The Little Big World of Canadian Earthships

If you are an earthship enthusiast in Canada you have probably noticed over the last few years that there seem to be more and more earthships in this country. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of earthship builds and I can tell you that it is definitely true…to the tune of 50 or more to date.  That’s still a pretty exclusive group in relation to the greater housing market.

It’s also true that interest in earthships has boomed making this little world much bigger.  So many people want to talk about how to make their dream of building an earthship come true. Their questions and concerns follow the same lines, time and again.

The greater community has become much larger for a variety of reasons..and these reasons have also contributed to more earthships being started in Canada.

Part of this seemingly small “boom” in earthship building can be attributed to earthship owners/builders being more willing to use social media to publicize their projects.

When we started to plan our earthship here in Darfield in 2008 there were no dedicated earthship build pages. Most of the people we found were through references in media, be it online newspapers or magazines or other  people’s blog sites dealing with alternative building.  Part of this was because the blogging phenomenon was just beginning. The other factor was the age of earthship builders. Generally only the no-kids, retired folks were able to build earthships (they were the only ones who had the money to build without a mortgage).  This also meant that most people building earthships were less comfortable with technology.  It was my generation (I’m 46) that grew up with computers as an integral part of our lives.

This didn’t mean that people were less likely to share information when we went looking. We found people most helpful. But we did a lot of phoning, some emailing, and quite a few road trips.

The Canadian earthship world felt very small back then.  It was why we started this blog and then created our Facebook page in 2010.

Since our project began its online presence, people who started building after us, like Kris Plantz and Nicole Bennet in Manitoba, created their own websites and Facebook pages.  The power of social media is amazing in the earthship community.

We all create an online presence for different reasons: to attract volunteers, to share information, to ask questions of the greater community, to connect to builders who already have been through the process, to bounce ideas around and to share suppliers and to ask advice.  Sometimes we just need a place to be silly.

Chris’ intention for our blog was two-fold. First, being an engineer, he wanted a good record of the build. With all credit to him, when he was blogging regularly he was very detailed in his thought process and gave really good descriptions of how he was designing and implementing those designs. I share his two post entries here and here on the debate over floor insulation all the time. It is not that we can give definitive answers, but we can provide information and arguments for our decisions so that others can be a step ahead while they make theirs.  His second objective was to share information. He’s a great believer of “open source”. I have yet, in all honesty, been able to find another website about earthship building with as much practical information as ours.  If you know of one, I would love to hear about it!

My intentions for the blog were similar although mostly I wanted to give people a flavor of what our lives were like as we were building. During the 4.5 years we were actively building I thought it might be more interesting for people to see behind the scenes…like what Chris and I are like when nobody’s watching and the frugality we were practicing to ensure our time without paid employment was as long as possible.

I fell in love with social media. The Darfield Earthship page is my baby and many of you who frequent that site have turned into friends, despite the fact we have never met in person.  My skills in organizing and networking behind the scenes really came to the fore as our Facebook page attracted more and more people.  I attribute it to my years as second in command on many PR projects. I loved being the the thinker and implementer, but I didn’t like being in the limelight. I take great pleasure in directing people to other earthship Facebook pages.  I encourage other builders or people in related projects to post links on our FB page.  If I meet somebody on FB who I think would benefit from connecting with somebody else…well, I connect them and let the chips fall where they may.

When the Earthship Interested; Canadian Earthships are Coming FB page was just starting, I became a member and lurked for a while. But soon, people were asking questions  that we were able to answer or into which we could provide insight.  When the page was sabotaged (long story; it was changed to Secret in a stupid act of pique, so I can’t even provide the link) the membership stood at 1800. About 10 earthship owners were members of this page and only two or three of us actively contributed to discussions.  The number of people who were actively seeking information however, was indeed very large. As an aside, a new Canadian Earthships Facebook page was created to try to capture the interest and motivation that was so apparent on the old page.

The question is (and I’ve taken a long time to arrive here) is how do information seekers convert themselves into earthship builders?

That is a really good question.

Almost anybody who has actually built an earthship will tell you that after hosting tours, answering questions online, talking with volunteers and speaking at conferences, they can spot the rare person who will go on to build an earthship.

I suppose it is a little disheartening to hear that of the hundreds of people who have toured our earthship that only one family went on to build one themselves.  And that family hired Earthship Biotecture to get them started. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact that is a really good way to get an earthship if you have money and decide to disregard the permitting process.

We know there are barriers to building. These barriers are:

1) Financing: If you don’t have $20-30,000 in cash, only in rare cases should you start building. Most young families don’t have this kind of money and this is why generally earthship builders are older and tend to be empty nesters. This is changing. Nicole and Kris are among the first Canadian earthship builders to get regular financing. This brings about its own set of pressures but it is one way to lower a barrier.

