Permits for our Earthship

On a fairly regular basis we are asked something along the lines of …

My husband and I are in love with Earthships…both of us for different reasons.  His being the money and mine being the environment.  That being said we were wondering how hard and how long you waited for permits to build and how hard was it to find electricians and plumbers…etc to work and approve the project?

Permits are definitely a concern if you are going to build under the jurisdiction of a building authority.   When I actually took the time to list all of the permits (see below) it struck me as fairly daunting.  All I can really say is that  we have dealt with each required permit as it occurs;  some permits took additional time, they all cost something upfront and building to the permit specifications will obviously increase some costs.  All of these permits are simply the reality of building in British Columbia today.  To this point we have encountered nothing that has made it impossible to proceed with our project, nor do we expect to.  Your best first step in building is to go in and speak with the inspectors from your local building authority.

The permits and issues that were a reality for us include:

  1. septic field site inspection
  2. HPO
  3. Building Permit
  4. Plumbing Permit
  5. Stove (solid wood burning appliance) Permit
  6. Electrical Permit

Septic Field Site Inspection

If you are building a new home or upgrading an existing home in British Columbia you are required to plan for and install a septic system.  All work on your septic system must be completed by a Registered Onsite Wastewater Practitioner.  We were fortunate to have an existing septic system on our site that was suitable under the existing regulations for our proposed home.  No allowances were made for reducing the system size due to the reduced waste flow expected from an earthship.  I am not sure how hard it would be to get approval for a system outside of the regulatory framework.  Although we do not expect our system to be used at all close to capacity, we felt it was easier to comply with existing regulations.

Homeowner Protection Office

As of 2007 all home builders in BC must guarantee their buildings from various defects, and pay into a provincial insurance program against the possibility of their buildings not meeting this guarantee.   From the HPO website:

As of November 19, 2007, individuals wanting to be an owner builder of a new home are required to obtain an Owner Builder Authorization from the HPO and to pay a fee, prior to commencing construction of that new home. These requirements are in effect for all areas of British Columbia, regardless of whether building permits are required or not and are in keeping with amendments to the Homeowner Protection Act and Regulation. Read our information bulletin for Owner Builders.

Building Permit

We obtained a building permit from our local building authority.  In our case our plans were also signed and sealed by an engineer.

Plumbing Permit

In addition to the building permit we must also obtain a plumbing permit detailing the interior plumbing of our building.  This permit is separate from the building permit, and we have not submitted for it yet.  I expect this permit will be pulled sometime this year.

Stove Permit

We built a site-constructed solid fuel heater (a wood stove) and had to get a permit for it.  Any stove installation requires a permit.

Electrical Permit

Any house constructed in BC requires a separate electrical permit, and yes we have one of these too.

 

Sandra has itemized all of our costs on an on-going basis, and I am certain these costs are itemized in her running tally of our expenses.  I do not remember what all of our costs were, and I hesitate to estimate …

A Fuel Cell Generator for Home Power?

I received an email asking if I know anything about using a hydrogen fuel cell to generate electricity for your home.  Specifically, the person was curious about a new generator called a BlueGen developed in Autralia.

I should state upfront that I know little about fuel cell technology beyond what I have read in science fiction (of which I have read a lot!), and what I have followed in the daily news.  According to science fiction fuel cell technology will be the power source of the future … by easily converting abundantly available water to hydrogen and oxygen the hero of the book always seems to have unlimited, clean power to accomplish his goals.  According to what I have followed in the daily news fuel cell technology is a very promising method of power generation … if we can work the bugs out of it (and they have been saying this for a long time now).

According to the link above about the BlueGen line of generators, companies may actually be making some progress in making a viable product.  The catch is that these units are not turning water into hydrogen, at least not directly and not cleanly.  The generator uses another fuel (like propane or natural gas) and via the process of fossil fuel reforming generates hydrogen and waste products of heat and carbon dioxide.  In other words, my picture of one of these generators is a lot like the gas powered generator you might use to keep your fridge and freezer running if the electrical grid fails for a period of time.  The hydrogen fuel cell can be viewed as the alternator of the generator, and in this case the alternator is spun via fossil fuel reforming.

The difference is that apparently a hydrogen fuel cell generator is much more efficient than an equivalent gas generator … maybe as much as two times more efficient from what I have read.  This is good … you could get the same power production, generate less green house gas and use less fossil fuel … definitely a step in the right direction!  I gather that is the intended use in Australia; with one of these systems running on your property and grid-tied to the electrical network you will be able to produce power more cheaply than the utility can provide it and sell the excess back to the utility.   I have mixed feelings about grid tied systems despite intending to implement one myself.  We are still relying on a centralized grid for power production with all of its inherent issues; reliability, line losses during distribution, cost and dependence on a remote system.

What is more interesting to me is the ability to use different sources to provide the fuel for the fuel reformation process; a biogas digester for example, or my personal favorite wood gas from a wood gasifier!   In other words, from my reading anyway, the fuel for this generator does not have to be a fossil fuel.  It sounds like a wood gasifier hooked up to a hydrogen fuel cell would be more efficient than using it to power a gas engine to generate electricity.  I am now excited!

Having said all this … I will not be rushing out to get my hands on one of these generators until I see and read about some actual installations!

More From the Email … Did I take a Poke At Michael Reynolds?

Little did I know when I started responding to private emails that we get about our posts that I would be posting again so soon …

We have been exchanging email recently with some of the folks at Earthship Botecture about a post (removed by them) that they received on their website (www.earthship.org) on January 3.  The content of the post is still available (cached in Google), and follows:

TOPIC: I would like to share my Earthship Building plans
 
   
I would like to share my Earthship Building plans with you, for free.

