June 11, 2019
Earthship. The name, the definition, the movement — it’s either foreign or a complete familiarity. There’s pretty much no in between. And for those who live in Taos, New Mexico, it’s become part of a routine vocabulary. Taos is the birthplace, after all. And ever since their inception, the whimsical dwellings have remained a steady pull for curiosity seekers, off-grid investors, and environmentalists from around the world.
Just to clarify for those who are indeed unfamiliar (me just a few months ago), an Earthship isn’t a post-apocalyptic vessel to survive in after the aliens ravage existing resources from our planet. Or maybe it is, depending on your viewpoints around preparedness.
Ushered into existence by architect Michael Reynolds in the 1970s, an experiment of compacting discarded steel and tin cans into bricks became the building blocks and ultimately the walls for the rammed earth, off-grid, solar-powered, passive heat and cooled homes of today. Disposed tires — 2.5 billion are currently stockpiled in the US according to Earthship Biotecture estimates — cans, bottles, other recyclables, and adobe mud are used to compose the structural walls.
The first time the word Earthship was said aloud to me was moments before our old sedan lurched onto an unpaved road off of Highway 64 north of Taos. If I hadn’t been told to look for them, a blink, a glance down to my phone, and I might have missed them. Hunkered in the dirt and spread apart on a scrubby pale green pasture that unrolls towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, bottle rinds glint amber cola, emerald, straw yellow, and crystalline discs as you transition from speeding to crawling, trying to absorb the unconventional details. Long windows lean into the sun’s warmth, mirroring the rich New Mexico sunset.
We stayed for a weekend in the Oddhouse, one of the many Earthships for rent in what’s known as the Greater World Earthship Community, the largest private subdivision of off-grid homes in the world. Known as a hut design, two round modules (the main rooms within) are connected by a greenhouse corridor. Large south-facing windows are essential to the solar gain principles that along with thermal mass, cooling tubes, and ventilation allow for the self-heating and cooling of these homes. These windows bank one whole side of the house, saturating the living spaces with daylight and connecting you with the quiet and undeveloped landscape on the other side.
There’s a wood stove for cold days and cozy comfort. There’s a television too, along with cautionary tips on conserving power. An Earthship comes with a whole manual of advice points, we found. For instance, don’t fill the bathtub to its fullest; definitely don’t empty all at once or it will flood the grey water planter (tested and true by the way). To us, these instructions weren’t at all off-putting. They felt more like lessons. … The good kind.
I grew up in suburban Indianapolis and until recently have always rented, owned, or stayed in fully on-grid properties that come with the blissful thoughtlessness of, generally speaking, not having to worry about how long I left the lights on or how many times I flushed the toilet. I assumed that being hooked up to a municipality’s electricity and water and letting someone else haul away my trash was just part of living. But visiting other countries and staying in places like these have started to change my mind. And here in an Earthship, the power in the system can absolutely be drained if you’re careless.
Inspired so instantly by this concept of living off-the-grid (also the investor potential of renting one to others), we began searching local listings for Earthships for sale within the first hour of our stay. In that same hour, our interest went from piqued to crushed by the limited inventory and affordability around us. Aside from the fact that we could only find a handful for sale, the asking price for a two-bedroom Earthship seemed to hover around $500,000.
But there’s always the option to build, and Michael Reynold’s company Earthship Biotecture offers to handle the full process. At one point, they had a project estimate of $225/square-foot listed on their site. But after looking again recently I could no longer find that figure advertised. Instead, there’s a form to submit to start the process along with a consultation fee with Reynold’s at $300/hour. You can also purchase construction drawings and permitting sets that range from $6,000 for a studio design to $10,000 for a two-bedroom design. But there are some real challenges to building one on your own. They’re niche builds requiring specialty knowledge. And if you’re considering financing, there are options locally in Taos, but that’s because lenders there better understand them and the surrounding market. Then there’s the cost of the land. In the Greater World Earthship Community, .75-acre parcels are selling for $40,000, and 3-acre plots are listed as high as $130,000.
And while the idea of spending maybe upwards of $130k on land plus maybe another $225,000 on construction (1000-square-feet x $225 per square-foot) seems a bit daunting, part of what you’re paying for by buying within Reynold’s plot is the ability to build without major headaches.
East of Colorado Springs, Earthship Village Colorado struggled for four years in a pre-development phase. A project that once proposed 45 to 50 5-acre sites stalled amid a legal battle over water rights and ultimately failed according to a brief response from the community’s Facebook page. Situated on a wide prairie and backdropped by mountains, the proposed community in Colorado shared a similar landscape to the one in Taos.
The failure of Earthship Village Colorado points to some of the major hurdles with establishing a private and entirely off-grid community. Even with Reynold’s success both in Taos and globally — Earthship Biotecture has built demonstration projects in several countries around the world, some following natural disasters — his fight to change building code laws in New Mexico have been extensively written about, shared, and documented in the 2007 film Garbage Warrior.
We loved our stay in the Greater World Earthship Community, and for those interested in giving an Earthship a try we highly recommend the Oddhouse, though there are several others listed on Airbnb and other places as well. A few can also be booked directly through Earthship Biotecture. And for more Earthship inspiration, you can also visit my Pinterest page featuring Earthships from around the world.
I’ll mention that staying here has indeed fueled our thoughts around working toward living off the grid, though, admittedly, we’re not sure where to begin. If you have any suggestions for how to start, we’d love your feedback, and we welcome you to reach out to us. Thank you, and happy exploring!