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 ( 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.…1sRgCIXfzJnIpK7Z5QE#

Posts: 1

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! :)

Success …It’s All A Matter of Perspective!

We get a lot of email from people who read the blog. I’ve never really tracked it, but I am guessing that we get more email in response to our posts than comments on the actual blog. Usually, I try to respond privately … I assume that if somebody does not want to comment or question in a public format that is their right.

However, I am noticing that many questions asked overlap, AND that I often repeat myself in these email discussions! So, I will continue to respect the privacy of the email we receive; I will not post names or private information (unless I ask in advance), but if it makes sense to me I will respond to questions asked publicly. It is often the case that more than one person was thinking along the same lines …

I’ve been asked lots of questions about the temperature inside the earthship this winter. A few days ago, I got this question from the Netherlands,

… did you guys manage to get the earthship nice and warm already? I’ve read about the rocket-mass heater and it being about 5 celcius inside :-) That’s too cold for me :-) Don’t think my house will stay around 20 celcius in the winter here as well, planning on a ’tile heater’, some kind of thermal mass stove hanged with thick ceramic tiles.

And, even more recently the following email came in from Manitoba,

… can [earthships] obtain enough heat through the thermal mass/solar gain (of course altered in construction for our location) to maintain a comfort level in the home with out extra or external heating source (that includes wood stove) in our climate … [I am looking for] technical information on the floor thicknesses and composition. honestly anything that pertains to the heating, storing of heat and Insulating yes …. the floor … any links pointers you have or connections would be greatly appreciated …

Now, I am of the opinion that the thermal mass of the earthship has already proven itself successful in our building.  With no additional heat source the earthship has maintained an above zero temperature all winter.  We are currently experiencing -10 degree Celsius highs during the day, and (you guessed it) the temperature inside is still above zero.  Currently, the temperature seems to hover around 3 degrees during the day and drops a degree at night.  When we do operate the rocket mass heater (not surprisingly) the temperature in the building goes up.  We have not run the heater consistently or long enough to figure out how well it does, but do not expect that it will do a great job at warming the entire building as it does not distribute its heat outside of the room it is in.

This is the first house project I have worked on (or lived in) where I have not worried about an unheated space during the winter; the waterline has not frozen and burst, it is comfortable enough to work inside whenever we decide to, and I am able to store freeze-sensitive building materials inside (caulking, paint, whatever).  Down the road this means that without any further modifications we could turn off the electricity, lock the door, leave for our month long Caribbean cruise, and come back to an intact building.  The tilapia in the fish pond would probably be dead, but there would be minimal (hopefully zero) maintenance costs associated with leaving this building uninhabited for a period of time.  In contrast, I have fond memories of un-freezing the waterlines in my inhabited, conventional house if the power failed during cold winter temperatures, and the waterline to my chicken coop has frozen yet again this winter!  (As an aside, a small, propane torch is incredibly effective on frozen water lines … just be careful where you point it!)

Obviously, the current inside temperature is not a livable temperature.  Bear in mind that we have poor solar gain in December and January.  I can count on less than two hands the sunny hours we have had since December 1st … we have gone over a week at a stretch with overcast skies.  To make it worse, what little solar gain we are getting right now is largely blocked by our temporary living quarters.  When the sun does hit the south face of the building the transformation is as amazing as it is pleasant … the inside temperature climbs quickly and becomes quite comfortable (into the teens).  The thermal mass of our building has not been warmed above surrounding earth temperature this winter, and the inside temperature reflects that.

We plan to have an additional heat source to compensate for our overcast skies in December and January.  Our intention is to put radiant heat water lines in the floor, and run heated water through our floors.  We have lots of waste wood available locally, and it is justifiable (in my opinion) to burn this wood for energy.  I am hoping to generate electricity through wood gasification and will have lots of waste heat as a result.  My intention is to use this waste heat to charge the thermal mass of the earthship (via the waterlines mentioned above).

