A few weeks ago, I learned about Taylor and Steph, who built an Earthship in the mountains in Santa Cruz, California. What made it unique was that they managed to do this for a cost of only $10,000.
I found the original article over on ApartmentTherapy.com (read it here), and learned that they used a lot of found materials to cut the costs of their build. Doors and windows were found on Craigslist, tires were free, and they built it themselves to lower the cost of their home. I highly recommend reading the article, but when I read it, I admit I had a lot of follow-up questions that I wanted to see if I could get answers to.
I managed to track down Taylor and Steph, and emailed them some questions that I believed were important for my readers to know the answers to.
1. How long did you spend researching and learning about earthships before you got involved in building them?
Roughly one afternoon. I watched the documentary Garbage Warrior while living in Taiwan
and made arrangements to move to Taos almost the next day. Earthships seemed to address all of the ideals I cared deeply about: environmentalism, social justice, low-cost simple living, empowerment through self-sufficiency, and architectural innovation. My mind was blown and I was compelled to get involved as soon as possible.
2. Did you take the Earthship Biotecture course to get started on building with them?
I did. I attended the second-ever Earthship Biotecture Academy session in the spring of 2012. I spent the rest of that year volunteering on EB projects and ultimately working on the Earthship crew on several builds across the country.
3. The articles I’ve seen about your $10,000 Earthship mention that most of your build was done using free or found materials. Where did the costs arise?
Primarily framing lumber, sheathing, roofing materials, and cement. But there are a lot of hidden costs that add up like fasteners, plumbing, tools, and transportation up and down the mountain. I hired an arborist to sustainably harvest and mill two redwoods, and the solar power system took up a decent chunk of that $10k as well. As you mentioned, we were able to successfully scavenge for free windows, doors, some lumber, all furniture, a wood stove, sink, and barn wood siding. The 500 tires were also free, as were the thousands of glass bottles that we collected and used as bottle-bricks.
4. What were the biggest challenges you had in building your earthship?
The first half of our building process was blissful. After a while, however, we ran out of money and started using credit cards. The biggest challenge was definitely managing debt and hustling for income without abandoning our commitment to the house. We were unwilling to back-burner the house in order to save enough money to continue. We’ve seen too many projects go unfinished that way, and have heard from too many older folks who had dreams of building a cabin in the woods but regretfully never took the leap because of lack of funds. We were determined, and using credit cards was a calculated risk we were willing to take to see our project through. We thought about it like a small, high-interest, short-term construction loan. Stressful, but worth it in the end.
5. After living in your earthship for a number of years, is there anything about earthship living that you didn’t expect, or that required a major shift in lifestyle?
‘Earthship living’ can be as luxurious or primitive as an owner wants (or can afford). Our experience has been on the roughing it end of the spectrum, and may not be indicative of ‘Earthship living’ in a house built by Mike Reynolds and crew, for example. We had very minimal power for the first year and a half, sometimes with only a couple hours of light in the winter. We didn’t want to run a generator so we just lit candles and went to bed super early. We had no refrigeration and took a lot of cold, outdoor showers. In this sense, the simple life is not an easy life. Our place is inexpensive and funky, but it required a very real adjustment to living without some of the amenities we tended to take for granted growing up in the suburbs (such as TV, wifi, seemingly unlimited power, and water that’s always hot). Above all else, living remotely presented the greatest shift in lifestyle for us. Town was about a 30 minute drive away on winding, mountains roads, and in order to make a living we found ourselves spending more time in our cars than we ever had before. The intense automobile dependency was frustrating. This is a reality for rural living in general, however, and is not unique to Earthships.
The greatest benefit that we experienced with the Earthship lifestyle is the direct connection to nature. When living in a house that functions in harmony with the environment, you can’t help but see yourself as part of nature, rather than as something separate from it.
6. Is there anything you’d change about the way you built your earthship, knowing what you know now?
I really wouldn’t. The house is perfectly imperfect. I think of it like writing a novel or a poem…you write it, finish it, put it out there, let it be; to go back and change it after the fact would take away from the magic of the original expression. Certainly I could write a long list of mistakes made along the way and say I’d try not to repeat them, but each blunder was part of the journey. As Steph and I would regularly remind ourselves throughout the build, this is our first house, not our last.
One of the reasons I’m so curious is that another article I have posted details the building of a one-room cob house built in Great Britain, which was built for a total of $250. There’s quite the gap between his $250 build, and your $10,000 build. I’m trying to understand, and show my readers, what the differences are between his build and yours. While I can make assumptions about things like the expense of the various earthship systems, I’d like to be certain.
I’m not familiar with that particular cob house, but I do know it’s possible to build for next to nothing if that’s the priority. I love buildings like that for an art studio, office, music room, guest bedroom, etc. But a $250 ‘house’ likely offers little more than a shell. More of a shelter than a home. Presumably very little square footage, probably a composting toilet, little to no electricity, minimal water catchment and plumbing, and likely some kind of wood-burning rocket stove for warmth. One can live this way, but it’s a matter of preference and, in my opinion, not a realistic long-term dwelling solution for 2 or more people. Earthships are designed for passive solar/thermal mass performance and have guidelines beyond just four walls and a roof.
Furthermore, basic in-home comforts tend to add up. If building on raw land with no services, to have access to water you will need to either drill a well, catch and store water, or pump from a water source. Each of these methods costs money. A composting toilet or outhouse is viable and very low-cost, but if you want a flush toilet you will need a septic tank and leech field, which also comes at a price. Without a septic tank, managing grey water from the kitchen sink can turn into a filthy and unhealthy process over time, so that will need to be considered as well. Solar electricity is becoming increasingly affordable, but even a tiny system will exceed the $250 price point you mention with the cob house. Otherwise if you want power you will need a generator, wind turbine or hydro set-up which again, takes money. Each property will have a different set of circumstances and limitations, and each occupant will need to decide what level of comfort they require within their budget. I’m all about simple and low-budget, but it’s important to have realistic expectations.
We tried hard at every juncture to limit our expenses, but in order to stay true to Earthship design principles enough to maintain comfort for Steph and I (and our two dogs), the cost wound up being around $10k. This may sound like a lot compared to a $250 cob house, but recognize that the average home in Santa Cruz County sells for $700,000. It’s all relative. I suppose I could have saved money by holding out for more free materials, but keep in mind that hunting for reclaimed materials takes a lot of time. There’s a cost-benefit analysis that must be done to determine the best course of action. In our case, on several occasions we chose to bite the bullet and pay up. As a friend of mine once told me, “There are three ways to build: fast, cheap, and good. You can do two at a time, but not all three.”
I will elaborate in greater detail on both our building process and the off-grid lifestyle in our upcoming book titled, Nomadic Roots. Your readers can follow me on Instagram @nomadic.roots and you can encourage them to email me directly at email@example.com.
I was absolutely thrilled to receive these answers, and completely agree with them on the issue of cost and value. There are options that will allow you to build your own earthship for a cost even lower than $10,000. It will, of course, be up to my readers to decide whether the cost savings are worth the trouble.
My family and I will be building our own Earthship home here in Kansas in the future. We do plan on using some of those measures ourselves, such as using a series of low-cost wind turbines instead of solar, and the cladding on our roof will be free other than the time it takes to harvest the metal. However, whatever costs we do incur will be worth the comfort they bring.
Thanks again to Taylor and Steph for answering my questions.