Turning Trash Into A Home: The Earthship Movement Is Just Taking Off

Michael Reynolds’ radical Earthship architecture was initially perceived as junk but amidst growing environmental concern, his principles of sustainable home design have never been more relevant.

Where the high desert meets the base of southernmost Rocky Mountain peaks, an architectural revolution was born. A small town in northern New Mexico, Taos is best known for its proximity to world-class ski slopes, a rich history of both Native American and Hispanic culture, and an eclectic art scene. Many come to visit the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO world heritage site that is a centuries-old Native American dwelling built entirely out of adobe, an organic building material in the form of sun-dried earthen bricks. However, the Taos area is home to many other adobe-coated abodes that are just as remarkable in other ways.

In the 1970s, architect Michael Reynolds set out to reimagine sustainable home design. Inspired by a lack of affordable housing and the sheer amount of waste produced in average American households, Reynolds came to Taos with a vision for an environmentally-friendly, self-contained home. Reynolds set to work on his first prototypes, which reimagined the established architectural principles of single-family households. Since then, his designs have evolved into self-sufficient passive solar shelters constructed from reused materials.

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What Are Earthships

The result of Reynolds’ iterations culminated in the Earthship, an environmentally-friendly house built with natural and recycled materials, intended to subsist off the grid and fully on renewable sources of energy. Through his eco-construction company Earthship Biotecture, Reynolds has built a career upon redefining sustainable living while pushing the limits of building codes. His design mantra has been self-described as “radically sustainable,” and for good reason. Reynolds has interpreted environmentalism’s central dogma — reduce, reuse, recycle — and has created an alternative to the excessively consumptive practices of average households. By creating self-replenishing systems, his designs prove that a more sustainable way of existence doesn’t have to be inconvenient or expensive. 

Sprawling northwest of Taos is Reynolds’ life’s work. What appears to be terrestrial UFOs looming on the dusty horizon are actually the undulating curves and futuristic forms of The Greater World Earthship Community. The world’s largest off-grid, legal subdivision, the community sits on over 600 acres of land and is plotted for 130 homes. The homes vary in size, amenities, price, and design, offering viable options for potential Earthship homeowners of all budgets. 

Principles Of Earthship Design

According to Reynolds, Earthships are defined by six basic design principles, all of which leverage the natural phenomena of the earth.

Building With Natural And Repurposed Materials

Earthship architecture aims to incorporate as many natural and reclaimed materials into the construction process as possible. Aluminum cans, glass bottles, and used tires are durable and plentiful building materials. Tires offer the perfect shape for rammed-earth brick, which are the fundamental building blocks of every Earthship. By Earthship Biotecture’s estimate, at least 2.5 billion tires are currently stockpiled in the United States, and another 2.5 million are discarded every year, taking up large swathes of space in landfills. Bottle-brick walls are also a common feature of many Earthship builds. 

Thermal/Solar Heating And Cooling

Thirty percent of all the energy produced in the world goes towards heating and cooling buildings. Earthships are designed to thermoregulate without electric heat or the burning of wood or fossil fuels. By leveraging thermal mass and solar gain, Earthships can maintain a comfortable temperature without the addition of nonrenewable sources of energy. The earth-filled tires that compose the internal frame of the structure act as thermal mass “bricks.” Reaching up to 300 lbs each, they are formed into densely-packed walls that offer thermal mass qualities, and store the ambient temperature of what’s around them. Most Earthships in the Northern Hemisphere feature south-facing glass windows, cocooned with thermal mass on the other three sides. When the sun enters the glass throughout the day, the solar energy is retained by the mass of the floors and walls, essentially creating a greenhouse effect. When the temperature cools in the evening, this stored heat is naturally released into space. The foundations of Earthships are intentionally built slightly below ground level or into hillsides, where the temperature remains relatively stable year-round. This is beneficial during hot summer days, as the building is regulated by the temperature of the earth and remains cool. Cooling properties of Earthships are enhanced with natural ventilation through cooling tubes and vent boxes. 

