Once you put in the effort and care to build an Earthship house, the house will take care of you. These were some words of encouragement offered to me by London Earthship owners Connie and Craig after a visit and home tour with them near London, Ontario in November 2019.
For my tour, I was equipped with a big list of questions to ask them to help me prepare for building my own Earthship. For the benefit of anybody wanting to build their own Earthship house, and for my own so that I can return to this article in the future to brush up on their advice, I’ve decided to compile the answers I was given into this article.
I’ll embed a video tour of their earthship at the bottom of this article so you can see their home for yourself, however I encourage you to read the article first.
In addition to their answers I’ll be adding some bonus knowledge I’ve gathered from watching videos and reading founder Michael Reynolds’ three book series on how to build an Earthship. Here is the list of questions and answers from the owners of the London Earthship.
1. How Wide is the Interior of the London Earthship?
The London Earthship is 86 feet long and 32 feet from front to back on the interior. The berm, which is dirt piled up against each tire wall to add thermal mass and to reinforce the entire structure, is 20 feet wide.
2. What do you love most about your Earthship?
Craig and Connie love the consistent temperature of the Earthship more than anything. Between the summer and winter there is only a 2 degree temperature differential – without any heating or cooling system.
Interestingly, they mentioned that as they’ve been adding more thermal mass to the inside the temperature has gotten even more comfortable. So once you’ve built an Earthship, the interior temperature can be “fine-tuned” by adding more non-structural concrete walls, rocks and other things that will retain heat.
3. Is there anything you would change if you could do it again?
“The one thing we would have done differently if we could start from scratch would be to not make a second floor.” The first floor is over 2500 square feet, which they said is more than enough space for the two of them. As I write this article I am sitting in a 700 square foot condo, so the idea of 2500 square feet seems pretty sheik to me.
Aside from the unnecessary extra space and the unnecessary extra work required to build that space, the upper floor at the London Earthship also cost an extra $20,000, according to Craig. Amazingly, their entire Earthship cost them only $70,000 CAD to build. Craig likes to joke that “The house cost $70,000 in materials and $930,000 in labor,” which is probably less of a joke than you might think.
At any rate, if they had built their Earthship without the upper floor that would’ve brought the price down to only $50,000 for a 2,500+ square foot home that requires no heating or cooling.
4. How did you level the ground before beginning?
The ground beneath the London Earthship was leveled using a small tractor with a shovel on the front that they own and have on site. There are other pieces of heavy machinery that can level a building site as well and the alternative is to pay a professional to come in and do it for you for a cost.
5. How did you know what the right mix of sand and soil was for the tires?
Their earth rammed tires of the London Earthship are filled almost exclusively with sand. It turns out their neighbor down the road had a bunch of sand they wanted to get rid of at the time it was needed so the sand was delivered to them at only the cost to truck it over.
The idea that the earth rammed into the tires needs to be a certain mixture is apparently unfounded. As long as it is compacted to a certain psi then the tires are so dense and heavy that it really won’t matter what is inside them. When their building inspector checked the psi of the earth in their tires, it was far more than what was needed.
6. Did you take the Earthship building course in New Mexico?
In case people are wondering if an Earthship can be built without taking the three week earthship academy course from Michael Reynolds and his team in New Mexico – it can. Although both Craig and Connie had some background experience with various skills like electrical and plumbing, neither took the earthship building course or had any background in building construction.
7. Where and how did you get your Earthship tires?
There are a few ways to obtain tires for building an Earthship home. Owners of the London Earthship were lucky enough to have had them not only donated but they were actually delivered to their building site for free. This may be a bit harder to pull off today, Craig noted. However, all tire shops and mechanics have to pay to get rid of their tires so ask around, make a list, set a date, rent a small cube van if you need to and pick them up. Another place to ask is your local landfill.
