Still ‘crazy’ after all these years. In 1993 Michael Reynolds was way ahead of his time. Today, in 2012 Michael Reynolds is still WAY ahead of his time… The following article was published on January 10, 1993 in the New York Times Styles Section as America grapples with ecology and economy.
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
About 15 miles west of Taos, a road with no name tapers off into the flat tableland beneath the Tres Orejas, three small volcanic peaks. Soon the road disappears entirely. All that remains is a thick carpet of snow and a set of coyote tracks pitching toward infinity.
But if you can envision an Alternative Republic here, you don’t need a road. Thus, a frigid winter morning recently found Michael Reynolds, a one-man Monkey Wrench gang of architecture, barreling through the snowdrifts, his Dodge pickup swerving every which way, destined for an unsightly pile of tires and dirt, his new Atlantis: downtown Star.
And so, as the New Year begins, changing the world has come down to this: a Taos morning blue with cold, a 47-year-old man with fly-away hair and a pickax pounding frozen dirt into used tires — the detritus of 20th-century civilization and building blocks of a new utopia.
Star is an acronym for the Social Transformation Alternative Republic, a 1,100-acre self-sufficient community for around 300 people that Mr. Reynolds, a renegade pioneer in the alternative-housing movement, is building on a sage- and pinon-flecked periphery of town.
The houses at Star will be what Mr. Reynolds has christened “earth ships,” dwellings made of rammed earth and tires that the architect has been perfecting in and around Taos for the last 20 years. His goal — already realized at another project nearby — is to be independent of the conventional power grid. Instead of being heated by electricity, the earth ships will use sculpted earth, tire walls and the sun, which also powers the photovoltaic cells that provide electricity. Rather than conventional plumbing, there will be catch-water roof systems to harvest and filter runoff from snow and rain. Used water from bathtubs and sinks will be piped into jungly planters where flowers and vegetables grow. There will be no sewers — only solar toilets, an invention of Mr. Reynolds that reduces human waste to dust, dust that “may even be good for something,” he said.
Mr. Reynolds called Star a republic, rather than a housing development, and half jokingly threatened secession from the United States if Government authorities try to intervene. He talks fast and thinks globally. His main objective at Star, according to the community’s articles of association, will be to “evolve humanity into an earthen harmony.” The earthen harmony, he said, will be “half dictatorship, half democracy.”
Mr. Reynolds doesn’t think of himself as a guru, though ardent disciples read his books and watch his videos. He doesn’t particularly look like one, either, padding around his offices in kneepads and wool socks with toes poking through, or being engaged in his seemingly futile midwinter tire-pounding rituals, proof “you can build these things even in the dead of winter with bozos,” as he called his crew. He sees himself as a scout, a “scout on a wagon train going west.”
Alternative building styles, from his steel-belted radicalism to houses constructed of straw bales, have experienced something of a resurgence recently in New Mexico, a home of adobe construction. Though the material has a poverty stigma in the third world, where it is a staple, in places like Santa Fe, it is as much an accouterment of the good life as are Range Rovers and Jacuzzis.
A movement within the growing green architecture movement, which focuses on energy efficiency and nontoxic building materials, the current bubble of alternative activity is “a somewhat logical extension of the 60’s,” said Stuart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. It combines a concern for home and family with affordable housing and environmentalism. Mr. Reynolds’s grand experiment is anti-industrial in the way it uses technology to bypass utilities and other outside life-support systems but is more sophisticated and replicable than early back-to-the-land efforts.
Viewed collectively, Mr. Brand said, mini-movements like Mr. Reynolds’s suggest that “hippie premises haven’t been entirely undone, and people now have the time and money to act on them.” Mr. Reynolds believes that earth ships contrast with the now-fabled communes, which betrayed a “naive trust in human nature.” “The thing is,” he said, “people don’t want to live together. These people also froze to death. They didn’t have the right vessel.”
The right vessel — the low-budget model — is a two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot house with horseshoe-shaped rooms tucked into the earth. Its walls are made from stacked tire casings, indestructible building blocks packed solidly with dirt. The rammed dirt functions like a battery, storing and releasing the earth’s own warmth as well as heat from the sun. It takes about 800 or 900 automobile tires (and a matrix of innumerable aluminum cans and cement) to build one house. A basic earth ship can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000 if the owner is his own contractor and does much of the work himself. And it can cost as little as $60,000 for a custom-designed original by his company, Solar Survival Architecture.
On a treacherously steep mountainside outside of town, Mr. Reynolds’s latest ideas have already taken root at Reach (or Rural Earthship Alternative Community Habitat), a cluster of 15 earth ships, two of which have been completed, slinking up the cliffside like a new-age Mesa Verde.
