It’s a chilly 30-degree November day in northern New Mexico. One moment, I’m trudging through the snow, and the next I’m inside an unusual structure tucked into the side of a berm, where the toasty warm air prompts me to shed my coat. Unlike most homes, however, this one doesn’t have a heating system. I’m simply experiencing one of the key features of a fully self-sustainable Earthship.
The mind behind Earthships
I’ve come to this unorthodox community— located about 14 miles northwest of Taos—to meet its visionary creator, Michael Reynolds, and to learn what kind of a future he envisions for the place.
The 640-acre Greater World Earthship Community is believed to be the country’s “largest off-grid, legal subdivision.” Reynolds still oversees much of the daily operations of the project, which he first conceived as a young architect in the 1970s.
The community now includes 85 homes, but it’s far from finished. In fact, an additional 45 are expected to be built over the next 2 decades with the help of graduates of the Earthship Biotecture Academy, a hands-on, 4-week program at the community. Students are trained in Earthship design principles, construction methods, and philosophy.
“I have an army in every part of the world,” Reynolds says. “But I’ve got land here. I’ve got resources here. We’re doing it here.”
Diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer a couple of years ago, Reynolds, 77, continues to forge a path forward. He’s produced a series of YouTube videos titled “Earthships and Cancer,” in which he reflects on his diagnosis and the health of humans and the planet.
He says that despite skepticism from the architecture community over the past 50 years, he remains committed to his belief that Earthships hold the key to liberating people from their reliance on homes powered by fossil fuels. His battle to build the experimental community outside of traditional restrictions was chronicled in the 2007 documentary Garbage Warrior.
“In the future, due to the vulnerability, cost, and utter devastation that the grid causes the planet, people are going to be looking elsewhere for their utilities,” Reynolds says. “I intend to give them a reasonably easy pathway toward a different form of utilities, and that is what we’re calling the Earthships concept.”
Blueprint for the future
Though the blueprints have evolved, Reynolds’ vision has remained essentially the same: to repurpose “trash” in beautiful and imaginative ways for home construction—colorful glass-bottle walls and dirt-filled tires for insulation, for example. Artistic flourishes like towering spires, colorful domes, and bubbled walls and ceilings give Earthships a futuristic feel.
Earthships also produce their own electricity and heat through a combination of solar power and insulation, and use self-contained water and wastewater management systems.
Reynolds holds to 6 principles of design that reflect what he says serve basic human necessities: comfortable shelter, food, water, sewage treatment, garbage treatment, and renewable energy.
Each Earthship incorporates passive heating and cooling with solar and thermal dynamics; solar- or wind-generated electricity; water harvesting from rain and snowmelt; construction that makes use of “trash” and recycled material; on-site sewage treatment; and food production.
Tackling climate challenges
Severe weather events in recent years underscore the need to look for new solutions, Reynolds says. The energy grid in Texas, for instance, has been strained during times of extreme temperature fluctuation.
“I hope that people will come around to new ideas for sustainable housing before they’re forced to,” Reynolds says. “I’d like to see that happen, so that we’re starting to slowly go toward a better way of living on this planet.”
To tackle the challenge of heating and cooling, Earthships employ the principle of thermal mass construction. Think of the way a thermos keeps beverages hot, Reynolds says. That’s essentially the principle at work in his designs. For walls, old tires (which the world has in abundance) are tightly packed with dirt, stacked like massive bricks, and plastered with cement or adobe. This “thermal wrap” can be 6 feet thick.
South-facing greenhouse walls capture plentiful desert sunshine and keep the house warm. In summer, cooling tubes running through the berm are opened to move cool air from underground into and through the house. Though this system doesn’t deliver quite the same chill as air-conditioning, Earthship residents say they stay quite comfortable throughout the year.
In addition to keeping houses warm or cool, the tire walls provide protection: They can withstand the impact of a dump truck plowing into them, Reynolds says. Such strength makes these homes ideal for places that are prone to earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, and other natural disasters.
Over the years, Reynolds and students from his Earthship academy have traveled to the Philippines, Haiti, Honduras, India, and other vulnerable countries, where they’ve engaged locals in building Earthships, thus creating sustainable communities across the globe.
One of New Mexico’s major climate-related challenges relates to water shortages. In Taos, rainfall and snowmelt may add up to only 7 inches per year. Earthships have a rooftop catchment system to collect this water and filter it for household use.
“Gray water” (from the shower and washing machine) gets reused 4 times, including in the Earthships’ self-watering greenhouses. “Black water” (from the toilet and kitchen sink) goes through a separate, conventional septic tank and is used to water the landscape.
Critics point out that different climates pose unique challenges to Earthships. Designs that work in the New Mexico desert might not work elsewhere, though Reynolds has adapted them to suit other climates.
And not all models are completely Earth-friendly: Most include lines for nonrenewable natural gas or propane for cooking, and some older models include wood-burning fireplaces, which aren’t carbon neutral. The standard Earthship model also poses challenges for people who need assistance with mobility—bathrooms, in particular, may not be accessible for people who cannot stand or walk.
Despite using large amounts of natural and discarded materials, the homes are also not inexpensive: Most new homes range from $400,000 to $700,000; 2 Earthships on the market at press time were listed for $900,000 and $1.75 million. Reynolds says savings on utilities make the homes significantly more economical over time, but he concedes that they are pricey and says he’s working on a lease option to make them more affordable.
A “magical” community
While Earthships may not land in a neighborhood near you anytime soon, one thing cannot be denied: “Being here is quite magical,” says Lauren Anderson, director of the Biotecture academy. After serving in the Peace Corps, she moved to the community and built her own Earthship.
She says the movement has taken off beyond Taos: “This has spread beyond us at this point, past Michael. People come and do the program [through the academy] and then go do their thing without us.”
Cynthia J. Drake is an Austin, Texas–based writer and an ardent reduce/reuse/recycle enthusiast.
How to visit an Earthship
- Book a self-guided, guided, or private tour.
- Self-guided tours: Available from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily for $8.
- Guided tours: Available at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays for $20 per person. Include tours of Earthship student housing.
- Private tours: Must reserve 2 weeks in advance for $100 per hour for up to 4 people (additional guests, $25).
- A few models are available to rent for overnight stays (2-night minimum). Rates start at $155 per night.
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