Rising out of the high desert landscape of New Mexico are dozens of futuristic-looking homes that are part of an ongoing experiment in off-the-grid living.
Some of the 70-plus home are almost buried in the earth, and some rise a story or two above it. Some are tiny one-room dwellings, and others are designed to shelter and to feed a family of four. All of these so-called “earthships” require no electrical grid, no water lines and no sewer systems.
The Greater World Earthship Community, the brainchild of architect Mike Reynolds, includes nearly 700 acres of rural property. The closest town is Taos, a small artsy and ski community that has a population of less than 6,000.
Reynolds began his experimental community of self-sufficient homes in the 1970s. However, it hit some bumps with permits and regulations before the county government designated the community as an “illegal subdivision” in 1997. Government officials eventually changed their position.
Today, the community is thriving again and even includes a school for training students who want to learn how to build self-sufficient housing. The county also gave the organization two acres for designing and building homes that do not meet its building code requirements.
It is at that experimental section of “The Earthship Project” that video producer/reporter Kirsten Dirksen begins her interview with Tom Duke, an earthship builder and a long-time resident of the earthship community.
Duke, a former professional volleyball player from Los Angeles, and his wife moved to New Mexico about 18 years ago. Intrigued by the idea of an earthship home, they purchased some land and built and lived in a tiny earthship – a pod, as Duke calls it – for five years while they built their dream home nearby.
Today, that pod is their storage shed, and the Dukes and their two young sons live in a custom two-bedroom self-sufficient home. Like all earthships, it follows the following four principles:
- Harvests water.
- Uses and reuses sewage.
- Uses thermal mass for heating and cooling.
- Uses recycled and natural materials.
- Uses solar and wind power
- Produces food
With rainfall in the high New Mexico desert averaging only about eight inches a year, efficient use of water is a major part of an earthship home.
Reynolds designs the homes to collect and use water four times. Water that is first used for washing or drinking goes to plants in an indoor greenhouse that then filters the greywater and sends it back to the toilet. Then the blackwater is sent outside to four feet below ground where it feeds the roots of plants and trees.
“You don’t smell it. You don’t see it,” says Duke of the blackwater as he gestures to the thriving plants and trees surrounding his desert home. “But you are able to have this beautiful landscaping.”
With both the indoor and outdoor water systems in place, earthship residents only need to water plants to get them established. After that, they are sustained by the home’s water system.
In addition to recycling the water, the plants provide a natural heating and cooling system for the homes and produce food, as well. For example, the master bedroom in Duke’s home boasts a diverse garden, including tomato plants, mint and rosemary. His living room has a tall fig tree.
The newer homes can maintain a consistent year-round temperature of 71 degrees with their use of thermal mass and ventilation.
Duke is already teaching his young sons how to build a home “from trash,” and he points out the mounds of glass bottles, tires and aluminum cans that earthship builders use in home construction.
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Glass bottles are cut and fit together for “bricks.” Cans provide the framework for cement walls and stairs. Tires are used for many purposes, including as seats in an outdoor amphitheater for students, as planters for trees and as structural support.
Duke estimates that earthship homes cost $225 per square foot to build, with the price decreasing the more work you are able to do yourself. He says he pays only $300 each year in utilities — $100 per year for propane and $200 a year for a supplementary water delivery.
“We really cherish water here,” he says. “What I have found is that living on eight inches (of rainwater a year) is hard, but I think every American could live off 12 inches of rain.”
Duke also shows Dirksen an earthship “nest” designed as a simple and inexpensive dwelling for the developing world, and a large custom home designed to feed and shelter a family of four. With more square footage allotted for growing food than for living space, this intriguing home features trees and plants growing in nearly every available spot, a chicken pen outside and a tilapia pond in the greenhouse.
“We are a highly experimental green building operation here,” says Duke. “We are always pushing the envelope, always getting better.”
He is particularly proud of The Earthship Army, the teaching part of the Earthship Project. “We are sending out an army of knowledgeable students who can take this (information) out to the rest of the world.”
He adds that people sometimes ask if the earthship community is a cult. “If it is, it is a tire-pounding, beer-drinking cult, and that’s about it,” he says with a laugh.
Duke, who admits he did not know much about building or living self-sufficiently when he moved to New Mexico and learned “from the ground up,” offers that it is empowering to be able to build your own home.
“I feel I can go anywhere in the world and build a house out of trash – people’s tires and bottles and cans.”
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