Among the Reach homeowners are the actor Dennis Weaver and his wife, Gerry, who have also built a $1 million, 10,000-square-foot earth ship in Ridgway, Colo., a mammoth pad that Mr. Reynolds wryly referred to as the Earth Yacht. Keith Carradine is another client. Mr. Weaver called Mr. Reynolds “an absolute dedicated risk-taking visionary genius.” The actor is promulgating the earth-ship concept through lectures and his own mail-order video. (Mr. Weaver’s come-on on the package has a more show-biz feeling: “As seen on ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.’ Mr. Reynolds’s pitch in promotional literature — “Good for getting permits” — is more basic.)
For Mr. Reynolds, earth ships are a social mission that transcends architecture. “A lunar module allows you to go to the moon and function,” he is fond of saying, vaguely echoing Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic domes were considered radical concepts for spaceship earth. “This vessel enables you to live on the earth and function.”
Mr. Reynolds’s inspiration is not Buckminster Fuller. It is Noah. “Noah was building an ark to survive the coming storm,” he said, pounding tires one afternoon on the mesa, the red dirt flinging from his pickax and adhering to the sweat on his nose. “We’re building vessels for the storm we’re already in.”
Underlying the world’s problems is stress, or so Mr. Reynolds thinks — the terrible stress that comes from having to “work at a job seven days a week” to pay the mortgage. Give people a cheap, energy-efficient house that they can build themselves, and you liberate them from the “rip-off” of mortgages and bank loans. They are then free to pursue whatever makes them happy. It’s the fluffy bunny-rabbit theory: “Put it into a corner, and it’ll claw you,” he said. “But take the stress out of its life, put it in a house with solar heat and banana leaves, and it will blossom. It’s no fun to be around cornered rabbits who are uptight and weirded out.”
So far, Mr. Reynolds has signed up 29 weirded-out rabbit couples for Star, where construction will begin in earnest in late March, and he expects nearly 200 more. Earth-ship owners have the option of buying a generic set of drawings for $1,200 from Mr. Reynolds and building the house with a knowledgeable crew, or hiring Solar Survival Architecture to do the work (at a minimum of $65 a square foot), as Mr. Weaver did. Or they can combine the two. Solar Survival offers weekend how-to seminars seven times a year, costing $600 a couple or $350 a person. Mr. Reynolds has published the two-volume “Earthship: How to Build Your Own,” which has sold 20,000 copies and become something of a cult classic. Thanks in part to Mr. Weaver’s video, word has spread. Pat Habicht, a soft-spoken Englishwoman who lives in an early-model earth ship, charges $15 for earth-ship tours to the curious pilgrims seeking enlightment on earth ships.
One recent morning, two 40-ish women from San Francisco — one a massage therapist, the other a nutritionist — met with Mr. Reynolds at his headquarters, in a place he calls the Castle, a bizarre-looking sparkly structure of cement and beer cans that tends to exude an unearthly glow. They were talking about what he called their tool scene and finalizing the generic earth ship that they plan to build with a crew at Star this spring for $50 a square foot. Their home will include fish and waterlilies. “It’s like being a pioneer,” one of them said. “You’re taking responsibility for your own beingness.”
MR. REYNOLDS forsees a time when people might be liberated by their earth ships, in which he said most food “except bacon and Cheetos.” could be grown. He also predicts the money economy will be replaced by a barter economy as the drudgery of earning a living slips away. Eventually, the dams, landfills, nuclear power plants and other scourges of humankind could disappear.
“The ramifications are pretty intense,” Mr. Reynolds said. “I turned a rock over in my imagination and saw a pearl.”
Mr. Reynolds, who grew up in and around Louisville, Ky., moved to northern New Mexico in the 1960’s after studying architecture at the University of Cincinnati with the goal of “racing motorcycles, getting hurt and avoiding the draft.” His mother was a homemaker. His father, a milkman, used to hoard materials like oatmeal cartons. “That planted the seed,” he recalled. “I learned that this was not waste. It was material .”
He got a teaching job at a vocational school outside Taos, resulting in a draft deferment. After watching news reports of housing and garbage crises, he started tinkering with beer cans. In 1971, he built his first beer-can house in Taos. “It was in The Denver Post right under Nixon’s picture, in color,” he recalled nostalgically.
He began experimenting with bunkerlike rammed-earth dwellings, and wilder structures topped with wind turbines that had an esthetic not unlike that of a cement mixer. But it wasn’t until he discovered pyramids that he had an epiphany — a drugless one, he hastens to point out.
