From the Field: Earthship Community, NM

A meditation on sustainable architecture.

06.23.2021

The vastness of this country begets exploration. It is a complicated dichotomy, brewing the messiness of American politics and fueling the best of American inventions. In our own silo of design and architecture, it leaves an open invitation to forge one’s own path underscored by the feeling that there exists an infinite amount of space. In practice, questions quickly arise on the part of encroachment. How can we survive in America’s differing ecosystems? How do we optimize the utility of our surroundings? How should we be required to respect the land we inhabit?

Perhaps it is the scarcity of resources or simply the abundance of apparent nothingness, but there is a proclivity in western states for this innovative sentiment to reach its apex. We exist on desert land. Here, these abstract questions become immediate and vitally tangible. They present problems that become catalysts for re-imagining our exploitative relationship with the earth. Because of this, there are pioneers in green architecture who have landed here and dug in. One such person is Michael Reynolds, architect and founder of the Earthship Biotecture projects of northern New Mexico. For our field visit this month, we go back to a trip we took in 2014 and explore his offering for an alternative way of living and the visually compelling structures that resulted.

It was in 1971 when Reynolds wrote his college thesis on the usage of recycled materials for building. This became the foundation for a lifelong career in sustainable architecture and advocacy within a movement towards zero-waste existence.

Made up of eight core principles that form its treatise, the ‘Earthship Biotecture’ philosophy is really quite simple:

  1. To reduce the economic and institutional barriers between humans and their habitat.

  2. To reverse the overall negative effect that conventional human housing has on this planet.

  3. To create a less stressful plane of existence for humans in an effort to reduce the stress that they in turn place on the planet and each other.

  4. To interface economics and ecology in a way that immediately and tangibly affects current pressing problems with life on earth.

  5. To provide a direction for those who want to live in peace with each other and their environment.

  6. To empower individuals with the unarguable forces of nature as opposed to incapacitating them with the smothering forces of politics and bureaucracy.

  7. To find & distribute the appropriate soil for which the flower of humanity can blossom.

  8. To evolve humanity into an earthen harmony already exemplified by more evolved structures such as plants, animals and water.

Beyond the philosophical principles, though, Reynolds’ architecture exists within a series of basic physical rules. Each structure is meant to subsist upon passive energy, namely solar. Recycled items (such as car tires, repurposed as ‘bricks’ once packed with dirt) are mortared together and covered with a layer of plaster. This offers a unique opportunity for the once discarded item to become part of a thermal mass for insulation, keeping the temperature inside the building a steady and livable one no matter what the outside elements present. There are even specific guidelines for the optimal square footage and floor plan as well as avenues for directional light (to make use of the growing practices of a greenhouse) that make render the success of the structures.

Images here were taken during the aforementioned trip we took to Taos to better understand the technicality and beauty of this lifestyle. For more information on Reynolds and his architecture, his foundation made a video which can be accessed here.