Earthships a prevailing home model amidst environmental challenges

A New Mexican Earthship. Photo courtesy of Earthship Biotecture.

By Bodie Russell / NM News Port

With global warming looming, the Earthship, New Mexico’s alternative housing model, is finding enthusiasts and popularity. 

“Every time there’s a crisis – global warming, COVID, Y2K, natural disasters – we get hit. The demand goes way up,” said Jonah Reynolds of Earthship Biotecture in Taos.

Reynolds is the son of famed Earthship creator and architect Michael Reynolds who moved to Taos in 1969. He started building environmentally friendly dwellings in 1973 after he obtained a patent for building blocks made out of cans.

Earthships are off-the-grid homes made of recycled or upcycled materials that use passive solar energy to heat and cool the home. Some of their common features include earth-packed tires, mosaic glass bottle walls and rain-water catchments. 

Jonah Reynolds has been around Earthships his whole life.

His dad’s company, Earthship Biotecture LLC has built homes on every major continent and in such countries as Uruguay, Malawi, Japan, and Australia. In 2018, they got involved in Puerto Rico as a response to Hurricane Maria.

Reynolds said that they cannot build Earthships fast enough. 

“During COVID, we’ve sold most of the Earthships that were available,” Reynolds said. “People want to attend our school, people want us to go build for them.”

The for-profit Earthship Academy, also owned by Michael Reynolds, can be attended online and in-person. The next session is scheduled for April this year.

UNM sophomore, Najwa Bilal, experienced the unique building process. 

“It was really cool that we actually used our hands to build,” Bilal said. “It was a really cool process to be involved in.”

Bilal’s father built an Earthship north of Taos for her grandmother Amina in 2014. She said they got help from people wanting to learn how to build Earthships.

“It took about four years to build because we were building slowly. And it wasn’t just my dad, we actually had help from the Earthship community,” Bilal said. “I remember being with some really nice women with my mom.”

One reason Amina wanted an Earthship was to lower her carbon footprint. Of course, Bilal’s grandmother has to do typical upkeep as one would with a conventional house, but she enjoys living off the grid, something she could not do when living in apartments.

“She always said it’s her dream house,” Bilal said. “She really likes The Hobbit movie and it kind of reminds her of the Hobbit houses.” 

“The lifestyle impact that it has maybe great and right for you. But do that research upfront…” – Chipper Moore, Architecture Professor

This kind of attraction does not go unnoticed, but a lot of work goes into making an Earthship. Chipper Moore, Department Chair of Architecture and Construction Technologies at NMSU branch Doña Ana Community College, said that people should do their research before starting to build.

“If you aren’t going to be able to do a lot of the work yourself, it can be labor-intensive and therefore expensive,” he said.

Moore said Earthships bring a big lifestyle change, and folks should actually stay in an Earthship before they commit to building one. 

“Make sure you know the positives and the challenges,” he said. “The lifestyle impact that it has may be great and right for you. But do that research upfront because it can be a pretty big project.” 

Earthship construction designs from Earthship Biotecture can start at $6000 and include one-on-one consultations with Michael Reynolds. A one-month training program costs $2500. It is said that Earthships can cost up to $225 per square foot. 

A conventional custom home can cost between $122-$175 per square foot. This is near the same amount a general contractor would charge for a conventional turnkey job in New Mexico.

Moore says Earthship dwellers do without some of the conventional systems in a typical house. 

“You would not have the typical heating and cooling systems that you would have in a conventional house. You would be very much dependent upon the home to passively maintain the temperature that you’re looking for,” Moore said.

While the upfront cost of an Earthship is going to look more expensive, owners will save money over time because Earthships will have lower utility costs compared to the average home. Michael Reynolds said that for a 2,200 square foot Earthship, utilities end up around $150 per month.

“We could be more proactive and aggressive on offering and building conventional floorplan conventional look, so you can’t tell the difference from the outside.” – Jonah Reynolds, Earthship Designer

As of 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that 30% percent of your household income should be used to afford your home. 

As for an affordable housing model, Moore said that he sees the housing trend favoring tiny homes.

“Tiny houses can be built very energy efficient. They can be built where they can be relocated and moved,” whereas Earthships “would be geographically constrained,” he said.

Bilal’s father, Bin (far right) with dog Casey, working on the Earthship. Photo courtesy of Najwa Bilal.

Reynolds would agree there’s a trend toward smaller structures.

“It is not sustainable to do a giant building,” Reynolds said. “It’s always better to have smaller buildings.” 

According to Reynolds, the future for Earthships is positive. Earthship Biotecture is focusing on affordability and making Earthships appeal to homeowners.

“I think we could be more proactive and aggressive on offering and building conventional floor plans,” Reynolds said. “So you can’t tell the difference from the outside. But it’s an off-grid Earthship.” 

Reynolds said a new Earthship design called Unity is being built, to add appeal for families.

“It’s a combination of everything we’ve done over the last 50 years, to make the best building we could possibly do for the world, not just the Western world,” he said.

Bodie “Bo” Russell is a reporter for the New Mexico News Port. Follow @b0dier on Twitter.