2)Unrealistic expectations: Time and again people have told us that as soon as they get the land they are going to build. They then lay out a 6-month construction time-frame.  Buying land takes time and starting tire work generally is easier in spring/summer.  So timing is everything. Tire work can take much longer than you think.  And the tires are the easy part!  Building an earthship on your own takes a lot of time.  Even the best building plans leave questions that need to be addressed. This also takes time.  Ask any earthship builder if they finished AHEAD of schedule!

3) Lack of construction skills: People who haven’t built “things” really shouldn’t expect to learn to do so while building an earthship. Hiring somebody is difficult when building an earthship because there are so few people who have done it who are for hire. We had 10 years experience designing and building log homes and it was still difficult for us.  Only if you are one of those rare individuals who can do “anything” should you embark on a project like this without a fair bit of construction experience.

4) Relationship challenges: If you are building with a partner, be it a spouse or other family member or even a business partner you must be absolutely on the same page.  Michael Reynolds is fond of saying that earthship building is a good recipe for divorce. Chris and I like to think are relationship is quite strong and we were equally committed to building but there’s something about the realities of being on a building site for a good part of 4.5  years that can test a relationship. Raising kids at the same time, juggling money, learning to walk away…these are skills that are as important as wielding a hammer. In fact, learning to walk away from a fight is probably pretty important if you are standing and arguing with a weapon, er a hammer in your hand!

5)Lack of commitment: I can’t say enough times how hard it is to build an earthship. It is fraught with financial worries, time away from paid employment, bone-tired exhaustion at some points and at many times, it just simply is not fun.  It’s really hard to stick with something if it’s not fun. It is one of the reasons we often took months off from building to travel with the kids, to do some paddling in the summer and to generally sit and read books and drink wine and visit with friends. We built without a mortgage and lived rent-free in the Nutshell (our renovated 600 square foot business office) on land that was paid for. We had the luxury of stopping and starting the project.  Starting again was always a big deal. We had to reach pretty deeply in ourselves to remember why we were building an earthship in the first place.

6)The Building Code: It does figure prominently in building an earthship and can often sour the process for people who “dream” the dream.  Chris absolutely stays out of the arguments for and against getting a permit to build an earthship. He is an engineer and is bound by a code of ethics. He is well known to our building jurisdiction and there was absolutely no question that we would go through this process. I am not, however, restrained by any of those factors and my thoughts on permit/no permit are well known.  In summary, it is totally possible to build a permitted earthship.  You can get through the process if you are patient. You will probably spend more money.  In the end it will be up to you whether you go through the process or decide to find 10 acres in the bush and build with the knowledge you’ve made life easier, at least until you try to sell it (or if your children inherit and try to sell it).  Building under a permit has the silver lining of making you feel good about paving the way for eventually contributing to code changes for your great-grandchildren.  Or their great-grandchildren…

My advice to the many eager folks who want to build one of these amazing homes? Change your lifestyle. Spend less money, get out of debt, save money, make connections, learn everything you can, volunteer to help on a build, make truly excellent, detailed budgets, learn to grow food.  Know your building jurisdiction and what they require, join the FB page, Canadian Earthships and ask questions and be directed to builds in your area. There are currently builds going on or soon to be starting in BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick (that I know of, which means there are more).

If building your own is not possible due to time constraints of a job, then consider hiring somebody, either Earthship Biotecture or a variety of contractors that you might be able to dig up. Prepare to be general contractor in this case (which has its own challenges) Plan on putting extra money into the project if you pay somebody else to work.

If you are successful in getting financing, understand the bridging loan requirements in place to make “draws” available at certain points in your construction.

If all else fails (don’t shoot me!)….sometimes you have to let go of your dream. (Does it seem fair of me to tell you this while sitting in my “dream” home?)  Sometimes we need to let go and start with the smaller “big”  stuff…growing healthy food, living in more energy efficient homes, investigating other alternative building options (our earthship was almost a straw bale home) relying less on the grid, connecting with community, pursing fewer “things” and more happiness… you name it. You don’t have to actually live in an earthship to be part of the solution.

Where are you in realizing your dream of earthship ownership? Have you found land? Have you started? Do you have a Facebook page or website you would like to share here? What do you think your biggest challenge will be when you start building?  Have you had to change your plan or dream and why?  Please share your stories!



The Top 10 Priorities of these Earthship dwellers

With life so busy I’ve been resorting to self-defeating lists. My Burkholder side LOVES lists and the Hatton side loves buying Christmas reindeer slippers. It’s a conundrum.  Chris’ lists are all in his head and sometimes they overwhelm him. He likes to talk about the things putting pressure on us while I like to make a list of them, thinking that by itemizing them, it will somehow diminish their stress-inducing abilities.

I’m just looking around the table and I have two lists on the go and I know my daytimer has one in it too. (O.K. the daytimer may be the crux of the problem.)  The compulsion to find a fresh sheet of paper and consolidate my lists is almost overwhelming.

But it’s really not about the details on the list.  I have to remember what the priorities are and let the rest fall where they may.

