TAOS, N.M. — Mike Reynolds never worried too much as the world inched closer to doomsday. In the spring of 2020, motorists lined up in their cars outside grocery stores waiting for food as the coronavirus pandemic first wrapped its tentacles around the global supply chain. Next came an unprecedented surge of extreme weather as wildfires devastated the American West, hurricanes lashed tropical coastlines and a deadly winter storm brought the Texas power grid to its knees.
Earthships are off-grid, self-reliant houses built from tires, dirt and garbage that have long been an offbeat curiosity for travelers passing by the ski town of Taos, but suddenly look like a haven for climate doomers. Residents of the 630-acre flagship Earthship community treat their own waste, collect their own water, grow their own food, and regulate their own temperature by relying on the sun, rain and earth, which Reynolds and other adherents call natural “phenomena.”
Reynolds, 76, has been building these structures — he calls them “vessels” — since the early 1970s when, after graduating from architecture school at the University of Cincinnati, he took up off-road motorcycle racing on the high desert plateau around Taos to try to injure himself to avoid being drafted to the Vietnam War. He never left, attracting interest and eyerolls as dozens of Earthships arose from the dirt.
“They were talking about a freak on the mesa in New Mexico building buildings out of garbage. That was scandalous,” Reynolds said. But he gained more followers as people became more conscious of climate change, and 2020 brought a surge of interest in new construction. “Now,” he said, “all they’re doing is just going apes—.”
Earthships operate using six green-building principles governing heating and cooling, solar electricity, water collection, sewage treatment, food production, and the use of natural and recycled materials. This meant that when Earthships emerged in the 1970s, they “addressed something nobody else did: What do we do with garbage?” said Rachel Preston Prinz, a green designer in Santa Fe, N.M., who wrote the book “Hacking the Earthship.” About 40 percent of a typical Earthship is built with natural or recycled materials, most notably foundations and walls made up of hundreds of used tires packed with dirt. These work with dual layers of floor-to-ceiling passive solar windows, which collect sun during winter and reject it in the summer to keep structures at a comfortable room temperature, no matter the weather outside.
Inside a usual customized Earthship, arched, cavernous living spaces resemble what Tatooine bunkers in “Star Wars” would look like if the Skywalkers made annual pilgrimages to Burning Man. Plants line corridors between inner and outer windows, while glass bottles and aluminum cans stuffed inside walls make rooms look like mosaic playgrounds resembling the work of Antoni Gaudí. “It’s incredibly beautiful,” said Britt Shacham Bernstein, 25, shortly after visiting an Earthship for the first time. “There’s a whole ecosystem in here, and you’re a part of the ecosystem.”
Earthships originally spawned from the arid climate of Taos, maximizing abundant sunlight while squeezing whatever they can from about eight inches of annual rainfall. Each Earthship shares a set of core organs such as a water organization module, which filters and separates water as it moves throughout the house. In the Earthship ecosystem, water is first used for drinking, showering and hand washing before moving to interior plants, such as fig and banana trees, along with hanging gardens of herbs and flowers. The resulting “black water” is used in the toilet before being flushed into a septic tank, where it fertilizes ornamental outdoor plants and can then be safely released into the groundwater supply.
A typical Earthship can produce 25 to 50 percent of the food its residents need, depending on a multitude of factors including diet, climate and how much time is spent on garden maintenance, said Phil Basehart, a construction team leader. If you follow a plant-based diet, you may never have to visit a grocery store again. This appeals not only to rugged survivalists, but to people suddenly worried about where their food will come from after the pandemic. “We got more business because of it,” Basehart said. “People were looking at this as their panic room, so to speak.”
Steven Jewett, a pumpkin farmer and real estate broker in New York’s Catskills region who describes himself as a “liberal prepper,” bought an Earthship in October with three friends as a rental property — under the condition that if any of them lose their home because of a catastrophe, “we get to go to one of our vacation houses until the dust clears.”
Jewett’s group paid $396,000 for their Earthship — more than the asking price of $379,000 — beating out two other bidders. Earthships sell for similar prices as conventional homes of comparable size and location, and cost slightly more to build, although their design can save owners money over time. Jewett estimates the group saves about $1,500 each year in utility costs.
But there are also stories of failed builds and abandoned projects, sometimes after tens of thousands of dollars have been spent, and Reynolds has faced lawsuits from unsatisfied buyers. Earthships are experimental, evolving and imperfect structures, and most American families cannot afford expensive growing pains.
Enthusiasts warn against buying or building an Earthship before participating in an Earthship Academy, in which students pay about $1,000 to spend a month helping with a build and taking classes on construction and maintenance. An Earthship is “not plug and play,” said Dobson, who graduated in October from the academy in Taos, and homeowners can be “dependent on people in the Earthship community” to help them solve problems. They’re also hard to build, and many prospective owners hire the for-profit Earthship Biotecture as contractors. “You’re packing 400 pounds of dirt into a tire,” Dobson said. “That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
Reynolds has turned his focus to a new model, which he calls Unity, that incorporates cost-cutting measures such as eliminating roof vents and using just one layer of glass windows. This could make builds about one-third cheaper than most Earthships. As he pounded tires into submission, the gray-maned Reynolds said he wants these structures to be more efficient so inhabitants can take what they need from the earth, rather than relying on a global economy of abundance. “A lion doesn’t kill 40 elk and stash them somewhere,” he said. “He kills an elk every time he gets hungry.”
You hear a lot of this talk on the mesa — how self-sufficiency can mesh with symbiosis to entirely invert our world of dependency and domination — and you start to imagine a world in which Earthships make up our homes, offices, supermarkets and hospitals. Oil and gas companies would crumble, and yesterday’s hulking SUVs would serve not as a smoldering dystopian backdrop, but as insulation for your living room.
Reynolds has tried to build multifamily and commercial structures for years but has run into permit problems, forcing his team to experiment with new projects in places with loose building codes. His team has built a typhoon shelter in the Philippines, disaster relief homes in Puerto Rico and an in-progress school in southern Haiti, which was devastated by an earthquake this past summer.
The projects are mostly funded by volunteers who pay to work on the builds and learn about Earthships, just like they do at the academies in New Mexico. But these volunteers and graduates, many of whom dream of their own Earthships, inevitably encounter that moment where hopes on the mesa collide with social realities. Word Smith, a translator from Tucson, finished October’s academy certain that he wanted to live in an Earthship, and although he’s ready to upend his life to do that, most municipalities do not grant people permission to build from waste and rubber.
Reynolds knows humanity needs time to be swayed. He compares people to a banana plant in his Earthship that, as the months pass, gradually bends to reach the sunlight. Just before the pandemic, he received a diagnosis of Stage 4 prostate cancer. It has driven him to build as many Earthships as he possibly can.