Published September 22, 2012
| AOL Real Estate
We are currently living in a way that is indisputably unsustainable. The ecological resources on which modern housing depend are becoming increasingly scarce, and the excessive carbon footprint left behind by "McMansions" and sprawling suburban developments are leading more and more people to seek radically greener housing alternatives.
This is the second of a five-part series called "Off the Grid," in which we explore environmentally-sustainable, self-sufficient communities across the globe. We'll attempt to answer the question: Is green, off-grid living our future? This week, we take a look at an Earthship community in the deserts of New Mexico in the United States.
At sunset, the desert of Taos, N.M., spreads out like a gleaming sheet of gold stretched flat across the earth. A harsh, amber sun sheds light over the largely barren landscape framed by distant, cobalt-hued mountains. It's a breathtaking, semi-arid terrain that's about as far away as you can get from the lush rainforests of Costa Rica. Here you won't find towering trees dripping with dew, or rushing waterfalls. Instead, you'll find endless miles of dry yellow earth peppered with rock, desert foliage and the odd creek: a place where one might imagine civilization ends.
But a little farther west, in a mesa valley tucked into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, sits an unlikely community teeming with activity and purpose. In this colony of peculiar-looking structures dotting the rugged landscape, you'll find a residential hub that's self-sufficient, sustainable and sophisticated. You'll find life in the desert.
It's better known as the Greater World Earthship subdivision, a gathering of radically green homes whose collective carbon footprint is negligible. Each home is constructed using only natural and recycled materials -- consumed products that society discards, such as glass bottles, aluminum cans and tires -- that constitute the thermal mass foundation and walls of each home. The structures are entirely untethered from mass public utilities like power, water and gas lines, and they run entirely on passive solar heating as well as cooling and photovoltaic power. What does one call these unique, 100 percent sustainable structures? "Earthships," of course.
Sounds crazy? It's not as wild as you think, said Kirsten Jacobsen, a director at Earthship Biotecture, a company that designs and constructs earthships across the globe. She added that Earthship living is fast becoming a rational solution to combat the wastefulness associated with traditional modern housing.
"As the world's problems get worse with climate change, resource depletion, water, power, sewage, and access to good food, there's been an increasing national and global interest and demand for this kind of living," Jacobsen said. "Taos is just the beginning. We've built Earthships across the globe -- in Canada, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, Bolivia, Scotland, England, Belgium, France...."
But don't call it a global "trend." For the architects behind these Earthships and the residents who live in them, it's a veritable blueprint for what the future of housing might -- and should -- be like. In fact, if you ask architect and Earthship creator Michael Reynolds, that was the whole point.
'Built to Sail on the Seas of Tomorrow'
Reynolds graduated from architecture school in 1969, dissatisfied with what he had been taught about designing modern, conventional brick-and-mortar housing. Instead, he began a 30-year study and practice of integrative, resource-efficient home construction: Homes built literally from everyday trash (such as the one pictured at left). Most importantly, he attempted to create a structure that would work seamlessly with natural processes and wouldn't rely on grid-based resources.
"A house is a shelter box that nuclear power plants and sewage systems come in and out of," Reynolds told AOL Real Estate. "[The earthship] is really a machine to take the place of housing and infrastructure for the future, built to sail on the seas of tomorrow."
Unlike regular homes, each Earthship is an "independent vessel," Reynolds said. Each home uses solar or wind energy for power. Rainwater is caught from a roof with a potable surface, channeled through silt catches into cisterns, then gravity-fed into a water-organizing module with a pump and filter. Waste water and sewage is drained and filtered via linear, biologically-developed gray-water treatment and containment systems. Propane tanks, refilled each year, offer gas for stovetop cooking. And fresh produce is grown onsite via indoor food production areas and veggie beds.
According to Jacobsen, it's all about adapting the needs of humans to the already existing "activities of the planet" -- utilizing a logical model that works to make the most of the structure's surrounding environment and natural resources rather than perpetually draining them. Jacobsen said that though idealism gave birth to these Earthships, their pragmatism secured their success; they're proven to ensure survival when the traditional grid-based system, inevitably, falters.
"When the power goes out in town, [Earthship] community members still have warm homes, Internet, working fridges and lights," said Jacobsen. "Plus, Earthship community members don't pay any utility bills."
Another financial plus? The price of Earthships tend to run under the average market price for a traditional brick-and-mortar home of the same size, according to real estate agent John Kejr, who specializes in selling Earthship homes in Taos. You can even snap one up for as little as $100,000, Kejr said. Some bare-bones Earthships featuring small power systems (known as "survival huts") are available for a mere $2,500. (On the other end of the spectrum, the late actor Dennis Weaver once put his Earthship home on the market for $4.25 million.)
"The people who want to buy Earthship homes range from wealthy people to those of very modest wealth," Kejr told AOL Real Estate. "I am just amazed at this continuous growth in interest.
'Just Regular People'
Contrary to popular belief, the residents of Taos' Greater Earthship Community are not all "granola environmentalists," hermit-like survivalists and staunch anti-capitalists. Jacobsen admits that one of the most challenging aspects of living in such a community is trying to dispel the myth that its residents are barefoot hippies and cult members. They're quite the opposite: Kejr said that most people who have shown interest in Earthship homes are just "regular people" with a myriad of interests and motivations.
"The mixture of people is much more diverse then I expected -- they range from very young people to retirees, large families to single people," Kejr told AOL Real Estate. "Some are looking to lessen their environmental footprint, others just don't want to pay an electric bill. A few are pessimistic about the future and feel that living off-grid protects them from vulnerability to future energy shortages."
Whatever their reasons, the Earthship residents of Taos join a growing number of Americans who have chosen an off-grid lifestyle. Currently, approximately 750,000 households live off the grid, with that number increasing about 10 percent each year, according to Nick Rosen, author of "Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America." In his book, Rosen explains that unlike their earlier counterparts, modern-day off-gridders are able to live very comfortably and enjoy the same creature comforts as "traditional" home-dwellers. He adds that one of the major hindrances to the mainstream acceptance of off-grid living is society's ideal that homes should look and be "a certain way."
That said, Earthship living still remains a lifestyle choice that, realistically, is not one that everyone is comfortable with. Particularly for many city dwellers, literally pulling the plug and building one's own home from recycled consumer waste may seem like an inconceivable leap. But Kejr insisted that, even for these people, there are still significant lessons to be learned from the desert dwellers of Taos, such as resource awareness, learning to lessen one's carbon footprint and the convergence of home design and function.
"I believe that [Earthship living] is 'a future' rather than 'the future,' " admits Kejr. "I would never say everyone should live in an Earthship, as it's a lifestlye choice. Still, many things make sense about this lifestyle and I believe that many Earthship features should be -- and will be -- incorporated into more traditional homes."
Interested in Earthship living but not ready to make the leap? You can rent one by the night.