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  • Writer's pictureAtiqah Nadiah Zailani

Building a Sustainable Home

Efforts to build a home that meets all of one's requirements and yet produces minimum negative effects to the world around it.

green door with plants

Being a longtime environmental geek, it was a no-brainer that I would want to make my first official home as environmentally-friendly and as self-sustaining as possible. After all, it would be dishonest to live in a space that violates the values that I hold dear, especially when the construction of it is fully (or at least mostly) under my control.

To believe in something...

I hear you, Gandhi.

But what does having a sustainable home mean exactly?

"Do you wanna build an Earthship?" (Neither a planet nor a ship)

Imagine a house built of plastic bottles and used tyres.

foundation of plastic bottles

You’d think a house built of these would be an eyesore, but people have actually gotten incredibly creative and artistic with it!

fancy earthship homes
fancy earthship homes

These homes are called Earthships, which is a type of building that adheres to a few criteria that make them the ULTIMATE example of sustainable architecture.

Side note: You may not know this, but Malaysia also has an Earthship!

Build for Tomorrow constructed one in Jelebu, Negeri Sembilan, with a lot of help from volunteers. It was completed in 2016 and now functions as a home for a family as well as a guesthouse for you to stay in.

Malaysia's first Earthship!

Malaysia's first Earthship. Source: Build4Tomorrow

My friends and I also got to take part. I think we only contributed 0.00002% to the build, but it was a great experience!

Helping build the earthship

We probably posed more than we actually built, to be honest.

What makes a house or building an Earthship (other than the funky shape)?

Earthships follow 6 basic design principles:

Diagram of an Earthship


Design Principle #1: Thermal or Solar Heating & Cooling

Instead of using air-conditioning (which uses a massive amount of energy, releases powerful greenhouse gases and makes the surroundings hotter by pumping the heat outside of buildings), Earthships stabilise the temperature indoors by having walls made of packed soil. The thick and dense walls provide thermal mass that stores and releases heat, thus acting as a natural temperature regulator. Earthships are also designed to maximise ventilation, so that the air within the house circulates and cools the area down.

Design Principle #2: Building with Natural & Recycled Materials

Earthships are built out of materials that are naturally available locally, along with materials that would otherwise be thrown away. This is why a lot of the earthships are made of soil (which is found right under your feet), as well as old tyres, plastic bottles and glass jars (that are also probably right under you feet, given how we like to litter and throw them all over the place).

Design Principle #3: Solar & Wind Electricity

Earthships generate their own energy, mainly from the sun and wind. The energy is stored in batteries and supplied to electrical outlets around the house. Since the house itself is designed to be passively heated and cooled (without needing a power-hungry heater or air-conditioner), the electricity needs of the house are significantly reduced, making it possible to live comfortably on a decent amount of solar panels or wind turbines.

Design Principle #4: Water Harvesting

Other than energy, Earthships also generate, or rather collect, their own water from the sky and from the ground (if a waterhole or a stream exists). Rainwater harvesting is a common way of obtaining water, and is particularly useful for countries with heavy rainfall like Malaysia.

Design Principle #5: Contained Sewage Treatment

When you drain the sink or flush the toilet in an Earthship, the waste water doesn’t go into the city pipes or public waterways. Relatively clean greywater (from the kitchen sink, bathroom sink, shower or washing machine) are recycled to water plants or to fill toilet cisterns for flushing. Blackwater (from the toilet) is treated using an on-site treatment cell. All the waste is contained and managed within the property itself, without polluting or damaging the outside world.

Design Principle #6: Food Production

On top of all the things mentioned above, Earthships also grow food! While it is unlikely that you will be able to grow all of the food you need within the house or property (you’d have to flood the place in order to grow rice, for example), you’d be surprised at how much you can get out of maintaining an edible garden of vegetables and herbs!

Though this is not an explicit design principle, there is also an emphasis on affordability and ease of construction, such that even a complete noob (like yours truly) can build it. This is why most Earthships are single-storey, simple structures.

single-storey Earthships

Designed to be idiot-proof

Except for this one. This one went all out.

Fancy multi-level Earthship
Fancy multi-level Earthship

Rules are made to be broken

While I will not be building an Earthship, I do intend to follow its core principles as much as possible. In fact, I am staying true to all principles mentioned above, except for two:

Sorry, Design Principle #1: Instead of building with packed soil or materials with thermal mass (like concrete), I will instead build using steel and wood, due to the ease of assembly. I wanted the house to be prefabricated in standard sections that can be easily moved, assembled and disassembled (like an IKEA furniture!). I also wanted the build to be quick. This is something you cannot do with packed soil or cement. I will, however, be making full use of ventilation, and aim to not succumb to air-conditioning.

Sorry, Design Principle #2: Because the house is prefabricated, there are certain limitations on the type of materials that can be used, that are available, and that fit within my budget. The house will be built mostly out of steel, timber, glass and plywood, and while I will do my best to make sure they are as locally and as sustainablly-sourced as possible, I will not be doing a detailed life cycle / supply chain carbon footprint study, as I neither have the expertise or the resources to do so. (But if you do, and you want to do it for me, let me know!)

As for recycled materials, the way the house is designed leaves little use for old tyres, plastic bottles or glass jars. Unlike in the US, Malaysia does not have thriving junkyards or shops that specialise in recycled residential building materials (like old doors, windows, glass), so I have not had any success in that area. If you know of any, please let me know!

Picking up the slack

So while my soon-to-be-house may not be thermally regulated or be built out of the most natural, most sustainable and most recycled set of materials, it will generate its own energy, harvest its own water, handle its own waste and grow its own food.

I’m also compensating for my transgression of Earthship principles by doing the following:

1. Minimising the alteration to the land and keeping the vegetation intact

2. Minimising the land space I take up for the house, keeping it under 400-500 sq ft

3. Orienting the house in the north-south axis to avoid the sun path, and to take advantage of the wind so I don't have to rely on air-conditioning to keep cool.

There are undoubtedly a million other things I could do to make this project even more sustainable, and if you have ideas, I am certainly open to them. Given the limitations I have, I may not adopt all of them, but I will definitely listen!

That being said, you don’t have to build a house from scratch to be able to apply the Earthship principles to your own living environment - solar or wind energy, rainwater harvesting, contained sewage treatment and food production are things you can easily incorporate, at different levels and scales, to make your lifestyle just that much more sustainable.

Think about it.

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