The Good Earthship

People say Michael Reynolds’ outlandish Earthship home designs are pure rubbish. They’re absolutely right. 

What do old tires, aluminum cans and discarded bottles have in common? Yes, they’re typical trash found in landfills. But they’re also the key components of architect Michael Reynolds’ “Earthship,” a futuristic, custom-crafted and highly sustainable house dreamed up by Reynolds almost 50 years ago.

Reynolds’ initial compound, the Greater World Earthship Community, consists of 130 dome-shaped homesites—roughly 70 of which are currently developed—on 640 acres near Taos, New Mexico. About half of the land is part of a green belt that can never be developed upon. But any homes that are built have several requirements, according to Reynolds.

Earthship homes must be constructed from natural, indigenous and repurposed materials. Tires filled with packed soil are used to build the main support walls; aluminum cans, mortar, and glass bottles are used for interior walls. At least 40 percent of the structure must be recycled material, but “an owner can otherwise be as sustainable or traditional as they want,” Reynolds said in an interview with NBC News. 

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Each house is constructed from indigenous natural and recycled materials such as tires filled with packed soil, aluminum cans, mortar, and glass bottles. Credit: Courtesy of Earthship Biotecture

The living spaces of Earthships are heated and cooled by solar energy and thermal mass. Cooling is also enhanced with natural ventilation through buried cooling tubes and operable vent boxes. 

To aid with thermal heating, the north side of the house is buried underground. Windows make up most of the south-facing wall, which acts as a heat collector and makes a room here into a perfect greenhouse, where food can be produced all year. A typical Earthship can produce 25 to 50 percent of the food its residents need.

Power is generated on site by photovoltaic solar panels and wind. The home’s reliance on clean energy works well; an Earthship’s electrical needs are only 25 percent of what’s needed for a conventional home, according to Reynolds. Most residents can meet their energy needs with 1 kilowatt or less of energy production from solar panels. 

The wind power is actually a backup for overcast or stormy days. “The homes are meant to be completely off the grid,” he notes. Rainwater is collected, stored, and filtered for residential use. Wastewater/greywater is treated on site and used for toilets and irrigation, including for crops.

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Even after a half-century at the helm, Michael Reynolds, center, is still getting his hands dirty and working out his lower back on Earthship projects. Credit: Courtesy of Earthship Biotecture

In addition, the designs are intentionally uncomplicated and usually single story, to allow people with limited building knowledge to construct them. Stories abound about couples who build their own Earthships by themselves in two or three months, using only standard yard equipment and the printed plans.

A Different Brick and Mortar

Earthships, which remind people of Luke Skywalker’s home on Tatooine in “Star Wars,” are quite durable. The foundation is built by pounding gravel into used car tires. In effect, they become like thermal bricks, and they can reach up to 300 pounds. This creates a hurricane- and earthquake-resistant foundation for the home, according to sluiceartfair.com.

The walls are then built up using cement or adobe, and more thermal bricks/tires, as well as recycled aluminum cans. The homes are then insulated with more compact trash. Adobe can also be used for floors, along with reclaimed wood and metal in other areas. Decorative internal or external walls can include recycled plastic or glass bottles to help provide natural light. 

The construction ends up being almost totally fire resistant because none of the construction materials burn easily, if at all, as noted in “Earthship Volume 1: How to Build Your Own,” the first part of Reynolds’ trilogy on the art of Earthship construction. 

With the natural insulation, indoor temperatures remain very stable, although the exact comfort level can depend on the local climate. Typically, they hover around 70 degrees F year-round. Critics say Earthships are better suited to drier, warmer locations, such as at Reynolds’ home base in Taos. 

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Designed for total self sufficiency, an Earthship covers all the bases: wind and solar for power, rainwater collection for water consumption and irrigation, a greenhouse for food production, and window placement for natural lighting and temperature control. Credit: Jenny Parkins/Flickr

Reynolds says the units can be effective in other locales, including colder regions such as Canada or the Northeastern U.S. Thus far, 35 states and numerous other countries have begun their own Earthship projects, with the help of Reynolds and his teams of “Earthship Biotects.” 

Jonah Reynolds, an Earthship Biotect like his father, notes that there has been a definite shift in what people think of Earthships. When his father first started building them in the 1970s, most of them sat empty. Now, thanks to concern over climate change, and a stay-at-home lifestyle brought on by the pandemic, “demand is skyrocketing,” Reynolds notes. “We can’t build them fast enough.” 

Certainly, no one is going to argue about the impact Earthships can have upon the world’s waste. “There’s no shortage of used tires,” Michael Reynolds notes. “At least 2.5 billion are currently stockpiled in the United States, with 2.5 million more discarded every year. The tires can actually be seen as a globally available natural resource.”

Learning lessons About Building Earthships

A typical Earthship might contain 900 tires, 2,000 glass bottles, and 10,000 aluminum cans, all of which are pulled out of the landfill or prevented from getting there in the first place, according to theministryofarchitecture.com. That’s the type of information that Reynolds and others wanted to bring to the world. 

In response came the Earthship Academy, a four-week on-site course out of Taos that teaches participants about the water systems, solar and wind energy, and indoor farming while providing hands-on instruction. They also practice building elements of their own Earthships. There is also an online version for interested people who can’t make the trip to New Mexico. 

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All Earthships, such as this one in Phoenix, must include a greenhouse for growing air-freshening plants, and ones that produce food. Credit: Kyle Greenberg/Flickr

The Greater World Earthship Community also features a free visitor’s center, open 365 days per year, that anyone may go to if they want to learn more about the history of the Earthship, and its benefits to the environment. Site tours are also offered. Similar centers have been constructed at other project sites worldwide.

In 2007, Reynolds was the subject of a highly acclaimed independent film, “Garbage Warrior,” which showed another side of the Earthship construction process: the frustration of working with local, state, and federal government for approval and public acceptance of his project. The movie is not kind to New Mexico lawmakers, who take away his architect’s license in the late 1990s for building structures that are “in breach of nearly every rule in the book.” 

Reynolds unsuccessfully tries to have a bill, “The Sustainable Development Testing Site Act,” approved by state lawmakers that would grant him land for development of sustainable buildings, and appears to be finished as an innovator. But ironically, a natural but tragic event by Mother Nature helps another version of the bill pass in 2007. Work begins on the Greater World Earthship Community soon after.

Reynolds says he has had his ups and downs during his career, but he’s survived everything because of one philosophy: Not being afraid to try new ideas, even if it’s possible to make serious mistakes. “Basically, if you’re screwing up while trying something, you’re turning over rocks for pearls,” he says in the film. “If you don’t get into the belief that you are always right, and if you don’t let people set you up for that, then you can’t fail.”

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