Off the wall or off the grid?

The exterior of an Earthship in Taos, New Mexico. The Washington Post/Ramsay de Give

The exterior of an Earthship in Taos, New Mexico. The Washington Post/Ramsay de Give

Published Jan 8, 2022


BY Nick Aspinwall

Mike Reynolds never worried too much as the world inched closer to doomsday.

In early 2020, motorists lined up in their cars outside grocery stores waiting for food as the coronavirus pandemic first wrapped its tentacles around the global supply chain.

“I was watching that on TV and then walking down the hallway of my building, picking bananas and spinach and kale and tomatoes and eating them. Barefoot, because my building was warm without fuel,” Reynolds said. “My Earthship took care of me.”

Mike Reynolds in one of his Earthships, which he calls ’vessels’, in Taos, New Mexico, last month. The Washington Post/Ramsay de Give

Earthships are off-grid, self-reliant houses built from tyres, dirt and garbage that have long been an offbeat curiosity for travellers passing by the ski town of Taos, New Mexico, but suddenly look like a haven for climate doomers. Residents of the 254ha flagship Earthship community treat their own waste, collect their own water, grow their own food, and regulate their own temperature by relying on the sun, rain and earth, which Reynolds and other adherents call natural "phenomena”.

Reynolds, 76, has been building these structures - he calls them "vessels" - since the early 1970s when, after graduating from architecture school at the University of Cincinnati, he took up off-road motorcycle racing on the high desert plateau around Taos to try to injure himself to avoid being drafted to the Vietnam War. He never left, attracting interest and eyerolls as dozens of Earthships arose from the dirt.

A resident tends plants inside an Earthship. The Washington Post/ Ramsay de Give

"They were talking about a freak on the mesa in New Mexico building buildings out of garbage. That was scandalous," Reynolds said. But he gained more followers as people became more conscious of climate change, and 2020 brought a surge of interest in new construction. "Now," he said, "all they're doing is just going apes---."

New Earthships once used to sit dormant for years, but many are now sold before they're even completed as the pandemic has drawn people to an oasis of self-sufficiency. They range from dreamers such as Linda May, who was depicted in the film "Nomadland" and whose ultimate goal was to build an Earthship, to young people anxious about a worsening climate, a housing shortage, and the dark promise of eternally escalating electricity and heating costs. To them, Earthships offer a life free of grids and bills; a clean break from a world that feels like it's on the verge of breaking itself.

"It's hard for me to even think of going back to a conventional house," said Freya Dobson, 24, who recently travelled from New York to join an academy that teaches people how to build Earthships. "This is a real solution for living."

The interior of an Earthship. The Washington Post/Ramsay de Give

Earthships operate using six green-building principles governing heating and cooling, solar electricity, water collection, sewage treatment, food production, and the use of natural and recycled materials. This meant that when Earthships emerged in the 1970s, they "addressed something nobody else did: what do we do with garbage?" said Rachel Preston Prinz, a green designer in Santa Fe, N.M., who wrote the book "Hacking the Earthship."

About 40% of a typical Earthship is built with natural or recycled materials, most notably foundations and walls made up of hundreds of used tyres packed with dirt. These work with dual layers of floor-to-ceiling passive solar windows, which collect sun during winter and reject it in the summer to keep structures at a comfortable room temperature, no matter the weather.

Part of an Earthship’s interior garden. The Washington Post/Ramsay de Give

Inside a usual customised Earthship, are arched, cavernous living spaces. Plants line corridors between inner and outer windows, while glass bottles and aluminum cans stuffed inside walls make rooms look like mosaic playgrounds.

"It's incredibly beautiful," said Britt Shacham Bernstein, 25, soon after visiting an Earthship for the first time. "There's a whole ecosystem in here, and you're a part of the ecosystem."

Earthships originally spawned from the arid climate of Taos, maximising abundant sunlight while squeezing whatever they can from about eight inches of annual rainfall. Each Earthship shares a set of core organs such as a water organisation module, which filters and separates water as it moves throughout the house. In the Earthship ecosystem, water is first used for drinking, showering and hand washing before moving to interior plants, such as fig and banana trees, along with hanging gardens of herbs and flowers. The resulting "black water" is used in the toilet before being flushed into a septic tank, where it fertilises ornamental outdoor plants and can then be safely released into the groundwater supply.

You'd never know what your house is doing with your waste.

"I often hear: 'It smells really great in here’,” said Meredith Albury, a tour guide and photographer for Earthship Biotecture, the eco-construction company Reynolds founded to build Earthships.

Another module controls solar power, which is used primarily for lights and appliances. Earthships use about one-sixth as much power as a conventional house. "You take care of it, it'll take care of you," Albury said. "It's very symbiotic."

A typical Earthship can produce 25 to 50% of the food its residents need, depending on a multitude of factors including diet, climate and how much time is spent on garden maintenance, said Phil Basehart, a construction team leader. If you follow a plant-based diet, you may never have to visit a grocery store again. This appeals not only to rugged survivalists, but to people suddenly worried about where their food will come from after the pandemic. "We got more business because of it," Basehart said. "People were looking at this as their panic room, so to speak."

Construction of a new Earthship ’Unity’ model in Taos last month. The Washington Post/Ramsay de Give

Earthships sell for similar prices as conventional homes of comparable size and location, and cost slightly more to build, although their design can save owners money over time in utility costs.

But there are also stories of failed builds and abandoned projects, sometimes after tens of thousands of dollars have been spent, and Reynolds has faced lawsuits from unsatisfied buyers. Earthships are experimental, evolving and imperfect structures, and enthusiasts warn against buying or building one before participating in an Earthship Academy, in which students pay about $1,000 to spend a month helping with a build and taking classes on construction and maintenance.

A study on Earthships built in London, Paris and Spain showed it is largely successful at providing thermal comfort without heating or cooling.

Reynolds has turned his focus to a new model, which he calls Unity, that incorporates cost-cutting measures such as eliminating roof vents and using just one layer of glass windows. This could make builds about one-third cheaper than most Earthships. As he pounded tyres into submission, the gray-maned Reynolds said he wants these structures to be more efficient so inhabitants can take what they need from the earth, rather than relying on a global economy of abundance. "A lion doesn't kill 40 elk and stash them somewhere," he said. "He kills an elk every time he gets hungry."

You hear a lot of this talk on the mesa - how self-sufficiency can mesh with symbiosis to entirely invert our world of dependency and domination - and you start to imagine a world in which Earthships make up our homes, offices, supermarkets and hospitals. Oil and gas companies would crumble, and yesterday's hulking SUVs would serve not as a smoldering dystopian backdrop, but as insulation for your living room.

Reynolds has tried to build multifamily and commercial structures for years but has run into permit problems.

Reynolds knows humanity needs time to be swayed. He compares people to a banana plant in his Earthship that, as the months pass, gradually bends to reach the sunlight. Just before the pandemic, he received a diagnosis of Stage 4 prostate cancer. It has driven him to build as many Earthships as he possibly can.

"It's got to be down to, the Titanic's got to be sinking, and this is the life raft," he said. "But selling them on the life raft while they can go dine and dance in the hall with the rich people in the top level, it's a hard sell."

The Independent on Saturday