As he wrote in his book “A Coming of Wizards: A Manual of Human Potential” (High Mesa Press, 1988), sleeping in a pyramid connected him with the energy patterns of the universe. The room started tilting and spinning, and there were swirling purples and a red misty haze. The wizards spoke. “Whether it was my mind or the cosmos talking, I don’t know,” he says today. He was one weirded-out rabbit.
Abandoning pyramids because 75 percent of the people wouldn’t understand them, he pursued the less telepathic earth ship. He was determined to find a housing solution that, “like a radio frequency,” could hook people up with their “energy band.”
His penchant for test-piloting his own houses has taken a toll. “The typical wife,” he said, doesn’t want to move every three years to another “psychic proving ground.” He’s had five weddings (three to the same person); his wife, Chris Simpson, is an astrologer. His energy band includes a sense of humor. “At least they always get a house out of it,” he said of his exes.
Despite his cosmic observances, the two completed earth ships at Reach — custom-built by his company — are down-to-earth and quite lovely. The houses, one of them Mr. Weaver’s, have thick curved walls, echoing the bend in the tires, and exposed rugged cliff faces that contrast with the smooth earthen/ stucco finishes. Rooms are designed in U-shapes, instead of at right angles, and they open onto a bright hallway lined with solar windows that face south. The slanting glass is angled to fully capture the winter sun’s reflection. An interior wetlands runs the full length of the house, a lush welter of tomato plants, peas, flowers and herbs.
It’s too soon to tell how the Reach houses — the first ones to go cold turkey off the conventional power grid — will work day in and day out (one wonders how a compost toilet and photovoltaic-powered washer-dryer work during extended family gatherings). But many of the ideas are rooted in common sense, and that is why New Mexico building officials seem willing to work with him.
Although Reach and Star are located outside the Taos city limits, they are still subject to New Mexico state building codes, which have responded to statewide interest in alternative building by granting experimental permits to people like Mr. Reynolds. Homeowner must also sign waivers saying they are aware of their houses’ experimental nature and absolving the state of liability.
Of the fledgling earth ships built by Solar Survival in and around Taos, some of them 18 years old, none have suffered building failure, said Bob Koss, the state’s regional building inspector. But questions remain about what will happen when novices with tires in their eyes build earth ships on a large scale. At Star, Mr. Koss noted, Mr. Reynolds “is getting close to the point where he’s not going to have the control that he did.” Mr. Reynolds will inspect the earth ships, for a sliding fee, four times during the construction process.
ONE of Mr. Reynolds’s major premises is that earth ships can be built by anybody, anywhere. Although Noah survived 40 days and 40 nights of rain, some people doubt that earth ships would. The Austin, Tex., architect Pliny Fisk 3d, an expert on alternative building technologies, worries that “people are getting mesmerized.” In damper climates, he said, there is a concern that walls one day may collapse. Others wonder about invading pristine places with “vacation houses for environmental dilettantes,” as one Taos resident put it.
Though Mr. Reynolds said his do-it-yourself earth-ship formula is “hard to mess up,” the idea that any committed person can build one is certainly debatable. Marsha Campbell, a 49-year-old social worker, moved to Taos from Ohio to build an earth ship in 1991. Her tales are reminiscent of Great Plains pioneer women in sod houses — living in an unfinished dirt house, hauling 40-pound containers of water, dashing to the outhouse in the dead of night. Eventually she reached the end of her $20,000, unable to complete the project. Along the way, she and her lover broke up.
“I think Michael Reynolds is a genius,” she now says, “and the idea works if you can hire him to build the house. But if you can’t, you suffer. In my life, I’ve been pretty much able to do everything I set out to do. But I certainly couldn’t build that stupid house.”
Mr. Reynolds’s personal supervision costs money — $65 an hour, to be exact. He acknowledges that the popularity of the books and videos may have lead to some false expectations. “They somehow get the impression that I’m on call anytime to take them to nirvana,” he said. There is a potential scenario at Star not unlike one involving 200 fifth graders who all need Daddy to help them with their homework.
Still, out on the Taos mesas, where the soul feels limitless and it seems possible to see forever, some have clearly found, if not exactly nirvana, a reasonable facsimile. There is something elemental about living in a house that requires its occupants to watch the weather, as if they were hawks or beavers, sensing what the wind and clouds will do instead of setting a thermostat.
“You have to be partners with the house,” said Mr. Weaver, who has become the Bob Vila of earth ships. If it’s cloudy three days in a row, you can’t use the washing machine. Speaking by telephone, Mr. Weaver sounded genuinely happy. Indoors, there were bananas. Outside, it was blizzarding.
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