Earthships: The Power of Unconventional Ideas

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Arizona Earthship HomeIn his book, A Coming of Wizards, Michael Reynolds said four mystical beings, whom he called “wizards,” appeared to him in psychedelic visions and gave him ideas that have guided his work. He wrote that the wizards taught him to “de-normalize” his thinking and tap into his own, personal “energy band.”

The source of his vision was unconventional. The results of his mystical inspiration, however, have been practical successes in the real world.

Mike is the inventor of the Earthship, a home design that uses recycled materials and nature’s own solar machinery to create snug, self-sufficient houses. When I met him in 1982, he’d already been building Earthships for the better part of a decade. They were scattered across northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.

They weren’t like any other houses in the world. Mike had spontaneously — maybe instinctively — set out to solve several different puzzles at the same time. He wanted his houses to be energy independent, comfortable and beautiful, and he wanted to reutilize waste materials in their construction.

Mike Reynolds half-buried his houses in south-facing hillsides and created their south walls entirely from high-quality insulated glass so they would capture the heating energy of the sun. He built durable, moisture-proof roofs, buried them in insulating soil, and planted native plants on them so the roof could grow its own summer shade, which naturally thinned and let the sun warm the roof in winter. He invented a unique ventilation system that pulled cool air from outside and pushed overheated air out through skylights during warm weather.

The Earthships needed to store solar energy to use overnight and during cold, dark weather. Mike designed massive, 4-foot-thick interior walls and positioned them in the sunlight streaming in from the south-facing windows. He constructed thick floors of concrete and adobe that soaked up sunshine all day and then radiated warmth at night.

Old tires, bottles and tin cans were overflowing our landfills, so Mike decided to use them as building materials. The thick interior walls of his Earthship homes are made from old tires. Other walls use cans and glass bottles in the same manner as bricks, mortared with concrete or adobe. The “bottle walls” are left exposed so that sunlight shines into whimsical rooms through a mosaic of multicolored bottles and jars salvaged from the dump.

To stay off of costly, inefficient utility grids, Mike outfitted his houses with photovoltaic solar electricity, wind turbines and water collection systems. Other systems in the houses filter water from the sinks and bathtubs and reuse it in the toilets.

New Mexico Earthship Home BlueBecause creating an Earthship is a labor-intensive process, Mike kept the mechanics simple. He figured few contractors would sign up to build Earthships. They are effectively handmade. They take a lot of hours. So he developed building techniques for amateurs. Anyone can quickly learn how to build a wall from concrete and tin cans or bottles. He invented a method of packing sand inside stacks of used tires to create the thick, stable interior walls. You can master the process in a few hours. After they’ve been stuccoed, Earthship homes have a beautiful natural shape and store a lot of thermal energy. In winter, they exude warmth through cold nights. In summer, they stay cool in the heat of the day.

Built-in planters grow food year-round inside Earthships. One owner picks bananas in the middle of winter from a tree that sits in the window of an Earthship situated at 7,000 feet elevation in the Rocky Mountains. Some of the unique structures include indoor goldfish ponds.

Mike built several Earthships himself, but soon he was coaching an army of Earthship builders, most of them do-it-yourselfers who wanted to play a personal role in the creation of their own homes. Earthships have been built in every shape and size imaginable, from little one-room, beer can bungalows to late actor Dennis Weaver’s multimillion-dollar Earthship estate in Ridgeway, Colo. Construction of Weaver’s 8,500-square-foot home reportedly repurposed 3,000 old tires and more than 350,000 discarded aluminum cans.

There are Earthship subdivisions and complexes of Earthship condominiums. Earthships now stand in Jamaica, Mexico, India, Japan, South America, Europe and Africa. Mike is the subject of a documentary film, Garbage Warrior, and has been interviewed on every major television network.

Not every Earthship home is beautiful, at least not to passersby. But look in the eyes of Earthship owners and you’ll see an unmistakable glow of enthusiastic affection when they talk about their homes, especially if they built the houses themselves. To their owners, even the funkiest Earthships are lovable. And some of them are architectural wonders.

Earthship Home WallsThe early prototypes were experimental. Some of them seemed to soak up cold right out of the earth, and no woodstove would heat them. Others broiled their occupants, summer and winter. Sometimes Mike went back and fixed them with a new idea or two. Sometimes the homeowners sorted out the solutions themselves.

Still, nearly 40 years after their invention, Earthships are at the cutting edge of residential architecture.

I’ve ridden up and down dirt roads with Mike, looking at Earthship homes and listening to him talk about them. Although he was a licensed architect, the history of architecture wasn’t interesting to him. Obviously he didn’t operate in any established tradition. He didn’t even seem to be interested in the history of the Earthship, his own creation. Mike talked mostly about the future — a future in which the Earthship philosophy of beauty and efficiency would be a major force in the world. The Earthship was, after all, invented for the future. Mike incubated the contemporary philosophy of “humanitarian design,” the practitioners of which now include Nathaniel Corum, a man who designed hurricane-resistant housing in Haiti, built straw bale homes on a Navajo reservation, and built the cabin for Plastiki, the yacht made from discarded plastic bottles that sailed across the Pacific Ocean in 2010. Whether they realize it or not, present-day architects owe their identity, in part, to Mike Reynolds.

You don’t see many references to Mike’s visiting wizards on any of the thousands of websites about Earthships these days. Wizard visitations obviously don’t get a lot of credit for the achievements of today’s humanitarian designers and architects. But I’ve kept my copy of A Coming of Wizards as a reminder that sometimes a visionary needs to “de-normalize” how we think about things.

For more information about Earthships and the man who invented them, check out these MOTHER EARTH NEWS articles: Building an Earthship for Off-the-Grid Living, Earthship Homes: Affordable, Energy-Efficient Building and Michael Reynolds’ Energy-Efficient Buildings. — MOTHER 

Photos by Earthship Biotecture; top photo: Let the sunshine in! The lush indoor vegetation loves this glass-faced Earthship in Phoenix; middle photo: This Earthship in New Mexico includes several solar panels. Its owners call it the “Sol Ship”; bottom photo: Reused glass bottles add color and brilliance to the interior bedroom walls of this Earthship.