Earthships and the Future of Self-Sufficient Housing

‘Why do we create buildings dependent on power plants?’ Architect Michael Reynolds has developed the Earthship, a passive solar earth shelter made of natural and upcycled materials. Emma Latham Phillips speaks to him about this new approach to green architecture.

In today's world, it's almost impossible to imagine not paying any electricity or water bills; but the revolutionary American architect Michael Reynolds has realised the unimaginable. 50 years ago, he created a solution to this dilemma in the form of Earthships – self-sustaining houses that utilise naturally occurring phenomena like wind, sun and rain, for free.

Considering that Brits spend 90% of their day indoors, it should be expected that homes are designed to enrich their inhabitants. However, these spaces are so unnatural that they damage the planet and human health while putting money into the hands of controlling governments and corporations.

In the EU, a household's primary use of energy is heating; and in the UK, the most widely used heating fuel is natural gas. Water must travel miles to reach homes, from reservoirs and dams that have dramatically changed the composition of rivers; and what is flushed down the toilet pollutes waterways during storms. ‘We are dependent on appliances that use electricity, and this electricity travels down inefficient wiring losing energy getting here,’ explains Michael. ‘It's an archaic situation. Why do we create buildings that depend on power plants?’

'Why do we create buildings that depend on power plants?’

Michael has identified six things that humans need to survive – comfortable shelter, water, electricity, food, rubbish and sewage control. ‘Every city and culture should address these problems first,’ he explains. ‘The basic sustenance of people must be available despite the economy.’ He claims that no one should have to pay for any of these things, but currently, England has fully privatised water, sewage, electricity and gas systems. Lower-income households spend 42% of their expenditure on food and housing.

Michael realised that human building models needed to be revolutionised to create homes that protect them and the Earth. The answer he envisioned was Earthships. ‘It sails on the seas of tomorrow,’ he explains. Earthships harness the power of nature, enabling humans to live autonomously and off the grid.

Michael built the first Earthship in New Mexico in 1969 in response to the problems around him. In the 1970s, humanity discovered that they created more rubbish than they knew what to do with; so he decided to incorporate ‘waste’ into his designs – building tyres, bottles and cans into the walls.

‘Every product we make should have a second or third use’ Michael explains. ‘And as it turns out, tyres rammed with earth are the best way to build mass into a building.’ Michaels first desire when making a home was ‘to stay comfortably warm with a minimal amount of fuel.’ Building mass into a house is a simple way of keeping it warm when it's cold and cool when it's hot. Earthships have a densely packed tyre wall at the back and glass at the front, so when the sun shines through this window, it heats the back wall. Warmth is released when the temperature drops, and in the summer, natural ventilation keeps the space cool – simple physics.

Building mass into a house is a simple way of keeping it warm when it's cold and cool when it's hot

‘Recycling is at the heart of the project,’ Michael acknowledges. The Global North wastes a massive amount of water – a hard pill to swallow when 25% of the world's population is set to suffer water crises. But rain is reusable. In New Mexico, there's only 7in of rainfall a year, which Michael has learnt to make last by using it again and again. First, rainwater is caught from the roof and used for showering; the recaptured water is then flushed through ‘botanical cells’, or hallway planters used to grow fresh fruit and veg. The roots filter this water, which is then flushed down the toilet. Finally, the sewage goes into an anaerobic processor outside. ‘We use the water four times,’ he explains, ‘making us less susceptible to drought.’

Today, due to their resilience, Earthships are best placed in disaster-prone areas. ‘They used to call this a crazy man's work of architecture,’ Michael laughs. ‘But now the world is in desperate need of what we're doing.’ The foundation, Biotecture Planet Earth, has built Earthships in the wake of hurricanes and earthquakes, and a team of volunteers is currently finalising a community centre in Puerto Rico. ‘This Earthship will give the residents' comfortable shelter that won't blow away in a storm,’ Michael reiterates.

Earthships are best placed in disaster-prone areas

The compound they are building in Puerto Rico is built into the ground using robust, curved and tyre-filled walls, so it will be less affected by natural disasters. ‘A concrete or earth wall will just crack all the way through during an earthquake,’ explains Michael, ‘but a tyre wall is held together by an immense amount of friction gravity, so it won't.’ While Earthships may look like some ‘hippie sh*t’, they are functional by design. ‘People are calling our compound in Puerto Rico “Rivendale,"’ Michael muses. ‘It's also using up a tonne of trash thrown up in the surrounding villages, and, as it harnesses its own wind and solar power, it'll give them enough energy if local infrastructure and cables break down.’

People are stuck with an assumption of what a house should look like, often to their disadvantage. Michael uses the Bahamas as an example, arguing that they keep building back the same rickety-framed buildings because they want to keep the tourist-friendly ‘gingerbread look’. ‘Humanity keeps building things for natural disasters to blow down again,’ Michael explains to me. ‘But why would you make a beautiful boat that doesn't float? Though resources may be limited in disaster-prone areas, it makes sense to invest in something permanent rather than wasting money on a design that constantly fails. Once built, Earthships are self-sustaining and don't cost thousands of dollars in utility bills. As Michael comments, ‘living in an Earthship empowers you; it takes your existence and sustenance out of the hands of others, and you don't need to depend on the government or corporations for life itself.’

'Living in an Earthship empowers you; it takes your existence and sustenance out of the hands of others'

Unfortunately, Earthships are surrounded by stigma and suspicion, in part because of their appearance and ‘kumbaya connotations.’ In desperate situations, people have no option but to try new things. Although it's uncomfortable to consider the possibility of such cases, this kind of receptiveness opens up possibilities for change, and Michael has found that it's the disaster-prone communities that are the most responsive to Earthships.

In the Global North, Earthships are being built less out of need and more out of shared passion – a fact that might need to change as we speed towards climate Armageddon. Today, people can purchase a compact Earthship for ‘the price of a conventional cracker box home,’ explains Michael. While Earthships might work in rural areas, an affordable urban application for this concept has yet to be made and must be the next step. Michael ascertains that you can go 5-10 stories using his principles. ‘The model we use now for an Earthship is based on the phenomena that we're trying to encounter,’ explains Michael. ‘However, dependent on where you are, this shape can change to make that setting work.’ At its heart, an Earthship is just a home that harnesses nature to manage our waste, quench our thirst, feed our hunger and solve our need for warmth and electricity.