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Earthships - Welcome to Mars on Earth

Updated: Jul 4

One of New Mexico's more alternative living spaces - the pyramid that Earthship founder Michael Reynold's built and lived in for 6 months. Photo credit: Anji Bignell

What seems like only a few years ago, but was in actual fact seven years ago (2020-2022 non-inclusive), I took a trip to New Mexico to learn how to build Earthships.

Spaceships you say? Close enough...

Here's a little something I wrote about them:

Like a scene from Breaking Bad, New Mexico is covered in blistered, arid landscapes stretching for miles in either direction; tapered by surreal, cardboard cutout mountain backdrops and alternative modes of housing consisting of anything from caravans, pyramids, portable houses, tiny houses and burnt-out car shells.

If it weren’t for towns like Taos and Santa Fe that draw tourists to their eclectic adobe art galleries, hot springs and mountain bike riding in the Jemez mountains, you may never notice the strange sci-fi structures jutting out of the mesa, nearby — Earthships — made almost entirely from junk for a community that lives off-grid.

One of the earlier models of Earthship. Photo credit: Anji Bignell

“If the path leads to a bummer, create your own path,” says Michael Reynolds, who is the creator of these sustainable dwellings that I came to the New Mexican desert to learn how to build. I guess what he’s trying to say is, if things aren’t working out how you want them to, go in search of a different path. No way of doing things is ever wrong – it’s trial and error.

Reynolds knows all about trial and error since he started building self-sufficient bio domes in the middle of the desert way back in the '70s. National Geographic were taking photos of the 'crazy hippie in the desert' before I was even born. An architect by trade, I’m pretty sure he has paved his own way because there was no other way (too many lawsuits).

The blue door of my dreams. Photo credit: Anji Bignell

I won’t give you the blow-by-blow account of my Earthship Academy experience, but so far as the standard structure of a basic Earthship works, it uses recycled tires for its thermal wrap and bottles and cans for its walls with re-bar and Portland cement for structural integrity. The focus is on passive solar energy and creating self-sufficient greenhouses – all contained within the one structure.

The six design principles of Earthship biotecture are based on building a home as if it were a living, breathing organism. They should allow for food production, contained sewerage treatment, solar/wind/electricity, thermal/solar heating/cooling, water harvesting, and building with recycled materials.

What you end up with, is a home that will allow you to produce your own food, live bill-free and is resistant to extreme weather conditions such as snow, fire and rain. Earthships look at sustainable autonomy for everyone – water, food, shelter and sewerage – cutting water usage down by 75 per cent.

Earthship greenhouses are intrinsic to the indoor environment which is what makes them so unique. Photo credit: Anji Bignell

There are some negatives when planning to build one of these structures though. Not only do they require regular maintenance, but every country/state has their own building codes and regulations to adhere to. It is important to work with the council to figure out what you can and can't get away with! The pounding of tires for the thermal wall also requires a lot of man power, but if you call the community, they will come, and I guess that's what makes this form of building so unique – bringing like-minded people together to learn and share skills for the greater good.

Pounding tyres requires the strength of community. This will add a thermal wrap and houses the cooling pipes that help maintain the same temperature all year-round. Photo credit: Anji Bignell

Have I since built my own Earthship? Nope. I've renovated and lived in a tiny home, but I will cherry pick from various building design principles and materials, including Earthships, Hempcrete and strawbale, once I have found the right land.

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