August 8, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Life in an earthship
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One secret of an earthship is that in the summer, when the sun is high in the sky, light comes in at a steep angle, meaning the interior isn't flooded with direct light. In the winter, the effect is the opposite: the sun is at a low angle, meaning the interior does get flooded with light all day, while the greenhouse, the floor, the adobe and the hillside construction store heat.
That's why, in hotter climates, rooms would ideally be located deeper within the structure so the sunlight tends to only hit the front end, while in colder climates, you would want shallower rooms, so that more of the rooms would fill with light.
It might be odd to think that a house built in a location that gets only 8 to 10 inches of rain a year could have a full kitchen, flushable toilets and a washing machine.
But the earthships employ a smart water-use system.
The water is collected when it rains and stored in a cistern to be used and reused throughout the house. Water is first used for tasks like washing dishes or clothes, then it's circulated through the house for the greenhouse system, and then for toilet flushing.
A combination of solar power, wind power, DC wiring and high-efficiency DC lighting allows for full electricity in a house with no connection to the grid.
Sciarrillo also explained that if the wiring system is done properly, there should be enough power left over to run AC appliances like TVs and stereos.
To be sure, building an earthship isn't cheap. Sciarrillo said that construction costs average about $175 a square foot, compared with about $125 per square foot for a conventional house. Further, the power generation system runs about $20,000.
But he also said that when you factor in all the recycled and natural materials used in construction--dirt and tires for the load-bearing walls, and glass and plastic bottles, which let light in through non-load-bearing walls--the costs may come closer to those of conventional buildings.
Plus, over time, the savings from being off the grid adds up, though Sciarrillo said it could be 15 to 20 years before they zero-out the costs of the power generation system.
It's also true that building an earthship is a laborious process. For example, each of the many, many tires used in the walls has to have dirt pounded into it manually. The result is a 350-pound brick, but making that takes time.
Of course, you probably can't plop down an earthship in the middle of a city, Sciarrillo said, as building departments may be wary of granting permits for a housing system they're unfamiliar with, and that may go against almost every building concept they know.
But if you want to build somewhere a little more remote, and have the time and energy to spell out the systems to those granting the permits, it could be an ideal solution.
And given that this is a way to have a house that doesn't rely on fossil fuels, is fully sustainable and can be comfortable in any climate, I'm won over. I'm ready to start building.
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