April 2012 - Vol 9, No 4
TAOS, New Mexico - Twenty three years ago, while riding bicycles through the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, I saw my first sustainable home built with cans and used tires. What I didn’t know then was that these homes were called Earthships, and they were being built all over the world and had been since the early 1970s. Earthships got their start in Taos New Mexico, designed and built by architect Michael Reynolds. Simply put by the earthship creator, the earthship is “a radically sustainable green building made with recycled materials.”
Over the last 40 years the earthship design has been tweaked and manipulated for reasons of comfort, new technology, and to meet a variety of codes in different parts of the world. Though the designs have changed six principles that make the earthships function like a living breathing building will never alter. These principles are as follows: 1.) Electricity from wind and solar power 2.) Water catchment from rain or snow 3.) Heated and cooled using combination of solar gain and thermal mass, and convection 4.)Grey water recycling contained zero discharged sewage treatment 5.) Food production inside and outside 6.) Built using natural and recycled materials.
There are now earthships in every state, and in nearly 20 countries on five continents. In every state, every country worldwide there are massive tire dumps that never decay! The earthship I mentioned earlier while riding my bicycle I found out was owned by Dennis Weaver, the famous actor. It is located outside the town of Ridgeway Colorado, and is one of the early earthships that brought world attention to Michael Reynolds. Currently one of the most extravagant earthships is located in Taos, and is named The Phoenix. It was commissioned to be built by the governor of New Mexico as a demonstration of the possibilities of sustainable architecture. The Phoenix is an amazing piece of architecture as much art as it is a functioning home.
Worldwide; Earthship Biotecture, Michael’s company, does much more than build custom homes for folks. They accomplish four or five relief projects every year. These efforts involve teaching locals how to build their own structure that will provide them clean drinking water and sanitary sewage treatment and shelter. They have accomplished these projects in India after the tsunami, in Haiti after the earthquake; they built a school house in Sierra Leone, Africa, and have partnered with Long Way Home to build homes for less fortunate people in Guatemala. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First let me tell you a little more about the earthship design and how they function.
Some of you may be familiar with Reynolds from the documentary “The Garbage Warrior”, or tons of interviews from the Weather Channel and CNN to the CBS early show. Michael is a non-stop workaholic, constantly manipulating designs, teaching seminars, giving lectures and of course getting his hands dirty building homes with the biotecture crew. I first met Michael when he was in Oklahoma one year ago lecturing at the OSU architecture school in Stillwater. The next day we met for coffee at Elote’s in Tulsa. We talked about camping and caving, motorcycles and weather, but mostly about earthships and how they could be built in Oklahoma. He says in Oklahoma’s climate that a typical three bedroom earthship could be built for fewer than $50,000 if the owner organized much of the labor.
Building an earthship is much like an old fashioned barn raising. Usually the owners gather friends, especially those interested in building themselves, and over the course of a several weekends build the home. This would make for a totally self-sustaining home requiring no utilities! He told me during our talk that if I wanted to learn more I should become an intern at one of their builds. So I did.
Last fall I went to Buffalo, Wyoming and interned on a three bedroom global model with the biotecture crew. Later this year I will travel to Taos to further my earthship studies. Michael, now in his late 60s, teaches and encourages people around the world to learn how to build sustainable housing on their own. Michael moved to the mountains around Taos, New Mexico in the late 1960s. He was a young architect realizing the failures of the modern home to provide basic needs for its occupants. In the early 1970s he began using discarded automobile tires as a construction material. Michael claims that tires are a 21st century “natural resource”. He says, “If aliens landed on Earth they would assume that the giant piles of tires surrounding the earth grew just the same as trees”.
He also began forming “bricks” from recycled aluminum cans. What Michael had “re-discovered” was the physical properties of thermal mass. Thick heavy materials absorb the heat that is around them; in turn as the air around them lowers in temperature these materials release the heat. A tire pounded with earth becomes a rock weighing over 400 pounds a tire. These earth pounded tires make a giant wall of thermal mass. Reynolds realized this thermal mass could be heated by passive solar gain with a facade of glass facing south (to catch the winter sun as it is lower in the southern skies during winter months). These realizations made for the first principles of earthship construction, heating from solar gain, and building using recycled materials.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Michael built a wide variety of self-sustaining homes he began to call earthships. He formed a community of earthships outside of Taos called the greater world. This community became a testing ground for Michael allowing him to manipulate designs and evolve the earthship to become more efficient and cheaper to build.
