Earthships – Property, Planning, and Bylaws

Earthships are a unique construction type that require special considerations when you are in the planning phase. Navigating building codes and municipal bylaws can be difficult, hiring a consultant during this phase can assist greatly. Engineering consultants are familiar with local by laws and relevant building codes. We recognize that most people interested in constructing Earthships are DIYers so we wrote this article to help you to get your permit and start building. Keep in mind that this article is written for Ontario, Canada which lies in the Northern Hemisphere – depending on your geography some of this advice may not apply.

Planning

Finding the right property will be a difficult part of the project as you will be limited to what is available on the market. The ideal property would be on a South facing slope to block cold North Winds. Having trees or forest to the North of your lots is also helpful for blocking wind. Some trees to the South are ideal for blocking the Sun in the Summer and letting the Sun during the Winter. An earthship may be built on any property but choosing the perfect property will increase the efficiency of the passive systems.

Typically in our region property is sold around $2000/acre, for a large earthship and greenhouse you will probably want 1 to 2 acres minimum. Lots may be more expensive if they come pre-serviced like most building lots of the market do.

You will want to search the Municipalities zoning map and find properties that are zoned rural. Generally rural properties are more forgiving when it comes to bylaws. Below is an example of a municipality’s zoning by law for a rural property. As you can see it is more forgiving than zones for residential.

Every municipality is slightly different, be sure to check out your local planning department page or contact the planning department for assistance. 

Example Rural Zoning Bylaw
10.1 Rural (RU) Zone
Permitted Uses
accessory dwelling
accessory dwelling unit
agricultural use
bed and breakfast
conservation use
existing cemetery
group home
home-based business
hunting or fishing camp
kennel
place of worship
portable asphalt plant
portable concrete plant
single dwelling
wayside pit
wayside quarry
Zone Provisions
· Lot Area (minimum)
· Single dwelling or bed and breakfast 1 ha
· Agricultural use that
includes the keeping of livestock 4 ha
· Other permitted uses 2 ha
· Lot Frontage (minimum) 60 m
· Yards (minimum)
· Front 10 m
· Exterior Side 6 m
· Interior Side 6 m
· Rear 7.5 m
· Dwelling Unit Floor Area (minimum) 75 m
2
· Building Height (maximum) 10 m
· Lot Coverage (maximum) 20%
· Floor Space Index for lot abutting
a water body (maximum) 10%
· Dwellings or Dwelling Units
per Lot (maximum) 1

General Provisions
In accordance with Section 3 hereof.
Minimum Separation Distance of a New or Expanding Livestock Facility
from a Dwelling

Notwithstanding any other provisions of this By-law, new or expanding
livestock facilities shall comply with the Minimum Distance Separation II
(MDS II), as issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
Minimum Separation Distance for a Kennel
· From a residential use on another lot
or a vacant lot in a Residential zone 183 m
Hunting or Fishing Camp Provisions
Notwithstanding the provisions of Sections 10.1. and 10.2, the following
provisions shall apply to a hunting or fishing camp:
· A hunting or fishing camp shall not be permitted on a lot on which a
dwelling is located;
· The maximum floor area of a hunting or fishing camp shall be 60 m
2;
· All yards shall be a minimum of 100 m.

Severances

Sometimes it may be required to make a smaller lot out of a larger lot. For example, if you found the perfect lot and the current landowner is willing to sell you the parcel you will require a severance. In order to get a severance a Licensed Surveyor will have to survey they lot and submit a plan to a registry office. In Ontario, only Ontario Licensed Surveyors are permitted to determine property lines (sorry, you can’t DIY this one). Most areas have a local surveyor that will be able to complete this part of the project for you.

Minor Variances

It is possible to seek adaptions to the zoning by law for individual and this done through what is called a minor variances. These minor variances are filed with your township, the requirements for a minor variance are usually:

1) Be minor;
2) Be desirable for the appropriate development or use of the land, building, or structure;
3) Maintain the general intent and purpose of the Zoning By-law;
4) Maintain the general intent and purpose of the Official Plan.

Your minor variance will go the Committee of Adjustment for consideration – it is advisable to have an architect or engineering consultant with you to help you fight your case. If you are knowledgeable on the local bylaws and building code than you may represent yourself during your minor variance hearing. Due to the unique construction of an Earthship a minor variance may be required to get around some zoning bylaws. In order to submit paperwork for your minor variance you may need a Building Permit Package – it is possible to produce and submit your own drawings however it is advised that you come prepared with a professionally prepared set of drawings for an architect or an engineer.

Planning

With your property purchased it is time to start the planning process for the construction. In Ontario the Ontario Building Code (OBC) will be the governing document for your construction. For a residential property, Part 9: Small Buildings of the OBC will have all the relent information you need to adhere to. The OBC is available online from the government for free. In the OBC you will find everything related to small buildings and contains structural requirements, windows and doors, fire protection, drainage, foundations, insulating, fire places, wood frame construction, roofing etc. As a warning, if you are a DIYer it’s about 600 pages long, professional engineers and architects are experts in building codes and can help you navigate the clauses.

In order to get a building permit you will need a permit set of drawings. Due to the unique nature of earthships it is advised that you have an engineer review and provide an engineer’s seal to your drawing package. Construction methods in earthships won’t be available in the OBC and will require additional review by an engineer.

For more information on planning be sure to check out our Construction Checklist

Construction

Once your building permit is reviewed and approved you are ready for construction. If you are hiring a contractor be sure to hire a qualified professional, if you need help check out the contractors available from LG Approved. 

It is also important to have an engineer or architect conduct periodic inspections during construction. This will ensure quality of a finished product. Check out our list of required inspections here.

Should you find the planning process difficult then you should check with your local engineering firm. Typically an architect will not be able to assist with this type of project because of the unique construction methods associated with earthships.

Best of luck on your earthship project and thank you for your contribution to the environment!

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