Michael Reynolds builds houses out of garbage in the middle of the New Mexico desert. I first saw the film Garbage Warrior on a Netflix binge a few years ago which detailed his houses and work to get them permitted under Taos building codes. Ever since I saw this film I have wanted to go and see these houses. And so we did. They are awesome.
Reynolds calls his houses ‘earthships’; they are made to be entirely off the grid – self-contained and self-sustainable. They have their own potable water and sewage treatment systems, their own electricity, heating and cooling systems, some even have their own food production systems. No bills, no need to leave the house – excellent for recluses, those who hate paying bills, and zombie invasions. Reynolds has built earthships in all kinds of climates – in all 50 states, and internationally from Haiti to Toronto. In fact, the film details how Reynolds has built earthships as low cost housing alternatives in a number of developing countries, starting after the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. We had an opportunity to stay in an earthship called the Phoenix. Phil has already posted a lot of photos from the house. Here I want to describe a little bit about how these houses work technically. I am no expert, but here are some of the bare bones ideas.
– The houses regulate their temperature to a pretty even 72° all day, year round, without air conditioner or heater. We were there on some very hot days (into the 90°s) and the house felt deliciously cool. The systems that help to regulate the temperature include:
- Thermal mass, which absorbs heat during hot times and releases it during cooler ones. Most of the buildings have a back wall built of tires densely packed with earth. This provides enough mass to retain a lot of heat.
- Vents, skylights, etc. create airflow between rooms.
- Finally, houses have one side that is entirely glass; the angle of this glass varies depending on location/climate and can have a major impact on heat and light let into the house.
– The houses rely entirely on water collected from natural precipitation (rain, snow, etc) stored in a large cistern under the home and filtered in house. This works even in the Taos desert (which gets only 12″ of rain a year) because systems in the house itself majorly reduces water use, using water 4 times before finally disposing of it. Surprisingly water use didn’t feel much different from what you’d experience in a ‘normal’ home.
- 1st use: the freshest water is used for washing, bathing, drinking.
- 2nd use: Water going down these drains goes through a series of ‘botanical cells’ and is used to water house plants (which also create food and regulate house temperature). The plants act as natural filters, kind of like at the Arcata wastewater treatment plant.
- 3rd use: Greywater that has gone through the indoor botanical cells is then used for toilet flushing water (as I mentioned, toilet flushing water averages 15,000 litres per person per year, so this alone majorly reduces water consumption).
- 4th use: Sewage water from the toilet goes into a septic tank which then feeds into outdoor plants and landscaping, reducing the need for sprinklers, watering, etc.
I am still amazed that this system works in the desert, but it does… and living in the house, I didn’t feel I was skimping on water in any way.
The Phoenix earthship used solar power for all electricity; there were a number of solar arrays mounted on the back of the house. Other houses in the community also had wind power.
Most earthships have a greenhouse included as part of the home. The plants are fed with the greywater (bathing and washing). Ours was growing bananas, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries kale, chard, herbs… Keep in mind, all of this is in the middle of the desert. The green house also had tropical birds flying around and a small pond with koi and tilapia! Outside was a hen house and we gathered several eggs each morning from these mommas. Then we fed them our food scraps in the afternoon. Nice.
Much of the house is built of recycled materials. The used tires were important in temperature regulations. I think the glass bottles help with letting more light into the house cutting down on electricity use a bit. And of course, recycled building materials cut down on costs.