There are many different ways to address staying warm in colder climates.  Mike Reynolds and the Earthship Biotecture crew are simply not interested in needing an additional heat source.  The ‘Global’ earthship model is their answer to colder climates (indeed any climate).  The global model uses a double green house wall, a rigid insulation thermal wrap outside of the tires, and floor insulation under habitable areas to more effectively trap solar gain so that the heat does not bleed away in colder environments.   In very cold climates they even talk about a third greenhouse wall.  A discussion of most of these ideas is available from Earthship Biotecture in their DVD set 2009 Earthship Seminar.

We have used the concept of thermal wrap and plan to use floor insulation  in our building, but bear in mind that this does not address an environment with limited solar gain.  As stated above, we plan to heat the thermal mass of our floors with wood and compensate for lack of solar gain.  Earthship Biotecture is investigating other passive heat sources; the body heat of the occupants, heat from compost, and unintentional heat sources such as the waste heat generated by a laptop running in the building.  There are some very interesting ideas presented in the DVD set mentioned above, and I will be curious to see what progress is made on them.

Another interesting idea is to simply store the solar thermal gain from warmer months so it can be used during the colder months.  For example, my radiant heat flooring could get its heat from solar tubes on the south face of the building, store the heat in deep (insulated?) trenches under the floor (or close to the building), and draw on this stored heat in the colder months.  I do not claim much knowledge or experience with this idea, but it certainly seems worth exploring.

I do believe that Earthship Biotecture is correct that a livable temperature can be maintained (even in cold climates) without additional heat sources.  As stated in the above DVD they have successfully been able to maintain a temperature in the vicinity of 20 degrees Celcius in their buildings.

Frustratingly, the assorted North American Building Codes do not view this as success.  For example, our BC Building Code specifies that a building must maintain a temperature of at least 22 degrees Celcius in its living spaces ( Indoor Design Temperatures).  A passively heated home simply cannot obtain the precise temperature control that can be achieved with fossil fuels or wood or electricity.  The building code does not mention what happens if the power goes out … it’s all a matter of perspective.

Constructive vs destructive comments on the blog…

I haven’t figured out how to turn off self-moderation on the comments section.  It’s been difficult lately to find the time to check the incoming comments to allow or disallow them.  We get a tremendous number of “trolling” comments where other sites just want a link back so that they can generate traffic for themselves…or something like that.  It was explained once to me but I’ve forgotten the details.

All of this is to say that I am still moderating comments and other than the usual “junk”,  I’ve been posting all of them.  Happily, we have not had any feedback that has left us in tatters or have left us feeling threatened or made to feel guilty about any aspect of our lives.   We do in fact, love constructive criticism.  Generally we have thick skins and most of the time, if an argument is well reasoned and thought out, we will actually consider it in the spirit it was given and it may actually influence our future decisions. 

Today I received a comment that I would term “destructive” in nature, rather than “constructive”.   When I first read it I was quite taken aback and did not want to allow it in the comments section.  Upon reflection, I’ve decided to place it right up front and give it its own post!  It was from  Evangeline and here is her comment in its entirety..

YOU GUYS DRIVE A SUV Which is really bad for the enviroment and your all hypocrits!
You all are nutts!

Yup, I haven’t hidden the fact in any of the pictures that I drive a Honda CR-V.  It definitely is an SUV; I asked before I handed over all that money!  We purchased it new in 2006 (I bought it outright) and it was the last one in BC for that model year.  It has AWD which allowed me to drive up and down 8km of gravel road in the winter to get from my then-home to work.  I had to really twist Chris’ arm to convince him that a Smart Car or electric bicycle really wasn’t practical for a family of five living in the boonies…

We owned a Saturn for 15 years and while the gas mileage was great, I had to put chains on it often…while driving three children under three years old up a down a sometimes not-plowed road.  Chains were o.k. when I was 16 and driving my mom’s car up and down that road, but I discovered a nasty, non-tolerant side to myself when I was operating on three hours of sleep hunched over car tires in the dark December evenings at -25 C with three hungry, screaming kids and #%$%^ ropes of metal that wouldn’t reach all the way around the %^&&^$# tires.  (Ahh, the memories.)

