Design & DIY

Cottage Q&A: Can I build an earthship?

earthship By RockerStocker/Shutterstock

I want to build an earthship. Is it going to be hard to get a permit?—Asher Trace, via email

In most cases, the design of earthship-like buildings—with tire walls and no concrete foundation—means they fall outside the part of the building code that deals with small residential buildings.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a permit to build one. “There are lots of buildings that fall outside this part of the code—hospitals, schools—and those things are built all the time,” says Mark Fleischhaker, a structural engineer based in B.C. But it does mean that you’ll need to equip yourself with the right professional services. As soon as you want to build something unconventional, “you better have professionals to back you up,” says Fleischhaker. “You need their stamps on the drawings.” You’ll require, at the very least, input from a structural engineer, but you might also need help from a mechanical or an electrical engineer, depending on the features you plan to include in the structure.

Approval was a snap for Jim Knell, who first began building his “tire house” in Ontario’s Prince Edward County back in 2009. “We had no problem at all getting a permit,” says Knell. “But it helped that the chief building inspector had actually heard of earthships.”

Oh, right. This. Some people still don’t know what the heck an earthship is. (When we contacted the Alliance of Canadian Building Officials’ Association, the president said that he didn’t know the term. So, for the first time in the history of Cottage Q&A, we got to explain something to an expert!)

“Building officials are human, and the truth is, unfamiliar designs can make them less than enthusiastic about approving earthships,” says Sandra Burkholder, who, with her husband, Chris Newton, built an earthship a number of years ago in Darfield, B.C. “Even though the homeowner and the engineer may be able to satisfy every code and every bylaw requirement, they still may face resistance.”

Before you even buy land, check out the jurisdiction where you’re interested in building. Find out if there are any local bylaws or regulations that could prevent your build, make an appointment with the chief building official, and walk in prepared. “Take your plans with you. Take an engineer,” says Burkholder. “Bring photos and videos. Show them other earthship builds in the province.”

An earthship is a major project, says Knell, one that requires a little homework first. “You can’t go in half-cocked.”

Read about this contemporary cabin that blends traditional building smarts with new green ideas.

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