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earthships lead

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Escape to Earthship: building a home for the End of Days

Constructing utopia in Taos, one tire at a time

Hi nerds. Raise your hand if you went to Space Camp. OK, you can put it down now, you will need it for scrolling. I sure went to Space Camp: five whole days of sleeping in weird Martian pod-bunks, doing futuristic anti-gravity space flight simulation stuff, and communing with like-minded NASA enthusiasts: it was, for indoor tweens like myself, a holistically fulfilling edutainment course for those who didn’t feel the more traditional sleepaway joints. It felt as if I was peering up the skirts of the cosmos, tasting a bit of the future others hadn’t. I earned an embossed Certificate of Intergalactic Achievement at the end — nothing fancy, but it meant a lot to me. No other program of education had occupied the same emotional space that Space Camp did — until I went to Earthship Biotecture Academy.

Two years ago my family and I were vacationing in Taos, New Mexico when we drove past a community of weird-looking homes, curvy little buildings facing south, adorned with solar panels and buried in earth. The sign out front said "Earthship Biotecture and Biodiesel:" the name, and what we learned on a tour of the facility captured our imaginations.

A man, a can, a plan

A man, a can, a plan

In the late 70’s the architect Michael Reynolds moved from Cleveland to the Taos mesa to race motocross. As a freaked-out hippie type, he was prone to rebellion and eschewing the standards of his formal education. While on his brief journey towards racing fame he began to integrate the then-novel concept of recycling into a building technique, using omnipresent mountains of empty pull-tab beer cans to construct bricks, and then shelter. A series of impressive innovations brought him a good spurt of publicity in the early days: magazines from National Geographic to Architectural Record came to the Mesa to see what was going on in the emerging field of living amongst garbage.

But there were big hurdles in the way of developing his bottle buildings, and his struggles — against the architecture establishment, banks, and his friends — became part of the idea’s development. Reynolds describes a moment when he was living off the land in a primitive can hut on the mesa, eating grasshoppers and generating his own electricity outside of society. The orthopteran buffet and bucket commode suited his needs perfectly, but he knew his concepts required a more palatable iteration to truly evolve his notions of resource management and comfortable self-reliance. The simple hut gave way to a lifetime of experimental architecture that revolved around the motto of sustainable autonomy for everyone (or SAFE, as the t-shirt puts it).

Earthships 101

Earthships 101

Trial and error was (and is) the only useful method to evolve his concepts. About 20 years ago, when his shelters were at a widely-consumable point in their development, Reynolds began to call his creations Earthships. They revolve around six core concepts: electricity production, catching water from the sky, on-site sewage treatment, passive heating and cooling, food production, and building with readily-available materials.

Reynolds and his company Earthship Biotecture deal primarily with two models in 2012. The first is an expensive, luxurious (by Earthship standards), and more-traditional home that meets most building codes called the Global Model. With a construction cost around $225 per square foot, or $300,000 for a one-bedroom, one-bath home, it’s certainly not for people who don’t believe wholeheartedly in the concept. But for those with the money to spend, it is a breathtaking piece of engineering, the most holistic gadget in existence today: a home that heats, cools, feeds, and treats the sewage of its inhabitants, completely independent of any infrastructure.

Its load-bearing walls are made of discarded tires filled with sledgehammer-rammed dirt, lined up and stacked eight feet high to form a U-shaped wall that could stop a truck in its tracks (which you certainly can’t say for traditional wood-framed housing). Traditional concrete and rebar tie all the structural elements into the undisturbed earth below. Non-bearing walls are formed with the help of recycled cans and bottles spaced evenly to form a honeycomb matrix amongst paddies of hand-placed cement that keeps walls standing up. Because they rely on super-simple masonry techniques they can be (and often are) formed into any size or shape the builder desires. This freedom from linearity leads to the curvy forms that give many Earthships their organic appearance.

A vaulted and super-insulated concrete roof is topped by a north-sloping layer of ProPanel metal sheets that catch rainwater and feed it into two cisterns placed behind the tire wall. The water tanks are buried in a massive earth berm and connected to a Water Organizing Module packed with pumps and filters that make the caught water suitable for all indoor use. Showers drain into a greywater system that feeds planters for food production in the greenhouse; the greywater ends its life cycle when it’s filtered again and pumped into toilet bowls for flushing. Shit turns the greywater into blackwater, which is flushed into a traditional septic tank, broken down anabolically, and eventually drained into a rubber-lined outdoor planter used for growing trees and produce. And yes, they’ve tested that food, and the stuff harvested there contains less E. coli than the stuff you’ll find at the grocery, as long as it’s not grown directly in the soil (think apples and grapes, which filter out waste with long stems, not rootsy stuff like carrots or potatoes).

