Tour: tire house where we lived

Our home for the summer is called an Earthship.  It’s a type of home that is passive solar, made of recycled and natural materials, and tends to be off-the-grid.  A man named Mike Reynolds began developing the Earthship idea in the 1970s.  Since then, the idea has been taking off around the world.

Now for me, the idea of saying “I live in an Earthship” sounds kind of freaky.  It reminds me of something like Y2K all over again.  So Martin and I have adopted an entirely different name for our earth-loving home this summer:  The Tire House.  I’m sure you can see why…

UPDATE March 2012:

The descriptions I give in this blog post of how fabulous this type of home is to live in were based on literature I read and things the owner (who has never lived here or spent a winter in Montana) told us. Awesome in theory! Very, very bad in application. I 100% do not advocate construction of tire houses; neither does my German engineer husband. We have been very miserable calling this place home for over two years. There’s a long list of reasons hinted at throughout my blog. Nonetheless, I think it is important and interesting to understand the concept of tire home construction in hopes that maybe it can lead to something sustainable and comfortable in one. So enjoy! Laugh at my naïvety of 2009!

tire retaining wall

As you can see from our front door, the house is made of gobs of old tires – some that are visible like in this retaining wall, and most that are not.  To keep things simple, I’m going to grit my teeth and try to refer to this house as “the Earthship” throughout this entire tour.  But if you hear me talking about living in a Tire House down the road, don’t think we’ve upped and moved yet again.

Tires make a wonderfully clever building tool because there’s not much else people can do with worn tires.  Around 70% of the scrap tires created each year can be salvaged by the scrap tire industry.  But the other 30% (or roughly 75 million tires in the US alone) wind up in our landfills.  That 30% are perfect for homes like this one, and I couldn’t even guess how many hundreds of tires went into this house.  Some architects argue that tires actually create a more solid construction method than traditional techniques in the United States.  The house is so solid that we can’t even pick up a wireless signal from one room to the next.

The retaining walls and three exterior walls (the back and two side walls) of the house are all made of stacks of tires filled with dirt.  Having our house built into a hill makes a wonderful year-round insulator, too.  Some people who build tire houses can actually be paid to take the tires off the hands of others.  How many folks can say that about their building materials?


Some people find these Earthships so fascinating that one woman even charges $15 for a tour of her home.  As you can guess from this picture of the front of the house, though, you can pretty much see everything in the place thanks to all the windows.  The entire south side of the house is lined with enormous windows to let in the sun all winter long.  It’s a heating bill miracle.

If you’re like me, the next thing you immediately think is, “Ha!  What about getting all that sun heating your house in the summer, smarty?”  Well these guys didn’t miss a beat on that one.  After all, Mike Reynolds, the inventor of earthships lives in New Mexico.  Look at the pitch of the roof above the windows.  It’s specially designed to work with the angle of the sun.  The sun is much lower in the winter.  In the summer when the sun is high in the sky, the long, angled roof acts as a shade to limit midday sun.

tire house

Each room of the house is lined up like one domino after another so they all get that southern exposure. It’s a little weird having no bedroom door in this particular Earthship.  The bedroom does have a canvas curtain to keep the heat out and offer a little privacy when someone on horseback goes riding by at sunrise.  Put your bed up next to those tire walls and it’s wonderfully cool, almost as if you had a little air conditioner blowing back there.

recycle tires in homes

The interior walls are also made of tires filled with dirt. They’re then covered in concrete and stucco.  These walls always feel nice and cool in the summer.  In the winter, they absorb the heat from the sun, making your nights a little cozier.  Isn’t the trim on this wall a hoot?

indoor garden

Are you ever faced with those love/hate aspects of a home?  This next Earthship feature would be mine.  Along the windows in the front of the house, we have this beautiful opportunity for planting an indoor garden. (Remember how these houses are all about sustainability?  It’s even down to the food!)  Of course it also means we have a few more bugs in the house.  Earthships don’t exactly fit into suburbs.  I think the tire retaining wall might crush the whole “welcome to the neighborhood” deal, don’t you?  Earthships tend to be in the country like ours… which means a higher probability of big ol’ beetles and spiders popping out of your indoor garden and running across the house while you scream.

The wall of this garden bed (and the wall of the front door you saw in the first picture) is made of stones gathered from around the county.  The wood framing is supposedly dead wood that had been killed by a local disease, making it unusable in traditional construction.

recycle kitchen

The kitchen is primarily a collection of used odds and ends. Some of the appliances don’t really work that well.  One of the huge dilemmas of Earthships is incorporating modern conveniences like dishwashers into the homes.  Older, used appliances tend to suck up a lot more energy than new ones, but buying new requires the creation of new stuff that requires more of earth’s resources.  There’s no clear-cut answer.

Many Earthships use water repurposing systems for gray and black water (gray typically comes from the kitchen, and black from the bathroom).  They collect water from the roof.  And utilities are self-generated by the home (with the occasional exception of a natural gas tank).

tire retaining wall

So the name Earthship might sound a little weird, and telling people we live in a house made of tires definitely causes a few raised eyebrows.  But with all the push for green-home-this and green-life-that, I’d like to say that just as much as it’s important to live a green life for your health, it’s also important to make choices that are greener for the entire earth.  Besides, living in a tire house is pretty fun.  Just think of all the miles this place has covered.

If you’d like to see more unique home tours on Making This Home, check out this 350 square foot home in Prague or our 36 square foot kitchen in our usual home of Berlin.