Saturday, June 15, 2024

’70s Earthship Homes Are Making a Comeback

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Earthship homes have been around for half a century, and as the climate crisis and housing concerns rise, the eco home trend is finding a new audience.

Earthship homes are every bit as ’70s hippie-inspired as you’d expect them to be — psychedelic, tie-dyed, and far out. They are, at their core, a type of eco-friendly, self-sustaining home designed to function independently of municipal utilities and promote off-grid living off the land. And as home prices and inflation soar while concerns over the climate crisis increase, a growing number of people are building these homes — incorporating recycled and natural materials to create energy-efficient, low-impact, and sustainable dwellings.

History of Earthship homes

Earthships date back to the 1970s when Michael Reynolds, a young architecture student at the time, began experimenting with alternative building methods that would be environmentally friendly and energy-efficient. Reynolds, now 79, was influenced by the teachings of Buckminster Fuller and the natural architecture of ancient civilizations like the Anasazi and the Mayans. Reynolds combined these concepts to create the Earthship concept, which combines natural and technological solutions to sustainable living.

Reynolds built his first Earthship in Taos, New Mexico, in the 1970s — a home which he called the “Thumb House” because it was shaped like a thumb. The Thumb House was built using used tires filled with earth and was powered by solar panels. It was a prototype for the Earthship concept, and Reynolds continued to refine the design over the next few years.

Reynolds’ interest in sustainable architecture was sparked by his experiences living in the mountains of Colorado. He was struck by the beauty of the natural environment and the need to preserve it for future generations. In the early 1970s, Reynolds began experimenting with recycled materials and natural building techniques. Reynolds lived in the first Earthship with his family and used it as a testbed for further development of the concept. Over the next few years, Reynolds continued to refine the design and build more Earthships. The Earthship concept gained popularity in the 1980s, and Reynolds’ designs were featured in various magazines and television shows.

In 1986, Reynolds founded Earthship Biotecture, a company dedicated to the design, construction, and promotion of Earthships. The idea of “biotecture” combines architecture and ecology. The company has since built hundreds of Earthships all over the world and Reynolds’ has written several books on the subject, including the 1989 book titled “The Earthship: How to Build Your Own,” which detailed the construction and design principles of Earthships. Reynolds believes buildings should be designed to work with nature, not against it. The Earthship concept embodies this philosophy, with its use of recycled and natural materials, water harvesting and filtration systems, and solar power.

Earthship home
Earthship home exterior | Courtesy

Reynolds’ work has not been without controversy, however. His unconventional building methods and disregard for traditional building codes have been criticized by some. Reynolds has also been in legal disputes with the state of New Mexico over building permits and zoning laws. However, he has continued to push the boundaries of sustainable architecture and inspire others to do the same and Reynolds’ legacy in the world of sustainable architecture is significant. He has not only developed a unique and innovative approach to building, but he has also inspired a new generation of architects and builders to explore sustainable design, showing that it is possible to live in harmony with nature and build homes that are not only energy-efficient but also beautiful and functional.

Benefits of Earthship homes

One of the most significant benefits of an Earthship home is its energy efficiency. The homes are designed to use natural sources of energy like solar power, wind power, and geothermal energy. The walls of the homes are typically made from recycled materials like old tires, which provide excellent insulation and thermal mass.

The design of the home is optimized to maximize passive solar heating, which means that the home stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer. These energy-saving features result in lower energy bills and long-term cost savings for homeowners.

Earthship home
Earthship home bedroom | Courtesy

Notably, the homes are designed to be completely self-sufficient, with their own systems for water harvesting, filtration, and storage. This means that homeowners can live entirely off the grid, without relying on municipal water or wastewater systems. The homes also use sustainable materials like recycled steel and glass, which have a lower environmental impact than traditional building materials. The Earthship design also promotes sustainable living practices like composting, organic gardening, and waste reduction, which can promote a sense of self-sufficiency and independence for the homeowner.

Earthship homeowners have the ability to produce their own food, water, and energy, which further reduces their dependence on outside sources. This self-sufficiency can provide a sense of security and peace of mind, particularly in uncertain times. It also promotes a sense of responsibility for the environment and encourages sustainable living practices.

The design of an Earthship home is also incredibly versatile. The homes can be designed to fit different climates and terrains, from desert environments to mountainous regions. The design is also customizable, with options for different sizes, layouts, and finishes. This flexibility allows homeowners to create a home that fits their individual needs and preferences. The use of recycled materials like tires and glass can create a stunning and unconventional home design that promotes an indoor-outdoor connection, with large windows and open floor plans that invite natural light and views of the surrounding landscape.

Earthship bathroom
Earthship bathroom | Courtesy

Recycled tires and glass Earthships can get the luxury treatment, too. One 3-bedroom, 2-bath Southern California Earthship home was recently listed for $1.5 million. “In our world, where environmental conservation continues to resound within the present-day zeitgeist, the thought of living in a completely autonomous, self-sustaining and architecturally-pleasing ‘Earthship,’ the only one of its kind in California, is truly remarkable,” listing agent Marc Hernandez said in a news release.