Like planets, Earthships revolve around the sun. They are oriented for maximum solar exposure, which means they face south in the northern hemisphere and north in the southern hemisphere. A greenhouse is faced by latitudinally-adjusted sloped glass, which provides maximum insolation for both plants and solar panels — both the photovoltaic (electricity-generating) and thermal (hot water-generating) kinds. Heated glycol runs through tubes in the hot water heater and, when it’s cold, the roof, for melting snow.

The greenhouse acts as a heat buffer between the outside climate and indoor livable spaces, so it’s usually hot and ideal for plants to thrive in there. Behind another glass barrier are the bedroom, bathroom, and living rooms. Heat is stored in the huge amount of thermal mass created by the earth berm and the rammed-earth tires: they act as thermodynamic batteries, transferring stored heat into the living spaces when it’s cold. The A/C is my favorite part of an Earthship: 30-foot metal tubes run through the earth berm, and when a super-hot skylight in the greenhouse is opened, convection sucks air through them and through the rooms. It makes for a pleasant breeze when you want it, powered by the constantly cool 58 degrees of the earth.

All of that amounts to another t-shirt slogan, “Comfort In Any Climate:” a bunch of finely-honed thermodynamics that amount to sandals weather all the time, no matter how mind-numbingly hot or cold it is outside, without fossil fuel-derived HVAC’ing.

Again, all of the skilled labor, modern appliances, and code-compliance built into the Global model is expensive. It also assumes that the owner has at least an acre of land to build on and a huge new construction loan — both increasingly rare in the USA.

The second and far more important model in Reynolds’ eyes is called a Simple Survival, or S-Pod. It’s cheap because it does away with the expensive systems and regulatory measures of the Global model and assumes that the owner has a more rugged lifestyle than most first-world dwellers. Reynolds suggests that every person should use the natural resources of youth to build their own S-Pod after their formal education and before entering the workforce so that they have the basics needed for survival before they even enter the economy, which is an idea that resonated strongly with me. S-Pods are one-room dwellings with bucket-flush toilets, hot water bag showers, and tiny power systems designed to charge a cell phone and a laptop. While it’s not the life most connected kids are used to, it’s got the basics, and it can be made for around $15,000.

That particular vision of global self-reliance is Reynolds’ picture of Utopia: each person has the inalienable right to self-made food and shelter (and a trickle charge); whatever game in life they choose after that can be pursued without fear of homelessness or hunger. A simple enough concept to get behind — but it’s not an idea that will catch on without a lot of general public knowledge of Earthships. Currently, that doesn’t exist. And that’s where the Academy comes in.

International Feel

International Feel

In early September a surprisingly attractive group of twenty-five Biotecture students descended upon the Taos mesa, and none of them had any idea what the fuck was going to happen over the next two months. It was most attendees’ first time experiencing the harsh beauty of New Mexico: it’s hot every day and freezing every night, so dry your mucous membranes feel as dusty as the tumbleweeds that roll down vast stretches of highway 64. You’ll often hear people speak of an otherworldly beauty that blankets Taos, and while I’m not usually into mystical shit, I began to see and feel it very quickly. Every night was ushered in by a sunset fit for the gods and when the colors finally faded completely we were left with a pristine view of the Milky Way and all its twinkly friends populating the sky with a crisp dominance bested only by the beastly moon, ready to burn if you stayed out in it for too long. Rare storms (Taos gets seven inches of rain annually) always brought triple or quadruple rainbows that usually managed to perch themselves so that they spanned the Rio Grande Gorge elegantly. It was easy to understand why Taos, which is also home to the oldest continually-inhabited settlement in the United States, holds so much spiritual significance for its strong indigenous population.

Every night was ushered in by a sunset fit for the gods

Only eight Americans attended the Fall Academy, which gave it an oddly international dimension that any reality show producer would shit her pants over. A typical Saturday saw a rowdy Australian web developer, an Argentine-Irish restaurateur, a Latvian-Finnish gypsy, a Chilean lawyer with a mean three-pointer, and hordes of aggressively chill Canadians locked in fierce b-ball match at a Taos blacktop, and that was just what happened before the sun went down. Oddly enough, our aching whiteness was the only thing that kept the place from feeling like some sort of acid-warped Sesame Street: in Michael Reynolds we had our grandfatherly Snuffleupagus; our Big Bird came in the form of a hyperactive Italian named Ronaldo Sciarillo.