The greater world community is built outside of existing infrastructure; there are no power lines, no sewage system, and no city water. In fact, water is fairly hard to find, to dig a well would be much over 600 feet deep. Reynolds’ dream was for people to be able to build their own structure, without expensive materials, having all the convenience of a modern home without reliance on infrastructure. All earthships are powered using only solar and or wind power. Depending on your needs this can be achieved with very small amounts of panels and a small vertical axis windmill.
Earthships have a pre designed power organizing module (POM) that can be shipped anywhere in the world. The homes catch rain and snow melt from the roofs to fill a cistern that is used for all household needs. The water feeds to a water organizing module (WOM) where it is filtered and pumped into a typical pressure tank. Water is then delivered to sinks and showers for drinking, cooking and washing purposes. That gray water drains into large planters in the glassed-in “greenhouse” front of the earthship. This water is cleansed as it feeds plants in the greenhouse.
At the end of the planter box, is another collection tank and small dc pump. This water that is collected goes to fill and flush the toilet, then the black water is sent to a traditional style septic that empties into outdoor planters before being cast out. By doing this the same water is reused four times! This greatly reduces the amount of water needed to maintain a home and family. Rainwater catchment systems have proved to be cleaner than city water, and well water, plus it has no chemical treatments like fluoride and chloramine. A normal household uses 95 gallons of water per day. A typical earthship household uses less than 20 gallons! The real genius of Michael’s design is how all these systems work together forming a true living building. Owners of earthships claim their life is less stressed, they have little or no mortgage, they pay no utility bills, and they have fresh fruits and vegetables year round.
“A major part of the concept of the earthship is that it can be owner built without a mortgage payment,” says Michael Reynolds from Earthships Vol. 3. Earthship Biotecture indeed caters to both the budgeting DIY person and those with the pocketbooks that allow them the freedom of hiring the biotecture crew. The many designs of the earthship reflect this method. The predominant three designs being used now are the simple survivalist U, the global model, and the multiple U designs. They all use the basic principles but are quite different in looks and costs. The survivalist can be made from a one bedroom or expanded to however many rooms are needed using very little wood. The Global model which is the most practical and popular uses solid pine vigas and one support wall built with wood. The multiple U designs are similar to the global in costs but simpler to build. The photo shows the layout and basic design of the global model, which is really one big U. This diagram shows the tire walls, greenhouse layout, interior walls which are made with can bricks and cement. It also shows the cisterns, WOM and cool air intake (in the summertime heat generated in the greenhouse, and released through top opening vents pulls cool air through tubes buried underneath the structure).
Any of these homes could be built by almost anyone. Michael likes to say “bees and wasps can build their own house, but not every person should”. The things that Earthship Biotecture can provide for those interested in owning an earthship are immense. Of course they can be hired to build a fully operational ready to move in home, or they can build structure and system only leaving the interior for the owner to customize.
They also provide structural drawings, a full series of how to books, and variety of hands on opportunities to learn. Some of the learning opportunities are weekend seminars which include hands on experience with the building techniques. To get even more experience a person can be a volunteer intern on an actual build. Now they have put together a full package learning program called The Academy. This involves two internships and eight weeks of classroom and field learning at the headquarters in Taos. Those who complete the academy will receive a certificate in earthship construction, and be in the position to work paid jobs with the biotecture crew.
Why do people build earthships? To be free of utility bills and the environmental destruction that comes with fossil fuel derived power sources. To reduce waste by recycling tires, cans and bottles as building materials. To reduce consumption of water thus reducing toll on our already exhausted water resources. To reduce amount of wood used in a typical homes construction. And to truly be a part of their homes’ construction. not an afterthought. The first step in getting an earthship is acquiring land. Remember you want the front to be facing south and have a clear view of the sun. Next thing would be to decide who is going to build the earthship. Then take a trip to www.earthship.com where the journey really begins. From there you can order everything from POMs and WOMs to cisterns, solar panels, books, designs or even schedule to spend a night in one of the earthship rentals in Taos. The future of our world is truly now!
As I write this Reynolds and the crew is heading to Australia to host some building seminars. Also the plans have been made to build an earthship in New York City! The possibilities of living free are really endless. My mother in law, Vicke Adams, has used some of the earthship principals in constructing her home on her farm near Chewey, Okla. She catches her own water, and uses passive solar gain and wood for heat. All of the earthship principles can be modified to work on existing structures, so even those who already own a home can modify to be utility free. Personally I would love for all new construction to use these principals and create a healthier planet for everyone. But see for yourself at earthships’ webpage and countless YouTube videos from around the world.