Sailing the Mesa

  Jerome Shea       April 5, 2009      Weekend Wonk

Last week, Diana and I and our daughter and her family spent two nights up in Taos, New Mexico, in an “earthship.” I knew immediately that I had to wonk the experience.

“What is an earthship?” you ask. It is a habitat that aims to be entirely “off the grid.” This means a house heated by the sun and cooled by the earth. A house which collects all the water you need from rain and snowmelt. A house in which solar panels or perhaps wind turbines convert the sun’s energy into stored electricity to run your lights and appliances and to heat water for showering and doing the dishes. A house with a self-contained sewage system and the means to recycle “gray” water for the abundant plants inside it. In short, it’s a house that rides the earth as lightly as a sailing ship rides the ocean blue. It’s a house with—theoretically—all you need to survive when everything goes to hell in a hand basket.

I first heard of these earthships which dot the mesa northwest of Taos in the early seventies, and I assumed that they were the cobbled together dwellings of hippies, of which Taos had an abundance at the time. I also guessed that they were heated by passive solar power (i.e., large south-facing windows), something that we were beginning to hear about in those days. And I gave them no thought until last week. It turns out that they are the brainchild and passion of one Michael Reynolds, who probably would not mind being called a hippie but who is also a trained and licensed architect. Mike Reynolds—late fifties, early sixties?—is a promoter, a visionary, a maverick, and a man of robust energy and convictions. Much of this impression comes from a DVD entitled Garbage Warrior and starring…Mike Reynolds. I have not met the man, although our daughter thinks she saw him prowling around a worksite when we first got to his Greater World Earthship Community. His website, by the way, is

Reynolds quickly became disenchanted with tradition architecture, seeing it as wrongheaded and insulting to the planet. (Needless to say, he is anathema to most of the architectural establishment.) Recycling—using trash, to be blunt—is one of his seminal ideas, and I like to think of the epiphany he must have had when he realized that old tires, which are virtually indestructible and the bane of landfills—could be used in construction. That, in fact, is how you begin to erect an earthship. You dig out where you want to build your ship and you sledgehammer that dirt into old tires that you then begin to stack up in staggered tiers. That is your basic earthship outer wall. According to Reynolds, it is wonderfully insulated and will last practically forever. That is the north wall and parts of the side walls, the south side being glass-walled, for the passive solar feature. You then buttress the tire walls with lots and lots more dirt for even better cooling. And if you don’t want your guests staring at your Goodyears and Firestones, you can lay on plaster inside. Other walls are cement, but to stretch the cement he sticks old bottles and cans in those walls—his signature of sorts. Thus, a typical wall will glow as the sunlight comes in through little portholes of old beer and wine bottles—clear, green, blue, amber, and so forth.

We stayed in the “Phoenix,” a structure which incorporates his best technology and most fanciful designs. It is a demonstration ship, a nightly rental, but it can be yours for a million and a half (more modest, finished earthships go for under half a million, and much cheaper earthships can be had for a lot of sweat equity).

“So what was it like?” you ask. Overall, it was an interesting and comfortable experience. The Phoenix is good sized: three bedrooms, two baths, kitchen, and living room. The south side is, first, a large greenhouse, then there is wall between the greenhouse and the living area so that you can close the connecting doors at night to keep out the chill and open them in mid-morning to welcome the warmth. To best collect the sun, the greenhouse is almost atrium height. Parakeets and cockatiels have the run—or rather the flight—of the place, a nice touch. There is a fish pond where they have experimented with tilapia and catfish (for now they have goldfish and turtles).

But I couldn’t live in the Phoenix, not for long, The interior is really free-form and busy with color, and calls to mind a house fit for large hobbits or elves. The walls swoop and the organically shaped bathtubs make you feel as if you are showering inside a tulip. And the abundance of plantings—including a banana tree!—brings a little too much outdoors indoors for my taste. When I managed to find the living room, it was as if I had broken out into a jungle clearing.

I think we all had this reaction. Tone things down a tad, Mike, and we just might be on board.

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