I'd like to thank the (Earthship) Academy

I'd like to thank the (Earthship) Academy

Most of us definitely didn’t qualify as skilled home builders

An aggressive businessman, Ron came to Taos six years ago after a stint running an ice cream factory on the big island of Hawaii. He worked feverishly at this Reynold’s housing craft, bringing his own technical and financial innovations to the company before founding the Academy last year. His passion for spreading Earthships was as intense as his love of fast cars: whether he rolled onto the jobsite in an immaculate ‘84 Camaro, a souped-up Viper, or his tricked-out contractor’s Tacoma with a giant “got tires?” decal on the back, he always brought a half-gallon thermos of black coffee that fueled an indomitable A-game. He was the perfect counterpart to the contemplative and insular mesa lifestyle, and luckily for everyone, his infectious positivity and outsized smile brought an irresistible urgency to what we were doing every day.

Our eight-week curriculum was split between lecture-labs and hands-on work at a variety of builds going on in and around Taos. At $1600 including housing, the Academy was a bargain, and it provided the balance of classroom and real-world experience that most higher-education institutions (including my own dismally-administered and hyper-expensive alma mater) seem to be lacking entirely. As a Space Camp / Nintendo / laptop kind of kid, I barely even knew how to hold a screwdriver; now hardware stores and impact drivers bring me as much giddy delight as GameStop and Sega CD once did.

There were times when Ron’s relentless pursuit of construction wore on my nerves. We were essentially paying tuition to provide free labor to the Earthship Biotecture company, and the long days pounding tires and mixing concrete seemed borderline exploitative at times. But I had to keep in mind how little I was paying for this education and how much I was probably costing the company in experiential fuck-ups, like the time I walked on a freshly-paved flagstone floor and squished the wet cement below so badly that the whole thing had to be chiseled up and re-set. Most of us definitely didn’t qualify as skilled home builders.

Labs and lectures were conducted by active specialists in their respective fields — the resident plumber taught us the secrets of water catchment, filtration, and distribution throughout a home. Although we were learning Earthship-specific versions of all the systems, there was certainly a lot of knowledge that carried over into conventional housing. Earthship plumbing is hand-balanced and highly evolutionarily, so when we went in to install a water organizing module we got super-specific (determining why a 60-mesh filter comes after the cut off valve, for example) and found out what worked well in past designs and what parts always needed tweaking. For the first time in my life I felt like I could repair a stinky toilet or cut a run of pipe to replace one that’s worn out at my own home in Regular World, USA. Over the course of five or six days the electrician drilled in concepts of photovoltaic generation and battery storage, culminating in small groups dismantling a car-battery charger and Frankensteining it into an all-in-one solar charger. That was awesome.

Politics, as they tend to do, crept inevitably into our lessons. On the final PowerPoint slide of an inspiring and super-informative introduction to growing food indoors, the resident gardener injected a healthy dose of conspiratorial rhetoric so presumptuous that it shook my assumptions about the entire Academy: it showed a series of aircraft contrails criss-crossing a blue sky, emphatically titled “SAY NO TO CHEMTRAILS!” I had heard of them before, but when I asked about their origins I was met with a group of stares that seemed to suggest that I had been living under a dang rock for most of my life. “The powers that be,” the instructor went on gravely, “are trying to reduce the population of the world to half a million people, and their method of genocide is dropping aluminum oxide particles on us from above, which will eventually destroy our lungs, soil, and water supply.” Those powers, she explained to me with all the conceit of a kindergarten teacher trying to defend the existence of Santa Claus, were five super-powerful families (including the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts) in pursuit of a unified world government that would end society as we know it. Obama, Romney, and all presidents in recent memory were simply puppets on a stage, doing their part to pull the wool over the eyes of a population that was as good as dead...except those who were cognisant of it and building their own off-the-grid housing. She implored us to call our congressmen, implying it was of dire importance to eradicate these sky formations if we wanted to continue eating and breathing normally in America, and she did it with a dire matter-of-factness that made me shudder.

As someone who grew up in a north Texas city best-known for its JFK experts and was in New York City on 9/11, I am already predisposed to feel anger and disgust when a conspiracy theorist brings up his or her beliefs. But that’s not to say I’m not willing to have a conversation about them. The problem with her curveball closeout to an otherwise cheery workshop on growing your own margarita supplies was its pessimistic foundation and, worse, the assumption that everyone in the room was already on the same page before we entered the room.

