Plastering an Earthship in Southern Alberta: A Lesson in Light

In August, we headed back to Alberta to start on a project that we’ve been looking forward to for awhile now: applying the finish clay plasters to an Earthship our friends are building in Southern Alberta. We were honoured and excited to add our little bit of creativity to this ambitious build.

We arrived on the site and got the rundown on how the summer has progressed. It sounded like it had been a busy one, with an exceptional five weeks of many hands coming together, including Mike Reynolds and his crew from Earthship Biotechture. We were in to brighten up the inside of this funky home. If you’re interested in reading more about the project, they’ve had plenty of media coverage, but check out their blog here.

Welcome to the Earthship!

Our first task to get started on was sorting out colour. We settled on a tone that perfectly matched the desires of the Earthship owner: a cool white. We are always happy to please. However, arriving at the colour was a interesting lesson in light.

Apparently, this is the first Earthship (according to architect and Eartship Biotechture founder, Mike Reynolds) that is actually being finished entirely with a white/light plaster and paint in the interior. A bit of background: in an Earthship, there are only windows on the Southern exposure, which serves a very useful purpose: to heat the home, allow more sunlight in during the winter months when that heat is needed, and to give maximum light to the green house component and help the  garden to photosynthesize. This means filtered diffused light from one direction, for most of the house.

Ashley plastering the living room, view through the green house.

And it is precisely all of these factors that have really brought out the different characteristics in the clay plaster. Basically, the southern windows supply all of the light and heat into the entire home (this is an essential design element for any style off-grid home). However in an Earthship, this means that light is only coming from this direction. If you’ve ever heard of or taken some time to read A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander (if you haven’t and are planning to build a house, or even renovate, you should), there is one patter that stands out, and is commonly referenced by designers and architects: Pattern #159 is Light on Two Sides of Every Room. Now, it’s true that Alexanders’ patterns can be a little prescriptive at times, but this one is definitely grounded in something. Just take a mindful observation next time you are in a space where there is daylight coming from only one window.

I don’t mean to get down on the Earthship, not at all; it has many great qualities, and the principles of holistically managing the water, waste, food and energy needs of a building and it’s occupants are ideas that are desperately needed in the building and planning industry. It was just so interesting to observe the light changes over the course of a day, and how this dramatic light interacted with the clay plasters we were specifically working on. I’ve definitely experienced clay appearing different at different times of the day, but in this case it was so extreme we actually had to adjust our colour to try to tone down the variances.

We noted, that throughout the day, both of us migrated towards the front foyer, which even though it was a little hot, was the most inviting place to site; I suspect it has something to do with the fact that there is South and West light, drenching the clay plasters and wooden beams in sunlight in a most satisfying and pleasant way.

All in all, we applied 2,200 sq ft of white clay! This is great. We are of course really happy to help homeowners, especially owner-builders to integrate natural materials into their project in a way that is satisfying, life-giving, and enduring. And to help them complete their dream. It was certainly exciting to be part of such a ground breaking project in the province of Alberta, and to see just how much interest has been built up around it. All it takes are a few leaders within a community to make a difference! Many thanks to the Kinney family for hosting us.

See the photos below for a peek a what our week was like:

Tight Squeeze: too small for even the tiniest of Japanese trowels, get out the icing bag!

Front foyer of Earthship, West entrance.

Living room with blue/ white clay plaster.

Ashley plastering around the vegas in master bath.

Our work: the light plaster around the window; the ochre stained concrete plaster was done by the Earthship building crew.

The hardest part about this project? All the vegas (the American South West style structural beams featured throughout each room)!

One wall of one of the spare rooms.

Master bedroom/ closet with blue/ white clay plaster.

Earthship in Southern Alberta, set in the landscape.

Earthship exterior: south facing glazing, with solar panels during sunset.

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