Just 15 minutes outside of Taos is the world’s Earthship headquarters—and my New Mexico trip just wasn’t complete without a quick look at these beautiful, fascinating, and environmentally responsible houses.
What, exactly, is an Earthship? It’s an off-the-grid and self-sufficient home built from recycled tires, aluminum cans and bottles packed with dirt, then plastered over with natural mud. [See the photo below.] 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.
According to Earthship Biotecture, which builds the structures, “Earthships harvest water from the sky and recycle that water multiple times. They grow their own food, treat their own sewage, and collect power from the sun and wind. They also use passive solar heating and cooling. Imagine no utility bills and a home that takes care of you year round.”
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, New Mexico, are equipped with solar panels or small wind turbines to create electricity from these renewable resources. Needless to say, this is critical for lowering our dependence on fossil fuels and cutting global levels of carbon emissions.
Outside of Taos, there are dozens of Earthships dotting the northern New Mexico landscape with its dramatic views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Clearly, this form of architecture—sometimes called “biotecture”—is environmentally important.
New Mexico is dry, deserts environment, and with the Colorado River at all-time, drought-level lows, water conservation is absolutely critical. Here’s yet another advantage to Earthships: their roofs catch water from rain and snow melt. That 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 then pumped to the surrounding gardens. (The used water is called “graywater” and is suitable for watering plants but not for drinking.)
After we browsed the Visitor Center near Taos, My husband and I were really impressed by Earthships. They’re unconventional and beautiful creations, although we were a bit skeptical about the used tires that are often used in the construction. Ww wondered: wouldn’t the tires outgas petroleum-based rubber fumes into the air? However, because they’re surrounded by thick layers of dirt and mud, it’s possible that the earth itself absorbs any toxins.
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, but in a time when global warming threatens Planet Earth, Earthships can help us lower our carbon footprint.
Curious ro learn more about Earthship buildings? If you’re in northern New Mexico, slap on some sunscreen and stop by the Earthship Visitor’s Center (located on U.S. Highway 64, west of Taos.)
At the Earthship Biotecture Visitor Center, you’ll see displays that explain the details of Earthship technology, along with information about other ways they help help conserve natural resources. You may choose between a self-guided visit through the center ($8 per adult) or a guided tour that includes several of the area’s demo buildings ($20).In addition, you can also spend the night in an Earthship—something I’d love to do the next time I visit Taos.
—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor / Originally posted: September 2008. Updated: May 2023