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An Earthship in Interior Alaska?

 
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I found this place while looking up the subject of this forum post and this is my first post here.

The forum post I found didn't really answer my question, but I saw a wealth of information from those who live in Alaska or grew up there and thought I would ask, "Is it possible to build an off-grid Earthship on a piece of land that I buy there in Alaska. Mainly looking around Interior Alaska off-grid in a wide range from Fairbanks. I'm currently, living abroad, but looking for a new adventure when I return home to the states. Something I've always wanted to do is build an Earthship, have natural resources nearby, low human population, and be able to build my ultimate Earthship over the course of a few years. Looking at using hand tools to avoid needing much power and creating my own tools as I need them once there. Would want to build a powerless sawmill on-site with primitive dwellings when I first got there. And eventually, work up to having a smelter/forge for blacksmithing. I would build into the side of a mountain/hill so most of the living quarters are underground with a log beam roof, covered with a layer of tarp/etc for waterproofing and then soil and moss on top of that.

I saw someone mentioned, having a double greenhouse, which sounds great, but not sure how thermal mass heating works up in Alaska at such a high latitude? Just looking for suggestions, is it even possible, things to consider in Alaska, as I'm originally from Texas, but I have been through there a few times on flights.
 
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Hey, Jon, welcome to Permies!

I grew up in Eagle -- end of the road community a couple hundred miles from Fairbanks, on the Yukon, hard against the Canadian border.  And I have a few immediate thoughts about your questions.

First of all, "earthship" is the rammed earth inside stacked used tires concept, right?  Well, used tires are a waste disposal problem in bush Alaska as much as anywhere else, except: no tire shops.  No big piles. If you're on the road system, maybe everybody has a few stacked behind their sheds, but out there at the end of all logistics there's no such thing as "worthless junk" -- they will be saving them to make planters or put back on a vehicle if they get desperate or to make foundations for their log cabins (I've seen that done).  You won't just be able to round up six hundred "worthless" used tires like you could anywhere else in America.  Likewise, if you're in one of the (much more numerous) fly-in communities, there are very few vehicles bigger than ATVs and they don't go very far, so they don't wear out tires very fast.  I'm not sure you'll find your earthship material.  There ARE big tire piles in lots of remote places (gold mines, state road maintenance shops, oil facilities) but you can't count on hooking up with the kind of local contacts that could get you access right away.  After five years when you are a local?  Maybe.  But I would not count on it.

Also, buying land in rural Alaska is freakishly difficult.  It's all (90+ percent) owned by the feds, the state, or the Indians.  Private parcels are rare and usually expensive, but finding them is a bigger challenge than paying for them.  So, plan on your land hunt not being simple.

Finally, building into the side of any hill is ... well, it can be tricky.  The area in the vicinity of Fairbanks is a "mixed permafrost" zone -- there EXIST places where the ground is not permanently frozen to within a foot of the surface year-around, but not as many as you would think, and very likely not on your land unless you shopped with that in mind and know how to do a geophysical assay of prospective purchases.  Excavating a substantial cut into a random slope is likely to be impossible by normal methods.  We built a root cellar that way, but it took two years of carefully scraping away a half inch of frozen sand every day, then waiting for the next half-inch to thaw, then scraping that away, all during the 90-120 days each season when temps are above freezing.  If you are massively energetic you can burn continuous fires (hauling in as much firewood as you have the strength for) on your excavation site and speed this up -- a little.  Not as much as you would think.  The gold miners worked out systems of boilers and steam pipes and hot points so they could excavate in the winter time, but it was very complex, expensive, laborious, and dangerous.  And then you have to consider soil stability; permafrost soils tend not to have any physical integrity (they turn to muck) when thawed, so they will flow into your hole unless you have good cribbing-and-shoring game.  Eventually you will effectively have to build a solid structure (probably a log cabin) in your hole to keep it from filling up with adjacent soils as they thaw from your waste heat.  At that point, what have you gained over just building a log cabin to start with?

