Earthships: Recycled Houses Made of Dirt

Just 15 minutes from Taos is the world’s Earthship headquarters—and my New Mexico trip wouldn’t be complete without a quick look at these odd, but imminently practical, houses.

The Earthship entrance shows off beautiful stucco walls. The ?polka-dots? are the bottoms of old beer bottles embedded into the mud.

The Earthship entrance shows off beautiful stucco walls. The “polka-dots” are the bottoms of old beer bottles embedded into the mud.

What’s an Earthship? It’s an ultra-sustainable home built from recycled tires, aluminum cans and bottles packed with dirt, then plastered over with natural mud.

That’s right: no brick and mortar, no wooden studs. Just junk and soil.

In fact, one of these buildings diverts 500 to 5,000 tires away from the landfill.

Because Earthships are banked into the earth—with a southern exposure for maximum sunlight—they’re extremely energy efficient. Their earthen properties keep them cool in summer and warm in winter.

Earthships are designed with all the rooms open along a corridor with a huge bank of windows. This way, natural daylight eliminates the need for electrical lighting as long as the sun shines.

A lot of these New-Age structures on the sage- and rabbitbrush-covered land around Taos use solar panels or small wind turbines to create electricity from renewable resources.

There must be almost 50 Earthships dotting the northern New Mexico landscape with its dramatic Sangre de Cristo mountain backdrop. Clearly, this form of architecture is here to stay.

This is what an interior wall looks like before it?s plastered over. Inside are old tires, cans and bottles.

This is what an interior wall looks like before it’s plastered over. Inside are old tires, cans and bottles.

Water Harvesting

New Mexico is dry land, so another advantage to Earthships is that their roofs catch water from rain and snow melt. The water is then filtered and used for drinking or bathing. After you take a shower, wash the dishes or do the laundry, the used water is recycled, filtered again, and pumped to gardens. (Used water is called graywater.)

I think Earthships are pretty nifty—and rather unconventionally beautiful—inventions, although I’m a bit skeptical about the used tires outgasing fumes into the air. However, because they’re surrounded by thick layers of dirt and mud, I suppose the earth absorbs the toxins.

Still, to many people, Earthships look like houses on Mars. Over breakfast at our B&B, La Posada de Taos, a woman described them as “weird, but fascinating.”

“They’re actually built into the dirt!” the woman added with a shudder. I suppose Earthships are an acquired taste.

Curious? If you’re in Taos, slap on some sunscreen and stop by the Earthship Visitor’s Center (located on U.S. Highway 64, west of Taos.) They have displays explaining Earthship technology and offer tours of the area’s demo homes. ($5 per person).

You can also rent an Earthship (a room or the whole house) by the night or week.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Art Quest Near Taos, New Mexico

Last weekend I discovered an art jewel: northern New Mexico’s High Road Art Tour, an annual, late-September event.

If you enjoy seeing art, meeting artists, and driving through the creativity-inspiring hills between Taos and Santa Fe, this is a don’t-miss event.

My husband and I and our two friends made our home base at La Posada de Taos—a charming B&B in a hundred-year-old adobe house that’s just two blocks from the Taos Plaza. The new owners, innskeeper Brad Malone and chef Michael Carter have created a lovely ambiance and fantastic gourmet breakfasts. We highly recommend the El Solecito room and the Casita (Honeymoon House).

The historic house itself has an arts connection: It was built in 1906 by Burt Phillips, one of the founders of the Taos Society of Artists.

The Spanish Colonial works of Andrew and Lorrie Garcia

The Spanish Colonial works of Andrew and Lorrie Garcia

On the Art Road

Feeling like a cross between art pilgrims and treasure hunters, we all piled in the car with our High Road Artisans map in hand and drove through the mountain villages of northern New Mexico on the High Road (which links Taos and Santa Fe).

As we wound through picturesque roads lined by golden-blooming rabbitbrush (aka: chamisa) we encountered weavers, photographers, painters, potters, sculptors, jewelry-makers and woodworkers whose studios are located all along the High Road.

I love glimpsing the studios of world-class artisans, many of whom open their doors to the public only once a year during this art tour. I also love that the High Road Art Tour organizers are dedicated to preserving and developing local talent and traditions in these remote, northern New Mexico villages.

On our journey, we stumbled across an intense mix of interesting artisans and kooky characters—all passionately devoted to making art:

  • Andrew and Lorrie Garcia: We expended plenty of oohs and aahs for Andrew’s exquisitely carved Spanish Colonial furniture and Lorrie’s authentic-looking traditional retablos and bultos. Andrew mills wood off the couple’s property.
Potter Betsy Williams paints each of her tiny Japanese-inspired, wood-fired plates in a different pattern.

Potter Betsy Williams paints each of her tiny Japanese-inspired, wood-fired plates in a different pattern.

  • Enbi Studio: Potter Betsy Williams specializes in wheel-thrown bowls, influenced by her apprenticeship in Japan. Betsy’s Dixon, N.M., studio gets the blue ribbon for gorgeous views.
  • Studio Gallery: We wandered for almost an hour through David Cudney’s sculpture garden and outdoor installation-art display. David has spent six years creating weird, riveting, surreal art from junk, which is spread out over a couple of acres off State Road 76 near Chamisal. A few of the wacky highlights include: a paint-bucket waterfall, steel-girder dinosaurs with cow-skull heads, a totem pole made with rusty chamber pots and enamel basins, Michelangelo’s “David” in an aquarium.
  • Buffalo Ranch Studio: Located on an actual buffalo ranch near the Picuris Pueblo, Harriette Tsosie works in acrylic and encaustic (pigmented wax). We watched her melt the wax on a new painting using a blow-torch!
A well-carved pantry: Isabro Ortega lavished years of craftsmanship on food storage in his Truchas home.

A well-carved pantry: Isabro Ortega lavished years of craftsmanship on food storage in his Truchas home.

  • Isabro Ortega: Isabro is carving nearly every wooden surface of his work-in-progress home in Truchas into the New Mexican version of the Taj Mahal. He calls himself crazy, and no wonder: He’s spent 24 years carving nooks, window frames, a home chapel, ceilings and the most ornate pantry (yes, pantry!) I’ve ever seen. Isabro is a hoot, and hopefully it won’t take 24 more years to finish his house.

Sadly, the High Road art Tour is over—for this year. I’m marking my calendar for next September.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The New Mexico sky over a ruined adobe on Buffalo Ranch was actually the most fabulous art of all.

The New Mexico sky over a ruined adobe on Buffalo Ranch was actually the most fabulous art of all.