In 1969, Michael Reynolds graduated from Architecture School and moved to Taos, New Mexico. Inspired by television news stories about the concerning issue of global garbage accumulation and the lack of affordable housing, Reynolds put his education and imagination to work. He developed the “can brick” out of discarded steel and tin cans. The can brick is ten empty cans wired together to make a single building block. When used to form structures, the empty cans provide units of space that become the building blocks of light, but strong concrete walls.
The most recent design principle added to the Earthship concept is in-home, organic food production. An Earthship plant specialist 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.
Though they were not as sophisticated as today’s models, the early structures Reynolds developed, dubbed Earthships, quickly gained press coverage as “homes made of garbage.” As Reynolds envisioned, Earthships are a type of house built with energy conservation in mind, using natural and recycled materials designed to produce water, electricity, and food for its own use.
Over the next decade, designs constantly evolved to incorporate thermal mass, passive solar power, and natural ventilation.
The Earthships of today are now built with earth-rammed tires and are so strong, no building foundation is required. This strength creates load-bearing walls as well as thermal-mass storage. Excessive garbage is a global concern, with tires being a major contributor. Tires are highly damaging to the environment when left in nature, with 2.5 billion tires currently stockpiled in the US. Another 2.5 million are discarded every year, making them the perfect “natural resource” for building.
At their most fundamental, Earthships are structures that heat and cool themselves without using electric heat, fossil fuels, or wood. Thirty percent of all energy 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 in any climate, without additional fuel. Each structure is surrounded by densely packed walls on three sides, while the south side of the building is comprised of windows. Sun enters in through these windows, heating up the floors and walls. In the evening, when the air temperature drops below the stored wall temperature, heat is naturally released into the space. During the hot summer months, the building remains cool with the constant temperature of the earth. Cooling efforts can be enhanced when needed with natural ventilation in the form of buried cooling tubes and operable vent boxes.
Each Earthship has its own renewable “power plant” with photovoltaic panels, batteries, charge controller, and inverter. Efficient lighting, pumps, and refrigeration help lower the electrical load, as does the absence of electric heat and air conditioning. An Earthship’s entire electrical needs are about 25 percent of that of a conventional home. Most residents can meet their demand with one kilowatt or less of energy from solar panels, with some opting to add a small windmill to the system for gray, stormy climates.
Earthships also collect all of their water from rain and snowmelt by storing roof run-off in cisterns. Each inch of rain collected from one square foot of roof is equal to 2/3 of a gallon of water. (Multiply that by the total square footage of the roof and the inches of rain per year in a given region to determine approximate annual collection.) The cistern feeds a pump and filter system that cleans the water, which then sends it to a solar hot water heater and a pressure tank. From there, as in a standard home, water is used for bathing, washing dishes, and laundry.
The used “gray” water flows to interior botanical cells, where plants use and treat the water. When it is filtered enough, it is collected in a well at the end of the planter unit and pumped on- demand to the toilet tank for flushing. With 40% of water in conventional homes going toward toilet flushing, this is a sustainable and cost-saving system. The toilet water then goes to a conventional septic tank, which overflows into an exterior rubber-lined botanical cell. This cell is filled with exterior landscaping plants. Every drop of water that lands on an Earthship roof is used four times, allowing homes to subsist independently and thrive without taking water from the ground or municipal sources.
The most recent design principle added to the Earthship concept is in-home, organic food production. An Earthship plant specialist 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. Aqua-botanical systems in the newest Earthship enhance food production capabilities with fish and nutrients from their waste.
With enormous monthly savings in comparison to the average US household, Earthships are an intriguing living option for the environment and the bank account. Monthly spending on electricity and gas is $25, water is $0, and food is $300. You can lower your food, energy, and water bills with an Earthship, while gaining organic produce, independence, and self-sufficiency.
Do Earthships seem too idyllic to be a reality? Make a trip to Taos, New Mexico and see for yourself!
Earthship offers nightly rentals in 6 of its one-of-a-kind structures. Set on a stunning mesa 14 miles Northwest of Taos, Earthship’s rentals were voted in the Top 10 Eco Stays of 2014 by Lonely Planet. Whether you stay in the first Earthship, the Hobbit House, built in 1979 and newly refurbished, or the Vallecitros, the newest and most updated Earthship, your experience will be incomparable. You can also choose from the Waybee, Picuris, Phoenix, and Lemuria Earthships. Every Earthship allows its guests to experience a luxurious vacation while living off-the-grid. Each structure is equipped with all the amenities of a conventional house or hotel, including internet, flat screen TVs, Netflix, and all the kitchen accoutrement you will need for your visit. Book a stay to see that you truly can live and enjoy your life without harming nature.
If you want your own Earthship after experiencing its way of life, there are two ways to obtain one for yourself. Earthship’s own Biotecture crew can be hired to build your structure from start to finish. If you’re more inclined to learn about the process, apply to the Earthship Academy and become part of the training program that will teach you how to build your own Earthship home. The month-long training alternates theory and practice to give you all the tools you need to become an Earthship builder. With training at Earthship headquarters in New Mexico, the academy also holds global sessions around the world.
This year, starting on November 5th, Earthship is hosting a training Academy in Japan. Held in Mima, Tokushima, the build will take place in an untouched location, focusing on earthquake resistant structures. In addition, Earthship will be taking their Academy to Uruguay in February, 2019.
In September 2017, Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria. Homes were destroyed, and thousands of people were left without water and electricity. Earthship partnered with Biotecture Planet Earth to build a hurricane-resistant disaster-relief demonstration building to be used as a shelter in Puerto Rico. Biotecture Planet Earth is a non-profit organization focused on expanding the use of affordable and sustainable buildings throughout the world. With the housing crisis still ongoing today, and entire communities still without power, the need for self-sustainable homes in Puerto Rico is immediate and dire. The build seeks to help residents feel safe in a hurricane-resistant home that can provide them with power, water, and food. With autonomy and architecture designed for the environment, the goal of the project is to help create a more self-reliant and resilient future in Puerto Rico. The first stage of the project began in February of this year, with a second phase already completed that incorporated solar power installation and water catchment system implementation. Join the upcoming third phase next year from January 9th-21st to continue the project and help the island’s residents to face the future in a more sustainable way!
Whether you’re looking for a different vacation experience, an educational opportunity, a new way to live your home-life, or a way to give back, Earthship offers it all. Explore what it means to live self-sufficiently while leaving our planet intact. Pack your bags for Taos, New Mexico, and relax in the resourcefulness and beauty of Earthship.
♦ This article was originally published in Issue 21 of Face the Current Magazine, featured on pages 18-23. Order a print copy HERE.