Solar And Wind Electricity

Earthship Biotecture describes each of their buildings as a renewable power plant of sorts, with photovoltaic panels, batteries, charge controllers, and an inverter. While solar panel installation can still be somewhat costly, the company “designs down” the electrical requirements of the home before the solar system is sized, choosing lighting, pumps, and refrigeration with maximum electrical efficiency. The lack of electric heating and air conditioning also lessens the load — and the price tag. A typical Earthship’s energy demands are about 25% of that of a traditional home, and many residents can meet their power needs with about one kilowatt of energy from their solar panel systems. In more stormy climates, a small windmill system can be an alternative renewable power option.

Water Harvesting

Earthships channel all rain and snow collected on their roofs into cisterns. The precipitation amassed feeds into a Water Organization Module (WOM) that both purifies drinking water and sends it into a solar hot water heater and pressure tank, where it can then be used for daily activities like laundry, bathing, and washing dishes. The greywater is then filtered back through the WOM and transported to water plants inside and outside the building.

By leveraging thermal mass and solar gain, Earthships can maintain a comfortable temperature without the addition of nonrenewable sources of energy.

Contained Sewage Treatment

In a typical home, 40% of water usage goes towards toilet flushing. In an Earthship, every drop of rain, snow, and condensation that lands on the roof is used four times, effectively diminishing the need to ever use water from ground or municipal sources. Used greywater flows into interior botanical cells to hydrate plants, where the water is then naturally treated and collected into small wells affixed to planters. From there, it’s pumped to the toilet tank for flushing. Black water that’s run through the sewage system is then channeled into a septic tank, which overflows into a botanical cell for exterior landscaping. 

Food Production

The latest design principle added to the Earthship concept is in-home, organic food production. Utilizing the existing interior greywater botanical cells, trials have yielded produce like herbs, peppers, tomatoes, kale, beets, and cucumbers. The company is also experimenting with mini-hydroponic planters in suspended buckets to maximize vertical growing space in greenhouses, as well as aqua-botanical systems, which leverage traditional aquaponic principles by incorporating fish into hydroponic systems and fertilizing crops with their waste. A typical Earthship has the capacity to produce 25 to 50 percent of the food its residents need.

What Are Earthships Made Of?

The foundation of Earthships starts with tire bricks. Gravel is pounded into used car tires to create a solid building component that can withstand the damage of most earthquakes and hurricanes. Outside walls of Earthships are often constructed with two rows of recycled aluminum cans separated by an insulated air space, then covered with earthen materials like adobe. Because none of the construction materials burn easily, the home is almost completely fire-resistant, as noted in the first installment of Reynolds’ series on the art of Earthship construction. Interior walls are packed out between the tires and typically covered by adobe, plaster, or stucco. 

According to Reynolds, at least 40% of the structure must be recycled material, but “an owner can otherwise be as sustainable or traditional as they want.” This lends itself to extreme creativity and individualism within Earthship design — no two are exactly alike, and much of them are totally custom-built for (or by) the owner. While many feature futuristic shapes, bright colors, and decorative accents derived from recycled materials, some have medieval turrets towering high above the desert terrain and others look like they should belong in Hobbiton suburbia. Despite individual design choices, most Earthship dwellings are plastered in a thick layer of adobe.

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Indigenous Inspiration — Adobe Stands The Test Of Time

History Of Adobe

Back to Taos’s original claim to architectural fame, the Taos Pueblo. Likely constructed in the 13th century, this terraced, multistory adobe masterpiece was fundamental for centuries of New Mexican architecture to come. The earthen-hued behemoth may match the surrounding environment, but the properties of adobe offered benefits far beyond aesthetic value. The Indigenous groups who called the Southwest home survived for centuries without the ease of modern-day heating and cooling systems, thanks to their architectural prowess. Like Reynolds, they used what was around them to build their homes. Sand and clay, in heavy abundance in the high desert, was mixed with straw or grass and baked in the desert sun to create red adobe brick which offered durable earthen homes with natural insulation from the desert climate — like Reynolds’ thermoregulating dwellings, adobe buildings work with the desert climate to store coolness or store heat depending on the outside temperature. 