That instructional nadir left me questioning the motives behind the Academy and behind Earthship-building in general. Suddenly everything fell under optimistic scrutiny: was I hanging out with a bunch of people who were placing their money on society’s collapse under the guise of environmental conservatism and holistic autonomy? Mike Reynolds’ offhand comments about the shit hitting the fan suddenly offended me much less casually, and at times I even wondered if he was just another Y2K-style theorist looking to cash in on an apocalyptic trend. I began to pull at every loose thread I could find in the Earthship rhetoric — the main chunk of cognitive dissonance that gnawed at my conscience was how much this emphatically off-the-grid operation depended on very gridlike formations: the internet as a global publicity tool, existing transportation infrastructure for moving raw materials to and from builds, and phone networks to communicate. On the last day of class I brought this up, and Mike, double-fisting a pair of margaritas, conceded that the Internet was very important to his operation, but not vital. To end the conversation he said, with his signature blend of comedy and gravity, “Fuck you and your grid,” and laughed it off with a contemplative sip from a salt-dusted rim. Although he constantly proclaimed that no one knew the answers to everything, he seemed to bristle at any questions that peered closely at the jagged seams of his theories. At times this moral certitude gave off an air of religious evangelism, a blind hippie faith that Earthship devotees sometimes exude. It’s not that Reynolds was looking for these types of disciples, but historically when a group of white people are so sure about a way of life that they dedicate their lives to spreading it, the crusade usually ends up in some sort of genocide or destruction.

In the end I decided to let go of my overbearing moral scrutiny. Taos is a unique, semi-isolated place, perfect for developing a self-contained system of beliefs that has little to do with the larger world. But these people had spent much of their lives dedicated to this cause, traveling all over the world building Earthships because they thought it was the right thing to do. And it’s not like I have some sort of better plan for the future than they do. Although I’m generally optimistic that humans will work out their resource management problems before the planet turns to shit, I am just another person who doesn’t know what the fuck is going to happen in the future. Building an Earthship is just another way to be prepared for the unpredictable, which is how I chose to view it from then on.

After going through it all the thing that stuck with me most is how much people love being involved in building these weird garbage homes. Whether it’s for an apocalypse-fearing billionaire or earthquake-ravaged families on the other side of the globe, building Earthships is one of those professions that people never mind talking about. All of the employees seemed to have a spring in their step, a certainty in their actions that got them out of bed in the morning and let them sleep soundly at night. There are precious few professions can generate a paycheck from and keep their devotees’ morals intact; that Reynolds wants to spread his idea as far and as quickly as possible means that more people will inevitably be able to get jobs that give them a purpose in life, and that concept, even if it isn’t a primary goal of the company, is one that I admire deeply.

Lawmakers in New Mexico have also realized the impact that Earthship Biotecture is bringing to the state: whereas history finds it forever scarred by testing devices meant to destroy populations, Reynolds and his crew are helping to steer it in the opposite direction. After seven years of legal wrangling Taos has become home to the first-ever sustainable living test site: two acres of land where biotectects are free to pursue new ideas in community and sustainability without the extraordinary hassle of adhering to building codes. It was here that I made my home and helped develop concepts that previously would have been impossible to build legally, like a septic tank made of monster truck tires and an indoor blackwater treatment facility. This peek into the future of architecture attracts a wide variety of enlightenment-seeking tourists (and their wallets) to the Mesa. Chinese National TV, a Filipino recycling innovator, Democracy Now, and a crew of executives from Levi’s all came to ogle the students as we spliced bottles and sifted adobe. Having German tourists point and smile at you while you’re learning is a crazy feeling, something I don’t think any other program of education could offer.

Leaders of the new school

Leaders of the new school

For an educational institution that was only founded a year ago, Earthship Biotecture Academy really has its shit together. There’s a formal admissions process, complete with recommendation and rejection letters. There is also, of course, student housing, and much like every other dormitory situation it has a lot of ups and downs. Many students are placed in Reynolds’ older buildings that were constructed when his concepts were still very much in flux. For the first month I stayed at the Castle, a huge round building that once served as an early windmill ballast, and even made it to the pages of *National Geographic* in the ‘80s. But the Castle is showing its age in a lot of unsavory ways: half-finished projects litter the grounds, and its power and food production systems aren’t cut out for a bunch of students to live off of for long stretches of time. Its already-dilapidated feel enabled the broken windows theory to blossom, and it soon became a stinky mess defined by the constant partying reminiscent of a freshman dorm on a small New England liberal arts campus. Indeed, many of the students, myself included, fell into the Earthship Academy equivalent of the “freshman 15,” an added couple of pounds of beer weight that, when combined with the resulting hangovers, made for a hazy existence during the goonbag-absorbing first fortnight of school. A large puddle of Australian vomit greeted me on one of the first mornings at the Castle, and while I had certainly participated in the fun that produced it, flashbacks to freshman year clashed with the looming prospect of my upcoming 30th birthday. It felt like I was too old to be going through something like this again.

