How to build an Earthship
The trials and tribulations of going way off the grid in Taos, New Mexico.
Ariel Bui dreams of a mesa oasis where she can play music amid purple-tinted mountains. Ben Adams leaves behind a life in academia to build utility-free homes in the desert with dirt and garbage. Ryan Timmermans wants to create sustainable shelters for veterans healing from the physical and mental fatigue of war.
At different points in the last decade or so, all three followed their visions and converged on Taos, New Mexico. Since the 1970s, the town has been a playground for creative off-grid builders. Today, it is slowly becoming overwhelmed by a wave of pandemic-era emigres who eschewed big coastal cities for a more rural idyl — turning the sleepy high desert ski town into Aspen 2.0 in the process.
“This is way cooler than a Tesla.”
Some of them are hunkering down, like Bui. She first came to Taos in 2009 and wound up buying a plot of land from a friend in Two Peaks Mesa, an anarchic, ragtag community of environmentally inclined survivalists, vagabonds, recovering addicts, and everyone in between.
“Isn’t it scary to you? Some of them are meth heads, or have guns,” Bui, 35, recalls asking her only nearby neighbor on the mesa. “She said, that’s the price you pay for freedom.”
It sure does feel free. It only takes about 15 minutes to drive from the center of Taos to feel a world away from urbanity.
Centuries ago, the Taos Pueblo Indigenous people who lived in this area used deep red adobe brick to build naturally insulated earthen homes. Today these brick homesteads make up one of the United States’ oldest inhabited communities. Since then, the area’s new denizens like Bui have started to experiment with a sustainable, passive architecture all of their own: Earthships. Made of dirt, tires, and other recycled and reclaimed materials, Earthships have evolved in styles over the decades — you can find everything from unremarkable, solar-powered single-family homes to a castle turret to a pyramid as if Las Vegas had been rebuilt in a recycling facility.
Initially invented by architect Michael Reynolds, the ideal modern Earthship is built with natural and recycled materials and uses thermal and solar heating and cooling, along with solar power, to regulate its internal temperature without connecting to a conventional utility grid. Earthships are built to harvest rainwater, have contained sewage systems, and feature gardens that provide a buffer between the living area and the outdoors and act as mini larders.
Earthships are not a new concept — for the last five decades, they have been a popular home of choice among extreme sustainability enthusiasts and survivalists. People have built Earthship-like homes in every U.S. state and dozens of countries, but they truly thrive in Taos. The ongoing climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic have given these seeming safe havens fresh appeal. Today, they are attractive climate and societal breakdown bunkers.
When Bui learned about Earthships in 2009 she went to Taos to do a weeklong internship at Earthship Biotecture, a company founded by Reynolds that remains the flagbearer for the Earthship brand. (In recent months, Earthship Biotecture has been shrouded in controversy after Reynolds was accused of sexual assault by a former intern. Reynolds has denied the allegations.) Weeks turned into months, and Bui ended up putting her money down for a plot and a dream house.
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In the intervening years, Bui has moved to Nashville to pursue a career as a recording artist, but she began consulting with friends to conceive her bespoke Earthship-inspired design. The coronavirus pandemic has finally given her the time she needed to make her dreams come true.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m in the movie Dune.”
Earthships generally consist of a wall made of pounded tires that wraps around three sides of the structure, providing a cocoon of thermal mass that stays warm in winter and cool in summer. Bui adapted some of her ideas from the “simple survival” Earthship model, which uses a wood-paneled roof over a U-shaped wall — it keeps the living space insulated but also stops the resident from making any extensions.
“All of the builders who advised me said to start with something small that you can build onto,” she tells Inverse.
In the last two years, she finally got most of her tire wall finished, along with cisterns that will store rainwater, cooling tubes that regulate hot summer temperatures, and the berm (an earth-packed thermal wrap). She has spent about $15,000 on the structure so far — about half her planned budget.
“Everyone’s into buying Teslas or whatever these days,” Bui says. “I’m like, this is way cooler than a Tesla.”
Earthships generally cost around the same as a comparably sized traditional home, although you’re essentially building in utilities for life. Your lights, refrigerator, computer, and television are all “completely running off the Sun,” Bui says.
“There’s just a different feeling about it that you can’t describe, and I want that feeling more often in my life,” she adds.
“It’s not realistic”
Former academic Ben Adams, 36, moved to Taos in 2016, bought a cheap plot of land, and began planning his future dream home. He was in the middle of a Ph.D. program in civil engineering at Penn State University when he visited the Earthship Biotecture site while on a cross-country drive and realized he would rather work with his hands than behind a desk.
“I wanted to see tangibly, physically, what I could do,” Adams said. “Can I develop a piece of land?”
Adams bolted to Taos and worked at Earthship Biotecture before transitioning into his current role as an independent contractor building earth homes, all the time dreaming of building his own.