I can’t help myself though. Here’s a list of my priorities.

  1. The kids’ education and our family’s health, mental and otherwise. This includes eating better (always at the top of the list), completely healing from my summer injuries, choosing a physical challenge to aim for in the next year (for all of us) and keeping the kids interested in life (and calling it school and education, as it should be).
  2. Juggling paid employment to accomplish #1.
  3. Contemplating paid employment and how it looks to us in the future. (This is where our work with Javan Bernakevitch is helping).
  4. Clearing the #*$*&* permit. We are so close!
  5. Getting the permaculture design in place and implementing it, including the greywater planters in the earthship. And, enjoying the process!  Again, a nod to Javan!
  6. Making my way leisurely through a bottle of rum this holiday season. Friends may help!
  7. Once permit cleared, make list of priorities for finishing jobs on the inside of the earthship.
      1. Finish at least one bathroom.
      2. Final plaster of all inside walls.  Colour!
      3. Make cob benches for living room and get rid of old couches
      4. all the rest of the jobs.
    8. Finish building gasifier (o.k. this is Chris’ and he may put this up higher or lower, but I just remembered how many times this appears on my lists and it’s time to check it off!)  Plus, he likes this stuff and I like him to like stuff, so it gets to appear on my list!
    9. Hug my dad. I haven’t done that in a while. Maybe I can combine #5 with that.
    10. Get a dog. We miss Josie but it may be time to get another friend.
    11. Finish the re-design of the website.  I forgot about this, but it is important to me (really!)…so it stays here.
    12.  Don’t sweat the small stuff. Lists are the small stuff. No more lists! Yeah, right!
    13. Learn how to count!!!


    Do lists dominate your life?





Minecraft, Programming and the Real World …

I have spent some time over the last couple of years trying to teach the kids programming … for the most part my attempts have been unsuccessful … I was simply not able to interest them.

Recently, my youngest daughter has been (very independently of me)  showing an interest in these kinds of things.  She recently convinced me to help her build a 3D Printer (I will admit she did not have to bend my arm TOO hard) and she has also been asking me the best programming language for a beginner to learn.   (You can see some of our progress with the 3D Printer at this link.)

While helping Helen evaluate a programming language to learn I stumbled across a pretty exciting programming development for Minecraft.  If your kids are at all like two of mine you will already have heard of Minecraft.  If you have not heard about it Minecraft is a real-time game server that allows multiple players to interact together in a virtual world; it is wildly popular.  What I discovered is that the makers of Minecraft have written an interface that allows you to code Python (or Java) to interact with a Minecraft world with scripts that you have written.  They apparently did this specifically to encourage young kids already hooked on Minecraft to learn how to code.

What is really neat is that you can set up this Minecraft/Python programming environment on a Raspberry Pi (a single-board computer) … how cool is that?!  In fact, somebody has already written an introductory, free Python programming ebook that uses this Raspberry Pi/Minecraft combo (called Minecraft Pi) that teaches you how to do things like automatically create a building in minecraft from a python program.

Now, for a totally mind-blowing experience you can take all of this a step further and connect your Minecraft virtual world to the real world.  The beauty of being able to program on a Raspberry Pi is that it is fairly simple to connect the Pi to interface electronics; inputs such as buttons, switches and sensors, and outputs such as LED’s and displays.  Once you’ve mastered some more python programming skills you can cause an action in Minecraft (like moving to a specific location) to do something in the real world (like flash an LED or open your garage door) … or better yet toggling a switch in the real world could cause your Minecraft nemesis to be teleported over a large body of water … your imagination really is the limit.

Sadly, we do not own a Raspberry Pi so I was unable to try some of this out.  However,  you can (and Helen and I did on my Mac and her Windows 7 laptop):

Our really simple first script was:

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 6.47.03 AM


It was pretty simple and the free ebook I mentioned earlier looks like a pretty good introduction to programming in Python.  The book is written on the assumption that you are going to use a Raspberry Pi but as I just described you can set this up on any computer and use the book … just ignore the Raspberry Pi stuff.

Getting slightly more complicated I then took a look at talking to an Arduino from a python script (another popular single-board computer used to make things … we are using one in our 3D printer).  It turns out this is pretty straight forward too … I was able to easily blink the lights on an Arduino Uno connected to my computer with a USB cable from a Python script.  This means I could pretty quickly use Python to talk to mine craft and the Arduino (think the real world) at the same time.  I was a little stunned by this … it is fairly easy to put together a Minecraft/Python/single-board computer environment that lets you do a lot of neat things.

There are some amazing possibilities here:

  • Being chased by an angry Minecraft monster?  Run a python script to build your fortress of solitude (in microseconds),
  • Flip a switch in the floor plan of your house that you modelled in Minecraft and watch the light come on in your real house,
  • Press the planetary destruct button you’ve wired to your computer and watch a mine craft world turn completely to water … or disappear.

I am kind-of excited … I feel like I am relating to my kids … sort-of.