On the other end of the housing spectrum was a community of buildings nestled in the mountains of nearby Arroyo Seco called REACH. The main residence, a decadent custom Earthship built for the late actor Michael Weaver, was reachable only by 4x4 vehicle. It’s more ski resort than freshman dorm: while some of the aging systems had their drawbacks, the unbelievable view of the Taos valley and the solitude the altitude offered made up for any complaints the residents had. It was a place my mother would have loved to stay, unlike the Castle, which looked like a dismal stain on the dusty mesa from atop the lush mountain.

There were also a good deal of organizational issues that smacked of an immature entity: instructors or crews sometimes show up hours late, often because they were busy recovering from a night of extreme partying with their students. Wi-Fi and power slipped unreliably in and out of existence as a result of improperly-sized photovoltaic systems. That was a real bummer for someone like me who relies on both to pay the bills. Showers overflowed, dishes went uncleaned, and mice made their beds and meals next to squeamish students. But the staff always took note, and I believe that if their level of dedication stays high these issues will eventually evolve into non-issues. And it must be said that living as we did taught us all to roll with the punches, to be disconnected from society and problem solve in new ways. We were all in it together, in a weird familial way.

flashbacks to freshman year clashed with the looming prospect of my upcoming 30th birthday
Building a future

Building a future

The Space Camp cafeteria had only a sad automatic Dippin’ Dots dispenser to remind me of a lost future

I stopped by the Space Campus in Huntsville recently and, quite mind-shatteringly, the place looked like a fucking dump. The pod-bunks looked as if they hadn’t been serviced since 1994. The 1:1 model spacecrafts yearned for a good de-rusting and a couple coats of Kilz paint. The cafeteria, once a bustling hub of nerd activity, had only a sad automatic Dippin’ Dots dispenser to remind me of a lost future. It was a sad one, faded and out of all flavors except Vanilla, basking in the light of flickering fluorescent tubes. If my friends at Earthship Biotecture Academy don’t play their cards right, I fear its own future might be more reminiscent of Huntsville than Cambridge, left in the sands of history to let entropy take its toll on another idea that’s come too late (or too soon) for its time.

But for whatever reason — the supernatural beauty of New Mexico, the passion of the people involved, or a healthy shot of temporal-spatial cosmic luck — I get the feeling that this school will evolve into an exemplary futuristic hybrid of technology, learning, and interpersonal relationships. The staff and students are certainly worthy of their own reality show (a few networks have unsuccessfully pitched shows to Reynolds), and the lifestyle on the Mesa — equal parts construction, drinking, and learning — is a refreshingly weird take on education that should inspire crusty old institutions to radically change their approaches to the relationships between teachers and students, as well as their despicable pricing schemes.

My two months in Taos left me far more inspired (and far less broke) than my four years at NYU did. To attain my degree in Biotecture (which might have as much impact on my life as my degree in psycholinguistics) I have to work on a build from beginning to end: a couple of Academy-mates and I are eyeing a February project in Tierra Del Fuego as a chance to hone our skills just as much as we look forward to it as a chance to re-live some of the magic we felt in Taos. The final requirement is an independent study, meant to bring our Earthskills more profoundly into our own lives. Some people want to build an S-Pod on family land; others want to open permaculture education facilities in their home countries. I’m keeping my idea simple: a can-and-tire hut in my backyard, meant to mimic the unexpectedly awesome acoustic and soundproofing properties my adobe dome in Taos had: sick surround sound without bothering the neighbors is what I’m currently lusting after.

Mike Reynolds likes to call Earthships a “good cancer,” infecting all the people who hear about them for the better. As much as I wanted to chip away at his Utopian ideals and deflect the infection, I couldn’t resist, and from the looks of it, people are getting infected at an alarming rate: there are about 500 Earthships in all 50 states and 1000 in the rest of the world, with around three new builds happening at any time, and the company is currently in talks for a collaboration with Habitat for Humanity. Maybe it’ll amount to nothing, but I’d put my money on being one of those ideas that makes the whole universe smile as one.

All photos by Trent Wolbe