Earthship Homes: Affordable, Energy-Efficient Building

Architect Michael Reynolds uses tires and aluminum cans to create Earthships, energy-efficient homes that retain solar energy in their walls. With this technique, you can build an affordable house without any homebuilding expertise.

| October/November 1991

Gray towers of rain march across the mesa. Yellow pitchforks of lightning strike the earth amid the distant drone of successive thunderclaps. Black clouds swirl across the blue sky, eclipsing the sunlight and casting ominous shadows over the few dwellings that dot the land. It is precisely these dwellings that have brought architect Michael Reynolds and myself to these 20 acres outside Taos, N.M., on this darkening afternoon.

Reynolds had recently achieved some notoriety as the man who designed a seemingly bizarre house made of tires for actor Dennis Weaver. Unfortunately, most news accounts seem to spend more time on Weaver than on explaining the theory behind the upcycling design. Much more than an actor's folly, Weaver's house is the product of a long search by Reynolds for an economical, self-sufficient form of house construction that would also reduce the stress placed on the planet by conventional building methods. In addition, the houses themselves would encourage a lifestyle more in harmony with the natural order.

As the swollen thunderheads above prepare to loose their cargoes of rain, Reynolds expresses outrage that the homeless problem currently facing nearly every nation around the world today is completely unnecessary. He contends that the high cost of housing is the result of refusing to look at alternatives and to set affordability and self-sufficiency as goals. "What other species on the planet could be in this predicament?" Reynolds asks. "The mud wasps can all make mud nests; beavers can all cut wood. People, on the other hand, are mostly helpless when it comes to building their own homes. Housing has been taken away from people."

For the past 20 years, through much trial and error, Reynolds has been developing a building system which will, in effect, free people from the tyranny of costly mortgages, energy bills and even part of their grocery bills. He personally "test piloted" each experimental energy-efficient structure along the way to ascertain how successful it was. The result is a house design that satisfies his own rigorous criteria. In fact, these are much more than the word "house" implies. Reynolds calls his structures "Earthships" — vessels rooted in the earth, designed to carry people through whatever the future brings: climate change, economic adversity or famine, as well as peace and prosperity. Built primarily from recycled materials (used tires and aluminum cans) and finished with adobe mud, these passive solar Earthship homes can be constructed by unskilled builders and inhabited with little, if any, dependence on the power grid: Heating and cooling are based on a principle called "mass." Power is gleaned from the sun or wind. It sounds outrageous but it seems to work.

Upcycled Home Design

Reynolds is accustomed to the skeptical eye. After making up his mind that his life would be better spent seeking appropriate shelter for people rather than racing his motorcycles, he bought acreage that no one else wanted outside Taos, N.M., for only $350 an acre. This lack of interest was based on an alleged lack of water, an allegation Reynolds put to rest soon after the deed was signed. He found water all over the place.

How? "Hired a water witch," Reynolds says with a shrug, referring to a local dowser.

1/17/2013 12:01:06 AM

Iam also interested in how they fare in a wet environment, especially the adobe material. In Arkansas we get cold in the winter, hot and humid in the summer. The Earthships are very impressive. Too bad we don't all live in one.

11/4/2010 12:19:12 PM

I have been reading quite a few articles on using tires for construction. My dad is a LEED architect and artist. He recently drew a fantasy, pen and ink drawing of a house contructed of old tires. It is posted as a coloring page:

M Fowler
11/2/2010 7:26:20 AM

Great article! I get questions all the time regarding eco-friendly construction, earthship, sandbags, etc. I can now refer folks to this peice and answer their questions later. My question: How does earthship fare in a hot, wet environment?

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