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 ...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Zen or the Art of Pounding Tires ...

We finally got to pound tires today!

The kids and I moved enough tires for the first tier of the building yesterday morning, and spent the afternoon laying out rooms. The kids struggled with rolling tires, but were very impressed when I dumped tires out of the back of the dump truck.

Every time we design and lay out a building it always seems too small when the shell is initially laid out. As Sandra says you always worry that the rooms are big enough for their intended use, and feel badly for the customer. By the time everything is closed in (the walls are complete and the roof is on) your perspective changes and everything looks fine. This building is no different ... every thing looks too small only this time we are the customers! On the assumption that everything will go back to its proper size when it is closed in we have decided to take a deep breath and carry on ...

This morning I used the backhoe to level the ground for the retaining wall wings, and this afternoon Sandra and I double checked all the measurements and straightness of the walls. Everything looked good so we put a double layer of 6 mm vapour barrier under the first couple of tires and started pounding.

Lots of people have expressed opinions on the experience of filling around 900 tires with compacted earth using a sledge hammer. These opinions have ranged from skepticism about the process to suggestions that this might be suitable work for a chain gang. I admit to approaching my first tire anxiously ... my hopeful attitude is that it is cheaper than a gym membership and a good opportunity for meditation while focusing on a repetitive task.

The first step in the process is to shovel dirt into the tire. This was quite easy ... as I remarked to Sandra in those first five minutes I could do this all day. Shoveling dirt is physical work but not particularly hard (I say this after ten years of handling 300 pound plus timbers for a living). I could already feel my mind wandering as I settled into the repetitive task of shoveling and had to remind myself to stay in the meditative moment.

Once the centre of the tire is full of dirt the next step is to push the dirt into the casing using your hands. This was still pretty easy and a lot like gardening. You continue shoveling and pushing until you can get no more dirt into the tire. I still had no complaints, I can easily lose an hour weeding the garden.

The third step is compacting the soil in the tire. Compaction is accomplished by swinging an 8 lb sledge hammer repeatedly into the casing while moving around the tire to ensure uniform compaction. As the soil compacts more dirt is shoveled in and you repeat the process with the sledge hammer.

By the end of 10 minutes of wildly swinging my sledge hammer and sending dirt everywhere we had packed our first tire. I was sweating heavily, my arms felt weak and I had definitely lost the moment. My thoughts ranged from wild schemes to automate the process to wondering if we could switch to straw bale at this point in the construction project.

Experience has taught us that succeeding at repetitive physical labour requires working at a pace that you can sustain for a couple of hours and staying focused enough on the task that you do not risk hurting yourself. By both counts I was in trouble.

Sandra did more of the packing on the second tire while I went back to my happy place shoveling dirt. She did not wave her sledge around nearly as much as I did and there was not as much dirt flying around but at the end the tire looked (and felt) pretty much the same. Lesson learned (I think I LOOKED more impressive packing the first tire though)! We finished off by packing one more tire to make sure we were getting a feel for the whole process.

Sandra and I packed three tires and we spent about twenty minutes packing each tire. The estimates I have read state that a compacted tire takes approximately 3 wheel barrows of dirt and weighs around 300 lbs. So ... we have about 897 more tires to pack, that is a lot of free exercise and meditation time.

We are planning to work in the mornings and evenings when it is cooler, and take the middle of the day off. Personally, I am planning to spend this time off thinking of more reasons why this is a great experience. I will start by exploring the many evils of automating this process and the environmental benefits of packing each one of those tires by hand ... with a sledge hammer.
The work is really quite enjoyable; you get a great work out (for free), and you can achieve a state of mind that people strive their entire lives for. Frankly I cannot think why anybody would not want to do this, and we will probably have to insist that some people go home when we get overwhelmed by volunteers.



Anonymous said...


My name is Peter and I live on the Sunshine coast north west of Vancouver. My wife and I are investigating the options around building an earthship. I just received the full education package from and I have been devouring the material.

Whould you be willing to receive a phone call from me? I am sure you are pretty beatup from all the tire pounding but I would very much like to talk to you about permits and such.