While talking about log, there's no place in Alaska now where you can be so rural you will be allowed to get away with cutting building logs on land not your own, except in some hard-to-reach permitted zones (usually recent forest fire areas).  And good building timber in the tiaga (which means "land of the little sticks") only grows in special areas, usually river bottoms.  So you will need to add "has enough big trees for my building needs" to your land purchase desiderata.

All this boils down to: there are lots of pragmatic reasons why vanishing into the Alaskan wilderness is harder than it sounds.  You gotta have more resources than most people think.  I hope these observations help you in your planning!  It's beautiful country that rewards all who don't bounce off of it.
 
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      Howdy Jon,

    Other than Dan's excellent commentary on availability of tires and the like I'd like to add a few thoughts of my own. I am now of the opinion that it is easier and most appropriate to follow the local vernaculars when building. Of course, if one has to, one can do other things, however this will mostly result in increase expenses and design problems and etc. that will be unforeseen. All people's around the globe have already figured out what works best in their place. Please note Reynolds who builds Earthships did so in Taos and if you consider them for a moment they are the same as adobe. They fulfill the same functions, thermal mass, and the final "brick" is the basically the same for building purposes.
     If I was to build, I wouldn't go down, but build on grade and infill around the Earthship to Earth shelter it. However, and this is the main point, there is no Earth sheltering around Fairbanks. It's Arctic and as I see it one would either have to insulate to an extreme degree or heat to an extreme degree to prevent all that cold from entering your Earthship. Resulting in those design problems I mentioned earlier. Good Luck, whatever you decide to do.

   Thomas

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Jon,
I would agree with most of what Dan said. If you wanted to build an earthship in AK I would suggest moving a bit south to what is referred to a Southcentral AK. Keep in mind that the ground freezes here also for 6-7 mths a year. So your construction season for dirt work is Limited to 6 mths or so, depending on the year. You also would have much better access to used tires. if that is a concern.
 
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Thanks for the insights! A lot of good information here to mull over. I'm not totally committed to this idea just yet, but I am at the stage of collecting information and research its potential. I'm also looking at this project and going about it as though I'm making a trip to Mars. Instead of just showing up, I want to have a clear workable plan when I hit the ground when/if I find land. I also hope to incorporate as many permaculture systems into my designs as possible.  

Dan: Thanks for the welcome. I checked out Eagle on Google Maps, a very nice-looking place there on the Yukon River. And that grass strip at the top I suppose is the local airport as I see planes tucked within the nearby trees. Regarding Earthships, I think they need to adapt to their local environment, so some things you might see out at Taos wouldn't be required therein AK. And being mostly cold weather, I would need to come up with solutions to the many problems already mentioned by yourself and others. I can't say that I've lived in a location with Permafrost before, but I already have been looking into how to deal with it. Of course, having those like yourself who have lived in that area helps a lot. I believe the farthest I've lived up North was actually in Northern Honshu, Japan. They got plenty of snow and whiteout conditions there, I also spent some time living in Denver, CO, so I have some experience in living in cold climates. For the "tires", I suspected it might be somewhat difficult so I would need to load them in and just make multiple expeditions of it. Back to adapting to the local environment, I could also look at other methods that a similar to replace the tire method if that's what is needed. Regarding finding Land, I have seen this, but I also know of people who have done it and know that the Feds have opened up new tracks for sale ever so often. I've looked into the local programs for getting land and I do have some time before I would actually purchase. I also plan to make some recon trips up to the areas I'm interested in, to get a better idea of potential sites. Back to digging, I've seen jackhammers and sledgehammers being used to break it up. I hear it's like hitting rock, if that's the case, would using a pickaxe help? I also know of a foam material that you can drill a small hole into the rock/ground fill it with this stuff and over 24 hours it expands x4 its original mass. It's an alternative to using explosives for miners in hard rock mining. Maybe this could be used to help break up the permafrost? The end product looks like tubes of expanded concrete. I've also considered the steam method as well to both help with heating the Earthship during winter and as a tool for working the environment. I don't understand your log cabin in a hole concept, but from what I can see there is a bit of clay in Alaska right? I'm looking at ways to turn local natural resources into things useful to me. If I have to tunnel into hard rock and just make a cave, I'll do that and just borrow Earthship concepts to add onto that. My main thing at the moment is to put the idea out there,  find the problem areas. I also am not tied to conventional methods and don't mind experimenting. Thanks again for your insight Dan, I know it's to be harder than expected as I've talked to others who have tried it and they all come back with it was much harder than they thought it would. I've come to accept.

