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.

Living on the Edge

Earthships, built from recycled tires, cans and bottles, often have a unique appearance. Photo: Cindy Baldhoff

Earthships, built from recycled tires, cans and bottles, often have a unique appearance. Photo: Cindy Baldhoff

Jacobsen acknowledges that earthships are seen as the “far edge of green and sustainable living.” But a growing awareness in sustainability issues has gone a long way toward making the homes seem less foreign. The cost is slightly higher but still competitive with purchasing a new home; Jacobsen says a small one-bedroom home begins at around $100,000. Of course, the biggest difference is that the earthship won’t be saddled with water and utility bills. Owners can also grow their own food inside the home, cutting back dramatically on what they spend at the grocery store.

“There is definitely more interest now here in the U.S., but our main growth has been international,” she says. “We’re doing a seminar in Ushuaia, Argentina, in January and building a school in Uruguay in February.” They also are building a community center in Malawi, Africa, that will provide health care to local tribes. She says such areas, where access to water and electricity are a challenge, provide the perfect place for earthships to showcase their abilities and efficiency.

The homes can be adapted for any climate, from frigid arctic settings to steamy tropical environments.

Here in the U.S., clients have ranged from single 20-somethings building small homes to the late actor Dennis Weaver building a 10,000-square-foot sustainable mansion in Colorado. The homes have evolved to include more traditionally styled buildings to suit building codes and customer wants. However, the nature of the building materials means that earthships will never be mistaken for a tract home.

“They’re always going to be buried in the earth; the mechanical systems will be apparent; and you’re going to see the solar panels, battery boxes and vent boxes. You’re never going to have an earthship that looks like a normal house,” Jacobsen explains.

The back side of an earth ship reveals many of the materials used to build it, and houses solar panels and vent boxes. Photo: Cindy Baldhoff

The back side of an earthship reveals many of the materials used to build it, and houses solar panels and vent boxes. Photo: Cindy Baldhoff

It’s What’s Inside That Counts

The unique design element is just one thing that sets earthships apart from traditional housing. The systems contain and reuse all household sewage in indoor treatment cells, which lets it then be used in food production and landscaping. This approach allows for indoor gardens (or even jungles) to provide fresh produce for homeowners.

Toilets use greywater for flushing rather than running on a city sewage system, and earthships harvest water from rain and snow, which is used for everything from drinking to bathing to washing clothes. They depend upon thermal heating and cooling, and produce their own electricity with solar and wind power.

“This is the way all housing is going to look when there is no more oil,” says Jacobsen. “People are going to have to realize that they can collect power, grow food, and heat and cool their home. Whether people adopt that way of thinking and learn how to live that way before there’s a crisis is up to them.”

The Earthship Biotecture headquarters is home to several units that can be toured or rented for the night, further allowing people to experience life inside for a night or a weekend.

“That helps sell them,” Jacobsen says. “Once people experience them, they become more interested in owning one. We’re not out to convince people to pursue them; we’re just here to help.”