Photos courtesy of Kirsten Jacobsen
I’d never heard of Taos when I first heard about Earthships. I was in a screen-printing class in college in San Francisco when a classmate started talking about houses made out of old tires. Something inside me immediately perked up; I was fascinated. My classmate brought a copy of “Earthship, Volume 1,” and a copy of an article about Michael Reynolds from the cover of the Style section of the Sunday New York Times. I knew I had to go see for myself. Imagining red dirt and big cartoon cactuses, I headed to Taos with a friend and a map from AAA. We left the city on a hot afternoon in June 1994. I never went back.
A few years later, when I was working at the Earthship Visitor Center out past the Gorge Bridge, people would often ask, “Why would anyone want to live all the way OUT HERE?” Not really understanding that in the scope of living in Taos, being 15 minutes from town on a paved road is not that far away, or that there are places much more remote and difficult to access. There is a beauty and a quiet to the harsh yet fragile desert that some don’t appreciate right away. They see it as barren, when it’s teeming with life. They see it as inhospitable when, to those who live here, it is open and uplifting, a big blank canvas.
There’s a second unspoken meaning to the question: Why would someone want to live on the fringes of society, in a dark, dank gopher hole, eating twigs and berries and pooping in a bucket? Why would one reject the comforts of modern life in a normal home? “What kind of people live out here?” they’d ask, as if asking, “What kind of birds are those?”
I’ll let you in on a secret; it’s people . . . people. Regular people. People who might not want to pay utility bills any more because they are on a fixed income. People who want to raise their children in a way that reflects their beliefs. People who’ve lived in conventional homes their whole life and now want something different. They do their research, they weigh their options, and they make conscious choices to live in homes made from what most people see as garbage.
When Reynolds first came to Taos in 1969, fresh out of architecture school, there were only a few paved roads and a Piggly Wiggly grocery store on the Plaza. He bought seven acres of land in Cañon with an abandoned barn on it. This was at a time when building permits were not required for construction. Reynolds began converting the barn into a residence, using materials that most people consider to be garbage. This was before recycling was a word or a common practice. He took empty steel cans and tin beer and soda cans and started laying them in cement to form walls. What started as an admittedly contrived effort to use garbage as a building material became a career, a business, a mission, and an international movement.
He went on to build dozens of experimental buildings, and with each one he learned something new that he would incorporate into all future structures—or he’d find that his ideas didn’t work and leave them behind. Many people in Taos have lived in or know people who have lived in some of these early buildings. Some function reasonably well, some are too hot in the summer, or too cold in the winter, and some are aesthetically or functionally awkward. These buildings are not Earthships. The Earthship as a design concept did not become standardized until 1988, when Reynolds and his wife Chris built their own home with their teenage children. He wrote the book, “Earthship Volume 1: How to Build Your Own,” and the concept began picking up momentum.
Earthships probably couldn’t have taken off in any place but Taos. Local traditions, government support (or at least tolerance), and climate have been integral to the development of the homes’ aesthetics and functions. The construction team was trained in the art of mixing and applying adobe plaster by builders from Taos Pueblo. Early houses were built with vigas harvested from the forest for ceiling beams. Tiles, ceramic sinks, and punched-tin accessories from local Mexican shops added to the Southwest-meets-hippie vibe.
The abundance of sunshine here made solar power possible in the early years when the technology was expensive and less efficient. The scarcity of water for harvesting forced the water treatment and reuse systems to the point that Earthships use every drop of water collected four times. The temperature extremes dictated that buildings be able to heat themselves in the bitter cold winter and cool themselves in the scorching summer. A milder climate would not have pushed the designs as far as they needed to go.
