Mission Accomplished: First Aquaponics System in Earthship Installed!

By James | GrowEverywhere on November 2, 2012

Happily cutting IBC tote - Image credit: Dan Dynan

I first learned about the Earthship concept when I was in middle school. It made perfect sense to me and really appealed to my practicality. Little did I know I would be building Earthships one day… Before attending the Earthship Academy this summer I did a great deal of research on Earthships.

I read every publication I could find and watched virtually every video I could find on YouTube. Out of all the videos I watched, the 5 day food challenge where Mike Reynolds, Amzi Smith, and Brian Chev try to survive only on food produced in the Earthships caught my interest the most (watch below if you have time).


I noticed that while they were able to harvest an impressive amount of food compared to the average American household, they still struggled to get enough calories and decided to end the challenge on day 3.

I realized immediately that the food production element was lacking in Earthships. Don’t get me wrong, all the other aspects of Biotecture are totally dialed in. Earthships have a stable and comfortable indoor temperature year round, harvest enough water to sustain a family, and even have enough electricity to operate a flat screen TV with Netflix.

Food production is certainly happening in Earthships and I have personally eaten some incredible Earthship grown heirloom tomatoes… probably the best I’ve ever tasted… thanks to the growing expertise of head greenhouse manager Michelle Locher and company. However, we know that there is room for improvement.

The video inspired me, and at that moment, I decided that I needed to integrate aquaponics into Earthships to crank up the amount of food that could be produced in the buildings.

Aquaponics can help people easily produce nutrient dense vegetables and hormone free fish protein. Aquaponics uses 90 to 99% less water than traditional soil-based gardening and maximizes energy efficiency by slowing down the cycle of energy through the system. Many aquaponics systems make use of recycled materials like 55 gallon drums and IBC Totes. The system relies on maintaining balance with it’s inputs and surroundings and thus fits perfectly within the framework of Earthship Biotecture.

Academy students helping with build

Last month, I made progress in my mission of helping people grow food everywhere by installing an aquaponics system in the Visitors Center at Earthship Biotecture’s Headquarters in Taos NM! In conjunction with the build, I taught a class on aquaponics for the 2012 Fall Academy session.

After the class, the Academy students helped build out the aquaponics system. I was astounded with the level of inspiration and excitement that the students showed as they assisted me in the build. I was so excited to hear the diverse questions and comments coming from the students. And of course, I had a blast and a bunch of laughs as we dealt with the challenges of organizing a build with 12 people in a narrow greenhouse using an entirely off grid power system.

For more information on this project, check out the official article, Earthship Installs First Aquaponics System at HQ, written by the fabulous Jeane Nardone of Earthship Biotecture, Taos NM.

Stay posted for two EPIC projects where I integrate Aquaponics into Earthships even further! 😉


About James fry

James runs the show here at Grow Everywhere. He's a permaculturist by training, but experiments with and develops any food growing method that guarantees boat loads of nutrient-dense food with minimal effort and resources.

12 Responses to Mission Accomplished: First Aquaponics System in Earthship Installed!

  1. Emmanuel Taylor November 20, 2012 at 4:40 am #

    James, I think this is an incredible step in the right direction. I’ve contemplated this myself for a long time, but haven’t had the opportunity to put it into practice. In order to make the system truly sustainable, the topic of fish feed needs to be addressed. Aquaponics works because fish waste is converted to plant food. The cycle closes when human waste is converted to fish food. Human feces, urine, and food scraps can be effectively converted into fly larvae, high-protein plant meal, and worms using Black Soldier Flies, Red Wriggler Worms, and Duckweed. I know that earthships contain systems for treating black and greywater. If composting sytems, using the methods suggested, could be architecturally integrated into the earthship design, along with an aquaponic system, I think that efforts toward achieving food sovereignty would be forwarded dramatically. Since you are intimately involved with this work, I ask you to consider this. Thank you! Please continue your work. You are contributing to humanity’s future in an incredible way.

    • James November 21, 2012 at 4:55 am #

      Emmanuel, thanks so much for your comment, you are totally right. Feed is a major issue in aquaponics and aquaculture in general. I am currently experimenting with BSF in a pilot facility that will process restaurant wastes and I fully intend to integrate them into Earthships when the timing is right. Keeping nutrient flows on site and slowing down energy as it moves through the Earthship is necessary to reach actual sustainability. You hit the nail on the head. Have you personally worked with BSF yet? I would be interested in hearing some of your experiences as I am new to them… What an amazing organism!

  2. Green_Miser May 12, 2013 at 1:13 am #

    James and Emmanuel,

    I like the idea of composting human waste for the recycling of nutrients back into food production in an aquaponic system. There are such things as “composting toilets” advertised in Mother Earth News, so I am thinking that in some form it might be legal to do this in some situations. (I read Mother Earth News and other greenie/Earth-friendly publications to keep up with the whole trend.)

