September 2010Sustainability

Earthships Biotecture

Iginia Boccalandro

The King of Garbage lives! Michael Reynolds uses garbage and other materials to make houses completely off the grid: no hook-ups to any electrical services, city water, sewage or gas! Imagine never having another utility bill again!

Reynolds and his innovative construction company, Earthship Biotecture have been building what they call “Earthships” around the world for over forty years. In Taos County, New Mexico, over seventy Earthships share hundreds of acres as the Greater World Earthship Community, where they grow their own food, and strive to reduce the economic and institutional barriers between people and sustainable housing. They see their mission as reversing the negative effects brought about by conventional housing and living practices that pollute the environment, waste energy and resources and keep people separated from forming communal bonds. They are creating housing that nurtures both planet and people.

Having read Reynold’s book, Earthship, in 1991, changed my life. The idea of being able to build a house that collected water from the sky, generated electricity from the sun and grew plants with wastewater ignited my imagination.

I immediately called my brothers and sisters and won their collective promise to build such a house with me “one summer.” Every few years my brother Alfredo would ask me every few years if this was “the summer.” Well, after having worked as part of a crew building the new G2 Earthship, “the summer” is soon to come.

For two weeks we interns worked side by side with the construction crew from Earthship Biotecture to put down a brick floor, build an adobe/bottle wall, rammed earth into tires with a sledgehammer, and plastered external walls with cement. My experience and preparation was also greatly enhanced by taking part in a two-day seminar with Reynolds as he explained in detail the design and evolution of his creation.

The design of the Earthship is sheer genius! Reynolds’ original inspiration evolved through innovation, simplification, re-thinking how each life supporting system does its job, and stacking functions. An Earthship uses water four times before it returns to the earth! It is funneled into a cistern by a cost-effective, sloping roof that is shaped like a tea saucer instead of a peak. The water is then filtered and used in showers, bathroom sinks, laundry and the kitchen sink. It then feeds into a biological cleaning cell with live plants where it is filtered and channeled into the toilets. Depending on local regulations, this wastewater goes outside into a conventional leach field, septic tank or to an external, black biological cell with appropriate vegetation. Supplying a home with all of its water needs in a place that gets between 8 to 10 inches of rain a year is nothing short of extraordinary.

First generation Earthships, while self-sustaining for their residents, are not as efficient as the newer ones. Building construction in general thrives on innovation but each generation of Earthship design is simpler, more efficient, and costs less, making it more accessible to more people, and easier for do-it-yourselfers like me and my siblings to build ourselves if we choose. What a difference from the world where things are often made more complex, more expensive and of inferior quality!

When Reynolds says, “I use tires to build because they are indigenous to the earth!” there is nervous chatter in the room. While seemingly counterintuitive, it’s true that there are tires everywhere on this planet and although they may not have been “indigenous” one hundred years ago, they are now. Why not use them to build shelter? Bill Mollison, of Permaculture fame has been known to say, “the problem is the solution!” The Earthship proves how this is done.

The orientation and size of systems will vary depending on the location and the inherent conditions of the site. Imitating the ancient, indigenous people such as those from Puye, Santa Clara Pueblo’s ancestral winter quarters on the Pajarito Plateau, the Earthships in Taos County use local, natural materials, are oriented for heating purposes, use rain water, and manage erosion. Puye was an incredible mesa-top village of cliff houses where the stone walls were warmed by the sun, and a complex system of canals fed cisterns and ponds to harvest water from melting snow and rain. Heating and cooling were done through utilizing the sun and the earth.

Reynolds orients the Earthships to the South for maximum sun exposure and adds overhangs on the south-facing windows to protect against over-exposure to summer sun, while using winter sun to heat the stone floor for passive heat gain. Thick walls made of dirt rammed into tires increase the R (insulation) factor, as does adding a thermal barrier in the surrounding burm on the northern exposure of the house. A greenhouse on the southern exposure mitigates heat, adds moisture and purifies the air.

By making the design more intelligent, through constant experimentation, and a unique deployment of working crews and interns, the cost of building an Earthship has continued to go down, making it competitive with the cost of conventional, custom construction. Here in New Mexico, Reynold has replaced the costly installation of sophisticated photovoltaic panels that use special braces, movable mounting and high-tech tracking devices to harvest energy from the sun throughout the seasons with an increased number of panels, mounted on the roof at the average angle of exposure, thus saving on maintenance, reducing repairs and decreasing overall costs.

For maximum efficiency, Earthship crews are made up of generalists. Each worker is skilled in general construction, carpentry, masonry, electricial work and plumbing. The jobs move steadily forward because there is no time lost waiting for a specialist to show up.

Reynolds has led crews all over the world to build Earthships, including a recent mission to Haiti. Their unique vision and skills will soon be applied to building a high-rise in New York City. To bring his message to the widest possible audience, Reynolds has spoken at events all over the world and has participated at various environmental summits. He continues his fight to change local building legislation to keep pace with the needs of the future. He is currently applying his ideas to community housing – sustainable, multiple unit, off-grid communities that may well all be connected by giant greenhouses created to grow food year round under what might be hostile environmental conditions as global warming takes its toll on an already-stressed planet.

For more information on Earthship Biotecture, visit:

Iginia Boccalandro is a Certified Advanced Rolfer in private practice for 25 years. She is a two time Olympian in the sport of luge, and has studied with the best teachers of Permaculture and sustainable design. She now lives in Santa Fe where she does sustainable consulting and is completing her Permaculture Design certification with the Permaculture Institute. E-mail:

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