I Lived Off the Grid in a Desert Earthship

May 11, 2021


Hey friends, a few days ago I had the most interesting stay in New Mexico.

Have you ever heard of an earth house? To take it a step further, have you ever heard of an earthship? A friend told me about the Earthship Biotecture in Taos, New Mexico, years ago and ever since it’s been high on my list to visit.

It’s a community of over 70 homes in the desert that operate completely off the grid. Not only are they sustainable, but they are a design dream. Created with trippy mosaics of recycled bottles and tires, it was the aesthetic that had me intrigued, and the sustainability that had me fall in love with the concept.

Imagine never connecting to the grid again. Imagine never paying another utility bill or overpaying for organic produce. Imagine building a home that cuts down minimal trees and isn’t bound by the typical rules of architecture?

Each home is mainly built out of tires, which are pounded full of earth and used for the main frame of the home. Cans and bottles are also used to build and reinforce walls inside and outside of the structure. Each home has its north side built into the earth and the south side made almost entirely of windows, facing the sun.

The concept is that each home — called a ‘vessel’ by the creator and founder Michael Reynolds — provides for our basic human needs of water, shelter, heat, food, energy, and more.

Apart from the distinctive design, the most unique feature is the atrium inside of the home. Conceptually, this can grow food for one’s family. The idea is to be completely self-sufficient, reliant on no outside systems of utilities or even the food system.

My favorite part was how the water is recycled. In the desert of Taos, there’s minimal rainfall and snowfall each year – usually around 8 inches. The roof is designed to collect the water, which is then filtered for drinking water, and used for the shower and sink. From there, it is filtered through the planter and put into the toilet water system, which can then be filtered to the outdoor landscaping. When following all of these steps, you’ll notice that some of these houses have trees in an otherwise tree-less desert.

So what is it like to actually live in one of these? I booked and stayed in two earthships over the course of 96 hours – one built over the course of eight years by Kirsten Jacobsen, and one called the Phoenix Earthship, which is the flagship earthship meant to show all of the possibilities of the concept.

Kirsten’s earthship was the first one I stayed in.

She calls it the modern Mesa, and although it was also built into the earth with the south facing windows, the design of it was quite different from the Phoenix. For one, the color scheme was all tan with clear bottles used for the bathroom.

Although Kirsten’s atrium was not growing what I would consider enough food to feed a family, it was full of very happy plants that were helping to filter the water. So even if you still remain reliant on outside food systems, you could grow some of your food with this design, and would still be using the plants to help filter your gray water.

The story of this dwelling is fascinating. Kirsten built it almost entirely by herself over the course of eight years. These homes are labor-intensive to build, even if the materials are cheap since they’re mostly discarded and recycled. But one still must collect them, and thousands of them!

She lived in this home herself for several years before building an additional earthship up in the mountains. I have to say it shows. This earthship is perfectly livable, with fast Internet, and all of the comforts one would want in a home. The water was hot, we were comfortable temperature-wise, and the kitchen was fully functional.

I could live in her earthship, at least as far as I could tell from two days of staying there. I also noticed in the Airbnb reviews that a couple had rented it for an entire month, and only had positive things to say.

It also feels good on a soul level to know that each time you take a shower, the water is not just going to waste. It’s good to know that each time you charge something or use electronics, it’s coming from a renewable source. To be honest with you, living in a desert myself in Reno, I feel a little bit guilty each time I take a shower! But what if we were to recycle our water this much? Why does the water that goes into our toilet or is used for landscaping have to be just as clean as the water that we use for showering and drinking? The way that the earthships do it is so ridiculously logical, and I can’t understand why we don’t all do it this way.

And yes, I’m sure that there are pitfalls. What happens if you do run out of water? Then you are left with no choice but to truck it in. Still, having much lower to no utility bills for the rest of one’s life sure is appealing, especially for a native Californian who has watched her state burn at the hands of utility companies.

Next I booked the Phoenix, because I wanted to know what it would look like if the concept was taken to the full extent of its capabilities. The phoenix earthship has a much larger atrium, with an entirely different room in the front dedicated to growing plants. This one also had a Koi pond, which could grow tilapia, and it was humid in there!

Behind those doors there was another atrium inside the house, and it felt like living in a jungle. The design was also impeccable, with such inventive ways to display the bottles, almost like a mosaic. The fireplace had a water feature, the kitchen was also fully functional, and the bedrooms gave me Gryffindor vibes. It felt like I was in a movie, but it was not without its downsides.

After staying in the Phoenix for two days, I have to say I agree with the negative reviews that I read about it. On one hand, it truly is impressive. The ingenuity, time, effort, and dedication that went into building it cannot be denied. It’s an honor that this was opened up to the public to stay in. However this one was less livable for me.

This kitchen, though!

Although Wi-Fi isn’t shouldn’t be a big deal for a couple of days (I was prepared to be disconnected), in the long term, whatever Kirsten did to make hers works so well would be wise to do in the Phoenix.

The other issue is how much of the outside you truly want to let in. If you are growing a working farm inside of the walls of your home, that means that you are inviting in the pests that come with it, as you saw in the video.

There can be solutions for that, like pet cats. For most of the issues, there are solutions. I think in terms of a completely off the grid “oh shit” plan, the earthship is not only genius, but much more live-able than a bunker or any other kind of system that relies on outside help to run.

Many of us are confronted, especially with recent events, with the reality that housing is in short supply, as are raw materials and labor. Ever since pulling out of escrow for the home I looked at buying in Hawaii, I have asked myself if I really want to buy an inefficient home. Staying here inspired me to consider having my own sustainable home, building it with a team of people who know what they’re doing, and making it something that lives in symbiosis with mother nature. We have so much sunshine, we have finite water, we have the ability to use recycled materials to build our homes, and to make sturdy ones at that. What can we take from the earthship concept?

Kirsten believes in taking elements of the earthship and applying it to other buildings, and she’s doing interesting things on her website. I can’t wait to see how it evolves. You can rent her Earthship here.

Michael Reynolds is also a wealth of knowledge on the building process, and offers an Earthship Academy. Learn more here.

I think the beautiful thing is more and more people are looking into alternative ways of living off the grid. We’re asking ourselves how we can be more sustainable. We are asking ourselves how we can have less of an impact. The beauty of the Earthship Biotecture as it shows us what is possible.

It’s just one concept, but it’s a good one, and I hope that more people discover it and are inspired by it.

What do you think? Do you think elements of this should be incorporated into new buildings?

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