    It might sound icky to some people, but recycling human waste for growing food in an aquaponic system theoretically solves many of the existential problems faced by large numbers of people. Things are going well for me now in my conventional, grid-guzzling lifestyle, but there are a number of things that might go awry, including the economy, etc., that might make me wish I had built a solar home out of tires and figured out a way to grow my own food without expensive petro-chemical fertilizers and industrial animal feeds. I don’t even think it’s that funny–Earthships and aquaponics make hard sense to me.

    Consider all the problems solved by this approach, meaning Earthships and aquaponics:

    Electricity = $0
    Gasoline (if you drive an electric car) = $0
    Natural gas (which you might use to heat your grid-guzzling home) = $0
    Wood by the cord (another possibility in an off-grid home with less impressive performance) = $0
    Protein (compared to buying fish or meat or Soylent Green) = $0
    Vegetables, Beans, Rice, Wheat, Fruit (An Apple a Day…) = $0

    I’ll add that one can participate in referral programs to get free satellite television, and an internet phone can be had for $4 a month (Oooma/MagicJack); you can even get decent internet through satellite, if you choose to live in the boonies.

    Please keep posting your ideas, James. I hope you’re at the Earthship Acadamy or Seminar when I get everything together and sign up. If you have my email (I supplied it for this message), please feel free to contact me and add me to your mailing list.

  3. Ravare May 24, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

    Greaat stuff, thanks for doing what you do:)
    How about a combination of all that’s been mentioned, as well as an algae bioreactor fed with the co2 gas from the compost?
    Spirulina is great for fish food and grows quickly-while the actual reactor panels provide excellent insulation and shade.

    Ravare (ruh-vair)

    • James May 24, 2013 at 11:21 pm #

      Hey Ravare, Thanks for your comment and you’re welcome 😉
      I think that bioreactor could be a good idea. Typically, the bioreactors fueled by CO2 use a nearby coal fired power plant as the algae is very CO2 hungry. Compost systems do put off CO2 but mostly supplemental. However, it could probably be done. Research the New Alchemy Institute and their work on harvesting CO2 from compost in greenhouses (similar contained environment to a bioreactor I guess). I agree that they could provide shading, but could use a red film that would maximize the favorable light spectrum for vegetative growth in the greenhouse check out the work of Franz Schreier , you can actually download the presentation I’m referring to if you scroll down on the page I linked. Enjoy!

  4. Thomas Olson May 29, 2013 at 1:12 am #

    This guy address the aquaponics feed problem quite well.

    If you want more CO2, I think mushrooms can work with the system. CO2 sinks so it would have to be tied up over the plants. I suppose you can use them in a mulch over the soil. With granite rock dust the mushrooms would make some interesting fertilizers (it takes a few years to completely break down). But your irrigation needs to go over the mulch. Which would be nice if you were outside, but in an indoor system it seems unnecessary. Keep in mind that mushrooms do not have any green on them, which means they do not convert sunlight to chlorophyll.So there is no reason to expose them to light unless you are after vitamin D2. I think mushrooms do have to be exposed to sunlight for a very short time to fully develop.

    Also I’m not sure about the fertilizers. If ammonia is making it past the biofilter, then it is going to be part of the fertilizer. The type of soil you have then becomes a concern. I don’t know the soil science behind this. It might be worth a google, try “ammonia uptake soil.”

    I’m just an unemployed guy with too much spare time on his hands. I do not know anything about this stuff, so don’t be too mean if I messed up somewhere. I don’t have fish, mushrooms, plants, or even an earthship.

    • James May 31, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

      Hey Thomas, this is actually some great information that inspires me to do some more research on the interaction of fungal cultures in aquaponics. Unemployed or not, you have certainly added to the conversation LOL! One of these days soon I would like to build a system the incorporates ALL of the ideas in all of these comments. Keep ’em coming yall!

  5. Percy Borgerding August 15, 2013 at 10:45 pm #

    Aqouaponics…best hobby I ever had!! I recomment it to all of you. To have a beautiful and healty garden is the best choise. 😀

  6. Anne Boyes December 15, 2013 at 9:07 pm #

    Really seem to be headed in good directions here. Congratulations.

  7. Mari Vega March 3, 2015 at 3:49 am #

    I’ve been looking again at earthships, recently on Youtube. Something came to mind to search ‘earthship aquaculture black soldier fly’ and so found this blog.
    There’s an awesome forum about black soldier flies (Hermetia Illucens), free to join and all that. One of the members, Francois, has shared photos of his aquaculture setup.

    You should check it out. Register to join the forum (a link in the upper left of the webpage I’m including here) so you can learn and contribute. When you do, search the term Aquaponics, or for the topic “The fly has bitten” and you’ll see what he’s been able to do. It looks well-established and tasty.

  8. Valli Sanstrom February 22, 2016 at 8:27 pm #

    Hey there. I just found this as I’ve been researching the idea of incorporating aquaponics in an earthship. I’m surprised you did this back in 2012 and am wondering how things have progress with the black flies and fungi?

  9. Suzydazzle July 4, 2016 at 5:21 am #

    Thankyou for your vision and work! C
    an they teach children how to build Aquaponic systems in Schools as a Project so they grow up with practical solutions for their future. Do you design backyard kit Aquaponc systems.

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