From Trash to Treasured Home
Finding a Sustainable Home in the Architecture of Earthships
Imagine taking some of your trash, items such as aluminum soda and beer cans, bottles of all colors, and old tires, and then building a house with them. Not only that, you build it in such a way that all water collected can be used and then re-used three more times, your lights are all powered by solar panels, and your heating and cooling systems are mostly based on what windows and portals are open or closed in the home.
You can technically be off-grid, but in a house with all of the modern-day amenities. And as you look at your utility bills this month with great resignation, you may be thinking this is way too good to be true. But I promise you, it’s real! And it’s called an Earthship.
In honor of Earth Day, I thought it fitting to share my love for Earthships. They look like something potentially out of a fantasy world and I was utterly fascinated by the creativity that came together to create such an unconventional-looking living space. I had learned about Earthships a few years ago, so when I was traveling through Taos, New Mexico, I made sure that I stayed a night in one of the most well-known Earthships, The Phoenix.
Earthships rarely have a right corner and they’re essentially made out of trash. The main structure of the walls is filled with dirt-packed old tires that would otherwise be in a landfill, covered in adobe mud. Most of the rooms have three of these walls, but there are also plenty of walls that are made out of beautiful bottles of all colors. The floors throughout the home have different types of tiles or slate, mixed with broken bits of tile and crystals, adding personality to every inch of the home. Everywhere you look in an Earthship, there is something artistically created to add to the wonderment of it all.
If you’re an aspiring plant lady like me, then you’ll love that the south-facing side of the home has a greenhouse built onto it, where in almost any climate, you can grow whatever plants you wish throughout the year. If you want to have an orange or banana tree in your greenhouse, YOU CAN! If you plan your year round garden right, you can pick vine ripened tomatoes or peppers any day as you cook dinner – which we were able to do at the Phoenix. You can grow herbs, fruits and vegetables and walk right out your door into the attached greenhouse on a snowy day and pick what you’d like.
With the doors between the home and greenhouse open, you can smell the earthy goodness of the plants. And sometimes, as in the Phoenix, the plants are also growing out of the ground in the home as well. Yes, the ground. They tend to have plants everywhere, and in all the best ways.
Earthships are a self-sufficient alternative to conventional homes and were first built in the 1970s. Mike Reynolds is known as the first person to build Earthships as they are today, and he still continues to build and run schools to teach others. Through the decades, he has perfected his building plans and list of materials to create structurally sound buildings that will last a lifetime.
One of the goals of building the structure is to use as many natural and repurposed items as possible. For example, the tires used to create the load bearing building blocks within the walls are discarded tires hammered with dirt. There are more than 2.5 million tires discarded every year in the United States alone, so finding free tires is often not that difficult a task, and it also puts a small dent in what is going into a landfill. You can put crystals, flat rocks, and random tiles in the walls or floors, or reclaimed pieces of wood in the doors or shelving. Cabinets and fixtures can be found at local thrift stores or home salvage stores like ReStore. With the right vision and thrifting skills, you can piece together quite an assemblage of items to unify the artistic elements in the foundation.
An Earthship also has the northern side of the structure built into the Earth. This ensures that the home will maintain at least the Earth’s steady temperature of 58 degrees. The greenhouse on the south facing wall will collect heat into the air, flooring and walls, which is then dispersed into the home throughout the day and night. The rooms usually all have 3 of the tire and adobe walls that can hold the hot or cold temperatures within. With the use of buried cooling tubes and operable vent boxes, you can control whether the home gets warmer or cooler, based on your comfort. Translation: you are not paying for energy to warm or cool your home. So cool, right?!
The homes also have everyday appliances and electronics. Solar panels are used to collect the energy the home will need for lights, appliances, TVs, and so on. With the right number of solar panels, the Earthship does not need to source any outside energy for these luxuries either!
The water system is also truly genius. Rain and snowfall are collected in very large cisterns buried next to the home. After running through a filtration system, the water is sent to a solar hot water heater and pressure tank to begin its journey to be used 4 times before it leaves the home. First in bathing and dishwashing needs, then it is sent through the interior plants to be used to nourish them and cleanse the water until it ends up in a tank to be used to flush the toilets. After being flushed, the water goes to a traditional septic tank and the overflow is used to water the outside landscaping.
Such a home must be too good to be true, right? Well, Earthships are slightly more expensive to build compared to a traditional home. An Earthship tends to cost $200-$300 per square foot, as opposed to a new build costing around $100-$200 per square foot. But don’t worry! The amazing thing about all of these aspects of Earthships, is that even if you only want to incorporate some of the utility-replacing aspects, you can! Not everyone is made to live completely off-grid or maybe can’t afford the initial investment, so there are now homes being built to incorporate the features the homeowner wants, or the features can be added to already existing structures.
If none of this is for you in your daily life, but you wish to at least experience the wonderment for a night or two, you are in luck! You’re able to rent out Earthships on popular rental websites such as Airbnb and Vrbo, or directly through Earthship Global. Although a few are scattered throughout the country, you’ll have your best luck in the Earthship community in Taos, New Mexico.
Would you ever visit an Earthship, or possibly live in one? Let us know in the comments!