The Saturn cacked in December 2006, about two weeks before I bought the CRV.  Its engine simply died.  Well, it was helped along by almost 400,000 kms and the fact that every winter we abused it slightly more getting it out of snow drifts, getting it up snowy roads without having to put chains on , getting it out of snow drifts, cabbaging it together so we wouldn’t have to do expensive repairs, getting it out of snow drifts…well, you get my ahem… drift…

Evangeline may not have picked up on the fact that we also own a pickup truck that was used for the business and for that we chose the most reliable, fuel efficient one we could find with 4WD, a Nissan Frontier.  Its mileage isn’t steller, either, but it’s a whole lot better than other trucks that would have suited the business a lot better…

In the winter we do not licence, insure, or drive the truck, choosing instead to minimize our trips to various locations in the car.  We tend to be mindful of our driving needs in the winter, and in the summer. 

Summer is more difficult for us, however.  We are often moving around livestock, picking  up supplies for the house, taking the children to their summer activities, and now, for me, meeting with clients as I start up my business in bookkeeping and writing.  We live in a rural area and the closest community is 16 kms away so vehicles do factor very large in our life, especially at this time of year.

Our direction in life has changed a lot since we made our vehicle purchases.  Just making the decision to build a sustainable house  was huge for us and we have been learning a lot of new and exciting ways for us to become more sustainable and to make better enviromental decisions.  Vehicle useage is definitely one we are constantly talking about.

As many readers know, I am a big believer in small steps.  If I didn’t believe that we are just like other people, I would never have faith that everybody has the power to help save the earth.   I certainly don’t harbor grand illusions of my “special-ness”.  I don’t think we have to be radical from the moment of our own personal environmental epiphany.  I just think we have to continue to strive to do new things everyday.  Satisfaction in the small steps, impels us to do greater and greater things. I see so many people trying very hard to change, just like us!

I also try NOT to judge other people’s lifestyle choices, especially in terms of the environment  Our decisions aren’t a rejection of others’ lifestyles, but rather an affirmation of what we believe in.  And I’m personally a huge believer of being the change you want to see.  I think somebody a lot wiser and smarter than me coined this phrase!  (Ghandi).  I want people to feel good about what we are doing, not guilty about their own decisions.  I don’t dwell on their vehicle choices, the composition of their garbage cans, the number of vacations they take or how much food they grow or buy. Honestly?  It’s nice to have friends from all walks of life and I have a feeling that if I started rooting around in friends’ garbage cans the dinner invitations might dwindle!

So Evangeline, I hear what you are saying.  But I’m not perfect, my bad choices were made with what I considered (at the time) sound reasons. 

I will admit to unconscious hypocrisy in my life, though.   I am constantly finding that some of my behaviors and choices conflict with my new-found values.  I’ll admit to many of them:  colouring my hair, forgetting my canvas grocery bags and using plastic, having a chlorine pool for the kids until this year, buying non-organic foods, buying stuff new sometimes, using personal care items that aren’t great for the ground…the list goes on and on.  I sometimes get discouraged, to be honest.  But then I remember just how many things I have accomplished and how many behaviours I have changed and then I feel great–not superior– just great!

Evangeline, thank you for reminding me that I have to continue to be vigilant.  I wish you’d been a bit kinder, but I can see your frustration behind the words and I do appreciate where you are coming from.  Oh, and thank you for your final pronouncement!  It is the greatest compliment to a Burkholder – I can’t speak for the Newtons – to be called “nutts”. (I wonder if having two “t’s in nuts makes me nuttier than usual? :))   You’re neither the first to think it, nor are you the first to say it! 

Keep the comments coming everybody…the thick skin is only slightly bruised!