Taos dares to be different. Actually, they embrace it. From one generation to the next, the community attracts people from all over the world who march to their own drummer and who think “outside the box.” Of the many inspired creations and innovations that have emerged from Taos over the last century, the development of Earthships may prove to be one of the most important on a practical level, given growing concerns around the world about climate change and inadequate and/or inaccessible infrastructure.
Earthships | The Birth of Biotecture
The Earthship, and the concept of biotecture, was conceived in Taos, New Mexico, the brainchild of Michael Reynolds. Reynolds relocated to Taos in 1969 after getting a degree in architecture from the University of Cincinnati. He was concerned about the lack of affordable housing nationwide and the enormous amount of trash generated by modern man. In response, he purchased seven acres of land in Cañon with an abandoned barn on it. He converted the barn into a residence using material that most people deemed garbage. At the time, there were few environmental ordinances or building codes impeding his efforts.
Reynolds experimented with ways to recycle commonly discarded items by using them as building material. His goal was to build a home that would accomplish three things: 1) utilize sustainable architecture, relying on readily available local materials or repurposed materials, 2) rely on natural energy sources to eliminate the need for public utilities and developed infrastructure, and 3) to keep the design simple enough to allow a person with no specialized construction skills to build one. For example, he created the “can brick” out of discarded steel and tin cans, creating a building block with ten empty cans wired together, four flattened and six unflattened.
Ideal Environment for Innovation
Beyond the predilection to embrace alternative lifestyles and creative ways of tackling problems, Taos was the ideal environment for Earthship development for several reasons. Set at the base of Wheeler Peak, the tallest mountain in the state of New Mexico, Taos has a climate that demands adaptation to extremes. It is cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and located in an arid, high desert environment known for prolonged drought. The temperature extremes required buildings that could heat themselves in the bitter cold and cool themselves in the scorching heat. The scarcity of water required innovative water treatment and reuse systems. However, the abundance of sunshine in New Mexico was a distinct advantage in design development. Access to 300+ sunny days per year facilitated Reynold’s experimentation with solar power early on, when the technology was expensive and considerably less efficient elsewhere.
Though Taos’ infrastructure extends farther than it did back in the 1970s, access to public utilities and infrastructure beyond the city limits is sporadic. Access depends on where you live. Self-sufficiency is a necessity for people who want modern amenities, like electricity or plumbing, in the middle of nowhere. Earthships are not the only solution. Today, a variety of off-grid housing solutions dot the plains west of Taos, from straw bale construction to yurts.
Honing the Design
Throughout the 70s and 80s Reynolds built dozens of experimental buildings, blending ancient techniques with modern materials. Some ideas worked and some didn’t. The design evolved over the years. Beyond utilitarian, the homes had artistic charm, an aesthetic reminiscent of Tolkien’s hobbit houses. In fact, the first Earthship is called the “Hobbit House.”
By 1988, he had a model that fulfilled the basic criteria. He coined the word “Biotecture” to distinguish his blend of biology, physics and architecture from conventional building styles. Shortly thereafter, in 1990, he published a book, “Earthship Volume 1: How to Build Your Own.” His concept began piquing curiosity nationally and abroad. As more people got involved from around the world, the design developed rapidly, with new ideas, innovations, solutions, and efficiencies integrated into successive generations of Earthships.
What is an Earthship?
Earthships are a form of passive solar housing built with both natural and recycled materials. Equally important, they rely primarily on natural, renewable resources, particularly solar energy and water harvesting. Reynolds created several designs, from simple to lavish. Moreover, people with no construction experience can build the simpler homes.
Earthships provide for six basic human needs with little to no reliance on public utilities or fossil fuels.
Passive Solar Heating and Cooling
Heating and cooling buildings consumes 30% of the energy produced in the world. Reynolds addressed this issue by reducing or eliminating the need for external energy resources. For instance, a central design feature of Earthships is the use of car tires packed tightly with dirt to form load-bearing walls. Once packed, each tire weighs about 300 pounds. Builders stagger the packed tires like bricks, pounding them into place to form walls on three sides, then they pack mud between the tires of the interior walls, and plaster the interior walls with adobe mud. Typically, builders use additional dirt to fill the rear walls, creating mounds to maximize the generation of passive energy. Alternately, they build homes directly into a hillside. Due to the densely packed earth, the walls absorb heat and cold.
To maximize the effectiveness of thermal mass, most Earthships are single-story structures, generally built below the frost line. This keeps the internal temperature around 60 degrees regardless of the temperature outside. Earthship construction in colder climates entails adding extra insulation on the outside of the tire walls. Additionally, the tire walls are wide enough to eliminate the need for a concrete foundation. As an added perk for fire prone areas, the earth packed tire “bricks” don’t burn.
Some people use mud to apply a finish on the floors. Others opt for reclaimed wood or metal floors. Moreover, the southern facing exposure is enclosed with glass to maximize solar gain. The area enclosed with glass creates an interior greenhouse for food production.
Building with Natural and Recycled Materials
Though all Earthships vary in terms of their reliance on natural and repurposed materials, the dirt packed car tire foundation is standard operating procedure. Theoretically other materials that store and conduct heat could be used, like concrete or dirt bags. However, there is no shortage of dirt in New Mexico and no shortage of discarded tires in the United States. Currently, there are approximately 2.5 billion discarded tires stockpiled in the U.S., with 2.5 million more discarded every year. Furthermore, the packed tires are ideal for creating rammed-earth bricks.
Other commonly used materials include cans and bottles to provide fill when constructing non-load bearing walls. Whereas the cans and bottles aren’t critical in terms of fulfilling the functions of the design, the colorful bottle walls are certainly a part of the distinctive Earthship aesthetic.