- Phone around to local tire shops and mechanics and ask for their used tires
- Phone the local landfill and ask if you can get tires to build your house with
8. Who did the carpentry work on the front face and roof of your Earthship?
The entire London Earthship was built by its owners. Using Michael Reynold’s 3 books on how to build an Earthship as their guide, Craig and Connie figured out how to build it on their own. At one point they hired someone to do the metal flashing but when the contractor came to the site and saw that the home wasn’t a ‘conventional’ home they refused to do the work. In the end Craig figured out how to do it himself and saved a lot of money.
9. Where did you get your windows?
The windows for the London Earthship were obtained from a local company. Your options for buying windows are to find a small local business, or a larger chain business, or to order your windows online. Decide for yourself what is best for your build then either go into the business or phone to inquire about costs and place your order.
One thing to note about the London Earthship is that they’ve used safety glass in all the windows in their front face. That way, if any of the windows fell for whatever reason they would shatter into a million tiny fragments and would greatly reduce the chances of somebody getting hurt by it.
10. What kind of toilet does your Earthship have?
The London Earthship uses a composting toilet (non-electric) from the company Sunmar. Craig said this company makes the best composting toilet and highly recommended the one they are using.
He said their other option was to install a septic system. This route would have cost them around $30,000 to install, according to Craig, and would require maintenance to empty the septic tank as well as replacing the pumps whenever they wore out.
How much did the compost toilet cost? $1,400 installed. You simply bring it on site and put it in place and you’re good to go. The cost savings, simplicity and resilience of the composting toilet won leaps and bounds over the septic system option.
Worth mentioning quickly are the ecological impacts of a septic system versus a composting toilet. A septic system, by combining grey water with black water, creates an enormous amount of toxic black water that needs to be dealt with. This ends up polluting natural areas and can make its way into streams, rivers, lakes and eventually the ocean, polluting all forms of life. A septic system is no better for the environment than conventional sewage systems in cities. A composting toilet on the other hand doesn’t combine the grey water with black water and turns human waste into a highly-nourishing fertilizer for plants. This in turn builds topsoil and has an overall positive impact on the environment.
11. What if you get a week in a row without sun – is it still warm inside?
The day I visited the London Earthship for my tour it was cloudy, grey and overcast – and I distinctly remember walking in and feeling solar warmth on my skin while standing in front of the windows. Craig mentioned that even on a cloudy day “like today” you can look at our solar system and it will be generating a small amount of electricity. This means solar energy does make its way through the clouds, and so the house stays an even temperature regardless of what’s happening outside.
“You come home in the middle of winter during a blizzard and walk into your house and it’s warm inside – without any heating or cooling,” said Craig.
12. What’s your most important advice to somebody about to build a similar Earthship?
Craig’s biggest message to me was “You can do it” and to not let the naysayers talk you out of it – or talk you into changing something that you don’t want to change because they think it won’t work. The Earthship is the most ecologically sound form of human habitation ever invented. It works.
I know that looking at the final product can seem overwhelming, however, Earthship founder Michael Reynolds designed every step of the Earthship build to be simple. “First you’ll pound tires, and by the time you’re done you’ll be an expert at it. Then you’ll move onto the next step – and by the time you’re done you’ll be an expert at that too,” Craig assured me. Just focus and learn one step at a time and before you know it your house will be complete.
Amazingly, all of the tires that make up the London Earthship were pounded by Craig and Connie alone. I won’t tell you their exact age but let’s just say both of them are now retired. This came as a shock to me as I was under the impression that even the strongest, most athletic of people can pound only about 8 tires a day. So if anybody tells you that pounding tires is too difficult and that you can’t do it, don’t let that discourage you. You can do it!
London Earthship Tour Video
I hope this article helps inspire you to build your own off-grid home, whether it’s an earthship, a straw bale home, an underground house, or any other kind of sustainable house.
I want to thank Craig and Connie Cook of the London Earthship for inviting me on a tour of their house and for putting up with me asking them about a thousand questions. The tour and interview has given me more confidence that I’ll be able to pull this off when I begin building my own as I hope it has done for you.
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