A family is building a so-called Earthship on the southern Alberta prairie — part of a homebuilding movement around the world.

The unique home is an off-the-grid, solar-powered house made of recycled materials. 

Volunteers have been packing dirt into used tires and stacking them like bricks to form the retaining walls, which are built into a hillside. The home is the length of about two school buses.

"The roof is on. The greenhouse is built. The glass is in. It's really amazing what's been done in three weeks,” says Duncan Kinney.

Kinney says he planted the idea of an Earthship in the minds of his parents, Dawn and Glen, a few years ago. 

He says it has obvious environmental and economic benefits.

“Why wouldn't you build a house that collects all its own drinking water, and treats its own waste, and generates its own electricity and does all these amazing things for you?" says Kinney.

Self-sustaining 

The home, which is near Vulcan, Alta., is built with large south-facing windows angled to collect sunlight and heat. It has solar panels to generate electricity and cisterns to collect rain and snow melt that will be filtered for drinking water, as well as a self-contained sewage system.

"This building does everything for itself. It doesn't need an infrastructure,” says Michael Reynolds, a New Mexico-based architect and founder of Earthship Biotecture. 

“It does have a take-charge-of-your-life element to it."  

The company has built three houses in Canada, but says there are about a dozen other Earthship-type homes built here.

"Canadians do tend to say, 'Well, what about our severe climate?' Well we developed this building at 2,500 metres, 7,500 feet in New Mexico, in the mountains,” said Reynolds.

“People think that their climate is going to tax this concept, but in fact, this concept was tested in a climate worse than this."

Reynolds may not be familiar with how relentless and bone-chilling a Canadian prairie winter can be, but the Kinneys are. They've ensured their Earthship design has plenty of insulation and a wood stove. 

Still, Dawn Kinney admits she has had some reservations. 

"I'm just hoping I'm not too cold in the winter. And I'm hoping everything works, because the plumber who specializes in this is a long ways away, you know, things like that. But I'm fairly confident. I'm a believer."

Volunteer effort 

The Earthship movement has believers around world. 

Its disciples make up much of the 40-person construction crew here. They come from Quebec, California, Australia and closer to home. 

Calgary’s Scott Davidson is volunteering on the project.

“They're feeding me lunch, but aside from that, I'm living in my RV, camping on the grounds and helping build eight hours a day, six days a week," said Davidson.

"I want to learn about these houses, and build myself my own house, so I'm glad to volunteer my hours as long as I get a little bit of food in return really."

Glen Kinney apprenticed on Earthship builds himself, before he decided to build one of his own.

"There never seems to be a shortage of volunteers wherever they build these,” he said.

“People want to be able to look after themselves, and this seems to be one of those things they can do for themselves." 

The Kinneys say the Earthship is costing them roughly the same amount it would to build a conventional home — in the $300,000 to $400,000 range — and hope to be settled in it by the end of the year.