Adams purchased one and a half acres for about $12,000 on mesa land just outside of Taos with no utility hookups, which kept the price down, but where he can obtain title insurance — not possible everywhere on New Mexico’s loosely surveyed plateau — allowing him to properly permit his home and sell it should he choose to. Adams decided to build a simple survival-inspired home similar to Bui’s. The design follows a traditional build with a three-sided tire wall and a greenhouse area that grows plants from gray water and acts as a “buffer zone” to regulate the indoor temperature.
He broke ground in late 2019 after years of planning, gathering materials, and getting building permits. Adams says he is not driven by the off-grid romanticism that attracts other prospective tenants, including many of his own clients, to Earthships.
“It’s like putting a puzzle together, constantly.”
“There’s always a reliance on external entities,” he says. Anyone who tries to disconnect completely will have to make a lot of sacrifices, but even those who live off the grid rely on external resources — and often on each other.
“I’m kind of chuckling talking about it. It’s not realistic,” he says. “I have not met anybody who is even close to being in that position. And I live in an off-grid mecca.”
His motivation, he says, is simply to build a home “in an intelligent way.”
Even though his home is far from finished, its passive solar design has kept its living space “at least 40 degrees above outside temperatures all winter long,” he says.
“That just makes sense.”
“We just go with the flow”
Timmermans, 45, learned about Earthships after he was deployed in Afghanistan in 2011 and noticed former soldiers returning as contractors after feeling alienated at home. He read about sustainable housing and was fascinated by the potential of Earthships as refuges for veterans, who are used to providing for themselves in harsh conditions.
As Timmermans struggled to adapt himself, he decided to create a space for veterans to live off the land — and to heal from it. About 20 veterans commit suicide every day in the United States, a figure Timmermans cites frequently.
“The Earthship,” he says, “is the perfect place for veterans to heal.”
In 2017, he founded Veterans Off-Grid, a nonprofit that wants to promote eco-friendly living while housing veterans. The nonprofit’s 50 acres of land are already home to an adobe brick tiny house and an earthbag house. Now, they’re preparing to build a 400-square-foot Earthship-inspired home with a south-facing greenhouse.
“The Earthship is the perfect place for veterans to heal.”
“We want to combine helping veterans reach their potential with helping the Earth,” he says. He also completed the Earthship Academy, a month-long course at Earthship Biotecture that trains students in design and construction methods.
Timmermans and a team of volunteers are actively working on their build. They just added the final layer to the outer tire wall, and they’re now repairing other homes on the land before going further. But it’s taken time to get supplies. A crane they needed to rent for another project broke down, and the replacement spring was backordered. “We just go with the flow,” he said. Nowadays, supply disruptions are even slowing the progress of off-grid survival bunkers.
How to build an Earthship
No two Earthships are built the exact same way.
If you have cash — and you’ll need cash; very few lenders outside of Taos will give you a mortgage on an Earthship — you can hire a professional crew to build your vessel from scratch in six weeks. The cost can run from as little as $20,000 for a simple survival model to the high six figures. As a rule of thumb, Earthships are around the same (or slightly more expensive) to build as comparable traditional homes.
But because they are so expensive and so distinct, most Earthships arise on unpredictable schedules. Some, like Adam’s, are essentially solo projects embarked upon by green-building enthusiasts who work when they can over the course of years. If you’re working alone, it takes about an hour to pound a tire full of dirt. A small Earthship uses about 500 such tires — assuming you break for food and sleep, that equates to 42 days of constant labor.
Bui coordinated much of her build from her base in Nashville, making trips back and forth to Taos to do little bits here and there. It’s a 20-hour drive from Taos to Nashville on a good day — getting out to Taos can be difficult, but it’s still the only place she’d build an Earthship.
“I have an entire community of people I can ask for help, I can ask for knowledge,” she says.
The road to Bui’s mesa plot cuts through a Mad Max-esque wilderness spotted with buses, teepees, abandoned shipping containers, and other makeshift shelters. On a cool mid-March afternoon, she paces around her L-shaped tire wall and whips out a measuring tape, planning where to assemble her frame walls and east-facing patio.
“I mean, just waking up every morning to this,” she says, gesturing to her view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains This is her first visit to the site for months, and as I watch on she grows wistful, envisioning her finished home.
Small, wood-roofed “simple survival” Earthships usually use 2 x 12 wood roof beams over the main living space to cut costs. But Bui wants a larger living space and decided to use I-joists, which are makeshift beams made of recycled wood composite that reach up to 21 feet long.
“Even as a small frame woman, I’m able to build a thing.”
She also chose to pitch her roof up from the back tire wall toward the greenhouse — the opposite of a typical build. Pitching down from the tire wall gives more “water flow and gutter action,” she says, but it also traps the Sun’s heat in the back of the house and wastes it.
She sizes her main space, with an eye on using it one day as a studio to remotely teach music lessons.
“As a musician, for acoustics, you want things to be close to the golden ratio” of height to width to length, she says, which the ancient Greeks called phi and gives a room perfect acoustic performance.
