Rolling up to the Earthships world headquarters in Taos, New Mexico is like stumbling upon an alien planet – a striking, stark desert backdrop with funky colorful bounds dotting the landscape– which as you get closer you soon realize are actual people’s houses.
An Earthship is a thermal mass, passive solar home that allows one to live completely off the grid using a combination of different water and energy recycling, saving and storing systems. If you like the idea of eradicating your utility bills, not to mention feeling good about living in the most energy-efficient, self-sustaining way possible, then look no further.
As their website reasons, “Humans need comfortable temperatures, light, electricity, hot water, food, sewage treatment, etc. These necessities are all available within the framework of a certain ‘rhythm’ in the Earthship. The more we are able to align our priorities and needs with the prevailing rhythms of the planet, the easier and less expensive (both in terms of economics and ecology) they will be to obtain. If our lifestyles can conform more to the patterns of the planet than to our socioeconomic system, we can reduce the stress on both ourselves and the planet.”
The construction of an Earthship is based upon the six principles of thermal/solar heating and cooling, solar and wind electricity, contained sewage treatment, natural and recycled building materials, water harvesting and food production.
Natural and recycled building materials are used for the interior and exterior walls including rubber tires, glass or plastic bottles and aluminum or steel soda cans. The average Earthship uses 500-5,000 tires which are filled with earth, creating the thermal mass and eliminating the need for a concrete foundation. To construct interior walls, a mixture of sifted dirt, sand, chopped straw and water create an earthen plaster.
Water is captured on the roof from rain and snow, channeled through silt catches, after which it flows into underground cisterns. Throughout the course of its life, this water will be recycled four different times for various uses throughout the home. First, gravity feeds the water from the cisterns into a Water Organizing Module which pumps the water into a pressure tank and then filters and cleans it for bathing, washing and consumption. It is filtered and cleaned again for use in the interior botanical cells to grow plants and food. The third life-cycle is used for flushing the toilet. Lastly, toilet water is contained, treated and used again in exterior botanical cells.
Food is grown indoors and outdoors using water that has been filtered from black and gray water. Not only does growing food indoors contribute to cleaner air for residents to breath, but provides the freshest, most local produce possible. Food can be grown indoors all year round due to the comfortable temperature maintained by the natural heating/cooling systems, thus preventing the resident from spending money unnecessarily on packaged food or other store bought groceries.
Electricity is produced by a prepackaged wind and photovoltaic power system, stored in “golf-cart” like batteries and then supplied to electrical outlets. There is no electricity needed for heating and cooling the home due to the passive solar and thermal mass design.
All household sewage – black and gray water -- is contained, used and reused in indoor and outdoor treatment cells. The sewage treatment provides water for toilet flushing, landscaping and food production without polluting water aquifers.
To get involved, you can help restore one of the buildings or attend the Earthship Biotecture Academy starting this summer. This two month training program allows students to stay in dormitories, do 62 hours of classroom work, on-site field work and an independent study. If you are curious for an authentic Earthship experience, you can even rent one of these homes for an evening (starting at $120 per night) to have the ultimate eco-vacation.
Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.