I am also VERY curious why Michael is too lazy to share them with everyone and why he doesn’t update us on the status of the DIY book.

picasaweb.google.com/darfieldchris/Plans…1sRgCIXfzJnIpK7Z5QE#

Posts: 1
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User Offline Click here to see the profile of this user

 

One of the emails from Earthship Biotecture noted that they were unhappy both with someone stating that Michael Reynolds was lazy, and with someone further offering up free, alternative plans on their site.  They were curious to know if we knew anything about the contents of this post.  I must admit I share their curiosity.

Now … those are indeed MY plans and MY Picasso photo album.  I posted the plans for our Earthship home to our blog, just as we have posted virtually every step of our construction process.  I used Picasso for this purpose as it was a convenient vehicle for showcasing a gallery of plan pages, and all photos were automatically stored in Picasso on the original version of our blog when it was hosted on Blogger.  I did NOT post to the Earthship Biotecture web site, and  I do NOT know who the user ‘earthshipcommunity’ is on their site.

I actually had a brief opportunity to meet Michael Reynolds while he was on-site working on an Earthship in British Columbia last summer.  I introduced myself by saying that I had never had the opportunity to tell someone before that I had read all of their books … I thought it was kind of a funny ice breaker.  He took it in stride, asked me a little bit about our construction project, and went back to work.  Watching him and his crew work for a few hours that day I would be hard pressed to call him lazy … he was all over the site and did not stop.  Really, I do not think I have ever met a lazy housing contractor, they simply do not stay in business.  After 12 years of operating my own custom built log house company, providing the plans for these buildings (I am a licensed engineer) and working in the field to build some of these same houses, my hat goes off to Michael Reynolds.  He has been in the house construction business for decades and his house designs are all over the world.

I would say that I know the writer Michael Reynolds much more intimately.  I have read most (if not all) of his books and more recently have watched some of the DVD’s he has assembled.   My first reading of the Earthship Volumes was more about philosophy than house construction.  Over a decade of building log houses had left me VERY dissatisfied.  Conventional home construction is expensive and unsustainable.  Rather than feeling good about providing people with the basic need of shelter, I felt that I was contributing (both as an engineer and a home builder) to unsustainable trends that are rampantly out of control.  Michael Reynold’s books present a paradigm shift in addressing shelter that vocalized my own discontented musings on the topic.  Literally, I felt compelled to act after reading these books.

While laying out my own construction plans I perused the Earthship volumes repetitively.  No good relationship is without its fights, and I admit I alternatively cursed and praised Michael Reynolds; praise for his approach, and curses for his occasional lack of detail.  Regardless, I found Michael Reynolds to be an inspirational author, and used his books extensively as the basis for my plans.

We were motivated to post our house plans on-line for a few reasons.  I wanted feedback on my approach; I had never designed or built a sustainable dwelling before, and I figured the more eyes that saw the plans the better.  We also wanted to give back; we have benefited enormously from volunteers and the on-line community during this project, we saw the opportunity to share some of our learning experience as a fair trade and a way to promote a more sustainable life style.  Posting the plan set on-line was a logical extension of sharing our experience, and consistent with numerous other owner-built earthship projects that have also posted their plans.

To use my on-line plan set as an argument that Michael Reynolds should offer his work for free is ludicrous.    I do not have four decades of experience in earthship design and construction.  Innovation is expensive; time is required to experiment, and money is needed to turn new designs into practical products.  The potential for litigation against any design professional who works ‘outside’ of the box cannot be ignored.  If a house fails to meet the stringent requirements of the building code, being sued is a distinct possibility.  If you do not wish to purchase someone’s product then don’t, but don’t turn around and insist that because you want his experience and skills for free you are entitled.  I purchased all of Michael Reynold’s books that I have read, and consider them more than fairly priced for the knowledge imparted.  Nothing is stopping you from starting construction tomorrow and learning on your own … it is an excellent though often painful way to learn!

I would like to point out that something obtained for free (like my plans) is worth what it cost you.  My plans are by no means static; we have revised them on the fly, and my understanding of earthship construction has evolved significantly since those plans were written.  I would definitely do some things differently (and already have), and still do not know how some of the things shown on those plans (like gray water, electrical, water collection and finishing) will look at the end of the project.  I did not post those plans so that people could duplicate them; they are specific to my location, my building authority, my budget and my preferences. 

I completely understand that the people at Earthship Biotecture might be upset that someone would call Michael Reynolds lazy, and insist that he share his work for free.  I would like to extend my sincere apology to the crew of Earthship Biotecture and Michael Reynolds specifically as it was my online plan set that was used to justify this attack.  I would not be where I am today without the input and indirect guidance of Michael Reynolds.

Further, to the person who claimed to be me (I guess I am talking to the on-line avatar ‘earthshipcommunity’ from the Earthship Biotecture web site) … I am more than unhappy.  You have misrepresented my work as yours, and impersonated me on-line to further your agenda.  Both of these activities are illegal, and more importantly immoral.  Your actions and statements represent the worst of the on-line community, and are reprehensible.  The anonymity of the on-line world allows people to say and do things that they would not imagine doing in the real world.  I have no doubt that your behaviour will one day catch up to you.

Chris Newton

PS – Michael, if you read this and anything about it moves you (or even brings a tear to your eye), a better drawing and description of the gray water planters would be much appreciated! :)