Water Harvesting and Contained Sewage Treatment
Earthships use every drop of water harvested four times, gathering rain water and snow melt from the roof, which is subsequently stored in a cistern. The cistern channels water into a pump and filtration system, where it is clean and fed into a solar hot water heater and a pressure tank. Then, an underground botanical cell gathers gray water from sinks, showers, and washing machines.
The cell distributes the gray water to plants in the indoor greenhouse, where plants filter the water until it is clean enough to be pumped to the toilet tank for flushing. 40% of water used in a conventional home is flushed down the toilet. Once flushed, toilet water (black water) flows to a conventional septic tank. At that point, the septic tank treats the water, separating solids from liquids, and uses it to irrigate outdoor landscaping. The entire process is fully automated.
Solar and Wind Electricity
Earthships use wind turbines, solar panels, and biodiesel generators to generate energy. Every building has an internal “power plant,” with photovoltaic panels, batteries, charge controller, and an inverter. Additionally, builders prioritize energy-efficient lighting, pumps, and refrigeration to further lower the daily energy requirement. Demand for energy is further reduced by the lack of electric heat or air conditioning.
Overall, an Earthship’s electrical needs are about 25% of a conventional home. In fact, most residents can satisfy their daily need with one kilowatt or less of energy from solar panels. Some people add a small windmill to the system to provide additional energy on overcast days.
Reynolds and his crew added food production to the list of critical design principles. They are experimenting with different plants to figure out which ones thrive in the gray water system, as well as testing hydroponics, vertical planting, and aqua-botanical systems to push the envelope on in-home productivity. Residents who want to augment interior food production often add an external garden, chicken coop, or fish pond.
Sustainable Development Testing Sites Act
Many people perceive Earthships as a novelty in the United States. However, the design is practical, adaptable, and utilitarian, which has profound implications globally, particularly in developing countries with poor infrastructure and in disaster relief scenarios where infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. Reynold’s team have built several Earthships in areas where power and water systems are expensive, inadequate, or inaccessible. For example, Reynolds led a team to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake to build a demonstration home. They adapted the power, water, and sewage systems to be simpler, less expensive and virtually maintenance-free.
As early enthusiasm for Earthships grew, Reynolds recognized the need for a test site to accelerate research and development without the impediment of conventional building codes. In 2003 he advocated on behalf of the Sustainable Development Testing Sites Act. The Act provided exemptions to conventional building codes in the interest of experimentation and innovation. When the law passed in 2005, Reynolds established the world’s only Sustainable Development Testing Site, set up on two acres at the Greater World Earthship Community. Afterwards, Reynold’s advocacy became the central story line for the 2006 feature documentary, “Garbage Warrior.”
Biotecture Goes Global
It has been fifty years since Michael Reynolds arrived in Taos and he isn’t slowing down. Michael Reynold’s whimsical hobbit houses have become a draw for visitors, off-grid investors and environmentalists. What started as a passion project became a mission, a career, a business, and a nascent global movement.
He founded Earthship Biotecture, which owns and markets the Earthship trademark. His business model encompasses numerous programs. He has teams available to build Earthships worldwide, programs to train people who want to construct their own, and a non-profit branch, Biotecture Planet Earth, to train volunteers to build Earthships in developing countries and disaster areas. The non-profit branch has already built a community center in Malawi, a typhoon-proof building in the Philippines, a self-sustaining veterinary clinic in Zuni Pueblo, the aforementioned demonstration home in Haiti, as well as a demonstration home in Six Nations, Canada. They are currently working on a sustainable, hurricane resistant Earthship in Puerto Rico.
Additionally, the Greater World Earthship Community, a 300-acre planned off-grid community with over 70 Earthships, is located on the high desert plains east of Tres Piedras, a few miles west of the Rio Grande gorge bridge. There are even a few Earthships available as vacation rentals.
Visit the Taos Earthships
The visitor center is inside a two-bedroom Earthship. They encourage visitors to take a self-guided tour to see how Earthships work in practice. The tour starts in the indoor greenhouse. Greenery covers the southern wall, with plants and vegetables growing in raised beds as well as hanging planters.
Greater World Earthship Community | Visitors Center
2 Earthship Way
Tres Piedras, New Mexico 87577
Summer hours: Memorial – Labor Day, 9 AM – 5 PM.
Fall/Winter/Spring: Labor Day – Memorial Day, 10 AM – 4 PM.
Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Self-guided tours | Approximately 1 hour | $8 + tax
Discounts available for students, teachers, current military and veterans, and seniors. Children under 12 get in free.
10 minute video, 40 minute slideshow available, as well as literature, exhibits, photos, and paths to view other earthships in the area around the visitor’s center.
Community Guided Tour | Approximately 2 hours | $18 adults
$15 students & seniors or a minimum of $100.
Same tour of the Visitor Center and facilities described above, as well as a tour of several builds in the area.
If you are contemplating building your own Earthship or interested in unusual lodging options as a visitor to Taos, staying in an Earthship is a cozy, interesting, unique, educational experience.
After years of hosting 3-day weekend seminars and month-long internships, the Earthship Biotecture Academy was founded in 2011 to provide an opportunity to learn Earthship design principles and construction methods in the classroom and in the field. Academy classes, labs, tours, and hands-on construction techniques are led by top Earthship builders, electricians, plumbers, and plant specialists.
The Earthship Academy hosts sessions several times a year in Taos, as well as occasional International Academies abroad. Furthermore, Earthship Biotecture Academy formed a partnership with Western Colorado University’s two-year Master in Environmental Management graduate program. Academy participants earn undergraduate credit, which they can apply to their bachelor’s degrees in universities across the world. Additionally, AmeriCorps volunteers can apply their Segal Education Award to attending the Earthship Biotecture Academy.