Permaculture for earthship family in Darfield, B.C.

After more than a year of earthship living, the family has now embarked on a permaculture journey

An earthship is a sustainable home built from dirt-packed used tires and stacked pop cans.  Its hallmarks are passive solar heating

An earthship is a sustainable home built from dirt-packed used tires and stacked pop cans. Its hallmarks are passive solar heating

After more than a year of earthship living, the Newton and Burkholder family of Darfield has embarked on a permaculture journey.

Over the next five years they plan to turn the old sawmill site into sustainable agriculture incorporating growing zones that include fruit trees, vegetable gardens, shrubs, berry plants, hugelkulture and livestock.  A permablitz to install the first phase of the plan will be held on June 14 and 15, 2014.

An earthship is a sustainable home built from dirt-packed used tires and stacked pop cans.  Its hallmarks are passive solar heating, rainwater catchment and sustainable energy use and consumption.

Sandra Burkholder says that although the earthship is not completed inside it was always their plan to eventually become food self-sufficient.

“We’d been all house, house, house for three and a half years, and although we still have a long ways to go inside to finish it, we really wanted to concentrate on getting our food production started.”  A permablitz, she says, is a perfect way to get a lot of work done at once while giving 15-20 participants a chance for hands on learning about permaculture methods.

Burkholder adds that a visit to OUR Eco Village on Vancouver Island in 2009 was a driving force in deciding to incorporate permaculture ideals into their future growing areas.

Permaculture is a term used to describe permanent agriculture or permanent culture and is a movement to incorporate ecological design and engineering with environmental design. Permaculture designs are self-contained agriculture modeled from natural ecosystems.

“When we were at OUR Eco Village we met a fellow named Javan Bernakevitch, who was living in the village and teaching there.  We didn’t know then that he would be helping us with our design, but we maintained contact with him and are thrilled to have him involved with this project.” Bernakevitch went on to form Permaculture BC and travels internationally to learn from masters in permaculture and has passed along his knowledge to communities in Cuba and Kenya as well as throughout BC.

Bernakevitch and Gord Heibert, co-owner of Element Eco-Design in Vernon, are collaborating with Burkholder and her husband, Chris Newton, on the design and installation of the zone 1 area to the south of the earthship. This will include fruit trees, berries, shrubs, herb gardens, raised vegetable plots and living spaces to include a pergola with outdoor cob oven, and a fire pit area.

Burkholder says registration for the permablitz will be limited to 20 people. “It should be amazing. Our earthship has always attracted some really neat people and I’m convinced that a permablitz will do the same, especially as permaculture is relatively unknown in the North Thompson valley.”

Burkholder says their resolve to proceed with a permaculture design and installation was cemented in late February when they drove back through California after attending a wedding in Las Vegas.

“There was no snow pack in those mountains.  Just wisps of snow. Twenty years ago when Chris and I skied in the mountains of California, the snow banks were 12 feet high.  It was unnerving to see so little.  After 14 years of drought Nevada and California are going to be very hard hit this year. Whatever food we see from California is going to start to get expensive.  And it wasn’t always the best food anyway, since it has to travel great distances to get to us.”

But food hasn’t been the only priority since moving in 16 months ago.  The Newton-Burkholder family dismantled the “Nutshell”, the 600 square foot building they lived in for five years while designing and building the earthship.  The dismantling took several months as they removed nails and fasteners from the salvageable materials. They were able to give away insulation and some wood and have used much of the dimension lumber and timbers from the small building for projects in the earthship, like furniture, small framed walls and counter tops.

The building they dismantled was two 40-year-old wooden office buildings that Burkholder’s father had attached to each other and used as an office building while running Darfield Building Products.

Using salvaged materials is one way the family has managed to build the home for only $73,000.

Now that they have spent two winters in the earthship Burkholder indicates that the home is performing very well. Even with temperatures of -30°C outside, the inside temperature on an overcast day does not drop below 13°C even without auxiliary heat.  With sunny days the family enjoys 20°C inside temperatures throughout winter.

They do have radiant floor heating and a rocket mass heater but tend only to need the rocket mass heater on the coldest days of winter when there is no sun for prolonged periods of time.

“The rocket mass heater is 10,000 pounds of cob (straw, soil and clay) heated with a very efficient horizontal burning chamber. It is very cozy to be able to sit on the cob bench in the winter with a cup of tea and a good book,” says Burkholder. “There are many days we don’t really need to light the fire but we love the coziness of it so much.”

Recently work on the kitchen and pantry areas has begun and cupboards built for the previous home have been adapted and installed.

“We still get a lot of interest in our home,” says Burkholder. “Late last summer though, at the request of our children, we put a hiatus on tours. The kids are all teens now and wanted a bit more privacy after four years of pretty much an open door policy on tours.”  Tours should begin again in late spring with information posted on the family’s Facebook page, The Darfield Earthship and on their website,

Burkholder says they still speak at conferences two or three times a year and provide free advice and information to other people who want to build their own earthship. She and Newton are currently writing an e-book after encouragement from the Canadian earthship community.

“It’s a labour of love.  I’m overseeing most of the writing and flow of the book but Chris is contributing the technical parts.  Every time I think we are almost finished I think of other things to tell people.”

She says that they believe they are the first fully permitted earthship in BC although eight or nine unpermitted buildings existed throughout the province before they began building in 2009.  Since then, six or seven more earthships have been built, or are under construction in the province.

Newton and Burkholder work as part-time consultants while they continue to homeschool their three children, Helen, Stephen and Katie through a secular school overseen by the Ministry of Education.

“This is our fourth year with the kids at home and it’s been an exercise in balance. Chris provides network management and IT expertise to several clinics in Kamloops while I also work in the health care field for several surgeons and medical clinics, doing freelance bookkeeping and corporate writing.  It would be a lot easier to put the kids in public school, but I guess we’ve never taken the easy or traditional way with anything.”

Even their vehicle is not traditional. The family operates a right hand drive Delica van that they converted to run on waste vegetable oil. They collect oil weekly from the Barriere A&W.

Registration for the permablitz will start in mid-May and information about it can be found on the FB page The Darfield Earthship, or by emailing Burkholder at