Hitch a Ride on an Earthship

“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”  ~  Native American Proverb

Landfills overflowing, waterways choked with trash and plastic drinking bottles, 728,000 tons of trash tossed out in America daily, and, according to EPA estimates, roughly 290 million tires discarded in the United States each year. The numbers are staggering.

One American architect, Michael Reynolds, has taken this troubling dilemma of what to do with our trash one giant step further by introducing a unique concept, an “Earthship” passive solar home. His idea of  incorporating trash that typically goes into landfills (think discarded tires, aluminum cans, glass and plastic bottles) into the designs of his homes, homes that are independent of the “grid”, has turned the homebuilding industry on its head. He is a staunch proponent of “radically sustainable living” and what he has created is quite fascinating and oft-times futuristic-looking. His vision came to fruition on a beautiful, barren mesa outside of Taos, New Mexico, back in the 1970’s, and it is at this main campus location that he has built a visitor center, Earthship Academy, and intern program.

Earthship Interns ~ photo credit earthship global.com.

Michael wanted to create housing that would do three things:

  1. Utilize local materials and/or recycled materials wherever possible.
  2. Rely on natural energy sources and be sustainable (“off the grid”).
  3. Allow for someone with limited construction skills to build these homes themselves.

His vision can be seen in the home designs dotting the mesa here today.

The foundation of the earthship is where the used tires come into play, known as “rammed earth tires”. Like-sized tires are placed on the ground, creating the diameter of the house. Dirt is shoveled into the tires and a sledgehammer is used to pack the dirt in tightly. These tires can weigh up to 300 pounds so they are typically placed before filling, and because the tire is filled with dirt, it will not burn if subjected to fire, an issue today, particularly in many western states.

Raising an earthship in Taos, NM
Earthship in the making. Note the rammed earth tire foundation.
All the modern conveniences of a “normal” home.

The walls, referred to as “tin can walls”, are often made of a network of recycled cans, plastic bottles, and concrete, and plastered with an adobe finish.

Earthships are designed to collect all the water they need from that which Mother Nature provides. Water collects on the metal roof, is channeled into a device that removes the silt, then flows into a cistern. From here it moves into a module that filters out bacteria and other contaminants, making it potable. The water collected in this manner is used for everything but flushing toilets. The toilets are flushed with filtered wastewater from sinks and showers (grey water). This is an oversimplified explanation for a much more sophisticated system. 🙂

Another unique earthship design

These unique homes are also designed to collect and store their own energy, the majority of this energy harvested from the sun and wind by way of wind turbines and solar panels.

Current models have an outside wall of glass that runs the length of the house, angled towards the equator, enhancing thermal performance. An inside greenhouse runs the length of this hallway of glass, where the owner can grow a supply of their own food.

Earthship Biotecture Visitor Center, Taos, NM

The earthship has a natural ventilation system. A 30-foot pipe extends under the berm outside the house into the inside, cooling the air by the time it reaches the interior of the house. As hot air rises, the system creates a steady airflow, cooler air coming in through tubes near ground level and warmer air blowing out through smaller upper windows in the greenhouse.

Most all homes have esthetically pleasing stained-glass windows as part of their design and a woman who works at the main campus is the creative artist behind the beautiful patterns built into many of the home’s walls, using the bottoms of various colored glass bottles.

Many doorways adorned with attractive glass bottle designs

We were so intrigued after touring the visitor center that we decided to take a short tour of the grounds with Justin, whose diverse background seems perfect for such a forward-thinking venture. His knowledge of permaculture has led him to study how much food can be raised for personal consumption in the smallest of spaces. We decided on a whim to delay our travels by a day and spent the night in one of the Global Earthship models – Picuris.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Since Michael has seen his uncommon housing concept come to fruition, he has taken his Earthship Academy on a ride around the globe to teach other cultures to build autonomous homes. He is organizing sustainable development and poverty relief projects around the world. A list of those international projects can be seen on his website, earthshipglobal.com.

If you have a passion for sustainability, as we do, and find yourself near Taos, New Mexico, I highly recommend taking a tour of the visitor center at Earthship Biotecture, or perhaps rent an earthship for the night. You just might enjoy the ride. 🙂

46 thoughts on “Hitch a Ride on an Earthship

  • I love the Native American proverb you quoted as your intro. Sadly, we’re leaving our children with a world of catastrophic environmental disasters. It’s easy to appreciate the beauty of these homes, inside and out, as well as the many innovative solutions that architect Michael Reynolds has created. Loved this post and the introduction to the Earthships! Anita

    • Thanks Anita! I agree with you on what kind of future are children are destined to inherit given our decisions. It is terribly sad on so many fronts.

  • Lovely the proverb but I worry what we are leaving our children. What an interesting place you found. I love the concept and beautiful designs. We have seen a couple of old ghost towns where glass bottles were used, and I always thought it made for such attractive designs. The homes on the mesa that they share on the website slide show are just beautiful. All that greenery inside instantly make you feel healthier. Definitely spending the night is the way to truly appreciate the working of this sustainable concept. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Very cool place! So wish it would take off.. there are so many ways to be more self-sufficient, to create a smaller footprint. Thanks for sharing this with us!

    • My pleasure Julianne. I too wish it would take off but I wonder, since Michael Reynolds introduced this concept back in the ’70’s. He continues to tweak his designs, trying to improve upon the original models.

  • This is amazing stuff. It all sound so fantastic and self sufficient. Wonder if it really works. I think building houses with materials like this is great, but would there be enough water? We were just looking at solar energy and how to heat up water through that. Another great thing to do. There are fantastic ideas out there, at the moment very expensive though!

