I used to think I was an environmentally friendly person. Then I visited the Earthships of New Mexico and realize I'm a total slacker.
I've long practiced "reduce, reuse, recycle" habits. I try not to use plastic if I can avoid it, conserve water and paper and electricity in dozen of ways. This is nothing compared to what Earthship dwellers are doing. These people and their houses are a showcase to next-level sustainable living enthusiasm. But they're also probably a little "out there."
What's an Earthship?
In brief, an Earthship is a type of passive sustainable housing. They're also called "solar earth shelters," and they're predominately made of natural and upcycled materials. They're also creative art projects. Earthships can support life completely off the grid. And that's probably where it starts to get weird.
I learned about Earthships doing random internet searches about New Mexico. Of course, I had to see one for myself and learn more about them.
Flying an Earthship
Earthships don't fly, silly. They're only called ships because you can live in them sustainably for an indefinite amount of time like a ship.
Earthships are made entirely out of recycled materials like used car tires, bottles, tin cans and various plastic. These objects are combined with reclaimed wood and adobe mud. They construct them into interesting and creative designs to form the basic structure of the house. Most of them also have Earth piled up around them so they’re partially submerged. They look like art projects coming out of the ground.
Aside from being made from all recycled materials, Earthships are also completely sustainable and self-sufficient. This enables you to live completely off the grid if you so choose. I don't know if all the people who want to live in an Earthship want to be "off the grid," but probably.
What About Water and Electricity?
Electricity comes from solar panels with energy stored in batteries. Heat comes from the sun via specific window positioning. Cool air comes from pipes in the ground and ceiling vents on the roof. The most impressive part, though, is the water.
Water comes from rain and snow and is saved in underground cisterns. It is filtered through a complex natural filtration system created with layers of peat, soil and plants. Greywater is used to water the plants and is filtered and re-filtered many times. Even toilet water is recycled to feed the plants.
Each Earthship has plants in large greenhouses to facilitate the water filtration system. They also provide food.
Once the house is built, they say that it could last forever. Once complete, the owner doesn’t have to pay gas, electric, water or sewage costs. Also, with the large indoor greenhouse capable of growing even many tropical fruits. We saw figs, pineapples and avocado plus more common foods like tomatoes and wheat). Owners could save a lot of money on food too.
Touring the Earthships
Earthships are concentrated mostly in and around El Prado, New Mexico. This is where pioneering architect Michael Reynolds owns many acres of land. Reynolds built the first Earthship there, and now there are over 100 homes in the neighborhood I visited. There are two other neighborhoods nearby. Earthships, however, can be built in any part of the world. In any climate, they'll still provide electricity, potable water, contained sewage treatment and sustainable food production.
My tour guide, Meredith, walked a small group of us through three different houses. The sentiment on tour went from impressed amazement to concerned dismay.
The first Earthship we toured was the visitor's center. It's a single-level, solidly built, interesting and impressive structure. Much of the wood was reclaimed, the indoor garden was thriving, and it looked like a really cool normal house. You wouldn't know that it was completely sustainable unless you started to peek in closets - which we did.
There we could see the complex plumbing for filter water, underground tubes for cool air, and battery packs for energy.
After we left the visitor's center we toured a few other non-occupied homes. These homes are used for teaching and training others to build Earthships. As we walked, Meredith started to mention how happy people were when the quarantine first happened because they were able to live sustainably. I didn't doubt it.
She talked about the counter culture of many of the residents living in the neighborhood. Most have a deep need for privacy and a desire to be entirely self-sufficient. She said some people build their own Earthships, while others hire the company to build for them. Because there are few building codes, some of the homes in the "subdivision" looked questionable. Essentially, they will sell you the land and teach you to build yourself, if that's your choice. A lot of people, desirous of privacy to an extreme degree, choose this route.
However, inside the student housing project, I became concerned about the integrity of the structures. Aside from the visitor's center, the houses on the tour were derelict, unfinished, cluttered with junk and dirty. I’m not sure why they wouldn’t keep them clean, knowing they use them to show groups of people.
One house, spectacular in its design, also looked like it was about to topple over. It was two stories tall and had beautiful rainbow patterns and sculpture built into the house's walls. Toward the end of the tour, she told us the building inspector made them stop construction on it. I’m not surprised. In one area, we could see the exposed roof beams, holding a massive ceiling, were supported only by stacked pieces of wood. It all looked incredibly unstable.
When I asked about some of the building construction I saw, Meredith said that Earthships are very stable. She said their base of dirt-filled tires provides flexibility and incredible stability. I'm no architect, but for the most part, I think that’s true until you get to two stories high. I don't see how a 10,000-pound roof balanced on 12 random pieces of stacked wood is "stable." But what do I know?
Overall, despite the non-traditional building techniques, the Earthships were amazing. It's a lesson in how much more sustainable we can be. Setting up solar electricity and water collection and filtration systems can be achievable for almost any homeowner.
Seeing the Earthship community makes me want to be more sustainable. I’m ok, but I can always conserve more and use less plastic. I bet you can too.
If you're interested in testing it out, Airbnb hosts about half a dozen Earthships.