Thomas: Hello and thanks. Yes, I agree. The beautiful Earthships in Taos are almost works of arts in of themselves. I can also see they borrow a lot of adobe design and I would do likewise in the Alaska environment. I already consider my Earthship would not look like those in New Mexico. There would need to be changes as well to support that environment. Three of my main considerations for building into the ground are insulation, protection from forest fires, and general protection from the harsh environment. One thing I do have a concern about and would need to factor into my designs would be Earthquakes. As I know there are a few faultlines just south of Fairbanks between there and Anchorage. But I have initial problems I need to work out before I get to that.  Thanks for your input.

Dougs: Thanks for the details. What if I were to build a temp structure covering the work area and just cover and heat it for the winter months. Do you think that is doable to keep working through the winter months? What are the main issues, other than the mobility of getting around and having enough food/water during the winter months to consider? I've also considered shorter or no daylight periods and would use a headlamp for that. I'm not against moving farther south as I do plan to do some grocery shopping from time to time. But I know the population increases the farther south I go and I'm wanting to live in a low-populated area, but I swear I'm not the lone hermit type.

Thanks for all the feedback and I hope to hear more. Transportation from civilization to the sticks is another whole other project I'm working out and I would assume will need various forms of it to do what I'm planning. I'm also factoring as I mention above for Earthquakes, as whatever I do will be subterranean, not looking for the cabin in the woods as an end result. I'd be curious about how well greenhouses function and things to consider for trying to grow things that normally might not grow in the natural environment. At the moment, I'm looking into steam, firewood, and focused mirrors for generating year-round heat as needed. Any suggestions or ideas are most welcomed.

 
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Another one who grew up in Alaska (near Delta Junction) and also lived there a few years as an adult.  Still have quite a bit of family up there, but I'm getting older and don't want to have to deal with the long winters.

If you look at what the Indians did in the Interior pre-white man, they built their winter houses by excavating down two to four feet, and earth-sheltering the part that was above ground.  They used sod roofs.  The whole thing would get wet inside in the spring because they had no good way to waterproof it, so they lived in tents for the summer.  Some friends of ours at Tok did something similar with their log cabin -- they built it down into the earth about four feet, facing south, with a greenhouse in place of a front porch.  They didn't really build into a hill, but there was a slight rise of the ground there, so the front of the cabin was at ground level.  The parts of the walls that were above ground were earth bermed, and they used a sod roof.  The advantage they had was modern waterproofing materials. They didn't have any trouble with moisture getting into their cabin because they had done a good job of waterproofing everything.  They also had built an underground barn for their goats and chickens; only about two feet of the wall was above ground, and they had a front space for feed storage which acted as an air-lock entry.  There were windows in the bit of wall that stuck out above ground so it wasn't totally dark inside; a sod roof; and they said that the water inside had never frozen even when it was sixty or seventy below zero.  

The same people had a greenhouse divided into three sections (with plastic walls between them).  They had heat in the center section and used it to grow heat-loving crops like cucumbers and sweet potatoes.  The other two sections were not heated, but got some residual heat from the center, and they had slightly hardier plants there.  

