It was back in the early 70s that architect Michael Reynolds first started making Earthships in Taos, New Mexico – off-grid passive solar homes made from a blend of natural and upcycled materials such as bottles, cans and tyres rammed with soil for the foundations and walls. Almost fifty years later living self-sufficiently and off-grid has never been more relevant due to accelerating climate change and Covid19 and demand for Earthships is skyrocketing. “We can’t build them fast enough,” says Jonah Reynolds, Michael Reynolds’ son and an Earthship Biotect (as they call themselves), like his father.
Michael Reynolds is the architect, founder, and creator of the Earthship Biotecture concept that has now become an eco-construction company that builds around the world.
Though most people who are interested in Earthships and off-grid lifestyles are ecologically minded he says, that is not how it all began. “When my father was doing this way at the beginning, this environmentalism stuff didn’t really exist. For him it was about doing things logically and this being the right thing to do, it just happened to be environmental.” He offers an example of what he means. “It makes no sense to spend US$40,000 to drill a well that is going to lower the aquifer, when I can catch all my water from rain and snow for US$10,000 and be independent.”
The Earthship visitor centre is located at the entrance to the Greater World Earthship community just outside Taos, New Mexico and is accessible to the public year round.
Though the logical/environmental distinction may seem like a minor point, it actually isn’t as it says a lot about how the Earthship community has resisted pigeonholing or being written off as a ‘green’ trend. As the award-winning 2007 ‘Garbage Warrior’ documentary on Michael Reynolds showed, his passion is constructing homes and his ambition is innovation and trying things that go beyond the limits of what conventional building regulations, codes and architectural thinking allow.
The film charts how Reynolds is stripped of his architect’s licence (he eventually got it back) and loses his building permits after disillusioned clients sued him. Eventually he decides to put all his energies into getting a Sustainable Development Testing Site Act passed in the state of New Mexico to allow him to experiment with different sustainable living technologies without having to go through the usual permit process. How can we have testing sites to experiment with atomic bombs but we can’t have them for houses, he asks, poignantly, at one point. The law eventually passed in 2007 and expired a few years later but Reynolds and co took full advantage of it for the short while it lasted. “We probably did ten years of research and advancement in a couple because of that,” says Reynolds junior.
Pictured is part of a construction project in Aguada, Puerto Rico where a hurricane-resistant Earthship compound including a school and community centre has been built.
Ideally the law would be changed permanently he says, so that buildings that are off-grid are treated the same way as conventional ones, but the gargantuan efforts it took for his father to pass that short-lived test site act have shown that “that’s not the way to get things done,” he sighs. The way to get things done is to show others what change can look like. And the Earthship community in Taos, New Mexico is doing just that. Over 120 acres some 90 Earthships have been built, mostly residential but including a visitor centre, office and an Academy. The latter offers five or six academic sessions a year and the community hosts internships and field studies as well. Earthship Biotecture, the community’s commercial arm, offers four models of Earthship that they can build for you or that you can build yourself if you buy the drawings (you can’t call it an Earthship if you haven’t completed the Academy, an internship session and a field study however, but you can call it Earthship-inspired).
The design of the Earthships in Puerto Rico had to be adapted for the wet, hot climate. They all feature rooftop openings to let the heat escape and the moisture out.
The models range from the Global, which on-site Student Housing & Internship coordinator Polina Fateeva calls the “Rolls Royce of Earthships, they are quite pricy, have a humongous amount of greenhouse space and operate amazingly” to the Simple Survival model, which is, as the name suggests, the most basic Earthship with less frills and space. The newest Earthship is the Encounter says Fateeva, which is compact and more affordable. But there’s also the Unity, which “is the best of all of Mike’s ideas put together” she says. The point is that though the technologies are always the same (solar panels, pressure tanks, filters and other bits that can be bought at your average hardware store), they are constantly being fine-tuned, becoming more affordable (solar panels cost a fifth of what they used to ten years ago says Jonah) and the models are always evolving. “We’ve been doing this for 50 years so we kind of know what we are doing at this point,” says Jonah. “We’ve made a tonne of mistakes, but that’s why we can say we know what we are doing!”
Separately the community runs a not-for-profit called Biotecture Planet Earth that raises funds to build projects across the world, often after natural disasters have struck. They have constructed homes and buildings in places like Puerto Rico, India, Mexico, the Philippines, to name but a few. They went to Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010 and are currently working on a school there.
Earthships are designed to have a greenhouse along the south-facing glazed wall to help with temperature control. The greenhouses are planted, sometimes with edible plants and fruit trees as well as ornamental plants.
Jonah rails about the exploitation and waste that happens in local communities after major disasters. When they went to the Andaman islands in 2004 after a devastating tsunami had struck, they saw how western architects had come in and built metal boxes that were “literally 140 degrees [60 degrees Celsius] inside” he says in disbelief. “We were like: ‘Would you live in what you are peddling?’ We can provide a flush toilet in two days, a strong structure, that is going to withstand the next 30-foot [9-metre] wave, in ten days, and a building that will stay comfortable in whatever weather.” Most importantly Earthship systems, technologies and structures can be learned and built by locals he says, and they work very well in extreme climates.
The backbone of any Earthship home, whatever its size, are the walls made of discarded tyres rammed with earth. Their mass acts as the main heating and cooling system and allows homes to be self-sufficient and off the grid.
Their latest not-for-profit project starts this summer and is closer to home, in Philadelphia, in a neighbourhood known as West Philly to locals. “It’s for a non-profit called LoveLovingLove that supports neglected and abused kids in West Philly through cool down rooms and proper nutrition,” says Jonah. The building, which will feature two towers and a big greenhouse facing south, will do all the usual things Earthships do (use natural and repurposed materials for construction, generate electricity through solar panels, create comfortable indoor environments through thermal mass, harvest water, treat and reuse greywater and grow organic food), but in an urban setting. This Earthship will be the largest by far in an urban setting and their highest profile project yet. “More people are going to see this Earthship in the first ten months than have seen one in the last 50 years,” says Jonah.
Where the need for insulation is less, such as in bathroom walls, an Earthship’s walls are often made of cement and glass bottles scavenged from landfills.
The next frontier he says, however, will not be new-build but retrofitting. “The most sustainable building is the one that’s already built. This is where the real impact on every level is.” Though it is harder to retrofit and adhere to the six Earthship principles in an urban area or an apartment, you can still implement solar, rainwater collection and, if there is space, build a greenhouse on the south side of your house and put in a planter to do the all-important grey water filtration. “But by insulating the living shit out of older buildings, that would already get us into Passivhaus constant temperature territory,” says Jonah with a smile.
The Phoenix Earthship is one of the nightly and weekly rental experiences the Greater World Earthship community near Taos offers. This home sleeps six and the jungle greenhouse features banana trees, grape vines, birds, turtles and a fish pond.
Fateeva has lived in an Earthship for the past few years and says off-grid living has been a revelation: “I have found I can live with so much less. It’s almost like life becomes less complicated.” One day, sooner rather than later, she says we will all have no choice but to live off grid. “I don’t think that we can keep utilising the earth’s resources while not replenishing it and giving it a chance to reach an equilibrium.” At that point the technology will have become so efficient that it will just be normal she believes. In the meantime, Michael and Jonah Reynolds and the Earthship community are busy pushing the envelope of what architecture can be and what this ‘new normal’ will look like. It’s a worthy endeavour. After all, we may all need to live in Earthships one day.