Close your eyes and imagine the flat, almost colorless shades of brown that dominate the New Mexico landscape near Taos, full of brush and dirt, with the Pueblo Mountains as a distant backdrop. Then imagine driving a lonely road through this flat, unassuming landscape, to some structures out in the middle of nowhere. Structures that are made of upcycled materials, that live off the land and sun.
This is Earthship. A revolutionary project from visionary architect Michael Reynolds, whose mission in life is to create incredible living spaces out of what we already have, in a way that uses very little of our limited natural resources.
One of the highlights of my road trip around New Mexico was staying at two different Earthships. My road trip included stops in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, the Bisti Badlands, and White Sands National Park.
What is an Earthship?
The Earthship community consists of 650 acres of land northwest of Taos with dozens of these earthen structures, whose walls are made from used car tires stuffed with dirt and stacked like bricks, then covered with sand, straw and adobe mud – a mixture that hardens like concrete and forms the load-bearing walls. And while that doesn’t sound very glamorous, the results are definitely are; huge, beautifully designed, modern rooms with fantastic amenities, such as high-end kitchen appliances and luxury bedding.
As you can imagine, an Earthship needs a lot of used tires. Luckily, it is a plentiful natural resource – 2.5 billion are stockpiled in the U.S. alone, and 2.5 million more are discarded every year. A standard fixture outside many Earthship homes is bottle-and-can brick walls. Other home-building materials consist of reclaimed wood and metal.
Earthship operates on six design principles that harvest the existing natural resources available:
- Building with repurposed and natural materials
- Thermal and solar heating/cooling systems
- Solar/wind energy
- Harvesting/purifying water
- A contained sewage treatment system
- In-house food production
What it’s Like Staying in an Earthship
Upon arrival, all guests receive a friendly orientation. A small guided tour, if you will, that includes instructions on how to operate your temporary home. You will learn minor procedures such as activating pumps and electrical feeds so that you get the sense that you are interacting with the place for it to work for you.
One of the first things people notice is how quiet their surroundings are. There’s no whirl of air conditioning because solar and wind energy is used for everything. No electrical, fossil fuels or wood is used to power the structures. The earth that surrounds these homes makes for much of the natural cooling conditions, which is a welcome feature in the hot desert sun.
And when the desert temperatures dip below freezing at night, the solar energy captured during the day is used for any heating requirements. In fact, the thick walls are an ingenious way of storing heat or cold due to their solidity that provides thermal mass. The general structure of each home has three of these walls, with a south-facing wall of windows to let the sun in.
The constant temperature of the earthen walls that keep the houses cool during sweltering summer days is enhanced with tubes that are buried in conjunction with operable vent boxes.
The Lemuria Earthship
As one of Earthship’s Global Models, the Lemuria was named after a civilization of mythical proportions that is thought to have sunk far beneath the sea. It is a one-bedroom, one-bath structure with a modern, open concept kitchen/living room combo with wood-beamed, adobe ceilings.
The bedroom is simple and cozy, with an en-suite bathroom, complete with an earthen-colored tiled shower and exquisite stained-glass window facing the sunny south.
As you enter the front door, you are greeted with an aroma-filled greenhouse with inviting plants lined up along the sun-facing wall of windows that run the length of the house. A second door welcomes you into the living room area that also captures much of that sun.
The Phoenix Earthship
One of the shining stars of the Earthship community, The Phoenix is an exotic 3-bedroom, 2-bath structure that has been featured on Lonely Planet’s Top Eco-Stays of the World. It is a genius work of sustainable art.
In true off-grid fashion, it creates its own microclimate in the form of a jungle greenhouse, with tall banana trees, grapevines, birds, turtles, and even a chicken coop for fresh eggs! A fish pond with a fountain completes the inviting natural surroundings. It also features its own food garden for true sustainability. A water run-off system provides the home with gray water that feeds into the plants, then is filtered and stored for use throughout the house.
Completely solar-powered, the Phoenix has 5,300 square feet of living space, so there is much room to move, and comfortable space for up to 8 people. Adobe, wood, and stone tiles combine to form a cozy and welcoming environment with rounded edges that give the whole place a sense that the home naturally rose from the ground. Which is not far from the truth.
Of particular interest to many is the fantastically-designed stone fireplace. Fashioned with an eye to the spectacular and definitely a major focal point, its gentle curves draw your eye up to the television perched above it.
Throughout the home, the architectural and decorative details tell a story all their own. The full kitchen features bold, red cabinetry and modern appliances. A dining room and separate living room continue the sizeable open-concept living space, with comfortable furnishings designed for luxury.
The house is divided into east and west wings so that smaller groups can occupy the home. The east wing has two bedrooms with king-sized beds and a twin bed, and a bathroom featuring a unique, clear-domed ceiling so the sun can shine in. It includes the kitchen, dining, and interior lounge area.
The west wing suite includes a king bedroom, sunroom, bathroom (also with a clear domed ceiling), and outdoor sitting area. Both wings have access to the “jungle room.”
Natural glass, clay, and rock can be found in every nook and cranny of the home. When you’re not out enjoying the firepit and stargazing, solar-powered amenities such as WiFi and television with Netflix can be enjoyed.
Both the Lemuria and the Phoenix are available as short-term rentals through Airbnb.
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