Want to Live More Sustainably? Consider Moving to an Earthship
For Earthship Biotecture in Taos, building the future just takes some beer cans and a can-do attitude.
Just a few minutes from downtown Taos, New Mexico, at the base of the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains, you’ll find the clusters of buildings that make up the Taos Pueblo. They are spectacular marvels of architecture: Each completely constructed of adobe, one stands five stories tall and has been in continual use by the Pueblo peoples for an estimated 1,000 years. There are no heating or cooling systems, just natural insulation provided by dense slabs of mud and straw, which radiate warmth in the winter and cool in the summer and buoy an ancient culture that continues to this day. It’s an energy-efficient model for sustainable living, dating back to when there wasn’t a need to worry about those things. Or even have a word for them.
For some, the Pueblo is a tacked-on excursion when visiting a town primarily known for skiing and roaming the same dirt as celebrity settlers like Julia Roberts, Georgia O’Keefe, and Dennis Hopper (the Taos Pueblo is featured in his film Easy Rider, and he’s buried in nearby Talpa). But at its heart, this is a region deeply connected to—even running on—the earth. The famous Ojo Caliente Resort utilizes the area’s natural hot springs (along with plenty of additional, less known hot springs if you know where to look). There are hiking trails galore that fill your senses with nature. Solar panels dot the landscape, drinking in the abundant sunlight. There’s even a solar powered radio station.
And about 24 miles away from the Pueblo, past a bridge over a gorge in the earth that stretches down to the surging Rio Grande, is a more recent version of sustainable housing. Keep an eye out—the whimsical Gaudi-esque structures may sneak up on you, rounded earthen shapes having you believe you landed on Tatooine. Like the Pueblo, the outer walls of these structures are also slathered with straw and mud adobe. For extra insulation, the north sides are buried in the dirt, while to the south, a full wall of windows face the sun and stars.
This 630-acre plot off Highway 64 is helmed by the design and construction company Earthship Biotecture (a play on “biology” and “architecture”), founded by renegade former architect Michael Reynolds to build sustainable models which he (or rather, his wife) dubbed earthships. And though “earthship” sounds like something an alien would call their house when trying to blend in, the philosophy is simple, and wholly human: These (almost) fully off-grid homes generate no waste and, once built, cost almost nothing to maintain. First designed in the early 1970s, the high desert structures run off solar and wind power, while rainwater caught in a cistern, though often scarce in these parts, gets reused multiple times for everything from bathing to washing clothes and watering plants. (The almost part is that they use propane for cooking and source WiFi from the city of Taos.)
The fact that they can do all this with so little makes a pretty convincing argument for this style of homebuilding being a blueprint for the future, despite having been around for a few decades. The Taos earthship community we visited was started in the 1990s, and currently comprises about 90 of an eventual 130 planned structures. Some are built as rentals, others as forever homes. But the architectural concept extends far beyond New Mexico: Today there are earthships in over 30 states and 40 countries, with interest in affordable, low carbon footprint homes unsurprisingly surging over the last few pandemic-strewn years.
And it all began because a guy named Mike, who rode his bike out to the desert in an attempt to dodge the Vietnam War, saw some old tires and beer cans and thought, Hey, I could build a house out of that.
I’m standing in a model called “Unity,” one of four earthship designs on the Taos property. This is their newest, sold for $650,000 and rentable for $240 a night. The smell of sun-warmed basil permeates the air, and that’s by design: Each ship contains a greenhouse designed to help to sustain its occupants with kale, tomatoes, and the like. In this rental, it’s more for show, but the greenery does lend to the natural ambiance: Next to the basil, a banana tree cranes towards the massive south-facing windows, framed by snow-capped mountains.
Out in the elements, it can be any temperature; here, in this massive two-bedroom, two-bathroom space (way more spacious than my apartment in New York), it’s always a cool 60 to 70 degrees. It’s also surprisingly luxurious. There’s a washer and dryer, gorgeous hand-made live-edge furniture, a deep bathtub, and a massive television. There’s a full-sized fridge and stove, and plush bathrobes hanging in the closet. The design in the kitchen follows a rustic farmhouse motif, with cabinets hugging a curved wall. Butts of glass bottles are embeded in walls to form colorful mosaics, a staple of the “trash to treasure” earthship design, and I note that there is an abundance of turquoise, from the walls and cabinets to the bathrooms. “Mike loves turquoise,” confirms my guide, Lauren Anderson.
But for all their aesthetic qualities, the earthships continue to appeal because they promote self-sufficiency, cheaply. And they do it by fulfilling some core design needs: providing for heating and cooling; harnessing solar and wind energy for electricity, organizing water collection, food production, and sewage treatment; and utilizing natural and upcycled materials. Throw in Netflix, and there’s little need for much else.
Earthships are probably most famous for their penchant for trash, thanks in part to a 2007 documentary about Reynolds called Garbage Warrior. After he received his degree from the University of Cincinnati and moved to Taos in 1969, the story goes, Reynolds was both concerned about the lack of affordable housing and man’s immense ability to generate refuse. Rubber tires particularly intrigued him. It’s a “naturally occurring” resource, and the number of used tires is consistently growing—currently there’s at least 2.5 million discarded every year. So, he turned them into building materials. In the earthships, tires are packed with dirt to become bricks, which are then layered and covered with concrete and adobe to create thick insulating outer walls. Inner walls utilize beer cans, which are arguably much more fun to procure.
And at the age of 77, Reynolds has imbued his principles with longevity. Today, Earthship Biotecture runs internships and four-week academies, launched for the benefit of those with an eye towards building their own earthships for about $250,000 to $1,500,000, while also working to spread the philosophy worldwide.
Both the school and the housing itself attracts all types. “We get all kinds of people,” says tour guide Anderson, who first arrived at the company via her time at the academy. “Families, couples. A lot of people associate us with being a community of hippies, but it’s kind of grown past that.” Ten of the homes in the Taos compound are occupied by employees of the company, and the rest are filled with everyone from IT professionals to yoga instructors to a couple that run a music magazine in Denver.
Fulfilling Reynolds’s vision, you’ll find earthships all over, including one in Colorado Springs that captivated Instagram. “People are attracted to it simply because of its uniqueness,” say Jeff and Melissa Alger, property managers for an earthship in Big Sky in Montana built specifically for vacation rentals. Going for $632 a night, there are two in the area, both built by Reynolds and his students. “When people come to Big Sky, they have a plethora of options for lodging, yet they will pay more to stay in a fully functional, private off-grid home,” the couple explained over email. “A lot of guests from big cities comment how peaceful it is and how they feel like they can really relax and unwind.”
Repeat guests are not uncommon, and in a place known for its skiing, the Algers’s renters are most surprised at how warm the structures can be. “The guests that have stayed there are most surprised that you can have a fully off-grid home function the same as if you were in any regular home,” they note. “As soon as they walk into the home, the smell from the greenhouse and the moderate temperature, despite the absence of a heater, really surprises them.”
Some even show up ready to take the next step. “Even before a guest stays inside the home, they will write to us stating how excited they are about their upcoming stay, saying that they want to experience the Earthship before they build their own,” add the property managers.
But if you’re not ready to go all in just yet, maybe a visit to Taos is in order. At Earthship Biotecture’s visitor’s center, you can sign up for both guided and self-guided tours. If the timing is right, you might even get to sit in on a seminar. And if all else fails, you can always do a drive-by to feel like you’re on another, more sustainable planet. Maybe consider bringing ‘em a few tires as an offering.