The Earthship movement has been formed in large part by young people who have come to learn and lend a hand. The architecture school at the University of Cincinnati (Reynolds’s alma matter) has a work-exchange program that requires students to spend a semester working in the field with established architects. In the early 1990s, this brought a gaggle of young people who worked with Michael and his tiny staff, building, drawing, and helping him write and illustrate his “How To” book series. Several of these past students are now well-known local business owners, professionals, and tradespeople; most of them spent their mid-20s and early 30s building their own Earthships, slowly, out of pocket, achieving one of the earliest and most appealing tenets of the Earthship concept: build your own home with all your own labor, not borrowing money to do it. Once complete, you would have a utility-free home with no mortgage that would take care of you and your family for the rest of your lives. Many people in Taos and around the country and world have chosen this path, though it is neither short nor easy.
What is an Earthship, exactly? The modern ones are not “gopher holes” or crumbling hippie shanties with no amenities (although that’s what the mainstream media often wants to portray; Earthships were rejected from a particular TV show about living off-grid because the residents were “too comfortable and did not appear to be suffering”). Earthships are defined by six design principles that can be used in any home to varying degrees and can be used in any new construction.
1) Passive Solar Heating and Cooling
At their most fundamental, Earthships are structures that heat and cool themselves without burning wood or fossil fuels. Thirty percent of all energy that is produced in the world is used for heating and cooling buildings. By using thermal mass and solar gain, Earthships are capable of maintaining a comfortable temperature without additional fuels in any climate in the world. The structural walls of the building are formed with used automobile tires packed tightly with earth. These thermal mass “bricks,” which weigh about 300 pounds each, are pounded into place and staggered like bricks to form the load-bearing walls for the roof. The tires are also wide enough to eliminate the need for a concrete foundation. The densely packed walls, considered to be self-supporting, monolithic walls, also store temperature (heat or cold) because their solidity imbues them with the quality of thermal mass. The basic idea is to surround each living space with mass on three sides and line the south side of the building with windows. Sun enters through the glass and heats up the mass of the floors and walls. In the evening, when the air temperature drops below the stored wall temperature, heat is naturally released into the space. In the summer, with the sun high in the sky, the building stays cool with the constant temperature of the earth.
2) Building with Natural and Recycled Materials
Earthships are not exclusively made with natural and reclaimed materials; it’s up to each homeowner to decide how far to go. Tires are the perfect form for a rammed-earth brick. Plus, there’s no shortage of used tires—at least 2.5 billion tires are currently stockpiled in the United States, with 2.5 million more discarded every year. Tires can be seen as a globally available “natural resource.” Other materials such as cans and bottles are optional, although bottle brick walls are a familiar stand-out feature of many Earthships. All interior walls are packed out between the tires and plastered with adobe mud. Mud can also be used for floors, and reclaimed wood and metal are often used.
3) Water Harvesting and Contained Sewage Treatment
These are two design principles that set Earth ships apart from all conventional homes and most alternative homes. The buildings collect all of their water from rain and from snowmelt on the roof, storing this water in cisterns. (Each inch of rain collected from a square foot of roof equals 2/3 of a gallon of water. Multiply that by the total square footage of the roof and number of inches of rain per year, and you get your total possible collection.) Water from the cistern feeds a pump and filter system that cleans the water and sends it to a solar hot water heater and also to a pressure tank. From there, water is used for bathing, washing dishes, and laundry. The used gray water flows to interior botanical cells, where plants use up and treat the water until it’s clean enough to be collected in a well at the end of the planter and pumped, on demand, to the toilet tank for flushing (40 percent of water used in a conventional home is for toilet flushing). The toilet water then goes to a conventional septic tank, which overflows into an exterior rubber-lined botanical cell filled with exterior landscaping plants. Every drop of water that lands on an Earthship roof is used four times, so homes can subsist and even thrive in this desert climate.
5) Solar and Wind Electricity
Every building has its own renewable “power plant” with photovoltaic panels, batteries, charge controller, and inverter. The key step in making these systems affordable for residential use is to “design down” the electrical requirements of the home before the solar system is sized. Super efficient lighting, pumps, and refrigeration help lower the load, as does the lack of any need for electric heat or air conditioning. Add in daylight from the windows and skylights and a keen awareness of trickle drains and phantom loads, and an Earthship’s electrical needs are about 25 percent of those of a conventional home. Most residents can meet their demand with one kilowatt or less of energy from solar panels. Some also opt to add a small windmill to the system for gray, stormy days.