There's no problem with digging into the ground in the Tok area because under a thin layer of soil, the ground is deep unconsolidated gravel (glacier tailings, I think).  It does shake in earthquakes, and they've had some big ones there -- enough to break up the paved highway south of Tok a few miles.  But apparently not a lot of damage to the buildings.  The church we attended while we were there had minor structural damage, probably because the summer volunteers who built the addition didn't know about building for earthquakes.  But it wasn't serious and when we were back there a couple of years later the building was still in use with little repair work necessary.  The Tok area is one of the coldest parts of the state and the soil is poor compared to around Delta Junction and other agricultural areas.  

I think there must be a lot of ground around Delta Junction that is not permafrost, also, because my grandparents' house had a basement (a root cellar for potatoes -- Dad and Grandpa grew about 30 acres of potatoes each year for sale, and stored them there).  Our original cabin had a root cellar under it, as did many other cabins in the area.  And the house had a large basement, which we lived in while my dad built the upper parts of the house.  I don't remember him having to do anything special in order to dig any of those out.  Also, one of his friends had a big root cellar dug into the side of a hill, with double doors so it had an airlock entry.  

The moral of the story would be, I think, to talk to people who are familiar with the areas you are looking at, and also look at the soil surveys and the vegetation maps.  If there is white spruce growing and the trees are pretty big, you don't have permafrost under that.  Black spruce, especially if it's small, indicates permafrost.

Kathleen
 
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That's a tall, order, there, Jon.

Personally, I don't think tires are good for humans. Not for their intended purpose, not used for building (except in some certain cases with very stringent requirements), and certainly not in conjunction with food growing or living.

But some people don't have a problem with them, and that's fine.

That said, I feel that it might be a good idea to look at what you wish to achieve from a more objective perspective. You don't want to go through with your plans married to the idea of how you're going to do it and then get there and get it all done, and realise that it's actually not what you want.

I am glad to hear that you are considering other approaches to the earthship-style dwelling. Rammed earth is my personal favourite idea here. It's essentially exactly the same approach, except that you tamp a stabilized earth mixture down in between the same sorts of forms that are used for concrete, but because you're using a largely dry mix, a section is self-supporting as soon as it's tamped (it cures over time, but the fact remains). A similar method involves making bricks out of the same mixture.

I feel, though, that an earth-linked or underground dwelling might not be the best fit for permafrost. Alaska has been experiencing some very interesting problems involving increasingly common record temperatures and heaving/settling land as the permafrost thaws, becoming less-than-permafrost.

From my reading, I get the idea that choosing a spot elevated enough to allow some excavation would be a good idea. I would first make a rammed earth slab thick enough to support the weight of the structure entirely. If money weren't a problem, I would use insulated concrete forms that are left in place to insulate the thermal mass. If I had to be thrifty, I would probably reuse the forms, doing sections of wall that I join with lintels to form doorways.

I might be wrong here, but for insulation around the exterior of the structure, I would actually look to employ an earthbag method, but filling with dry duff, woodchips, or any dry, insulative organic fill I could acquire. It would be packed tightly and then backfilled with subsoil at least a foot, but probably three, thick, so not only would critters have no easy way or reason to get there, if it somehow ignited, all that would happen is that it would slowly pyrolise in its earthen oven, and the resultant char would still be excellent insulation.

I suggest that you look at Paul's wofati concept. I would put a thick green roof structure atop it, enough to support a marauding grizzly? moose? elk? anything, including encroaching forest, should it come to that.

Personally, I really like the idea of the sunken log cabin with the root cellar basement and bermed sides with the south-facing greenhouse walkout. I don't know if an earthship is really the most practical approach in Alaska, seeing as how your primary resource is frozen half the time, and the rest of the time is thawing by a half-inch a day in the warm season. Some areas have lots of trees, though. It might be more permie to build with the trees, and into existing dips in the land, where there's appropriate drainage to not inundate you with every thaw.

But I reserve the right to be wrong. Please keep us posted, and good luck.

-CK
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