Earthships – turning environmental consciousness and sustainability into a home (Part 1)

In South Africa’s arid Northern Cape Province, more specifically the Orania District, a sustainability and self-sufficiency housing project has firmly established itself as a true representative of environmental consciousness and sustainability.  Project Aardskip is concerned with environmental awareness, autarkic and sustainable living, community development and the careful use of resources.  The outcome is small earthships, ready for occupation and environmental promotion.  The founder of Project Aardskip South Africa, Ludwig Everson, tells more:

“People do not know what to do with their so-called waste”

The idea behind earthships originated from the architect Mike Reynold’s observation that people do not know what to do with their waste, or so-called waste.  Reynolds, or “Garbage Warrior” as he is more commonly known, is an architect from New Mexico, USA.  Combining this wasting of still usable material with his architectural interests, Reynolds started to build dwellings from cans, tyres and other recycled material.  Reynold’s first dwelling was completed in the 80s, and his wife appropriately named it an earthship.  Ludwig explained that the concepts behind earthships are not new and has gained popularity, which brought further design improvements.

Earthship construction in progress.

Earthship construction in progress.

Thermal mass – acting as a thermal battery

In asking Ludwig whether earthships are suitable for all climate types, he explained that earthships cleverly combine both insulation and thermal mass.  In fact, thermal mass is one of the baseline principles of these housing units.  Whereas conventional housing merely uses insulation as a temperature buffer, earthships make use of natural thermal mass, offering a moderate indoor temperature throughout the year.  In this sense, earthships are compared to caves – which also benefit from mild temperatures regardless of climate.  And by using this principle, earthships are customised for almost any climate.

Orania earthship features

The Northern Cape is warm and dry, throughout the year.  Bearing this location specific climate in mind, Project Aardskip has designed their earthships accordingly.  The earthships face north and have a small overhang, which allows the sun to shine indoors up to 4.6 metres deep during winter time.  However, with this clever positioning, no sun reaches indoors between November and March, their peak summer period.  Roof insulation wool, polystyrene, recycled polystyrene, plastic soda bottles and glass are used to insulate the entire earthship.  Sandbags serve as building material for both the earthship’s back and side wall.  Ludwig specifically pointed out the importance of these sandbags.  These sandbags act as thermal mass containers.  A specific mixture of soil, sand and clay is used, offering the best properties for construction and long-term maintenance.  Now, bearing in mind that earthships are planned with both insulation and thermal mass in mind, earthships can be compared to an insulated cooler.  The cooler is surrounded by insulation which offers thermal resistance, while the ice is the thermal mass acting as a thermal battery.  The earthship functions similarly.

The mindful design of an earthship speaks of its almost zero environmental impact.

The mindful design of an earthship speaks of its almost zero environmental impact.

The last construction feature of these earthships is the use of ventilation.  The dwelling’s ceiling is three metres high, the hallway ceiling even higher.  A window is placed down the hall in the front (northern) section of the dwelling, and a high window is placed where the hot air escapes.  This cleverly creates a vacuum in the dwelling and a flow of air to replace and regulate indoor air.  Earthships make use of an underground air vent to replace the indoor air.  An underground vent is specifically used because air moving through the subsurface cools naturally before enters the dwelling.  And this is highly appreciated in the arid and hot Northern Cape.  In event that the air is too cold, closing the ventilation is possible, and a second surface ventilation hole can be opened, allowing warmer air inside.

A zero carbon footprint home

Not only are earthship homes autarkic and self-sustainable homes, but their carbon footprint is literally zero.  Not many people can say this about their homes!  Ludwig explained, “a low environmental impact is basically built into each part and feature of an earthship home.”  In asking Ludwig what they consider as the earthship’s greatest environmental flagship, it became clear that the earthship in its entirety is greater than a single environmental flagship feature. Earthships are more than merely environmentally friendly features; “all six earthship founding principles are in fact environmental principles and hence why earthships have a zero carbon footprint” explained Ludwig.  These six principles include: ecological and recyclable building material, natural climate control, sustainable energy, rainwater harvesting, and sustainable and home-scale sewage treatment as well as food production.

The next and final article in this series will discuss these environmental principles of earthships in greater detail, along with the socio-economic benefits of these dwellings.  Ludwig will also share more information about the practical implications for an earthship owner – how regularly maintenance is required, and what indoor finishing Project Aardskip have found to be successful.  Be sure to learn more about these unique homes, because in a world where resource scarcity and environmental impact are becoming great threats, seeking new and innovative ways to satisfy basic human needs are more important than ever before!

Colourful & functional green: the earthship has built-in plant containers, serving a myriad of green functions - read Part 2 to learn more!

Colourful & functional green: the earthship has built-in plant containers, serving a myriad of green functions – read Part 2 to learn more!


Credits: photos supply by Projek Aardskip.  Thank you to Ludwig Everson of Projek Aardskip for interview & information.


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