“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.
Michael wanted to create housing that would do three things:
- Utilize local materials and/or recycled materials wherever possible.
- Rely on natural energy sources and be sustainable (“off the grid”).
- 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.
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. 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂
Next Up: Heading to the Mile-High City