Sustainable building methods, a critical discussion and some kick ass links!

Below is a fairly intense discussion/thread that I engaged in on the Eartship Biotecture Forum (forum all about Earthships.) In this thread I discuss the pro & cons of various sustainable methods with people from EB and others. Unfortunately, when I last checked I could no longer find the discussion! So is this co-incidence or did EB remove this critical thread on purpose..? I don't know and EB has not responded to my mailed queries. Anyway, because I could not find the thread I was also unable to find the short posts by others than myself. Even so, I think it may make engaging reading for anyone with an interest in the subject.

Let me start by saying that i have a deep respect for what Mr Reynolds has done in his 30 years in the field and an intense admiration for the Earthship concept.

Having said that i wish to talk about the few things i DON'T like about Earthships and when possible i want to give alternatives. I feel it is my duty to share the little knowledge i have of sustainable building if there is a chance that that will make other people's life easier. I have made the points i make below once before but at the time i did not know of any truly adequate alternatives. Now i do, so for that reason i am making the points again.

I also hope to get some feedback or input. Perhaps i am seeing things too black and white, perhaps others know other alternatives and solutions, any responses would be valued. You can put them up on this board or mail me if you like.

Ok, here goes:

1. In my opinion Earthships at present are somewhat elitist, in particular if one wishes to make use of the services of SSA. Thousands of $ for building plans, a simple Earthship starting at $50.000 and up, membership fees if you want to make use of the knowledge bank, sweepstake lotteries, hefty consultation fees etc.

I understand that SSA must find some sources of income to exist but for all non-western people and quite some western people as well this means that the Earthship concept does not by definition represent particularly affordable housing. Perhaps more affordable than what is a normal price for a "normal" house in the US, and perhaps affordable in the long term because of savings in running costs, but still very expensive at the onset.

Contrast all that with Mike Oehler and his work, Oehler is -like Mr Reynolds- an American pioneer in sustainable building with 30 years experience. Mike Oehler build his entire house (which is in many ways luxurious and beautiful) for $500!! That includes the materials. This amount is only half of what some Earthship building plans cost!!

Granted Oehler's houses are relatively basic in that in his book he doesn't go into systems for making your own electricity or filtering rain water. However there is no reason why these systems cannot be integrated into one of his underground homes. These systems are by no means unique or Earthship specific although it must be said that Reynolds did a lot to make these systems simple, fool-proof and easily attainable (if not exactly affordable) for the owner-builder. If the cost of these systems added to the other costs a PSP home is still many times cheaper than a comparable Earthship.

2. Tires?! We don't need no stinkin' tires! Let me explain what i mean by that. I appreciate that Reynolds is very keen on recycling tires, but... his works seem at times almost dogmatic in their adherence to this concept. Sure he has developed some systems and build some buildings that utilize little or no tires but tire ramming and stacking seems to be his mainstay. Why?

Tire building ramming is backbreaking and lengthy, as far as i know (correct me if i am wrong) it accounts for one of the largest amount of time and effort spend when building an Earthship.

Why not use Mike Oehler's PSP (Post/Shoring/Polyethylene) system to construct the walls? This system also offers excellent recycling opportunities (of wood) and is a hell of a lot much faster, way less strenuous and results in a wall that has enough thermal mass capabilities -earth that is behind the boards- as well as insulation because of the wood layer. Polyethylene keeps out the moisture since it is sandwiched between the wood and earth. Granted, Poly is not an earth friendly material but i believe that most Earthships also use some plastics in construction, as moisture barriers for example. Additionally, since the poly is not exposed to direct sunlight the expectation is that the material will last many decades perhaps even centuries.

Another benefit of the PSP system is that you end up with a wooden "wall" that can be easily finished in a variety of ways or left as is. This wooden wall is also easy to nail and screw into.

