By Eva Amsen.
In early August, I found myself surrounded by garbage: Empty bottles, cans, old tires—all covered in mud—and it was a dream come true.
This kind of garbage forms the building blocks of the walls of the self-sustainable homes called Earthships. I first heard of Earthships after watching the documentary “Garbage Warrior” a few years ago. This film focuses on Michael Reynolds, who has been building Earthships since 1969. Motivated by the realization that the Earth's resources are limited, Reynolds started building homes using materials that would normally end up as landfill. Over the years, his skills improved to create affordable, and self-sustainable, off-grid homes. Others learned how to build according to the same principles, and at the moment, there are Earthships all over North America, as well as in the UK, France, and several other countries.
Outside of Studio Earthship
The Greater World community, 15 miles north-west of Taos, New Mexico, is the largest community of Earthships, and home to a visitor centre where you can learn all about the homes. You can also rent some of the homes on a nightly basis, and when I found myself in New Mexico with a few days to spare in between some meetings, I knew exactly where I wanted to go…
Inside of Earthship
I rented the Studio home for one night. The temperature outside dropped from scalding hot in the afternoon to chilly in the evening, and a thunderstorm blew south over the mountains to bring rain at night. But inside the Studio Earthship, the temperature stayed constant and comfortable. The walls, composed of giant building bricks made from tires filled with earth, act as a perfect insulator.
Taos gets gets quite extreme changes in weather over the year: hot in summer, but with large amounts of snow in winter. Even though the Greater World community of Earthships is wide open and exposed to all elements, the houses are built to deal with this without any commercial insulation materials—just with garbage, earth, and a layer of cement.
Uncovered wall in another building
Glass bottle wall
The houses are not just functional and sustainable, but beautiful, too. Glass bottles that are used to reduce the need for other building materials turn into mosaics, and the plants—merely aesthetic in most homes—are part of the entire Earthship “biotecture”. It's possible to grow your own food indoors, for example. Watering the plants is just part of the whole water circulation process: water from rain and snow is collected via the roof into a cistern, from where it's filtered for washing and drinking use. After draining through the sink, the water then reaches the planter, waters the plants, and is finally used to flush the toilet.
Planter inside studio earthship
I had a look around the visitor centre as well. Here you could see exactly how the houses were built. Several of the other visitors just drove up from Taos for the afternoon to have a look. Others were very interested in building their own Earth Ship, and were taking part in seminars to learn the basics.
New visitor center
The Earthship community also offers internships. When I was taking an evening stroll along the road past the houses, a young guy on a motorcycle, with camping equipment on the back, drove up and asked me for directions. The visitor centre was closed, but he was there to look for an internship. He eventually found some staff camping on the grounds, and hopefully they had some work for him.
Road in the Greater World Community
Building Earthships can be done anywhere in the world, and basic earthships have been built in the wake of disasters that left people without homes, such as the Haiti earthquake earlier this year. Closer to home, there is also a resource specifically for people in Canada interested in Earthships.
Eva Amsen is a biochemist, science writer, musician, and filmmaker. Among other projects, she is working on an interview series with scientists who are also musicians. We've profiled her documentary film work on WorldChanging Canada (Minimizing waste, through the lens of the lab), and are delighted to feature her words and photographs in this guest travelogue.
For more bright green travelogues, see:
Sustainability Observations from the Road | John Lewis
Hot Japan's Cool Green Trends | Madeline Ashby
Blogging Under Water | Lisa Mighton
For more bright green architecture, see:
The Now House Project: The Return of a Canadian Icon | Jon Booren
Toronto's Tower Renewal | Madeline Ashby