of desiging plans for an earthship in NB.

My question from this most recent blog to you is, what might you have done differently in regards to your cistern and greywater system plans now that you have read water from the sky? We have read this and earthship volumes I through III, and have similarly found the information useufl, but ultimately scattered and not always sufficiently detailed. We are in the process of inquiring about prices for plans, but are trying, like you, to avoid consulting costs etc. otherwise.

Take Care,

Chris said...


Reading Water From the Sky has ...

... led me to question the layout of our water cache. We should possibly be considering a roof sloping north to south and cisterns located to the sides or the front of the building. This would limit freezing and damming during the winter. I am not too worried about this as we have good rainfall here and some interruption in water collection during the winter will not be the end of the world. The down side to sloping the roof this way would be multiple slopes in the roof and the requirement for the 'kickup' shown in the Earthship volumes. I am concerned about this kickup as it is a potential source for moisture accumulation between the ceiling and the roof. All in all I am not too concerned with our current choices regarding water collection.

... made the gray water system much clearer to me. The Earthship Volumes are vague about the gray water recovery system. After reading Water From the Sky I have a much clearer understanding of the gray water system and some of the pitfalls to avoid. Fortunately, I do not think this means changing the floorplan. However, I would now like to see gray water travel through all of the planters (in other words link the planters together as opposed to stand alone), and I want to recirculate the gray water through the planters with a pump so that the water is not static. This is all discussed in Water From the Sky.

The Earthship Volumes and other books by Michael Reynolds are an excellent starting point, but lack enough details that I have found other research to be necessary.

Ultimately I think it is key to accept that trial and error and on the job experience is going to be as important as the initial design in one of these buildings. This is probably me single biggest problem! I like to have everything laid out before I start a project ... I often think that training as an engineer limits my willingness to take tolerable risks that ultimately develop experience and knowledge.

I have found designing this building challenging and I have been laying out conventional house designs for the last decade! I imagine you are having similar experiences and I feel your pain.

I have talked to people who have managed to build an earthship just going by Michael Reynold's books and their own research. This is still the direction that Sandra and I plan to take.

We may make mistakes that were encountered and dealt with before. Our building may not perform optimally compared to the most recent designs from Earthship Biotecture. However, at the end of the day we will have the house we wanted.

Good luck and keep us posted on your progress!


P.S. - many building authorities will require a local engineer or architect (in other words one licensed in New Brunswick in your case) to approve your plans. So, if you get plans from Earthship Biotecture you may still have to get an engineer to approve and stamp them. I was told about this situation and cost occurring in Ontario.