I strongly suggest anyone who is considering going for the tire wall building method to first check the above alternative which in my mind is much better. On the simple website:, you can get a bit more info and you can also order Mike Oehler's highly recommended self-published book of which he has sold more than 75,000 copies: "The $50 and up underground house book"

Before anyone thinks i am a close relation of Oehler who is trying to "plug" him, i am not. I just ordered his book a while ago and have mailed him twice since. When i mailed him i found out he is very accessible, helpful, friendly and knowledgeable without charging for his time. Of course that might all change if he becomes beset by questions and mails so before you mail you might want to read the book thoroughly first.

Another suggestion is that anyone who likes Earthships should consider combining Earthship concepts with all and any other sustainable concepts and construction methods that will save you time and money and/or that appeal to you. Check out the internet for PSP but also strawbale, cob, adobe, cordwood, roundhouses, all books by Ken Kern and anything else of interest one might find.

There ARE a lot of owner-builders out there that build their homes at extremely low cost and anyone can do that. Remember that having a roof over your head is the first step. One can always add more components and systems later as time, money and needs dictate. An example of such an owner-builder that build his home very cheap is Tony Wrench, check out:

This site is about a cheap, beautiful, very sustainable roundhouse and the sad as well as moving story regarding the decision of some stupid organization that wants to tear it down. They want to demolish it because Mr. Wrench evaded the codes and permits and they argue it is bad for the environment?! Mr. Wrench also wrote an excellent book on the construction process, his reciprocal roof system may be of special interest to builders, as it means you can get a good roof span without needing vertical support beams/poles or inner walls. Wrench also wrote a very good book on the construction process.

Another excelllent link:

This site actually consists of an entire and free book by and about a family of back-to-the landers, in their book/site they explain how they build their simple and cheap dwellings. There is a LOT of good and varied information (not just building) on this very personal site.

I was so stoked when i learned they had put their entire book on the web for free (even though is good, long and in print) that after printing and reading it twice i mailed them offering a bit of money for their trouble. They gracefully said thanks very much but then told me i should keep the money to finance my own future sustainable adventures.... How's that!

I hope this post is at least somewhat informative and doesn't offend anyone. Once again any corrections or other feedback is greatly appreciated.

Hey there Admin,

I liked your reply in that i did make me think somewhat.

Earthship Biotecture:

"We support any and all methods of living that are in harmony with the earth and all life on and in the earth. Earthships are by no means perfect, they are a method among many methods."

I think it kicks ass that the above is the official line of EB, and if they truly are into "supporting any and all methods" how can they mind me giving links to very basic information about these other methods?

In reply:

"Earthship Biotecture offers services that range from free literature, tours and free onsite education. This is the Earthship WorkTrade program the basic idea here is that you work on our projects for free and we teach you for free."

Well i think that that is great but that is not not often an easy option if you live far away and/or have limited means.

"Typical architectural construction drawings for conventional architects are 10 - 20 percent the cost of the building. Construction drawings by Earthship Biotecture are 3 - 5 percent. So, if you want to complain about the cost of drawings, start with your conventional architect."

I think that is a bit of a non argument. Just because conventional homes are ridiculously expensive and the architects that design them are also outrageously expensive that does not mean that a third or a fourth of "outrageous" is by definition affordable for all people. I am not saying it is not a fair price, i am just saying that perhaps a lot of people can't afford it and perhaps don't have too either if they try other ways and methods of building.

"Most interest in Earthship Biotecture is from outside the United States. Where people are more open to sustainable living... the Earthship lifestyle"

I live in the Netherlands myself, but i am not sure what you were trying to say with the latter point.

"The cost of an Earthship, finished, with systems is about the same as a conventional home WITHOUT systems... period."

I never questioned that but again i wonder if such high absolute cost (even though it us relatively cheap) is an option for many.

"Why don't you ask how many people have hired Mr. Oehler to build, consult, etc. for them? How many government have asked him to consult, how many foundations? how many media agencies? the list goes on."

Mr. Oehler volunteers that info in his website and book, the answer to your question is:


Additionally he has also lectured at dozens of architecture faculties in Universities in many countries as well.

"The mistaken notion that sustainable architecture is cheaper, way cheaper than conventional architecture is and old notion that has been excessively played"

I didn't mean my comments as an attack and i think it is unfortunate you took them that way, i meant them as constructive criticism. The cost debate is an old one but there are still are still many camps and opinions and thank the stars for that. My point (and that of those developer/owner-builders i made links to) was and remains that sustainable building CAN and perhaps even should be in some instances cheaper than conventional building. The proof is out there if you take the time to follow those links.