Adobe Stands The Test Of Time: Thick layers of adobe creates a natural barrier of insulation that, with regular maintenance, has the capacity to stand tall for centuries.

Why Is Adobe Sustainable?

While building with mud calls to mind a precarious sand castle, adobe walls are known for being load-bearing, self-sustaining, and naturally energy efficient. Thick layers of adobe creates a natural barrier of insulation that, with regular maintenance, has the capacity to stand tall for centuries. Modern-day adobe construction can be reinforced with surface coatings like mud or lime plaster, whitewash (gypsum and clay), or stucco. Reynolds’ Earthships aren’t the only buildings in the region that continue to employ ancient techniques — Pueblo-style building, and its modernized counterpart, Pueblo Revival architecture, are still commonplace in the Southwest.

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Taking Earthships Internationally

Build Your Own Earthship — Earthship Education Initiatives

Reynolds isn’t one to gatekeep information, offering extensive training sessions and educational opportunities for incorporating off-grid design principles, construction methods, and philosophy. Classes aren’t limited to just professionally trained architects — municipal planners, artists, environmental activists, industrial designers, and professional builders are invited and encouraged to participate in the program. Curriculum from the Earthship Biotecture Academy is offered in both in-person sessions and virtually, offering lectures, labs, tours, and hands-on construction techniques to spread the Earthship design philosophy around the world. The Academy has even partnered with accredited programs like AmeriCorps and Western Colorado University’s Master in Environmental Management degree. Although most of the 3,000 existing Earthship variations are located within the United States, Reynolds’ design methodologies have been implemented around the world. 

Reduce, Reuse, Revise — Adapting Design Concepts For Other Environments

Earthships are typically built below the frost line, allowing the thermal mass temperature to naturally stay somewhere around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 degrees Celsius) regardless of the weather outside. Critics say Earthships are better suited to drier, warmer locations, such as at Reynolds’ home base in Taos. However, with some modification, the units have the potential to be effective in other locales with significantly different temperaments. Earthship Biotecture’s Global Model was designed to work in the vast majority of climates with minor adaptations, and a study on Earthships built in Europe showed that even in a relatively dissimilar climate, they are still largely successful at providing thermal comfort without heating or cooling. The project was adopted in Canada in the 1990s, when environmental activists Chuck and Pat Potter set out to modify the Earthship design for frigid Canadian winters. They promoted their Earthship variation as nearly fireproof due to the minimal amount of oxygen contained in the earth-filled tires, and added a vapor barrier between the walls and floor and increased insulation to account for much harsher weather. These cold-adapted homes have served as models for further construction in Europe, South America, and other more temperate locations. 

The Earthship concept is constantly being molded and reimagined to fit into respective building codes and construction regulations, but the ideology extends even further. The concept of a self-sustaining home may be considered radical by those who are used to traditional concepts of architecture, but their basic design principles can be applied in numerous other ways. While Earthships are colloquially known as low-density single home construction, Reynolds notes that the same design concepts can also be amplified to a higher-density or urban scale. When faced by increasing pressure of population increase and climate change feedback loops, the six design points of Earthships are unquestionably universal. 