6) Food Production
Interior, in-home, organic food production is the most recent design principle added to the Earthship concept. Earthship Biotecture employs a plant specialist, Michelle Locher, who has experimented with the best plants for the interior gray-water botanical cells. She has also designed mini-hydroponic planters in suspended buckets that have added vertical growing space in the greenhouses and have tremendous yields of herbs, peppers, tomatoes, kale, beets, cucumbers, and more. The Earthship Visitor Center features all of these food-producing plants, and staff members regularly enjoy fresh produce straight off the vine. Aqua-botanical systems in the newest Earthship enhance food production capabilities with fish and nutrients from their waste.
All of these systems have been evolved over dozens of years. Ideas aren’t tested in a lab, they aren’t modeled in a computer, nor is a cost-benefit analysis performed first. New ideas are directly incorporated into the next project. As Earthships have steadily gained performance and their systems have been tweaked and replicated dozens of times, the new evolutions aren’t as radical, they are refinements that make each building more comfortable, more efficient, and in some ways more like a “normal house.”
In 2003, Reynolds began his three-year foray into state politics with the Sustainable Development Testing Sites Act. Though local counties in New Mexico grant building permits for Earthships, regulations are still based on standard conventional American-style construction. Many Earthship projects are in the developing world or in disaster-relief situations, where full-blown power and water systems are neither affordable or practical, nor even necessary. When Reynolds led an Earthship team to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to build a demonstration home after the 2010 earthquake, the team evolved the Earthship systems to be simpler, less expensive, and nearly maintenance-free.
Recognizing that the needs of all people are the same (comfortable shelter, clean water and sanitation, as well as electricity for lights and communication), Reynolds and his team adapted the power, water, and sewage systems of the Earthship into simple survival systems.
To be ready for disaster relief applications and to have affordable options for developing world projects, an area to do R&D without the constraints of conventional building codes is necessary. With that in mind, Reynolds came up with the idea of creating test sites for anyone wanting to develop methods of sustainable living: a place to build and test new materials, applications, systems, food production techniques, and biofuels, as well as new social and economic models of living. Reynold’s sound bite of the pitch to state government was, “In a state that dedicated thousands of acres of land to testing weapons of mass destruction, why can’t we dedicate a few acres to testing methods of sustainable living?” The act did not seek land or funding, merely permission to break conventional building codes in the interest of experimentation. Reynold’s experience at the New Mexico State legislature became the central story line for the 2006 feature documentary, “Garbage Warrior.” The Sustainable Development Testing Sites Act was passed into law in 2005, and now New Mexico’s and the world’s only Sustainable Development Testing Site sits on two acres at the Greater World Earthship Community.
After many years of hosting three-day weekend seminars and month-long internships, the Earthship Academy was founded in 2011 to provide an opportunity to learn Earthship principles and construction techniques in the classroom and in the field. The program turns experienced Earthship builders and staff into teachers, exploring each design principle thoroughly, down to fitting dozens of plumbing pieces together to build a Water Organizing Module during the “Labs” portion of the program. Students learn to read construction drawings, to lay out a new Earthship, and, of course, to pound tires, build can and bottle walls, and work with adobe plaster. The program has trained more than 1,000 students from all over the world to date. For the students, the sessions become an intense learning and life experience and a rich cultural exchange.
In January 2014, the first Global Earthship Academy session was held in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, just 700 miles from Antarctica. The building, a “2 U Simple Survival Earthship,” paid for by the local municipality, is an educational facility demonstrating Earthship principles with an emphasis on contained sewage treatment systems, because the city dumps most of its liquid waste, untreated, into the water. In November 2014, the second Global Earthship Academy session was held on Easter Island in conjunction with a local NGO headed by two prominent local Rapa Nui musicians, Mahani Teave and Enrique Icka. Their dream was to build a music school that would keep native children engaged and learning on the remote island where cultural loss and alienation have contributed to a rise in crime and drug and alcohol abuse. In the island’s tropical climate, solar gain is not needed to warm the rooms of the school. A “flower” design was used (after having been used for a school in Sierra Leone and a community center in Malawi): the eight rooms are “petals” radiating out from a central courtyard. During the month-long academy session, three of the petals were completed. The program trained 60 paying students from Latin America and around the world and 30 local native Rapa Nui scholarship students. The local nonprofit, TOKI, continued fundraising for materials and volunteers worked on the school for another two years. It opened in April, with music and performances by children and local established musicians.
