In December 2020, in one of my first forays into the world since the pandemic had hit almost a year earlier, my partner and I drove to Taos, New Mexico, to visit the Earthship Greater World Community. Because I had spent time in New Mexico in the 1990s and had anthropologist friends who had done ethnographic fieldwork within New Age communities in Taos, I was familiar with Earthships but had never seen one up close. We figured it was a pretty COVID-safe way to do a short vacation, so we took off on our adventure.
What’s an Earthship? According to the website for Earthship Global, which is the group that runs the Earthship Community in Taos, including the rental we stayed in, an Earthship is: “A type of house built with natural and recycled materials with energy conservation in mind. It is designed to produce water, electricity, and food for its own use.” Earthships have six basic design principles, “all of which take advantage of the existing natural phenomena of the earth”:
BUILDING WITH NATURAL AND REpurposed MATERIALS
Thermal/solar HEATING AND COOLING
SOLAR AND WIND ELECTRICITY
CONTAINED SEWAGE TREATMENT
The concept and design principles for Earthships, and the Earthship community in Taos Earthship were conceived and executed by architect Michael Reynolds, who came to Taos in 1969 after graduating from architecture school. Earthship Global describes the beginning of the Earthship movement:
Inspired by television news stories about the problem of trash and the lack of affordable housing, Michael created the “can brick” out of discarded steel and tin cans. Ten empty cans, four flat and six unflattened, were wired together to make a building block.
The early buildings used discarded steel or tin beer cans (this was before recycling existed). These cans were empty and simply used as free units of space with which to form light, strong concrete walls. These homes made from “garbage” immediately started getting press coverage though they were not nearly as sophisticated and the Earthships of today. Garbage is now all around the globe, especially tires, highly available and highly damaging to the environment when left in the nature.
Over the next decade, designs constantly evolved to incorporate thermal mass, passive solar and natural ventilation. The houses we now build with earth rammed tires are so strong that no foundation is required, giving load bearing walls and thermal mass storage. Solar glazing along the whole front of the structure allows the sun to heat the floors and the walls providing comfortable, stable temperatures inside without using fossil fuels or wood. Operable windows and skylights provided natural ventilation to cool the buildings.
There are now around 60 homes that are part of the Earthship Greater World Community, located outside of Taos, NM. The website describes the community as “the world’s largest off-grid, legal subdivision.” There’s room for a total of 130 homes:
Community members own their land, fee simple. There are approximately 60 homes in the community at the present time. Members own lots which vary in size from .75 acres to 3 acres. More than half of the total land is owned in common. This 347 acre “green belt” is never to be built upon. The community is exclusively Earthship homes. There is a Board of Directors who enforce the Land User’s Code. Annual dues for the community are currently $150 for road maintenance and the community improvement fund. Property taxes are assessed by Taos County.
Earthship Global also teaches a variety of workshops on how to build Earthships, has a visitor’s center where you can learn all about Earthships, and has a few Earthships available to rent out if you’re curious about what it’s like to live in one. The Earthship we stayed in was unbelievable. I felt like I was on another planet! They are quite literally built with trash—discarded tires, glass bottles, and more. It’s quite amazing how artistic and creative the designs are, and really cool that they are all self-contained and able to generate clean water, fresh air, electricity, and more, all off the grid. According to UC Boulder’s Environmental Center:
Earthships provide their own electricity through photovoltaics (converting light into electricity) and wind power. They contain and treat their own waste water. They catch water and can even act as interior greenhouses to grow food, treating the water at the same time.
If you’re looking for a cool place to stay and learn about off-grid ways of living, I highly recommend you go stay in an Earthship!