Earthships may also be a useful tool in helping to fight the housing problem. Reynolds says he’s figured out a way to have the government help subsidize Eartships. Lawmakers just have to agree. “There’s the way the government can help the people,” Reynolds said. “They’ve got all these plans that are off the wall and they’ve got Habitat for Humanity where they build houses but people can’t afford to live in them with the utility bill situation. The ones I’m building, I’ve got the added feature of no utilities,” he told Taos News last October.

Reynolds estimated that his Refuge Earthships could be leased for as little as $1,200 per month. “If I had 100 of these right now, they’d all lease in 24 hours,” he said. “No first and last, no utility bill. You walk into a home that will absolutely take care of you, produce food, produce water, make you free from all these crises.”

Are Earthships better suited for climate change?

Because of their unique construction and self-sustaining features, Earthships come with a lower carbon footprint than most other new home builds. But they also offer a number of additional benefits that might indeed be better suited to withstand the challenges posed by climate change.

Earthships use natural and recycled materials, such as earth-packed tires, for walls. These materials have high thermal mass, which helps maintain a stable indoor temperature regardless of external weather conditions. This quality can be particularly advantageous in regions experiencing extreme temperature fluctuations due to climate change. And because these homes are typically off-grid, they rely on renewable solar energy for power and passive solar design for heating. As climate change leads to more frequent and intense power outages, the self-sufficiency of Earthships in energy production and consumption becomes a significant advantage.

There may be advantages when it comes to water use, too. Earthships are designed to collect and reuse water, including rainwater harvesting, greywater recycling, and even treating and reusing sewage on-site. In a world where climate change is exacerbating water scarcity, such systems can be crucial. Likewise, food shortages could be addressed by Earthships as many incorporate gardens or greenhouses for growing food. This feature can provide resilience against food supply disruptions that might result from climate change-driven impacts on agriculture.

How to Build an Earthship

Building an Earthship requires planning, but can typically be done by the homeowner rather than a contractor. The construction process involves several stages, including site selection, design, material selection, and installation of various systems. Here is a breakdown of each stage:

Site selection

The first step in building an Earthship is selecting the site. The ideal site is south-facing with good solar exposure, good soil drainage, and access to a water source. The site should also be free from zoning and building code restrictions that may limit the design or construction of the Earthship.

The Lemuria Earthship
The Lemuria Earthship | Courtesy

Design

The design of an Earthship is unique, and it involves incorporating features like a greenhouse, water collection system, and gray water treatment system. The design should take into account the local climate and the specific needs of the occupants. The design also needs to comply with local building codes and regulations.

Materials

The materials used in building an Earthship are crucial and can be the most fun and creative part of the build. The walls are built using used tires filled with earth, which provides insulation and thermal mass. Other natural and recycled materials used in Earthship construction include adobe, bottles, and cans. The roof is typically made of trusses and roofing materials that allow for maximum solar gain.

Construction

The construction of an Earthship requires a team of skilled builders who can work with the unique materials and design principles. The construction process can take several months to complete, and it involves tasks like tire pounding, adobe brick making, and installation of solar panels and other systems.

An Earthship home
An Earthship home | Courtesy

Systems

As an Earthship is designed to be self-sustaining, and it requires various systems to achieve this. The water collection system captures rainwater and stores it for later use, and the gray water treatment system treats and recycles wastewater. The power system relies on solar panels, wind turbines, or other renewable sources to provide electricity. The heating and cooling system uses passive solar design and natural ventilation to maintain a comfortable temperature inside the Earthship.

How Much Does an Earthship cost?

The cost of building an Earthship can vary depending on the location, size, and complexity of the design. The cost of materials, labor, and permits can also impact the overall cost of building an Earthship. However, building an Earthship can be an affordable and sustainable housing option in the long run.

According to Earthship Biotecture, the cost of building an Earthship can range from $200 to $400 per square foot. However, the cost can be significantly lower if the owner is willing to use recycled or salvaged materials and does most of the construction work themselves. Building a smaller Earthship can also reduce the overall cost.

In addition to the initial construction cost, an Earthship requires ongoing maintenance and upkeep. The solar panels and other systems may need occasional repairs or replacements. But the cost of maintaining an Earthship is typically lower than the cost of maintaining a traditional home, as the energy and water usage are significantly reduced.

Earthship homes

Need a little Earthship inspo? Take a look at some of these.

Earthship west hills
Earthship West Hills, CA. Courtesy Compass Group

1. West Hills, California

This 3,607-square-foot 3-bedroom, 2-bath home was completed in 2002 and designed by Reynolds himself.

earthship
Taos, NM Earthship | Courtesy Redfin

2. Taos, New Mexico

This off-grid green 2-bedrooms, 2-bath Earthship has copper countertops in the kitchen and custom cabinets throughout. The interior greenhouse runs the length of the building with both a gray water planter and a new aqua botanical system. Set on a 1.76 acre lot in the Greater World Community which offers 340 acres of common land and borders the newly created National Monument.

The Phoenix Earthship in Taos
The Phoenix Earthship in Taos, NM | Courtesy

3. Taos, New Mexico

At the Earthship community in Taos, some of the homes such as the Phoenix (pictured), can be rented out by the night. The Phoenix, is a 5,300 square foot building that is capable of housing eight people in its 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and a large kitchen and living room. The property also has an interior jungle.

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