Adams, whose Earthship is also unfinished, lives next to his build. He left off the construction for months during the forbidding Taos winter. When I visit in March, fresh snowfall has just melted, turning Adam’s dirt track access road into a mud river.
The shell of Adams’ home is finished but not yet insulated, and unsealed gaps above glass panels let in biting winter air. Adams walks through the wide-open door and groans at a thud on the inner glass.
“Birds have been in here this morning,” he says. Despite the leaks, the living space is still warm on a 40-degree-Fahrenheit winter day.
Adams has reached the stage of configuring the electrical systems and plumbing, and he is about ready to start on the interior finishes. Lately, he has worried about whether he should shift the entrance door and the ventilation window above it, designed to be opened to release hot air.
“It’s like putting a puzzle together, constantly,” he says. It can be easy to get hung up on small things. Every Earthship builder faces the same dilemmas we all do: time versus money; your own labor versus someone else’s paid expertise.
Keeping a rigid DIY ethos can be time-consuming — and sometimes, builders just want to get the job done. When Adams’ sliding door broke, he waited six weeks for a technician to come out and fix it.
“It works way better now,” he says. “If that’s what it takes, so be it.”
“There’s just a different feeling about it that you can’t describe, and I want that feeling more often in my life.”
Earthships force their builders to go somewhat with the flow. For example, Adams initially planned on buying the dirt to make his insulating berm and tire wall, but he says “it got real expensive.”
Before he knew it, he had spent $3,000 for less than a third of the dirt he needed. So he decided to harvest the dirt himself from his own land by digging a deep, narrow pit with heavy machinery. The diggers are not free either, they generally cost up to $100 per hour to rent.
“A lot of people don’t understand how expensive that berm really is,” he says.
Adams has spent about $50,000 on his build so far. Now, as he heads into the material-intensive phase of designing the interior and finishing his home, he needs to think about even more costs. He wants to finish the ceiling with reclaimed wood, harvest wood from pallets, and build decorative walls from the piles of recycled glass bottles sitting outside the trailer that he has collected for years.
All three builds have recently begun colliding with the realities of supply chain woes. Bui is now preparing to build frame walls and begin constructing the interior, and both steps look far more expensive than they did just a few months ago.
“I’m not looking forward to using a lot more material,” she says. “I already paid so much money for dirt. And the prices for everything are going up.”
Every builder hears stories of Earthships abandoned halfway through when costs balloon beyond expectations. “I just hope it doesn’t end at this spot,” she says.
Frustrations aside, she feels emboldened by the process.
“I’m not a master builder, but I feel like I can do anything,” Bui says. “Even as a small frame woman, I’m able to build a thing.”
“That’s the price you pay for freedom.”
Adams is already thinking of building an adobe brick house next, which he believes will be more financially viable — it’s like an Earthship, but with bricks instead of pounded tires.
But he is entirely convinced his current build will perform perfectly. If you do everything right during construction, he says, “it’s going to be fine.”
One pitfall he plans to avoid is relying on his garden for food. This popular Earthship feature “really doesn’t pan out, from what I’ve seen,” he says.
It takes time and effort to maintain a garden, so Adams will focus on crops like tomatoes that can grow easily out of a greenhouse’s grey-water planters.
“I’ll go for those and try and grow whatever I can,” he says, “but I don’t have some fantasy that I’m gonna sustain myself off of what I grow.”
But many Earthship builders don’t want to rely on the outside world for food. If there’s an apocalyptic collapse, are you growing vegetables and herbs or fighting the hordes and raiding the nearest Walmart?
Veterans like Timmermans identify with this concept, he says. Many former soldiers who come home from tours of duty feel safest when they can take care of themselves, Timmermans explains. He has plans to start a farm, but for now, he is focused on collecting water.
“Water is precious,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in the movie Dune.”
Earthships can feel like ground-bound versions of the water-preserving stillsuits of Arrakis, squeezing each drop of possible use out of Taos’s 13 inches of average annual rainfall.
He walks around the tire wall and hulking berm of his future Earthship, pointing at where the double-paned glass walls will one day be assembled. The bathroom will go in the greenhouse area, he says, so “your smells don’t mix” with the nearby kitchen.
“It’s a small space,” he says, but “it’s all we need. Especially for a veteran.”
For Timmermans, who has had his share of permit squabbles with local authorities, off-grid living is also a statement of independence. For example, he wants to build an entirely self-contained closed-loop water system to process black water, he says, but state law requires that he install a septic tank.
Still, he says he and his fellow veterans will have plenty of water should disaster strike. He mentions a favorite book of his, One Second After, in which an electromagnetic attack knocks out the U.S. power grid.
“What I’m doing here,” he says, referring to his Earthship’s self-sufficiency, “I’m creating the porcupine. Nobody messes with a porcupine in the forest — unless they’re desperate.”
How to Save the Earth: On Earth Day 2022, Inverse explores some of the most ambitious, exciting, and controversial efforts to save our planet.