by Nara Williams - email@example.com
So imagine my amazement when, after driving through miles and miles of good old, sturdy Kansas, gazing forlornly at dilapidated farmhouses along the highway, I made it to Taos and found myself waving at the mountains from a glass pyramid on top of a three-story Earthship.
Though the name "Earthship" may relate more to the fact that the buildings are almost entirely self-sustaining, it really does feel like a ship, of some sort. Though perhaps more of a space ship than anything- I can see the southern edge of the Rockies.
I'm currently staying in a building called the "Hive," a massive structure that contains about 10 bedrooms, 8 bathrooms, 2 kitchens, and of course, the pyramid. It overlooks the mesa, seas of scrubby sage bush, and a part of the arroyo hondo. You can also glimpse the "Greater World Community," where there are about 70 private Earthship homes.
Mike Reynolds, the "guru" of Earthships, (check out the documentary Garbage Warrior) originally moved here and starting experimenting with using recycled materials to build structures.
The first Earthship he built on this particular plot of land was the Nautilus, the original, smaller house the Hive contains. He designed it using the Fibonacci sequence, and it possesses some of the essential qualities of the Earthship: its partially built with tires and cans, has south facing window greenhouse, and a waste water planter
It's at the very least, insanely artistic. The original nautical theme is still overwhelmingly present; seashells and aquatic colors abound.
Eventually, Mike moved on and sold the building to a man who wanted to create a yoga retreat; an "angel's nest." He pretty much covered it in copper and made it into something that didn't quite resemble an Earthship anymore- he used some tires, and some waste water planters, but the addition wasn't designed to capture the light properly or to catch water and feed it to cistern. It has north facing windows, and a lot of it is just poured concrete and traditional framing.
So maybe it's not a good example of an Earthship at all. But it's awesome. And now, since the yoga dude went bankrupt, it houses Earthship's interns- young and old folks from around the world that want to learn how to build efficient, gorgeous homes. And of course, provide free labor. And also, host me.
Check out this cool visual explanation of how an Earthship is typically built, and spare me the trouble of pretending I know how it all works:
I'm sure that if you bothered to watch it, you noticed that thing about organic food production. Inside your house.
Yup, no lie. Visiting some of these buildings, it was hard not to be seduced by the presence of these plants, growing not just in flower pots, but from the ground. And not just for decoration/awesomeness-the presence of the greenhouse acts as a buffer and regulates temperature. Kale, tomatoes and herbs available year round. Dang.
And of course, that's just the beginning. For some reason, I expected things to not work, or to require several extra steps. Other "off-the-grid" houses I've been to require you to, you know, relieve yourself in a hole nearby and bury it. Typically not the case. Most homes have fully functional plumbing and electricity, powered and regenerated from the building itself.
As one local said to me:
"There's a power outage that throws the rest of the area into crisis, and those people don't know about it for months."
In some ways, it's the exact opposite of Mustang Mobile Park, my first destination. Here, the structures are sprawling, assymetrical, unconstrained. Giant windows, plants growing inside, walls embedded with a rainbow of glass bottles and aluminum cans.
But they certainly use less power than a mobile home. And even my grandma, before I even told her I was going, expressed a strong desire to live in "one of those things."
The appeal is pretty obvious: I saw an ad for one of the houses in the community, and it mentioned total utility costs amounting to about $100...a year.
And the prices aren't outrageous- certainly less than a typical suburban home outside of Chicago. You can buy your own plans, too, and hire the Earthship crew to build a custom house.
They might look crazy, but Earthships really do walk a fine line. Off-the-grid and 100% luxurious.
I've been dragging my heels with this Earthships business. Probably because it was such a mind-blowing experience that I don't really want to acknowledge the fact that I've been out of New Mexico for days now.
We had to leave the Hive when the new batch of interns moved in, so I spent a couple of days in the nearby town of Arroyo Seco living in this:
It was cool- ok, it was totally awesome and everything I ever dreamed about- but I missed the pyramid in the sky.
Nevertheless. Being the cynical person (that hangs out with cynical interns) that I am, I would feel incomplete not laying down some kind of critical analysis of the whole Earthships thing, some kind of Hampshirey summary.
So now: The critique. The shortcomings. The-things-I'd-improve-if-I-knew-anything-about-building-and-community-planning-but-will-sort-of-just-naively-outline-anyway.
To me, the biggest, clearest issue is the inaccessibility of these designs. That's not to say that Earthships hasn't had some success with relief housing- typically, they lead month-long building intensive in countries where there is housing need. They will typically build one "Survival Pod," which look different depending on geographical location/materials, and teach locals how to build it, which is a good idea- except that it's only really worked in South Africa.
Usually, the local population doesn't end up building anymore pods- they're a lot of work to build, for one, and it is a fairly material intensive process. The information passed along in a month's time isn't really enough to create a sustainable system.
And as far as the close-to-home housing issues: you can't just plop one of these suckers down in the suburbs, or the inner city. For one thing, they'd probably violate many a code.
But they're also fundamentally designed to be totally off-grid- something that doesn't really work when there's already a grid- they have a pretty large individual footprint, so you couldn't put a lot of them together, at least not the way you'd need to in a suburb like mine:
Not much room for a "Phoenix."
It's hard to truly quantify the impact, of course, because the Earthship concept isn't exactly secretive- a definite plus. So much of it is so open-source that pretty much anyone can glean the basics and proceed to build their own adaptation.
So maybe it's still in the experimental phase, which is perfectly fine. What Earthships needs, really, is a sort of "translator," someone who can take the simple mission of living a low impact life in a house that feels like a house and adapt it to existent homes and neighborhoods.
About the Author:
I'm Nara, and this is the blog in blogress for the field study component of my Hampshire college Division III project. Did you think I meant this? Guess again, my friend. This is about PURE SOCIAL SCIENCES! Or as Hampshire would call it, Critical Social Inquiry. Laugh at the acronym, if you'd like, but take the content seriously or get stabbed with a picket sign.
Over the last three years at Hampshire, I've developed a defining interest in the way people live, both in regards to the natural environment and the physical structures we call "home." I am intrigued by ideas of personal space, varying family structures, material attachments, and environmental connections all coming together within the dimensions of a house.
Accordingly, I've decided to explore some of the houses that make up the modern American landscape. I'll be driving around in a sexy Prius, seeing friends and wildlife and highway oases all along the way.
Want me to come sleep on your couch? Interview you or someone you know? Watch you build a house? Build ME a house, preferably this one? Sure thing! Check out the contact page and shoot me an e-mail.
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Last modified on Saturday, 15 September 2012 09:01