Earthship 'biotecture' stays comfy without utilities

Published: Sunday, April 13 2014 10:20 p.m. MDT

In Taos, N.M., Earthship founder Michael Reynolds has built several homes largely made of trash. All the homes are designed to be self-sufficient without hookups to any utilities.

John Hollenhorst, Deseret News

TAOS, N.M. — If you landed in the desert surrounding this north-central New Mexico town, you might at first think you had landed on another planet.

In a sprawling development a few miles northwest of town, the architecture is so wild and futuristic that it could just as easily be a colonial outpost on the moon.

Yet the homes are largely made of trash, and all are designed to be totally self-sufficient without hookups to any utilities.

It's a home design known as the Earthship, and the guru who developed it into a distinctive vision of the future will soon be spreading his gospel to Utah.

"It's a vessel that sails on the seas of tomorrow," Earthship founder Michael Reynolds said in a recent interview.

Over the past 25 years, Reynolds' thriving experiment in self-sustaining architecture has grown into a diverse collection of about 200 Earthships just outside Taos.

Reynolds presented an all-day workshop Saturday at the Fort Douglas Post Theater, 245 S. Fort Douglas Blvd., Salt Lake City, on his principles of "radically sustainable architecture."

The starting point for an Earthship is typically a pile of old tires. Packed with dirt and stacked into heavy, energy-trapping foundations and walls, tires and other trash such as glass bottles constitute about 45 percent of the building materials.

Reynolds claims that his completed Earthships range from 90 percent to 100 percent self-sufficient — a goal he says could be spread worldwide.

"Well, I think we're a tiny drop in a very large ocean," he said, "but we're seeing that it does work."

One might suppose that a home made out of trash might look, well, trashy. But in fact, Reynold's Earthships typically have a distinctive flair, with flamboyant — even outlandish — architectural designs. Interiors are colorful, well-lit spaces with an attractive, comfortable look.

To be Earthship certified, a home must work properly and be self-sustaining, a design concept Reynolds calls "biotecture." But he admits he enjoys giving each home a nifty look.

"Oh, yeah. It's fun," Reynolds chuckled. "After we get them working, then we play."

Reynolds moved to Taos as a young architect and has been perfecting his Earthship designs for three decades. The overriding goal is for each home to take what it needs from nature instead of from utility connections.

"The phenomena of the Earth — the wind, the sun, the rain, the biology and the physics. They all provide enough for life of all creatures," he said.

Judy Sutton, who is retired from the U.S. Foreign Service, has owned an Earthship near Taos for three years.

"Not only does the house heat itself and cool itself," Sutton said, "(but) it has a greenhouse where you can grow fruits and vegetables and trees."

That greenhouse is essentially the front room of the house — a long, wide entry corridor running the length of the home's south side and almost entirely made of glass. Most days, sunlight floods in through those windows.

The other three sides, their walls made of tires, are typically backed up by a huge berm of dirt. It's designed to insulate the home from the natural variability in outside temperatures. In other words, the home is designed to maintain a comfortable temperature without using a furnace or air-conditioning system.

"In the summer, these rooms stay very cool," Sutton said. "In the, winter they stay warm."

Rooftop systems collect rainwater and filter it into cisterns. The Earthships' complex plumbing system uses the water, recycles it and uses it again. For example, wash water gets used again to sustain Sutton's indoor vegetable garden, which includes mango and lemon trees, avocados and figs.

Taos gets less precipitation than Utah, but Sutton has needed to bring in outside water only one year out of three.

"We get about 12 inches of rain a year," she said. "As long as you get about that much, you have enough. If you're careful."

For Reynolds, standing alone without connections to a utility grid is akin to a divine mission.

"People are starting to understand that, 'Whoa, water falls down from the sky. I don't need infrastructure for water,'" he said.

The Earthships have large solar panels to generate electricity, of course. A few have windmills, but wind power isn't typically needed because the sun in Taos rarely takes a day off.

Even sewage is handled without utility connections. Drain-field treatment systems are buried near each home.

"We treat sewage with biology rather than sewage treatment plants," Reynolds said. "We treat it on-site so we don't have to gather it up and pump it to places."

Reynolds teaches his principles at his own Earthship Academy, where disciples learn the intricate details of biotecture.

Email: hollenhorst@ksl.com

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