Taos, United States – It was an ordinary evening at the Elsasser household in New Mexico. As the reddish sun set over the vast desert, Grey, 4, and Dusty, 6, enthusiastically joined their father to bake cookies.
While keeping one eye on his rambunctious children, who stealthily dug into the sugar jar and stuffed their mouths full, and another on the pets – three dogs and a fluffy black cat over the kitchen top – Ted Elsasser explained why their one-bedroom home is so special.
“We’re completely off the grid. We produce our own electricity with solar panels, harvest water, and treat our sewage all within the house,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the exterior walls were built using recycled truck tyres, empty beer cans, and glass bottles pounded with mud.
Elsasser has lived in dwellings such as these for 20 years and said he can’t imagine being back on the grid again.
Elsasser and his family live in an Earthship surrounded by 70 other families who reside in the Greater World community that sprawls over 257 hectares of New Mexico’s desert. He built his own Earthship home for $110 per square foot using 85 percent of his labour, about half as much as an Earthship would cost with a professional crew. These half-buried structures with colourful glass bottles artistically embedded are the brainchild of Michael Reynolds.
On a bright and sunny weekday, Reynolds, 69, walked briskly taking stock of goings on at a busy construction site in the community. A dozen people – architects, electricians, gardeners, volunteers – were finishing up work on a new Earthship. Reynolds strode across the building, stopping every now and then to have a second look, taking mental notes and giving instructions to those at work. The silver-haired architect said he felt the need to create Earthships because of what was happening around him.
“I started responding to what appeared to me to be problems with how people live on this planet, and one of them was garbage. Why do we throw away these fantastic materials like bottles that will never deteriorate?” Reynolds said.
Homes made of trash
According to a report released by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 251 million tonnes of trash were produced in the United States in 2012. Only 44 percent of automobile tyres, one of the main materials used for building an Earthship, were successfully recycled that year.
“Now recycling has turned out to be an industry,” Reynolds said. “That uses up as much energy, in my opinion, as manufacturing them anyway.”
One of the main principles of an Earthship is the use of thermal mass. It is built about 1.2 metres under the surface of the earth, where the temperature remains more or less stable, so there’s no need to use fossil fuels to heat or cool a home.
Another important aspect is use of water. All Earthships utilise and re-utilise water harvested from rain and snow. Household sewage is treated and used to grow food in “grey water planters”, as well as for flushing toilets. Sewage from toilets is then contained in an outdoor botanical cell called a “black water planter”.
Reynolds’ experiments to find sustainable ways of living were once questioned by the mainstream architecture community.
“I was an idiot for building out of garbage,” he recalled. “I have been persecuted for doing this – for treating sewage in the house or building the house out of garbage.”
Reynolds was referring to the time when the state of New Mexico took away his architect’s license about a decade ago. He got it back in 2007, only after agreeing to comply with state rules.
“But people are starting to realise that maybe there is something to look at here. It is going more mainstream,” he said.
Today there are Earthships in 50 US states and more than 25 countries worldwide.
On a cold, windy winter evening, Phil Basehart, a 44-year-old architect and foreman at the Earthship Biotecture company is hard at work. He took Al Jazeera on a tour of a new model of building he was working on.
“This is what we call the global Earthship,” Basehart said. “It’s the best we have come up with so far. And it’s a combination of 40 years of research we have done on how to build something that will allow us to live sustainably.”
The global model of Earthships is a move towards entering the mainstream housing market.
“We’re trying to present it as something that somebody who has never lived like this can walk in here and be absolutely comfortable. It costs as much as any other house of the kind you’ll find on the market, but the difference is that you won’t be paying any utility bills once you’ve moved in,” Basehart told Al Jazeera.
Basehart said the best way to promote it is by passing on the skills to the next generation. And that’s exactly what he does when he’s not wearing his architect’s hat. He’s a teacher at the Earthship Academy, which hosts between 30-60 students from around the world seven times a year.
“Housing has a huge impact on the planet. The idea is to plant a seed and let them grow it however they want to. The demand is growing and that gives us hope that people, whether it’s with us or without us, will make things better,” Basehart said, before returning to work.
I had some time and money on my hands, so I thought I'd go and find out whether it was actually what they were claiming to be, or was it just fake.
‘Give something back’
David Nacmanie, a music teacher from Maryland, was a student at the Earthship Academy in August 2014. He had been exploring sustainable living options when he came across it.
“I had some time and money on my hands, so I thought I’d go and find out whether it was actually what they were claiming to be, or was it just fake,” Nacmanie told Al Jazeera. “Earthships absolutely do everything they claim they to do.”
After the six-week course, Nacmanie said he was equipped to build Earthships and adapt them to his surroundings.
He said he’s thinking about building an Earthship community in Maryland, outside Washington DC, that could provide affordable housing to people who can’t keep up with increasing real estate prices.
“I don’t only want to build an Earthship home for myself, but I also want to give something back to my community,” he said.
Of course Earthships aren’t the only answer to sustainable living.
Communities around the world are experimenting with different kinds of ecologically sound homes, said Joshua Lockyer, a cultural anthropologist at Arkansas Tech University LINK, who has conducted research on the subject.
“I have only encountered very few Earthships in the eco-villages I have visited. So it’s just one component of the mission to live sustainably and in a satisfying way that involves everything from building techniques to production material, forestry and land management, to figuring out how to cooperate with one another and make decisions together,” Lockyer said.
Back in Taos, Elsasser builds homes for other people too and not just Earthships. He runs his own construction company, Taos Off Grid, and recently was contracted to build a house out of waste materials such as shipping containers and hay bales.
Elsasser stressed that different solutions in different places are key to living sustainably.
“Earthships are great, but there are a lot of other brilliant solutions out there too.”