Since this is a public web site I do not want to leave my phone number here and I am sure you would feel the same way. Is there a way that we can connect?

Chris said...

Hi Peter,

If you want to contact us send me an email at and we can go from there.


BrookdaleBoys said...

I can't resist ... "sounds tiring"

Anonymous said...

I think you guys are an inspiration to the rest of us that are still in the "convince ourselves" stage. Congratulations on getting that first tire done.

If you're looking for any week-end help pounding tires, I'd love to bring the family out so they can get a feel for what we are going to be getting ourselves into.

My email is

Phill W. Hovey
Magrath, AB

Anonymous said...

Hi there!
I am also researching into sustainable living alternatives. I once looked at the earthship option but got a bit uncomfortable about gas emissions. Have you considered this aspect of building with tires? Do you know what the stats/info on gas emissions from the tires would be? I would like to know as I am unable to find any info on this possible issue.
thank you!!

Chris said...

My thoughts on off-gassing of the tires ...

This is certainly a concern and we worried about it initially. Most people raise this issue when first talking about earthships in the first five minutes.

There have actually been some university studies done with regards to the off-gassing risk posed by tires in an earthship. I am not sure but I believe you can find a link to some studies from the Earthship Bioteecture website itself (it has been a while since I investigated this issue).

The specific university study that I read (I believe I referenced it from the Earthship Biotecture website) found no risks associated with living in a tire house.

New tires smell strongly because the surfaces are oxidizing. Old tires do not smell as much because the surface oxidization is mostly complete (Picture rust on steel ... it only coats the surface and slows down after the available surface area is coated).

The tires in an earthship are not exposed to oxygen. They are bermed on the outside and covered with a stucco or cement mixture on the inside surface of the house. There is no significant opportunity for the tires to continue off-gassing. I suspect that you are at a significantly greater risk from off-gassing of your interior finish (paint, stucco or cement).

I always try to keep in mind that virtually all modern construction materials (plywood, paint, particle board, rugs, ...) off-gas through their life. These materials are typically not buried the way tires are in an earthship and thus contribute to off-gassing in most dwellings and office buildings. In this regard the risk posed by these buried tires seems tolerable to me.

Hope this helps!

Marie said...

Hello -

What you guys are doing is great! Housing should be built in an eco-friendly way now. Just the high cost of utilities alone is RIDICULOUS...! Paul and I are just in the planning stages of building a "high thermal mass/passive solar/indoor green house strip across the front of the house under the bank of tilted passive solar windows/built into the side of a hill with a southern exposure" home around (probably) Georgian Bay Ontario. There is a dutch couple there by the names of Kathrin and Arend, who are building a beautiful Eco-Development on Carter's Bay on Manitoulin Island. You might want to check out their web site. This way of building is catching on here like it has in Europe for some time now and I'm thrilled. We, those of us who are really passionate about this, must set the example... I just wanted to tell you that I'm really proud of you guys and keep up the good work!!! I would come and volunteer but I simply don't have time right now with running/redoing a well-established mail order business (that can be run from anywhere in Canada!!) and planning our own home... My e-mail is if you'd like to discuss anything! With best wishes for a smoothly running project! Marie

Anonymous said...

Love the engineering solution, Chris! Of course, the only drawback is that you & Sandra won't wind up being quite so buff as you expected at the end of the summer. LOL

Cheers, Jan

Sandra said...

We are still pre-packing the tires by hand (about 2 wheelbarrow loads worth) so there's lots of exercise yet if the screaming in my lower back is to be accounted for! The movements are different than hauling logs around. But, I think Sean and Chris are much happier with the mechanized solution...they were doing the bulk of pounding prior to this. Stephen is turning into a good tire press operator...the girls are also keen to operate it, but lose interest a little faster.

Anonymous said...

Pictures, we need more pictures, in case you wern't busy enough already pounding tires and writing a blog.

Sandra said...

I have a bunch of pictures that could be posted but technology and busy-ness have intervened. We have 4 cameras but they take different cards and we have old laptops that take different cards so we are often playing tag with cards/computers. We have a busy day today but may start the half tires and will take pictures of that whole process.