Are Earthships a realistic strategy to combat climate change and pollution?
Sustainability becomes a more important and relevant concept everyday as the Earth continues to undergo climate change. Now more than ever, it is important to consider living a greener lifestyle, and modern-day homes are just a part of the problem. Earthships are homes made from natural and recycled materials such as earth-packed tires, bottles and cans, and discarded corn. These houses include many sustainable features such as recycling water to be used up to four times. This style of house was created in the 1970s and has gained some popularity, but does it have the potential to effectively combat climate change and pollution? Are Earthships a realistic design for modern sustainable housing? In a time where the average American produces 1,709 pounds of garbage per year (Mcarthy) and uses 82 gallons of water daily (EPA, Water sense), it is important to consider sustainable alternatives to modern houses.
New Mexican architect Michael Reynolds developed Earthships in the 70s to create a house that would fulfill three specific criteria. First, that it had to utilize material indigenous to the area or recycled material wherever possible. Second, Earthships should be off-grid and rely on natural or renewable energy sources. Lastly, it should be possible for someone with no professional construction skills to build. With these concepts in mind, the Earthship was invented.
I worked on a chile pepper farm in New Mexico for two months where I helped the owners build their Earthship. These farmers had zero experience in building large scale homes, but had no trouble constructing an Earthship. The construction was very simple and completely customizable, as Michael Reynolds intended. For their base materials, they strayed a bit from typical designs. Instead of using something like earth packed tires, we used shredded paper, concrete, and cans. Unfortunately, the concrete was purchased and not found, but we combined it with shredded paper to make it stretch. We then pushed two cans into each of the bricks to displace even more of the concrete mixture. This also made the bricks lightweight, but still formidable enough to serve as a foundation for the house. The owners of the farm plan to be off-grid and use solar panels once the construction is complete. This experience was enlightening, it showed me that Earthships how much potential they have to help our environment without requiring the expertise of professionals.
The materials used in Earthships are often chosen to create a naturally comfortable temperature in the house, and can be altered to suit the climate. For example, cob walls are made from clay, straw, dirt, and sometimes other materials. These walls have amazing insulation and can work in a range of temperature conditions. These sustainable homes also have a system built in to recycle water up to four times. Roofs are built to collect rainfall, which is then used first for bathing and dishes, to water interior plants, to operate the toilet, and lastly to water outside gardens. This system allows for clean water to be fully utilized rather than wasted. Earthships are intended to have spaces built for inside agriculture, as well as an outside garden.
There is an estimated 3,000 Earthships built around the world, most located in the United States. Because of the 1970s New Mexican culture they originated in, as well as their sustainable nature, Earthships are often built in a fluid shape that utilizes the landscape. Since they are all handmade, usually by the homeowners themselves, no two Earthships are the same. Their lush greenery inside and the use of colored glass bottles as windows make these homes objectively beautiful. The fluid and sleek wall shape, deep sunk windows, and use of repeated patterns often make Earthships look like a strange combination of ancient and modern architecture, almost otherworldly. These homes are a desirable destination on Airbnb, to the extent where they have their own category called “earth homes.” Prices range from $40-$6,000 a night with thousands of options to choose from. Some of these locations don’t meet all the guidelines of Michael Reynolds’ original design, but the fact that Airbnb has a separate section for earth homes demonstrates their relevance. Yet, very few people know what they are or choose to live in them.
Many view Earthships in a negative context, as dirty or rustic, most likely because of the materials used in construction and the name. It is also intimidating to build your own home, and many of people do not have the confidence to try. The luxury of automated electricity and water is also hard to leave behind, and the general population struggles with the thought of adapting to these conditions. However, adaptation is something we as a species must begin to think about as the world goes through climate change and our natural resources deplete. Are Earthships the answer?
Modern day homes are built with all the necessary appliances and gadgets to make them comfortable and safe for the owners, but our planet cannot continue to supply these demands, especially if the population keeps increasing. As humanity goes forward it is imperative to consider changing how our homes operate. For example, modern toilets use 1.6 gallons of water per flush; this water is generally clean enough to drink but is wasted for our waste instead (EPA, Watersense). However, it is also recorded that they only need 1.2 gallons or less to function properly. The problem is that many people would prefer to waste the full 1.6 gallons, as it would make the toilet appear generally cleaner. Electricity usage has also never been higher, in 2020 it was recorded that the average annual electricity consumption for a United States residential utility customer was 10,715 kilowatt-hours (EIA). This is about six times higher than the average of other countries. American’s massive electricity usage can often be traced back to our homes and appliances. Just leaving something plugged in uses electricity, even if it’s not turned on. Pew Research Center states that solar and wind energy accounted for less than 4% of energy used in the United States in 2018 (Desilver). Though renewable energy sources continue to gain popularity, we still rely too heavily on fossil fuels. If humanity (especially the US) continues to use this much water and electricity, we will dig our own grave.
