The Earthships of Taos, New Mexico: Space-Age Design in Environmentally Conscious Structures
I remember visiting Taos, NM, in the early 1990s. On our way back home to Colorado, we passed by a community of houses that looked like they were part of a science fiction movie set. These beautiful homes, built into the rugged terrain of high plans New Mexico, stuck in my mind for all these years. So when we visited Taos in 2015, after a stop at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, we continued west on HWY 64 and rediscovered them.
They were better than I even remembered.
The first time I saw them, I thought of the houses on Tatooine; houses built to survive the harsh weather, but also complement their environment, not rebel against it.
Earthships were the brainchild of architect Michael Reynolds, who had the forward-thinking idea of building homes out of recycled materials. He built his first home, near Taos, in 1972; he referred to the architecture style as "Earthship Biotecture."
Earthships are built from mostly recycled materials such as tires, aluminum cans, glass bottles and a lot of cement. The frames of the original Earthships are made of tires packed full of earth, stacked on top of each other like bricks. I asked about hay construction, but the employee I spoke with said hay is not a viable option; if even the slightest bit of moisture gets into the hay, it can become moldy and then it will at the very least smell or at the worst, become unstable or even crack.
Earthships do not have foundations. Rather, they are built upon a base of dirt-packed tires. The packing takes quite a bit of effort, so I was told that people in the community will often help their neighbors with projects like that.
I noticed that there were several Earthships in the early stages of construction that used wooden frame construction. The same employee said that people often start like that, then add the tire construction later, or just use it for fences or decorative touches. Regardless, the greenhouse structures seen on most of the houses would require wood framing.
Earthships are meant to exist entirely off the grid (although as you can see in some of my photos, many rely on city electricity). The flier notes that Earthships are built with the following amenities that allow them to be almost entirely self-sustaining:
- Solar/Thermal heating and cooling
- Solar and wind electric power
- Water harvesting
- Contained sewage treatment
- Food production
Unfortunately, for all of their perks, there are disadvantages to owning an Earthship. Mr. Reynolds was sued in the 1980s for problems in construction like "leaky roofs and inadequate climate control;" he even lost his architect's license over designs that the government of New Mexico called illegal and unsafe.
The employee I spoke with at the site said there are continuing issues with electricity production from solar, because the Earthships are located in the mountains and they get ample snow and thick cloud cover from time to time. Additionally, Earthships often face the same issues "normal" houses fall victim to: floods and fires. During the last week of September 2015, there was torrential rainfall that flooded many Earthships. One of the community members was offering his electric pump for anyone who needed it.
Although they make look haphazard, much planning goes into building the Earthships. The Earthship Visitor Center has plans available, and I was told that new builders get lots of help and advice from other community members. Not only are people hired to help build the structures, but more experienced community members will help in building the new Earthships.
He also told us about the people across HWY 64 to the west, who tend to forgo any plans or advice and end up having a fair amount of trouble with their structures, to the point that they have to abandon their efforts.
- Earthships in Canada
Has a lot of great photos of the underlying construction.
Visting the Earthships
The Earthships are located northwest of Taos, NM, on HWY 64. They are beyond the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.
Understandably, most of the Greater World Community is off-limits to visitors. There are "No Trespassing" signs posted on every road leading into the community, but it is possible to see many of the homes from HWY 64, and you are allowed to stop at the Visitor Center. The Visitor Center is open 10am - 4pm every day, and it costs $7 for anyone over 12.
You can get more information about the center at the Earthship website.