    • Yes Ute, unfortunately they are expensive. As for the water, that is a conundrum. I believe they have had to supplement some this past year due to the drought situation, which seems to be affecting so many around the world.

  • Wow! This is fantastic news. I think it’s wonderful, when people try to do things to improve our world, especially reusing things that are considered waste. It may take a very long time for this to catch on, but I wish them well, with this project Thank you for sharing!

  • What an interesting place! As we fill up our landfills (at least with whatever trash isn’t thrown on the ground and into the ocean) we really need to find alternatives. Of course, the first choice would be to generate less waste, but certainly using the waste in creative ways is preferable to throwing it away. I love the use of the bottle bottoms as light-conducting decorations.

    • I agree that less waste is much more preferable, particularly plastic. The glass bottle designs were lovely. Now if we could only solve the water problem in this world.

  • So that’s what they are! I remembered seeing those cool and different homes when we drove there many years ago. Now you have given us ideas on a new route with Betsy.
    It is disheartening how we human kind are littering our own earth. So glad to see some people are innovative and creative in reusing waster materials.

    • I loved the concept MonaLiza. It would be great if it took off as a more mainstream way to build. I heard a comment once that we are the only species who messes in the nest in which we live. Pretty sad state of affairs.

  • Love this post LuAnn. It’s amazing what he’s doing. My sister and a friend almost went there to learn how to build an earthship about 10 or 15 years ago, but in the end life pulled them in other directions.

    • It was fascinating Alison. I think it is equally interesting that he has taken the time to write extensive manuals so that those not familiar with the homebuilding process can build their own, or at a minimum assist in the process.

  • We were fascinated with the Earthship community, too. I always thought it would be fun to stay there—it’s so cool that you did! Love seeing the photos of the interior. It makes so much sense to use what we currently regard as trash in innovative ways. There are a lot of people doing wonderfully creative work with recycled materials (art/clothing/housing) so hopefully, the idea will gain traction. It would also help if we stopped producing things like single-use plastic water bottles. Eric and I picked up at least three dozen on a Washington coast beach last week. 😦
    Thanks for sharing such a thoughtful post, LuAnn.

  • Wow! A definite ‘need-to-visit’ for me. His designs remind me of Antoni Gaudí, and his sustainable ideas remind me of Marie Granmar and Charles Sacilotto’s “Naturhus” in Stockholm.

  • This is a great idea, thinking about how to stop waste shouldn’t just end at recycling some things and this is a prime reason to start thinking about all the stuff that is so easily discarded. If Michael needs more plastic bottles, let him know there are loads clogging up the waterways of The Philippines and I am sure they will be happy to oblige him in collecting them for a better use.

    • I try to recycle everything I can and often go to the thrift stores instead of buying new items. I know that just scratches the surface of what must be done Ste J. I wish plastic water bottles would be banned. They are terrible for the environment and not good for those who drink the water.

  • I read this offline at home last night (via email notification of your post) and wanted to jump through the screen to see images that had not loaded, and to explore the link and to say, ‘Beam me up PRONTO’ and learn all that they have to teach!!!! I’m now parked at a public park wifi hotspot; it’s blazing hot, so will again take this home, with images on the screen and link opened – and enjoy tonight when all is quiet!

    • I knew this would resonate with you Lisa. I am thinking that Michael Reynolds could teach some in your neck of the woods how to build these sustainable homes.

  • Wow what an amazing concept! I have never heard of Earthships before but what a brilliant, creative idea. Thanks so much for sharing LuAnn. I’d love to check them out for myself someday.

  • I read about these Earthships long ago when I studied architecture. I have always wanted to visit, but still as much time as I have spent in New Mexico, I have yet to make it to Taos! Someday soon… I love that you got to overnight in one!

  • This is absolutely incredible!!!!! I have seen glass bottles and tires used in natural mud/strawbale constructions before, but nothing of this scale and beauty. Really magnificent work and philosophy and just everything. Such a brilliant idea to incorporate the “garbage” that we all toss out so liberally, filling up landfills and indicative of a society of consumerism.

    The aesthetic and architectural detail is fabulous too. Thanks for showing the process along the way of the construction. Fascinating. I would happily live in one of these! With climate change now becoming the new reality we really do all need to think in new ways.. Not automatically buy new and consume more but look around and use what is around us and has been used before.

    Love this!! Kudos!! Thanks for sharing.


    • My pleasure Peta. Now if someone could just figure out what to do in the states afflicted by drought. I do agree that we must begin to think differently. We recycle and try to reuse what we can but I know we can do better. I also love to shop at thrift shops, not only for the bargains but also because I am recycling clothing.

  • Hi LuAnn! What awesome photos you have. Thom and I visited this area a number of years ago but didn’t go to the “school” there…I think it might have been closed when we were there so we missed the tour. But we did stay a couple of nights in an Earthship VRBO one time, and then Thom went out and stayed with a Native American Shamen another time who has his own community. We too LOVE the look and especially the concept behind them. We also really like the Cal-Earth Homes out of Lancaster in southern California which use some of the same practices. Unfortunately a lot of cities are resistant to this progressive architecture but I think times are changes. We thought it would make a fabulous design for a co-housing experience too. Thanks for sharing this info! ~Kathy

    • My pleasure Kathy. I would love to spend time with a shaman. It must have been an amazing experience. Thanks for the tip on the Cal-Earth Homes. I am interested in learning more.

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