In fact, as self-contained cellular units, Earthships offer an alternative from the dense grids of high-maintenance infrastructure needed to keep urban environments functioning properly. With the ability to generate their own power, water, and sewage regulation, Reynold’s designs omit the need for years of tedious infrastructure-building. This concept has value in less developed parts of the world that already have a tenuous relationship with unreliable infrastructure grids, or offer a potentially more robust option in areas that are seeing greater damage due to climate-exacerbated natural disasters. Reynolds’ team has built an eco hotel in Uruguay, a sustainable public school in Argentina, and disaster relief homes in Puerto Rico, amongst other projects. As far as the U.S. is concerned, instead of the entire power grid going on the fritz, as it has during California heat waves or heavy hurricanes battering the Southeast, each Earthship cell will be able to function independently, preventing rolling blackouts. 

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Are These Futuristic Designs The Future Of Architecture?

Pros And Cons To Sustainable Building Methods

It’s no secret that Reynolds’ work is highly experimental, yet over the years he’s faced lawsuits and complaints from disillusioned homeowners. Negative feedback included leaky roofs and insulation issues. Additionally, their resale value is relatively low, as the dwellings are primarily custom-built, and located in areas that already have a low population density. After many critical claims against Reynolds, he was stripped of his credentials by the State Architects Board of New Mexico. After years of legal battle, Reynolds’ license was reinstated in 2007, and he resumed building, although this time with an emphasis on following state and federal building codes more closely. 

While Reynolds’ Earthships may seem like a utopian dream, the reality is not so clear-cut. The company’s name and futuristic designs call to mind a spaceship, where inhabitants are equipped with everything they need to survive. However, in our modern world, breaking habits and reducing materialism to what is, essentially the bare bones of our basic needs, is no easy task. These days, skyrocketing energy prices and growing literacy of the impacts of climate change are driving the demand to live sustainably. While going off the grid may be a drastic jump for many, Earthships are a symbol of optimism in the face of a hugely-changing climate, proof that it is possible for humans to reduce the weight of their ecological footprints on the Earth.

Although Earthships have had their fair share of flaws and controversy, like all sustainable home innovations, the soundness of their structures will only continue to grow with improvements in green energy generation, sustainable building materials, and improved building technology. Despite criticism, Reynolds is a pioneer in the realm of sustainable architecture, redefining design techniques, building technology, and what it means to live in harmony with the Earth instead of stripping it of its natural abundances. 

Reynolds, now 77, has spent a lifetime promoting his passive architecture designs. His work and teachings offer the opportunity to reconsider our relationship with the world around us. This conscientiousness doesn’t just fade after construction is complete — Earthship inhabitants must take on a symbiotic relationship with their home. While going truly “off the grid” is a tall order in today’s interconnected society, Earthship homeowners and visitors are offered a unique opportunity to directly confront their resource consumption habits. 

How Can Earthships Be Improved?

Sustainable homes offer an alternative to a world fraught with unrealistic energy demands, soaring housing prices, and global instability. From natural disasters of increasing intensity to the brief collapse in the global food supply chain due to the coronavirus pandemic, Earthships are growing in appeal to an ever-increasing audience. While not a new concept by any means, it seems like there are more reasons than ever to consider a transition to sustainable, self-sufficient living. 

Perhaps one effective strategy to increase buy-in is price. Earthships sell for similar prices as conventional homes of comparable size and location, and cost slightly more to build. Although the design elements of Earthships can save owners money over time, it’s the same predicament that we face with many of the greener technology solutions in the world today, from electric cars to solar panel installation. If prospective home-buyers don’t have the money up front, they’re liable to opt for a more affordable — and less sustainable — housing option. To address this problem, Reynolds has broken ground on a new model, called 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, making the initial investment more palatable for the average consumer. 

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Key Takeaways
  • Implement conservation into daily life — you don’t need to be a proud Earthship homeowner to reduce your own energy and resource usage at home. 
  • Practice more effective waste management — take into consideration how much you dispose of on a regular basis. The “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra is actually a hierarchy — prioritize reducing your consumption, and reusing what you already own instead of buying new.
  • Do the math — while implementing green technology into our homes is still not cheap, for many it could mean thousands of dollars (and an abundance of energy) saved in the long run.