A trip into the deserts of Taos, New Mexico presents one of the most important examples of sustainable, self-sufficient community on the planet; Earthship Biotecture. From afar, these unique structures built of smooth adobe, and glass bottles pepper the desert adding character and intrigue. Constructed from 60% recycled materials, these homes are not only aesthetically pleasing and environmentally savvy, but extremely appealing to off-grid lifestyles. Founded by globally accomplished architect, Michael Reynolds, Earthship Biotecture is not only a collection of autonomous houses, but the main campus for the Earthship Academy where students from around the globe can study these eco-construction practices. This knowledge and experience helps answer housing problems around the world through personal initiatives, and Earthship organized poverty relief projects abroad. In addition to the Earthship Academy, there are opportunities for internships, and the summer of 2018 welcomes a new Earthship Youth Academy. This multi-faceted example of “carbon footprint aware” architecture, and self-sufficiency is one of a kind. The Earthship Global Headquarters is a testament to forward thinking natural energy consumption, continuing practical education, and environmentally conscious living.
The Six Core Concepts
During a recent Earthship Academy class taught by Michael Reynolds, he spoke to the importance of the six core concepts used in an Earthship to satisfy the basic requirements of life: simple living, self sustaining thermal/solar temperature control, electricity production (solar/wind), water harvesting and storage, use of natural and recycled materials, and food production. In these ways the Earthships address the fundamental necessities for modern habitation (food, water, shelter, energy, waste). Every Earthship successfully fulfills all of these needs. These south facing homes take advantage of passive solar opportunities. The southern-most exterior wall is floor to ceiling greenhouse glass. This offers the obvious prime growing conditions for year-round food production, but also a key component for natural temperature control. Opposite of the greenhouse glass is a partition wall separating the greenhouse from the traditional living space. The second component to the natural temperature control can be found across the home on the northern-most wall. This wall is constructed from recycled tires which have been filled and pounded with dirt to create a natural earthen wall. The tire wall is then finished with a mixture of sand, mud, and straw in a form of adobe plastering. Along this wall, corrugated metal tubes referred to as “earth tubes” are strategically placed extending 15 feet outside the Earthship. This tire berm wall is then covered by 15 feet of additional soil burying, and naturally insulating the earth tubes. This natural wall is extremely stable, and is arguably fire and earthquake proof. By opening a series of skylights in the greenhouse as well as the portholes of the earth tubes when the sun rises, temperature can be maintained at a comfortable 65 degrees through means of natural convection. These need to be closed as the sun sets to preserve the resting temperature overnight. This natural heating/cooling ventilation system also has no recurring costs outside of maintenance. With all the advancements in solar electric systems, all Earthships are equipped with rooftop panels, and rely on the sun as the primary source of power. Some Earthships have wind turbines to create additional supplemental power. An Earthship roof is a series of metal panels that collect water from rain and snow for use within the Earthship. This natural precipitation is stored in a cistern (or collection of cisterns), then run through a series of filters to ensure quality for human consumption. Water consumption is optimized using grey water and black water systems to maximize the potential of all water entering and used throughout the home, while minimizing waste. Finally, all remaining waste (sewage) is treated in a traditional septic system, and contained in a septic tank with a leach field located outside the Earthship. The combination of unique building techniques and solutions successfully creates a self sustaining, fully functioning ecosystem to comfortably live in. The more balanced the home, the better it will function by design. One example Michael Reynolds used was the importance of taking regular, daily showers, not only for hygienic purposes, but because it provides ample grey water from the shower drain to flush the toilets in the home.
Earthships have all the amenities of a “normal” home. In fact, a selection of Earthships are available for nightly rental within the community in Taos, NM. Equipped with running water, flushing toilets, energy efficient refrigerators and appliances, these homes are scalable to any individual’s lifestyle. A family that is more agriculturally inclined can have a larger greenhouse growing area capable of feeding a family of four. A wide variety of vegetation has successfully been grown within Earthships. Some of the most common are figs, tomatoes, peppers, bananas, aloe, hibiscus and kudzu. Michael Reynolds joked that you won’t get fat, but you will survive. One of the most impressive Earthships, aptly named the Phoenix, has an indoor pond with it’s own private stock of tilapia. Tilapia are an ideal fish source as they are well known for their quick reproduction. There are even Earthships with shelter for chickens to provide personal egg supply. The possibilities are endless although depending on location, certain building codes may constrict Earthship construction.
Education and Communication Coordinator, Rohan Guyot-Sutherland, explained during a tour of the community that attending the Earthship Academy empowers a person with the knowledge and skill set to understand how an Earthship functions, and what it takes to build one. The sessions blend personal, small classroom setting lectures with practical on the job site training offers both fact-based theory and practical experience. Students spend six days a week for four weeks on the main campus in Taos, NM for a tuition price of $2500. Lodging options are available and range from $450 – $800. Students are also required to complete two field study builds, and execute an academy approved independent study for graduation. The Earthship Academy has been active for 5 years, and educates 150 students each year. If interested, more information about the Earthship Academy and the application process can be found on their site here.