Last week, my partner and I took a break from our Santa Fe vacation to take a long, winding drive up to Taos, New Mexico, to visit Michael Reynolds’s Earthship Biotecture. Since the 1970s, Reynolds and followers of his methods have been trying to answer a radical question: can you build a house that not only needs substantially less infrastructure than the average home, but needs almost no infrastructure at all?
Reynolds’s answer was the Earthship, and if you’re familiar with the term, you probably have some knee-jerk associations. Kooky adobe houses built on acres of high-desert valleyland. Curving fences decorated with recycled glass bottles that filter the sunset like stained glass. Long greenhouse windows stuffed with vegetables planted in low-soil buckets and watered by the runoff from the shower or the toilet. Let’s be real here: hippies.
Look a little closer, though, and the Earthship concept might seem like an interesting answer to many of the problems that Strong Towns talks about. Where other residents of distant lots outside Taos rely on miles of expensive, publicly-funded water infrastructure to meet their basic needs, Earthship dwellers do fine for themselves with only water catchment systems affixed to their roofs, even in one of the driest climates in the US. Sewer systems? No need; blackwater gets reused to fertilize and water any plant that doesn’t need to be dug out of the ground and eaten from the root up. There are no electric wires arcing over the Taos Earthship community: solar panels on each individual house do the work of them, and passive heating and cooling mean these homes use far less energy than the average city dweller’s apartment. Satellite internet and the company of your neighbors keeps you entertained. In theory, Earthship dwellers wouldn’t even necessarily need roads all that often; the sophisticated greenhouse systems inside each one are designed to feed the residents, give or take a few dairy and meat animals in the yard. You could eschew the grocery store (and the rest of civilization) and just live free, anywhere on earth that you decided to build.
Aside from the obvious ecological benefits of the Earthship, I couldn’t help but think that they might have something to contribute to the Strong Towns movement, too. Because honestly? Sometimes, I get a little tired of fighting to get my leaders to recognize that our development pattern is financially unsustainable. Instead of laboring my whole life to get every single road in my town right-sized to something we can actually afford to maintain, wouldn’t it be easier to just land an Earthship on the side of a mountain and know that I’m, at least, not a part of the problem? Or, if I’m feeling a little less curmudgeonly: would it be easier for individual citizens to choose infrastructure-light lifestyles, rather than waiting for governments to see that we build way too much infrastructure, and start building less of it?
In the visitor’s center, this fantasy started to seem a little less far-fetched. Michael Reynolds and his students have been developing Earthship designs that can be built for as little as $12,000 in rebar and cement, plus a lot of recycled materials (used tires and plastic bottles are big structural components). He’s also been experimenting with multi-family Earthships; someday, he fantasizes about Earthship skyscrapers sitting in the middle of major cities.
As I toured through the Earthship community, though, my utopian fantasy started to wear. Most Earthship residents, it turns out, aren’t actually able to give up most forms of infrastructure. Taos gets just 8 to 10 inches of rainfall a year and a decent amount of snowmelt, which is enough, it turns out, to keep you in drinking water and showers, but not always enough to, say, run a washing machine; one resident told me she’s still driving 15 miles to the laundromat. The in-house greenhouses, too, aren’t meeting most residents’ food needs; turns out, a lot of people like eating grains, which are hard to grow in sufficient quantity inside your living room, and not everyone wants to butcher their pet cow (or even tend to crops year round—though a surprising diversity of plants can grow in year round greenhouse conditions, many of the Taos Earthships didn’t have enough indoor growing space to actually meet their residents’ complete food needs, because it was expected that they’d venture out to buy the occasional bag of apples).
And turns out, it can get kind of boring out on the side of the mountain in a community of a few dozen, or even a few hundred people. I didn’t blame the Earthship dwellers for wanting to get away sometimes to see a concert or visit Taos’s excellent used bookstore. But I did wonder, as I crossed over the massive, terrifying bridge over the Rio Grande gorge, just how reliant Earthship dwellers tend to be on the kind of gravity-defying road infrastructure that their taxes could never hope to pay for.
But the biggest problem with the Earthship model, to my eye, was also what was also what was most beautiful about it: the Earthship dwellers’ sense of rugged individualism. One dweller told me a story about the 100-year flood New Mexico had just experienced, when every single Ship’s cistern had overflowed and residents reveled in the rain. I couldn’t help but cringe; what if all that water had been collected and stored for the next drought year? When does our commitment to not relying on overbuilt shared infrastructure start to become wasteful in other ways?
I do think we have a lot to learn from the Earthship model. We do need far less infrastructure and fewer natural resources than we think we do, and there are common sense, simple ways to minimize our reliance on the massive (and usually debt-financed) things we tend to build. There are houses in my home city of St. Louis that don’t look a thing like an Earthship, but are fully self-sufficient for their electric needs. Drive a few miles north into the countryside, and there are places in Missouri where it’s legal to use your own sewage as blackwater for your plants—a rational response if you’d prefer to live in a deeply rural area where it makes no fiscal sense for your government to run pipe.
And if you are attracted to the idea of living out in the mountains in a little off-grid bungalow? (And trust me—a big part of me is, too.) Do it. But let’s not dream of utopias where everyone suddenly decamps to the hills with 5,000 recycled tires, a building plan, and a dream of total independence. Let’s use what’s at the core of Michael Reynolds’ message, wherever we are: the radical idea that we need far less than we’ve been told.
(Cover photo: Wikimedia Commons)