August 8, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Life in an earthship

TAOS, N.M.--Imagine maintaining a steady 70 degrees in your house high in the New Mexico desert, even as outside temperatures vary between 100 and minus-20, all without spending a dime on power.

Can't picture it? Owners of an innovative type of housing known as earthships can.

That's because earthships are specifically designed to be comfortable in any climate even as they're entirely off the grid and made using a healthy supply of natural and recycled materials.

Earthships currently exist in every U.S. state and in several other countries, but the Earthship World Community, about 15 miles northwest of Taos, N.M., is ground zero for this alternative form of dwelling. It's forbidding country: flat, arid, high-altitude and really hot in summer. And really cold in winter.

As you head west on U.S. Highway 64, you come across a collection of about 60 oddly shaped but wonderful-looking houses off the right side of the road. And you immediately notice one thing: each and every one of them is built into the side of a small hill.

But it's not just any hill. It's a south-facing hill. That's crucial, because it means each earthship has its major windows facing south. And anyone who's ever put a minute of thought into the way their house is oriented knows that facing south means being directed toward the most sunlight--in the northern hemisphere, anyway.

Earthships

And this is one of the keys to the whole concept: sunlight, and lots of it.

I learned all of this when I visited the earthship headquarters during Road Trip 2007, my journey around the Southwest in search of the most interesting science- and technology-related destinations.

The word "earthship," my host Kirsten Jacobsen told me, comes from the houses being in and of the earth--that is, made of earthen materials and built into the ground. The term also refers to the experience of living in a ship, which requires dwellers to be autonomous from outside help.

Jacobsen then explained the six major points that define the earthship philosophy: thermal solar heating and cooling; building with natural and recycled materials; using electricity only from solar and wind; harvesting water from rain and snow; on-site sewage treatment and containment; and the last, and most recent development, producing food in the house itself.

The keys to the system's success are the south-facing windows and solar arrays; walls made from materials that store heat, such as stone, dirt-filled tires and adobe blocks; and a natural ventilation system. These factors work together with the natural temperature of the ground, and with the sun and the seasons, to heat and cool the house without ever requiring air conditioning or heating. Plus, construction is geared toward circulating air throughout the dwelling.

I had been intrigued since I read about earthships in my Southwest guidebook, which said almost nothing about them except there was a community of people living in off-the-grid houses built into the ground. So I didn't know exactly what to expect.

Road Trip 2007 promo

I had no idea, for example, that many of the earthships would be beautiful exercises in aesthetic architectural design. Or that having a greenhouse in your living room could be a livable scenario, let alone a crucial one.

Even if I had known those things, based on what the guidebook said, I might have expected earthships to be smelly, bug-infested claptrap cabins.

Instead, I saw an elegant, modern, fully appointed home that would have fit in almost any community.

The brand-new, one-bedroom house--which Jacobsen's boyfriend, Ron Sciarrillo, built and is selling for $299,000--has a lovely, airy feel. It's bright inside, and has all the amenities one might expect in a newly constructed house: a full kitchen, washer and dryer, flat-screen TV, Wi-Fi, a regular bathroom, a nice bedroom and more.

And it has internal greenhouses, which, Sciarrillo explained, provide an extra buffer to the sunlight, making a major difference in how the house regulates its temperature.

CONTINUED: Getting by on little rainfall…
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Expansion on a centuries old tradition
There is an age old tradition of self sufficiency in this sometimes harsh climate of temperature extremes from scorching heat during the day and hard freezes at night. The pueblos have used similar designs to regulate temperature for thousands of years, check out Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon as an example of this. Modern pueblos are also built in a stepped style to achieve that triangular side profile to gather more heat in winter, look at Taos pueblo or Acoma built like a Masada like fortress against sieges

The Spanish style adobe houses achieve the same effect with 18 inch thick earth brick walls, they heat up very slowly throughout the day and release the heat all night with the large mass. Many today still do not have air conditioning, although they do have a bit of a ceiling height problem. I guess people were shorter 300 years ago ;)

The ranch houses out on the plains of NM from the mid to lat 1800's when settlers started coming in from back east used a different approach. They all have large elms and other deciduous trees on the south and evergreens elsewhere, in the winter more sun from the south and evergreens to block heat loss from wind and in the summer lots of shade.

I think earth ships are the next step in this centuries old tradition of self sufficiency here in the south west. I especially like the indoor greenhouses and water reuse. You should also look at rammed earth construction, sorta a poor-mans way of doing traditional adobe.

Only problem with these style houses and newer adobes, very few straight walls, so good luck finding a bookshelf, desk or bed frame that fits right :)
Posted by lynxss (39 comments )
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Sensible housing
This sort of thing does make a lot of sense. It also calls for the inhabitants to be involved with things they were not brought up doing. Some yutz from LA or NYC is not going to understand why she should do things /this/ way, instead of the way she did them back in the big city, so the wife of the household is going to sabatoge it, and demand "modern" plumbing, etc.

Trying to tell her what she is getting into is not likely to work, either. It'll just bounce off or she will figure to do things her way anyhow.

BTW, don't ever use grey water for house plants. About a week later, the stuff in the water will start stinking and it takes a lot of washing and airing out to gett the stink out of the curtains, etc. Whew, does it stink.
Posted by Phillep_H (497 comments )
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Actually, Earthships are very versatile. Walls can be built with a curve that follows the lines of the tired structure, OR they can be built with straight walls and right angle corners- its all in the tire placement- if you want rounded rooms you will stack your tires in a horseshoe design- if straight walls with corners are desired your stacked tires will be stacked in a square design, its all in Michael Reynolds book. Earthships are the future, and the only limit is your own imagination!
Posted by ashleyoung (1 comment )
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$250,000 for a house made of old rubber
It's a joke check the website....
Posted by SiXiam (69 comments )
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Not a Joke
The earthship is not a joke. Actor Dennis Weaver lived in a
gorgeous one that was faetured in many interior design magazines.
I would gladly pat that much for that house. It was spectacular.
Posted by elisa Urmston (2 comments )
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