In February 2016, the Earthship Academy built its largest and most high-profile project to date, a public elementary school in Uruguay. The project was launched by a 26-year-old man who had seen “Garbage Warrior” and became inspired to bring Earthships to his country. The Uruguayan public school system is very important to the culture and a source of national pride, so Martín Esposito decided that the best way to bring Earthships to Uruguay would be to build a school. He and his team of five friends spent over three years searching out funding for materials, meeting with the national school administration and local architects, and holding information sessions with the children and parents in the town where the school was to be built. The construction of Una Escuela Sustentable began at a furious pace when the Earthship team and 100 academy students from 30 different countries descended on the sleepy beach town of Jaureguiberry (winter population: 400). Within one week, all of the tires were pounded, the framing for the inner greenhouse was up, the bond beam was poured and the vigas were being placed for the roof, with the help of a crane. The school sits on highway frontage along the Interbalenera, the coastal road that runs along the perimeter of the country. In summer, it is heavily trafficked with city dwellers from the capital, Montevideo, and tourists from Argentina and Brazil going to ritzy Punta del Este or any number of smaller beach towns along the way. Billboards along the highway announce the school: “La primera escuela autosustentable en Latinoamérica.” Drivers and tour buses pull off, and throngs of people stand and watch the work, sometimes breaking out in spontaneous applause. The school can fit 100 students in its three classrooms and when registration opened online, the demand crashed the website.
One of the graduation requirements for the academy is an independent study project. This can be as straightforward as building your own Earthship or as unique as designing and producing an Earthship modeling kit educational toy. Academy graduates are currently building in Canada, Cambodia, and Malaysia. Earthship Academy graduate Marita Mariasine, who initiated and helped coordinate the earthquake-relief project in Haiti, has most recently built an amphitheater for a small community there with the help of other students. Currently a graduate is building an Earthship-inspired orphanage in Cameroon. This summer, a group of South American students, aided by a nonprofit organization, will build two Earthship huts on an indigenous reserve. Here in New Mexico, graduate Ted Brinegar has started a nonprofit called Foxhole Homes, whose mission is to train homeless veterans to build their own autonomous homes. They have just completed their first Earthship-inspired tiny home with a total materials cost of $6,000.
Biotecture Planet Earth
This recently formed nonprofit has already built a community center in Malawi and a typhoon-proof building in the Philippines. This month, Reynolds is leading a small, experienced team, along with 48 trainees and academy students, to the Six Nations of the Grande River Reserve in Canada to build a “Simple Survival Earthship” for a woman, her daughter, and her three grandchildren. This family has been living in a dilapidated trailer for more than 20 years; like much of the housing on the reserve, it is miserably cold in the winter. During the build, 10 members of the tribe will participate and learn how to replicate the techniques. The house will be an example of how to build sustainable, affordable, and warm buildings, and hopefully the concept will attract government funding that has recently been allotted to address the housing crisis on First Nations reserves throughout the country.
Meanwhile back in Taos . . .
It’s a paradox that Earthships may be more well known and understood the further you get from Taos. In the American media, Earthships are still just a lifestyle story, a curiosity and a roadside attraction—but in other parts of the world, they are the vanguard standard for housing that is both fighting climate change and preparing for its now inevitable effects. When I travel with Earthship Biotecture and see how excited people are about the buildings and the systems, I’m intensely proud to be from Taos and to know that Earthships could only have been born and bred here. If you’ve never been in an Earthship or haven’t been in one in several years, come visit us at the Earthship Visitor Center, where admission is always free for locals.
TAOS MAGAZINE | JULY 2016