"What are you basing you OPINION that tires are a poor building material? Are you an architect, a builder, a contractor?"

Thank god you don't have to be one of one of these professions to have an opinion! I base my opinion on the SSA books and video that i own, the hundreds of websites i have visited, the people i have mailed with about their real-life Earthship experience and the contact i have had with people that have developed other systems and compared them to tire building.

"Have you experimented with the myriad of different materials that humanity produces? Have you ever built a building with tires and rammed earth?"

Nope and no. And as i try to convey i don't intend to because i hope it won't be necessary and believe it may well not be expedient for me.

"Earthships are not hinged on tires"

Could you then perhaps tell me how many of the Earthships SSA build were build using no tires? I would like to know.

"I will correct you because you are wrong! The most expensive and difficult part of the building process are the finishes and the conventional aspects of the building. The tires are the easiest, most fulfilling and gratifying part"

When you try to correct me on that point you begin by misquoting and/or misinterpreting me!

I said that i believed "it accounts for ONE of the largest amount of time and effort spend when building an Earthship."

I didn't even mention expense and i wasn't speaking about difficult in the sense of complicated but in the sense of tiring. And i am sure it is "fulfilling and gratifying" but all the Earthship builders i mailed with and even the couple in the SSA video "The Hutt" thought it was really heavy work. My point is that perhaps there are better and easier ways if you don't happen to be in an Earthquake prone zone.

You said " i believe that most Earthships also use some plastics in construction," a guess, obviously a guess"

No, not a guess. Hard fact based on the 3 Earthship books and the Hutt video.

"Wood is the last thing you want to use to build a home with... it rots, it burns... and if wood is used as nature intended, it cleans our air allowing us to live on this planet... if introduced today as a new building materials, wood would FAIL!!!"

Oehler's system is based on recycled wood so no wood has to be logged and living wood can go on cleaning out the air, his houses haven't burned or rotted in 30 years of use so your comment is -like my comments- an opinion.

"I personally think it is poor character to attack Earthships as you have done and post links to other products and services without asking Earthship Biotecture."

I thought this was a DISCUSSION board, i did not see any notices that you had to ask permission to link to "other products and services". To be honest i did not check for them either because i had no reason to believe that an organization like EB would have a problem with something like that.

Importantly, how can one have an open and informed discussion if you don't get the whole picture and all the info you are speaking about. Hence the links. On the contrary, I must disagree wholly with your opinion here:

I think it would show poor character to not be critical, especially if you have doubt like me. To keep useful information from those that might benefit for this or any other reason THAT would show poor character and judgment i think.

Additionally you are an administrator who voluntarily works for EB. If you want you could and still can remove the links. If you did so i would not hold it against you but it would seem to conflict with the official BA line on "support any and all methods..."

"I also think it is poor character to post a message like this without getting you information right and without talking to Earthship Biotecture first."

As you can read twice in my post that was the one of the reasons i posted my message, to get my facts straight and to open a dialogue, with EB and whoever else cares to comment.

"But of course, messages like the one you post only strengthen the Earthship concept and help people make the correct decision and go with Earthships rather than some guy with another book about how you can build your house for $500 bucks... give me a break..."

Perhaps you should give that guy a bit more credit. I am not dismissive of Earthships at all, i am just critical of some aspects of them, why are you so dismissive of other systems?

Perhaps i can ask you another question?: Have you read Oehler’s book? I hope so, i did read the Earthship books before i came to my questions and opinions, i hope you did the same.

"As you can tell I am very passionate about this subject matter."

I think that's great. I am glad that you are passionate about such an important topic and that you have found something to do that you love. I too am passionate and it is for this reason that i am also critical and want to ask many questions and explore many avenues, surely that isn't a bad thing.

"...personally, I am offended by your comments. But I am not mad at you, only upset and frustrated at the body of your message..."

