Earthships offer an eco-alternative lifestyle on the outskirts of Taos
By Drew Stuart
Taos is defined by a paradox. It’s a community with living traditions as ancient as any in America. It’s also been a magnet for visionaries, for those seeking new beginnings in art and life. The most visible icons of that spirit of experimentation are the Earthships. Visitors can experience this form of radical architecture, or “biotecture,” at the Greater World Earthship Community on Taos Mesa.
Earthships are the creation of Michael Reynolds, who moved to Taos as a recent architecture school graduate in 1969. Resisting a culture of disposability, Reynolds began to design homes built of recycled or “upcycled” materials — “garbage.” His first structures used bricks fashioned of tin cans and discarded steel. Reynolds ultimately settled on used tires — packed tightly with soil — as his building blocks. The Earthship Community homes are built with these rammed-earth tires, which weigh up to 300 pounds each.
It makes for the off-grid structure par excellence. Each Earthship has tire walls on three sides — some homes are built into the Earth itself. But the south side of each is lined with windows. Between the thermal mass of the thick walls and the southern exposure, the Earthship is heated by the Sun’s warmth alone.
Comfortable temperatures are maintained without electric heat, fossil fuel or woodstoves. Earthships are thoroughly self-sufficient. Solar panels are installed — providing all the power the home needs.
Rainwater and snowmelt are collected from the Earthship’s roof and stored in cisterns, meeting the home’s water needs. And the commitment to repurposing waste applies to the Earthship itself. Used gray water flows into “botanical cells” in the home’s sunlit southern areas.
There, plants use the water, and clean it — until the water can be pumped, on-demand, to toilet tanks. Toilet water itself flows into an outdoors septic tank, where overflow sustains landscaping plants.
Some Earthships even produce their own food. The southern portion is transformed into a greenhouse, and gray water grows herbs and vegetables. The Earthship Community visitor center features these crops. In the newest Earthships, fish are raised in “aqua-botanical” systems.
The design’s rigorous pragmatism is balanced by a playfulness, even a whimsy, in the finishing touches. Walls are completed with adobe mud and painted plaster — there are turrets and towers, cupolas and domes, in forms that bulge and swell. Colored bottles are embedded in the tire-brick walls — creating a rustic, DIY stained glass.
The Earthship Community is open every day for self-guided exploration, but guided tours are available on weekends. Guides explain Earthship principles in the “Earthship Academy Classroom,” and then lead visitors to sites around the community — including the locale’s first Earthship and structures both simple and elaborate. This place is also, of course, a living community — home for dozens of households.
Reynolds and the Earthships are Taos originals — but they’ve become global ambassadors for a Taos sensibility. Earthships have been built across Europe and Canada, and from Central America to South Africa.
Earthship Visitor Center 2 Earthship Way, Tres Piedras 575-613-4409 earthshipbiotecture.com
Stay the Night! You and your crew can experience life inside an Earthship for a night — or a week. Earthship Nightly Rentals offers guests fully furnished accommodations in an Earthship on Taos Mesa west of town. Call 575-751-0462 for reservations.