Although Earthships provide a lot of solutions to the problems the world faces, there is debate about their functionality or effectiveness. A big issue that architects struggle with is making these homes functional and stable in different environments. Since it was created in New Mexico, the original design is meant for an arid, dry environment. The water sorting system and materials are important to consider when building an Earthship in a different climate. Despite this, Earthships have been built in a variety of locations and climates around the world, excluding the harshest of environments like the arctic. Another major problem with Earthships is that they may not be as cost effective as initially intended. The Ministry of Architecture states that even if you are able to do 100% of the labor yourself and obtain all the materials, it will still cost you through the price of property, and that they can take over two years to build (Architecture). According to them, for Earthships to have a completely stable structure, the constructor must use concrete, which is not a natural material. There are also complaints from homeowners that they don’t have enough storage, the roof leaks, or there are bugs. All these problems bring to light why Earthships are not as popular as one might expect them to be.
Building and owning an Earthship takes a lot of manual labor, and people who are not the do-it-yourself type will struggle with their construction. It is important for those interested to understand that these houses take dedication and time. Though they have a simple structure and require free, recycled materials, if the owners want certain luxuries, it will cost them. Humans have evolved to a point where most people expect a certain standard from homes and appliances, and original Earthship designs are not up to those standards. It is unrealistic to expect someone to move somewhere that requires more effort to live in comfortably, even if it benefits the earth greatly. At this point, our species is used to a certain level of comfort, and we find it hard to sacrifice that for something like sustainability. My professor, Steve Dundas, explained that when it comes to the issue of climate change, a worldwide problem that threatens every living thing, people tend to freeze up. It’s only natural to avoid dealing with something so seemingly unsolvable. This reaction or mechanism that all0ws humans to relax, though natural, is not going to help us solve climate change. Sustainability isn’t something that can be achieved with one person, so we must work together to achieve it.
My proposition for future house construction is to combine aspects of both Earthships and normal homes. Through my research, I have come to understand that Earthships may be an unrealistic solution to climate change. They have the potential to greatly reduce our use of resources, but it will do no good if no one wants to live in them, or if they don’t work as intended. Modifying houses that are soundly constructed and have the luxuries or appliances of other homes, while including the sustainability of an Earthship is a promising proposition. There are of course homes that already attempt this. It is not uncommon to see solar panels or rainfall collection systems on houses in your neighborhood. Though having anything to combat climate change is a step in the right direction, these methods are not enough. If we want to take a serious stand against climate change and global warming, then there must be a national or even global agreement on housing modifications. This idea is rather far-fetched and the chances of that happening are very small, but something must be done.
Modern homes could be adapted to utilize the four-step water recycling process of Earthships. However, this would imply that homeowners take the time to create and tend to a food garden. While this is something that everyone should be doing, it is not something the average American would consider. Even if water recycling isn’t used for plants, just using water from a washing machine to flush your toilet makes a huge difference. If this was implemented in average homes, water usage would most likely decrease drastically, especially is there is also a rainwater collection system in place. Renewable energy is massively important for sustainability, and people every day continue to work to improve it. If scientists and engineers can find a way to make renewable energy more accessible and affordable, then we won’t need to rely on fossil fuels so much. The idea of more sustainable homes is entirely dependent on the development of new technology and the commitment of humans.
In conclusion, Earth is dying, and the way our homes are built is just another contributing factor to its declining conditions. Earthships are highly sustainable homes that not only use recycled materials in construction, but also recycle water and depend on renewable energy. However, they may not be a realistic solution to humanity’s struggle with climate change. Earthships come with many difficulties and don’t support the same level of luxury that average homes have. In order to get people to live more sustainably it is imperative that we introduce more eco friendly practices into homes without affecting comfort. Earthships are an excellent standard for sustainable living, and if we don’t take more steps to have our homes more like them, we will only continue contributing to the extensive issue of climate change.
Architecture, The Ministry of. “Earthship pros and cons.” 4 June 2021. The ministry of architecture. 1 March 2022.
Desilver, Drew. “renewable energy is growing fast in the us, but fossil fuel still dominates.” 15 January 2020. Pew research center. 1 March 2022.
EIA. Frequently asked questions. 7 October 2021. 3 March 2022.
EPA. Water sense. 4 June 2015. <https://www.epa.gov/watersense/statistics-and-facts>.
— . Watersense. 1 January 2022. <https://www.epa.gov/watersense/residential-toilets#:~:text=Recent%20advancements%20have%20allowed%20toilets,of%201.6%20gallons%20per%20flush.>.
Mcarthy, Joe. “Americans produce 3 times as much as the global average.” 3 July 2019. global citizen. <https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/americans-produce-most-waste/#:~:text=The%20average%20American%20produces%201%2C704,the%20research%20firm%20Verisk%20Maplecroft.>.