That is a pity. Why should you be frustrated? That wasn't my intent, if you believe in what you wrote you shouldn't be frustrated or offended, you may disagree strongly but it doesn't do any good to feel bad or take it personal.
To be honest you actually do sound mad.

Once again nothing i wrote or have written was meant as an attack or to be taken personal. I just wanted to start a discussion and get some more facts. I am glad i managed that.

Best of luck with your current endeavors and future Earthship,

Dear Mystic1,

Thanks a lot for your thoughtful and non-defensive post. It served to understand EB better than any info that admin gave me and answered quite some of my worries and criticism. The part on the plans/drawings and the range of services offered especially made me understand their uses, as well as the reason for their high cost to a great extent.

I am truly glad you enjoyed "treasures"; i too think it is remarkable and a true and free treasure indeed. I was lucky to stumble upon it and am glad that i can share it in this manner.

I agree that it is too bad that the link to Oehler's site offers little in the way of concrete and practical info. I guess that this fact also serves to illustrate the differences in approach. Oehler is running a one-man service, EB is a comparatively big organization and network. As has become apparent both approaches have their advantages and downsides as well.

As for strengthening EB's position, i can't agree on that one in that i do still believe that some of (despite the book not being available for free/on the net) Oehler's techniques are good to use for quite a variety of people and situations. Of course to find out if you agree would mean you would have to purchase the book or borrow it from a library, which is a bit of a pity. However as Oehler does not have as many sources of income as EB (primarily some -cheap- consultation and revenue from his book) i can't begrudge the fact that one must buy the book to "get the skimmy".

I too was disappointed with the response to this topic but we must remember that the response was not EB's opinion but the very personal response of the Admin. Also as i stated before i do not think lesser of him or EB because of differences of opinion or because the fact that emotions may give rise to an emotionally laden response.

I hope more people enjoy the links and that perhaps more people will have something interesting to say on this thread.


Dear Mystic1,

There is some interesting parallels: I too am (somewhat of) and information junkie and have been researching the subject for some time now. Also i too won't be building my place for a couple of years yet.

Perhaps we should do an information exchange of sorts if at eh? If you got any links or any other interesting "e-mailables" (word files etc), i would be keen to have them. Also it would be cool if we could temporarily trade books by mail but unless you happen to live sorta close the postage would probably make this not worthwhile. So this is prob. not an option but when you said you were and info junkie i got this vision of loads of sustainable books that i would love to browse through.

Do you own of copy of the EB "Comfort in any climate" book by the way?

As for links, i don't have tons of great ones anymore but for you (and others) here are some i liked a lot:

Perhaps the above links don't have as much useful/practical info as my previous ones. But i personally think they are all truly worthwhile all the same. No description from me this time. Perhaps you can post a description of them after you check them, Mystic. That description might then be an extra inspiration and source of info for others who find the links in this thread.



Sorry about my terrible spelling and grammar in my previous post. I did write it in the small hours of morning.

As for the thermal mass issue you raised mystic, i think that Oehler's houses have plenty of mass for most climes. I think this because basically all the walls, the roof covering and the floor as well in Oehler's houses are solid earth (which admittedly has not been rammed/compacted). Only the walls have a small layer of wood covering them, which actually lends them insulation.

If it turned out that thermal mass was somehow insufficient one could always use the old trick of water-filled barrels painted black. Conceivably one could also first build a house according to Oehler's system and if mass did turn out to be a problem later one could build a single -non-load bearing?- tire wall wherever there was the most direct (winter)sun in the house.

However i am not sure if that would be better than the barrel solution since i have heard many times that water has the best thermal capacities (better than earth or rock) of any naturally occurring material. If one didn't like the look of barrels there are of course many simple solutions to this problem.

Or if there was really a need for it one could add a hyper-efficient wood heater such as a Finn-oven, Bekkasinen or Jotul heater. These heaters are also so efficient/burn at such high temperatures that they are quite 'green' and have other benefits such as cooking (means you need less solar power because you won't be using an electric range) atmosphere, heating up water.

Either of the above solutions would be much less work than building all the load-bearing walls from earth-rammed tires.