Marthens has been a resident of Teton Valley, Idaho since 2008. When she initially bought the land she knew she didn’t want to build a conventional house, so she opted to go with a yurt. Now, she and her husband will be upgrading to a fully sustainable, self-reliant “Earthship” home.
“This has been a great space, but it’s time to move out,” Marthens said. “We’re excited to move into the Earthship which is the ultimate energy efficient structure.”
The Earthship concept originated with Michael Reynolds in Taos, New Mexico. It refers to a type of house with a passive solar design built with natural and reclaimed or recycled materials. It is built to be as self-reliant as possible, generating its own electricity, processing its own wastewater, and providing space indoors (i.e. a greenhouse) to grow food.
“The idea of an Earthship is like a ship out in space that’s a self-contained unit. It needs to provide everything that the people living in it need,” explained Shearer.
Water, for example, is collected onsite from rain or snow and filtered through a cistern to then be used for drinking, showering, etc. Greywater gets recycled by being filtered through tropical plant beds and then being used to flush toilets.
The design features south-facing windows to maximize solar gain. In the winter the sun streaming through the windows heats up the floor and the walls, thus reducing the reliance on outside heat.
Most of the electricity will come from PV solar panels. In the next few months they will be installing a solar system to provide both electricity and solar hot water. They are currently tied into the grid, though their long-term goal is to eventually live off the grid. In the meantime, they hope to be able to produce more power than they use, which they can then sell back to the electric company at a decent price.
Marthens and Shearer plan to build a greenhouse off the front of the house. “We can actually step right out of our bedroom and into the greenhouse, and ideally have figs and avocados,” Shearer explained.
They were inspired to build an Earthship after visiting friends in Colorado who had one on their property. They started building it last August and hope to be finished by next spring.
The walls will be made from rammed earth tires, a common material used in Earthship construction. Some of the tire rows are already in place, providing a foundation on which they can build upon over the summer. This summer they plan on holding a six-week permaculture and Earthship building internship.
Besides tires, they are using other recycled materials such as reclaimed lumber and windows to build this 2,000 sq-ft house. According to Shearer, the estimated total cost will be about $75,000. Still, it is fairly cost-effective for a house that size. “Hopefully energy savings in the long run is where it will pay itself off,” said Marthens.
Shearer said he finds much greater satisfaction in constructing the house himself as opposed to hiring a contractor to do the work for him. “The whole experience of living in a house that we built with our own hands is so much more wonderful than hiring an expert to do it for us,” he said.
Shearer teaches permaculture design courses and is founder and co-owner of Higher Elevation Permaculture Center, which is based at their 5-acre property in Driggs. Permaculture, he said, is about “how to design your life to meet your holistic goals.” It often refers to land-based, regenerative, natural systems. Vegetable gardens, fruit trees, farm animals, ponds and wetlands are all components that truly define what it means to live off the land.
Marthens and Shearer are big on growing their own food. In the summertime all of their produce comes from their land. Pigs, sheep and chickens provide meat and eggs as well as a natural source of fertilizer.
Much of what they grow is used in making wood-fired pizzas. Marthens heads up a mobile, wood-fired pizza business called Fired Earth Pizza. The pizzas provide value-added income to ingredients like tomatoes that they are already growing and selling.
Ultimately, what they’re doing is not novel or earth shattering. It’s just smart, holistic living that gives them great happiness and fulfillment.
“It’s about really living a fulfilling lifestyle,” said Shearer, “creating a design that aims at being really fulfilled human beings. That includes living sustainably and building your own house and selling pizza at the farmers’ market.”
“You can be creative and make things happen on your own,” he added. “I think all of us have a lot more of a capacity to be creative and make our lives richer.”