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.

A unique and eco friendly earthship near Taos, New Mexico © Laurel Kallenbach

A unique and eco friendly earthship near Taos, New Mexico © Laurel Kallenbach

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.

A peek at what's inside the walls of an earthship © Laurel Kallenbach

A peek at what’s inside the walls of an earthship: old tires, beer cans, and mud. © Laurel Kallenbach

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.

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.

Here you can see the bottoms of glass bottles embedded into an earthship in a decorative pattern © Laurel Kallenbach.

Here you can see the bottoms of glass bottles embedded into an earthship in a decorative pattern © Laurel Kallenbach.

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.) At the Visitor’s Center, you’ll see displays that explain the details of Earthship technology.  You can also choose between a self-guided visit through the center ($8 per person) or a guided tour through the center and several of the area’s demo homes ($15 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

Originally posted: September 2008

Updated: August 2019

Santa Fe Casita: A Southwestern Eco-Retreat

Few cities capture the essence of a region like Santa Fe. This 500-plus-year-old small city displays its history, multiculturalism and artistic flair boldly, making it a thrilling destination year-round.

The living room in Casa Juniper has a lovely wood-burning fireplace. Photo courtesy Hacienda Nicholas

When you stroll the streets of Santa Fe, you absolutely know you’re in northern New Mexico. The sweet, piney smell of burning juniper fills the air; people dress in clothing influenced by Navajo and Pueblo tribal patterns. You encounter public art everywhere. And most unique to this part of the world: the buildings are adobe—an architectural style literally built from the land because adobe is a mixture of earth, clay and straw molded into bricks and dried in the desert sun.

Santa Fe has a number of fabulous hotels, but during our 2011 stay, my husband and I discovered an outstanding option: a casita, or “little house.” Casa Juniper is part of the Alexander’s Inn Vacation Rentals—associated with two delightful eco-friendly B&Bs: the Madeleine Inn and Hacienda Nicholas.

[2019 update: Casa Juniper is no longer available, but Hacienda Nicholas does offer a comparable rental called La Casita. In addition, the Nicholas Suite in the main B&B has a similar feel to the place we stayed at in 2011.]

Staying in a casita is such a great way to go in Santa Fe. We were about eight blocks from the central Plaza—a little farther than the pricey hotels—but we had a large, 100-year-old adobe home with a wood-burning horno fireplace and banks of panoramic windows all to ourselves. It was our home away from home.

The wood and windows at Casa Juniper increase its Santa Fe flavor.

We learned the benefits of having a spacious casita our very first day. An early November storm blew through the area, which made walking around town daunting. So, Ken and I bought some groceries at the Whole Foods and hunkered down at Casa Juniper. While the wind howled outside, we lit a fire and sipped fair-trade coffee and organic tea that was stocked in the casita’s fully equipped kitchen.

Sheltering from the storm, we felt so lucky we weren’t huddling in a generic hotel. Instead, we fully experienced Santa Fe’s aura without stepping into the frozen rain. Inside the sturdy adobe walls, we felt safe. And because our casita had a gorgeous living room, we invited friends to join us. Amid Southwestern rugs on the saltillo-tile floors, wood beamed ceiling, and art from native and New Mexican traditions, we sat out the storm in style and comfort. Best of all, we felt like locals.

Queen bedroom at eco-friendly Casa Juniper

Fortunately, the Southwestern sun came out the next day—and we had plenty of time to explore Canyon Road’s art treasures, the Georgia O’Keeffe museum, and the city’s world-famous restaurants. After days of exploring Santa Fe, Ken and I came home to our spacious bedroom—a split-level retreat with closable wooden doors and a queen-sized four-poster bed.

In addition to loving Hacienda Nicholas, we felt good that our accommodations incorporated sustainable, earth-centered policies, such as:

  • Eco-cleaners with no chlorine bleach, dyes or perfumed detergents
  • Towel and linen program that reduces water consumption
  • Energy- and water-efficient appliances
  • Recycling program for glass, paper and plastic
  • Xeriscape gardening (irrigated with graywater) grown with nontoxic fertilizers
  • Stationary that’s printed on recycled paper with soy-based ink
  • Energy-saving compact-fluorescent light bulbs
  • Low-flow faucets, showers and toilets

    Casa Juniper’s bathroom is decorated with Mexican tiles.

  • Soap, shower gel, lotion, shampoo and conditioner dispensers to eliminate the waste of small plastic amenity bottles
  • Filtered water rather than bottled
  • Reusable glass or plastic cups instead of paper cups
  • Rooms painted with no-VOC paints

In addition, the owner of the green Madeleine Inn and Hacienda Nicholas also runs the all-natural Absolute Nirvana spa. Its Indonesian décor is exquisite and relaxing.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted January 2012

Updated September 2019