Taos, New Mexico is a strange place. Somehow the flat-topped mesa mountains outside Taos have become a mecca for alternative lifestyles with hundreds of people living off the grid. These people are not just hippies, there are all kinds of people from veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress to people preparing for the end of the world and others who are trying to escape or hide from society. But among these are also people who see off-grid living as a way to live more in tune with the environment and to achieve independence and self-sufficiency. These people want to provide their own housing, food, water and electricity, making it possible to live without an income and to spend your time doing what you love instead. I recently spent one week living and volunteering with these people, learning more about the role of architecture in off-grid living.
So where do all these people on the mesa live? Some live in trailers or little shacks with no water or electricity, but the ones who are serious about self-sufficiency need a house that can help support the independent lifestyle. A popular solution is the Earthship, a design characterized by earth-filled tires, a glazed front, renewable energy, rainwater harvesting and food production. Earthships show that you don’t need to be a hippy to live off-grid and that you can have all the comforts of 21st century live without needing to pay for things like water and electricity. Earthships are becoming increasingly popular but are they really the ultimate solution they are marketed to be? What alternatives are there and what is really the key to successfully living off the grid?
Design principles of Eartships
Everyone in Taos seems to know what Earthships are. And it’s no wonder because Taos is where it all started in the 1970s when architect Mike Reynolds started developing his ideas for a self-sufficient home built with discarded materials. Today Earthship is a trademark owned and marketed by Earthship Biotecture, a company founded by Reynolds that also gives courses on Earthship building. Taos is also home to the Greater World Earthship Community, a planned off-grid community with over 70 Earthships, and there are even a few Earthships available for nightly rentals so the curious can try them out. Reynolds himself doesn’t live in an Earthship.
Every Earthship is different but the basic design is the same. Three of the four sides are built with recycled tires that are filled with compacted earth and then covered with more earth on the back to form a mound. All this earth acts as a thermal mass that keeps the indoor temperature comfortable by absorbing heat during the hot hours of the day and releasing it at night. The fourth side of the house – the southern facade – has an all-glass front that lets low winter sun enter for heating purposes but is shaded with blinds during the summer. This way the Earthship is meant to keep the indoor temperature comfortable during both night and day and winter and summer.
Earthships are designed for off-grid use which means they need systems for producing and handling water, electricity, food and waste. Rainwater is collected, purified and used four times, first in sinks and showers, then to water vegetables, then to flush toilets, and finally to water non-edible plants. Food is produced on the south side of the house in a type of greenhouse, and more food can be produced by adding a garden, chicken coop or fish pond. Energy comes form solar panels, windmills or other small scale renewable energy devices.
Earthships are considered to be low-cost houses. They are meant to be easy to build so you can save money on labour by building it yourself. When you produce your own water and electricity you have no utility bills and when you produce your own food you don’t need to buy it. Tires and earth are free, and interior walls can be made with cans and bottles which are also free. But is it really that simple?
Why Earthships are not for everyone
Earthships are of course not perfect although they are basically marketed as such. They are said to work in any climate, but because they are designed in New Mexico, they work well in similar climates but not so well in others. In a more humid climate an airy, lightweight structure would be more comfortable, while in a colder climate more insulation and less glazing is needed. The systems for electricity and water also won’t work if the weather is often cloudy or if there is not enough rain.
Parts of the design – water cisterns, solar panels, glazing, roofing – also cost a lot of money even if some materials are recycled. In fact, according to some sources the total costs for an Earthship are pretty much the same as for a conventional home. And even though electricity and water are free, the systems require regular maintenance which costs money. The material choices also make more sense in some countries than others. In some countries recycling of tires, bottles and cans works well and removing these products from the recycling cycle will just result in them being replaced by new products.
Earthships are definitely a solution in some contexts but they don’t always make sense. Luckily there are a lot of alternatives for cheap, sustainable buildings like rammed earth, adobe, earthbags and straw bales, all of which can be more well-known, probably because they are driven by a for-profit company with marketing power.
Alternative off-grid living on the mesa
What did I do during my week of volunteering then? I did spend one day building an Earthship that belonged to one of my hosts’ neighbours, and I can tell you pounding earth into tires with a sledgehammer is hard work! But most of the time I helped my hosts with a different type of construction: their future home. My hosts had originally though of building an Earthship, but they ended up finding very cheap greenhouse steel and glazing from a company whose warehouse was destroyed in a storm. This way my hosts saved money, they are using a product that would otherwise go to waste, and they also avoided the hard work of pounding tires. Their example shows that Earthships are not always ideal and considering what materials are available is more important.
At first the construction doesn’t look anything like Earthships but there are actually many similar design elements. The southern front will be glazed and the back will be covered with earth, just like Earthships. The main structure is the steel, but some of the walls are built using recycled cans and bottles, which is also common in Earthships. One of the downsides is that the building requires a lot of concrete, but even Earthships need more concrete than you would think. The design is constantly evolving, and it’s still not not sure how it will look like in the end.
The front of the house will have space for a greenhouse. For now my hosts only have a small garden and in order to become more self-sufficient they need to grow more food. The plan is to have a large aquaponic system where fish and hydroponic plants are grown together for mutual benefit. In an aquaponic system the water is circulated between the fish tank and the plants, and the plants receive nutrients from the fish while cleaning the water for the fish. My hosts are already testing an aquaponic system that grows chicken feed.
For now my hosts are living in a smaller house they built that will become the future barn. The barn already has chickens – smartly connected to an exterior coop with a tube that lets the chickens pass between outside and inside – and they are planning to get goats as well. The design of the house is very similar to Earthships although there are no tires in the walls. The temperature inside the house was mostly comfortable even in the heat, and according to my hosts the house was also comfortable in the winter.
The land that my hosts are living on is actually agricultural land that is not supposed to be lived on according to the zoning. But no one wants to use this desert land for agriculture, and the land has been sold in small plots to people who have the self-sufficient off-grid dream. The government turns a blind eye to this because they receive taxes from people who own the land that no one would otherwise want to own.
During my stay I also met some of the neighbours who have their own projects going on. One was building an Earthship, one living in a yurt, some just starting to plan their own off-grid home while living in a trailer. What I noticed was that even though people wanted to be self-sufficient, there was a strong sense of community which benefited everyone. If an older woman needed help moving furniture all the guys went to help, and when the one building his Earthship had a day off work everyone went to work on his build. One of the guys was helping me and my hosts everyday with the construction, and presumably my hosts will one day return the favour when this guy starts building his own house.
This community and the Earthship community show that it is possible to have all the comforts of 21st century life while living off the grid. But in order to do so – in order to have enough water, electricity, food and comfort – the local climate and environment needs to be understood and the design needs to fit this local context. In the end living completely off the grid is probably not realistic since it is difficult to grow all your own food and you also need materials for maintenance work. And probably most people wouldn’t want to live in isolation anyway, and connecting with the wider world and other people is a way to share ideas about sustainable living.