Underground in an Earthship
Every spring, environmental groups pull tons of trash from U. S. streams and rivers, including old tires, bottles and cans, which is then hauled away to the landfill. If Michael Reynolds, the principle biotech and creator of the Earthship Concept has his way, that trash will be in great demand as an earthship building product. Or even better, it will never be tossed into our waterways in the first place.
What is an earthship you ask? Until my recent visit to the earthship world headquarters near Taos, NM, I would have asked the same question and my guess would have been that they were some sort of Star Wars transport vehicle. What I know now is that earthships are not some sort of space ship. Rather they are a growing form of alternative housing that makes use of indigenous materials that occur naturally in the local area. Indigenous materials may be the stone, reeds, trees, or mud that humans have used for centuries to create safe havens from the elements and wild animals.
Indigenous materials, according to the earthships website, may be also defined as the “natural resources of the modern humanity” such as automobile tires, glass bottles and aluminum cans.
But if it’s a house, why is it called an earthship? According the Michael Reynolds, who built his first sustainable house in 1971, the word “house’ has a preconceived idea in people’s mind. He says that an
earthship is a machine, a ship, if you will, that will sail on the seas of tomorrow. After my visit, I must admit that my preconceived idea about houses, how they’re built and how they function has been forever changed.
ship residences are self-sustaining. They use solar panels and wind mills to generate DC energy that is stored in several types of deep cycle batteries until needed, capture and store water from rainfall and/or snow melt and take advantage of the earth’s constant temperature to virtually eliminate the need for heating and cooling.
With the ability to generate its own utilities, earthships are built off-grid as much as possible. Windows on the open side of the unit are oriented to capture light from the sun in the winter (great for l
ush year round indoor gardens) and to avoid the sun’s direct rays as much as possible in the summer. If desired, additional electricity can be provided by gasoline powered generators.
The main building component of earthships is old automobile tires that have been rammed full of earth using a sledge hammer or a pneumatic tamper. The earth filled tires, eac
h weighing about 300 pounds, are used to build walls in much the same way that bricks are used in traditional construction and to provide insulation from heat and cold. Much of the roof is covered with more earth which provides additional insulation and energy efficiency.
Most of the interior non-weight bearing walls are built with a honeycomb of aluminum cans set in concrete or papercrete, an industrial strength paper maché made with paper and cardboard, sand and cement. Including colorful bottles in the wall construction adds an inviting decorative touch. To get the look of traditional home interior, the can walls are covered with a laye
r of concrete, finished with stucco then painted in the same way as drywall. Heavy wood beam ceilings complete the look.
In addition to using recycled materials to build the earthship, the water is also recycled – up to four times before it is returned to the earth. Precipitation in the form of rain water or snow melt is funneled into a huge bermed cistern that is an integral part of the house and then treated and filtered for cooking, drinking, bathing, and cleaning. The resulting grey water flows into a greywater treatment and containment system (it looks clean but is not potable), used to water the interior gardens then is sent on to flush the toilets. Finally the “black” water is pumped outdoors to a solar heated conventional but fast acting mini sewage treatment plant. An optional line can be added and used to direct water to the exterior landscape.
By reusing water, installing low flow shower heads, using low water washing machines, and hand washing dishes, an earthship can use as little as 20 gallons (about 76 liters) of water each day compared to 80 gallons (about 302 liters) in the traditional home.
Construction costs for earthship homes are about the same as for traditional homes. Because the homes are off-the-grid for utilities, the savings for homeowners is in the ongoing cost of home ownership. The total annual utility bill for a typical two bedroom earthship may be as low as US$100. Because the homes use solar and thermal heating and cooling, the interior temperature stays at about 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees) year round so no heating or air-conditioning is needed.
Although a major part of an earthship home is buried below ground level, its residents do not live like cave dwellers. Homes are spacious typically with two to four bedrooms and its residents enjoy the same modern conveniences as residents of traditional homes and, like traditional homes, earthships can be customized to meet the needs of the owner. As their own power company, owners tend to be more aware of energy consumption. However, they can still have high speed internet service, large flat screen televisions, fire places, personal computers, bathtubs, flush toilets, and even dishwashers.
According to Reynolds, earthships exist in all 50 states and in hot, cold, rainy, and dry climates in many other countries around the world. While building these homes is labor
intensive, they can be erected with limited skilled labor so they are ideal for do it yourselfers and many third world countries. One of the largest earthship communities in the United States is the one I visited in Taos, NM.
As interest in alternative energy grows, so does interest in earthship homes. Skeptics can experience earthship living in Taos by taking advantage of nightly rentals that cost just a few dollars more than a room at the local mid-priced cookie cutter chain hotel. After experiencing an earthship, you may develop less appreciation fossil fuels and a yen to begin storing used tires, beer and soda cans, and colored bottles.
If you go
The Earthship World Headquarters is west of Taos on Highway 64 about 1.5 miles past the Rio Grande Bridge - about a 15 minute drive from downtown Taos. It is a 3 hour drive from the Albuquerque International Airport, 3.5 hours from the Colorado Springs Airport, and 5 hours from the Denver International Airport.
For $5 you may take a self-guided tour of the earthship world headquarters office to see the exterior and interior of an earthship, watch videos and DVDs and look at many drawings and photos of existing earthship homes. There is always someone available to answer questions.
Nightly rentals are available. Advanced reservations required.