Driving through the arid New Mexico desert about an hour north of Santa Fe, you might spot several dozen unusual-looking buildings dotted along the horizon. These are ‘earthships’ - environmentally sustainable, off-grid homes made using recycled and natural materials. They represent the life’s work of Mike Reynolds, a radical architect who’s passionate about proving that truly green building design can work. Once considered a marginal eccentric, Reynolds is today seen as something of a green visionary, attracting architects, designers and builders who come to New Mexico to learn how to construct an earthship. Over a thousand have been built around the world, from Australia to Haiti to Southern England.
Since graduating as an architect in 1969, Reynolds has experimented with ‘trash’ building materials such as used tyres, plastic bottles and aluminum cans. When filled with soil, he realised, these could provide long-lasting and effective insulation. The early earthships tended to be fairly basic, but over the years they have incorporated features to provide comfort while existing off-grid, and the latest buildings allow residents to live with exactly the same standard of living as conventional homes, including flat screen televisions, washing machines, heating, and showers.
Earthships are founded on six design principles: thermal/solar heating and cooling, solar and wind electricity, contained sewage treatment, building with natural and recycled materials, water harvesting and food production. Since around a quarter of the energy we consume worldwide is used in the home, with vast majority derived from burning fossil fuels, these self-sufficient buildings could radically reduce a family’s carbon footprint. Central to the earthships’ design is the concept of thermal mass. Walls are built using old tyres rammed with soil to 95 per cent compaction to help regulate the temperature, keeping the houses cool in summer and warm in winter. Water is used a total of four times, including in the food production area where grapes, citrus and bananas are grown.
The cost of building an earthship is comparable to building a typical home, and a big draw for householders is of course the lack of utility bills. There is also a basic version that can cost as little as $4,000, is earthquake-resistant, and can be built quickly using local materials. Reynolds and his team have worked on a number of disaster relief projects, including in the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean after the 2004 tsunami, and in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The idea is to equip local people with the skills to continue building earthships where they are most needed.
Russell Beard visits the original earthship community in New Mexico, to meet the big thinker behind these ground-breaking buildings.
earthrise airs each week at the following times GMT: Friday: 1930; Saturday: 1430; Sunday: 0430; Monday: 0830.
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