Three months after Typhoon Haiyan destroyed people’s homes in the Philippines in November 2013, a team from Michael Reynolds’ Taos-based Earthship Biotecture program was there. Reynolds and team members partnered with local residents in Barangay Batug to design and erect a “windship” building out of donated materials, including tires, bottles, cardboard, coconut lumber, and bamboo. The structure, which would become a new community center, was designed to be wind-resistant and a prototype for community rebuilding efforts.
Practical, low-cost shelter based on hands-on innovation is at the heart of the earthship initiative begun by Reynolds in the 1970s. The types of research that result in self-sufficient dwellings that can be exported into such situations is not possible without the Official U.S.A. Sustainable Testing Site. That’s what a sign says when you visit the Earthship Biotecture World Headquarters in Taos County. “There are two acres in the entire U.S. that are approved for sustainable-housing testing, and they’re right here,” said Shanti Taylor, who was welcoming people at the Earthship Visitor Center during a recent visit.
The center is in one of the many earthship buildings in the community, which has a Tres Piedras address. Taylor said it is “a fully legal subdivision,” adding, “There are two other earthship neighborhoods in Taos County, and most other earthships are on their own individual plots all over the world.” There are earthships in Sweden and Malawi and Easter Island, and there is a thriving community represented on the Earthship Europe website. But one two-acre plot of this Greater World Earthship Community north of Taos is designated for research, especially into small-scale water harvesting, photovoltaics, waste treatment, and other technologies necessary for off-the-grid houses.
Reynolds told the story in a July interview. “I had already submitted for a subdivision 18 or 20 years ago and had to fight through all kinds of variances to be able to do an off-grid subdivision. But then I realized in the last decade or so that we needed to evolve faster than we were being allowed. We wanted to try some stuff that is beyond what we could do by code. I went to the legislature and said, ‘New Mexico is the state that blew up 10,000 acres in the interest of national security to test an atomic bomb, so why can’t we test housing?’ They laughed me off, but I stuck at it and I wrote the law called the Sustainable Development Testing Site Act. State Representative Bobby Gonzales and Senator Carlos Cisneros were key in it, and we got it passed. The Taos County Board of Commissioners and Planning Department have been very supportive. They recognize that we’re learning something.
“The act allows us to try out different methods of sewage treatment, water collection, and solar power,and to make it all more affordable and more available. We’ve been able to take what we learned to Haiti after the earthquake, to the Philippines after the typhoon, and to Sierra Leone and Uruguay for schools. We have basically been able to take on the road the things we have tried out here.”
Reynolds is the subject of a 2007 documentary film that was titled Garbage Warrior because of the man’s dedication to building with cultural detritus, as well as with earth and concrete. Earthships are typically made with an unusual type of building block: rammed earth encased in steel-belted rubber — that is, recycled automobile tires filled with compacted earth to form walls that are pretty indestructible. Recycled cans and glass and plastic bottles are also used, both as structural elements and for aesthetics: Bottles incorporated into walls, when viewed from inside an earthship, yield beautiful, colorful patterns.
The residents of an earthship drink, cook, and wash with filtered water from rain and snow. Graywater from non-toilet household uses is recycled for flushing toilets and to irrigate plants — the self-contained earthship also grows its own food. Electricity comes from renewable sources, usually solar. Interior temperatures are moderated by solar gain and thermal mass in the winter and by ventilation and earth-bermed cooling in the summer.
The Greater World Earthship Community is located on U.S. 64, a little over nine miles west of Paseo del Pueblo Norte, the main road north out of Taos. When you approach the community, the first thing you notice is a bizarre-looking two-story building. On the front, two pairs of tall windows with spiderweb muntins flank a whitish central window element that bulges outward. “That’s the core building of the Sustainable Development Testing Site, and the bulging part is the climate foil,” Reynolds said. “The building has a solar greenhouse to grow tropical plants and treat sewage.” At the rear are squat cylindrical “living room” masses.
The inside of the main space is dazzling, a cathedral-like room with hundreds of bottles and cans set in the concrete of the curvy, cavelike wall shapes. A couple more of these experimental structures will be added in the future. “All of those buildings will be connected by a massive greenhouse with 25 or 30 studio apartments off of it,” Taylor said. “It’s an apartment complex prototype.”
There are four earthships at Greater World that are rentals, ranging from $185 to $410 per night; and they are available for purchase for between $275,000 and $1.5 million. If you want to build your own, the Global Model Earthship is a good choice. “This is a building that has a maximum of $120 a year for the total utility bill, yet it has a flat-screen TV and high-speed internet and stays at about 69 to 72 degrees without fuel, and it grows its own food and contains and treats its own sewage,” Reynolds said. Sets of construction drawings for Global Model Earthship models begin at $3,500.
Plans for the more modest Simple Survival Earthship are more affordable. Copies of a 40-page set of construction drawings have sold in the past for about $900 to people all over the world, but there’s now a $10 app (available at www.earthship.com/blogs/2015/12/simple-survival-earthship-app), through which you can download and print the construction drawings.
Earthship-building aspirants enjoy learning about the philosophy and construction techniques via the Earthship Intern Program and Earthship Biotecture Academy at the Greater World campus. Three-week internships are open to anyone over the age of twenty-one who has an interest in sustainability and a willingness to work hard. Work hours are weekdays, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The academy is four weeks long and involves classes, labs, and hands-on instruction, according to Kirsten Jacobsen, education director for Earthship Biotecture. She said there are three stages in earning a diploma from the organization: the academy, field studies to further students’ knowledge of hands-on building techniques, and an independent-study project. “We have academy graduates who have gone on their own to build and teach in Haiti, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Cameroon.”
When I visited Earthship Central in mid-June, I spoke with Lisa Stone, who came to New Mexico from her native Tasmania. “I’m a volunteer, and I spend a lot of time hanging out here, and I’m in the academy,” she said. “Every second day, you build in a volunteer capacity and you learn different skills making earthships. It’s quite laborious, but it’s fun.”
Asked about her goal, she said, “I’m doing a couple of degrees at the University of New Mexico. My thing’s studio art, and I look at people and environmental outcomes as being a process of art, so I’m looking at these kinds of infrastructures.”
Reynolds’ passion for self-sufficient housing, along with his concern about the problems that have arisen from too much of the alternative, are right there on the surface when you talk with him. “All of our work centers around six issues that humanity is facing: water; electricity; comfortable shelter that doesn’t use fossil fuel; treatment of our sewage, garbage, and food. The nuclear power plant in Japan that is still melting down as we speak, the sewage-treatment systems that are putting sewage into the oceans — basically everything we do in the name of public utilities is seriously damaging both people and planet, in addition to the fact that it costs a fortune. We’re looking at developing simple survival dwelling units that you can get built for $15,000 and have a flush toilet and a shower and that grow food.
“In two and a half weeks we’re going up to Six Nations up in Canada, to a woman with five kids who freezes in a trailer every winter, and we’re able to make her a warm building that does not require fuel. This is what we’ve done here during all these years, pushing every envelope we could — and I got in a lot of trouble for pushing the envelopes too fast.” ◀
The visitor center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Labor Day. See www.earthship.com for details. The next Earthship Internship Program is Aug. 9-26, and the next Biotecture Academy training session is Sept. 1-28.