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  • Writer's pictureFumiko Docker

Earthship Biotecture

I've been visiting Taos, New Mexico for a first foray in remote work for the month of May. As the trip winds down, I realized it wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Earthship community of Taos.

From the website Garbage Warrior, a film about the founder, architect Michael Reynolds:

Earthship n. 1. passive solar home made of natural and recycled materials 2. thermal mass construction for temperature stabilization. 3. renewable energy & integrated water systems make the Earthship an off-grid home with little to no utility bills.

Biotecture n. 1. the profession of designing buildings and environments with consideration for their sustainability. 2. A combination of biology and architecture.

Conceived, prototyped, and evolved over time through trial and error by architect Michael Reynolds, the Earthship is built as an off-grid, passive solar, semi-buried building with water catchment, storage and recycling, solar PV production with battery storage, and south-facing greenhouse for year-round crop growing in the high desert of New Mexico. It's ideally made with local materials, and locally sourced tires, glass or plastic bottles, and aluminum cans that would otherwise go to landfill.

In Taos, there is a community of about 20 or so Earthships, a couple of which are for sale. The community also hosts workshops and internships in addition to tours, taking the Earthship concept around the world.

Founder Michael Reynolds found himself in direct conflict with the law for the way he built Earthships, outside of the building code. The state of New Mexico assumed his buildings were a danger to public safety, and revoked his license for a time after clients sued him over their failing buildings. The film Garbage Warrior goes into much greater detail about the controversy surrounding his buildings, and his efforts to bring "Earthship Biotecture" to the rest of the world, including building in tsunami-ravaged communities in Bangladesh.

There are some interesting design lessons to take away from Earthship Biotecture. Indeed, materials that would otherwise languish in landfill can become building materials. Rainwater collection and the 4-times used water recycling systems can be implemented in more conventional construction, and are definitely applicable in California and the US West's increasingly drought-parched landscapes. Certainly solar hot water, PV, and whole house batteries are becoming commonplace - at minimum, PV are now a building code requirement in California, where solar access is not an issue.

Michael Reynolds' fight for sustainable building may influence how we build in the future if not the present. Even so, building codes will increasingly include off-grid solutions for on-site water catchment, collection, and filtration. Whether all sustainable building has the particular look of the Earthship is another story. Certainly, Earthship Biotecture takes sustainable building in one particular direction, one that many of us are not inclined to emulate in full, but which we can pull lessons and design features from, and move towards prototyping our own off-grid machines for living.

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