Earthships Explore the Next Frontier of Sustainable Living

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The entrance to an earthship in Taos, N.M. Photo: Cindy Baldhoff
The entrance to an earthship in Taos, N.M. Photo: Cindy Baldhoff

When Michael Reynolds finished architectural school in 1969, he was determined to find a more planet-friendly way to build homes. He moved to Taos, N.M., where he began experimenting with alternative building methods. Over the years, he started exploring different ways to use thermal and passive solar energy, and in 1988 he built his first earthship.

Completely sustainable, that building became the prototype for a movement that now spans the globe and has the potential to forever change how the world looks at sustainable homes.

“We have built about 5,000 worldwide,” says Kirsten Jacobsen, education director for Earthship Biotecture in Taos. The organization builds homes, sells plans and educational materials, and offers educational programs to help others build their own earthships. They’ve also done outreach in other countries to provide self-sufficient public facilities, such as building a school in Sierra Leone.

Building an entryway to an earthship using plaster and glass bottles. Photo: Cindy Baldhoff
Building an entryway to an earthship using plaster and glass bottles. Photo: Cindy Baldhoff

“We have about 250 earthships in Taos alone, but we have at least one in every state in the U.S. and have even built them in some super-restrictive areas, like England and the Netherlands,” she says.

Earthships — so named because they are self-sustaining and don’t require any outside water or electricity — are the ultimate exercise in “home recycling.” The foundation begins with discarded tires and tin cans that are staggered like bricks, then earth is pounded between them to create a solid, load-bearing wall. The completed walls provide an energy-efficient home because the thermal mass stores heat and releases it very slowly, keeping indoor temperatures consistent — regardless of the temperature outside. The walls are usually covered in plaster and resemble an adobe home, although their look is somewhat more futuristic than those boxy adobe predecessors that are particularly popular in the Southwest.

Even empty glass bottles become part of the wall structures, allowing light in and also creating an intriguing design element that only furthers the sci-fi look.

Next page: Who’s building earthships?