Of all the worries I had about renting an off-the-grid house — Would I freeze to death? Would the bathroom smell like a porta potty? Was Wi-Fi a pipe dream? — my biggest had to do with showering. My kindly host, Dan Richfield, suggested a three-minute limit, because it was the ecologically responsible thing to do. How was that even possible?!, I wondered. I take three minutes just to wash my face.
But I accepted his challenge, and not only did my fears of “roughing it” prove unfounded, I learned that a sustainable home could be so well designed, it made green living virtually frustration-free.
Dan’s house is located within the 650-acre Greater World Earthship Community in El Prado, New Mexico, the largest off-the-grid neighborhood on the planet, where dozens of adobe houses, called Earthships, are scattered across the desert ten miles north of Taos. Since the late ’80s, residents of this alternative subdivision have built their homes with rammed earth and rubbish (like cans, bottles, and tires), grown their food, produced electricity, recycled water, and treated sewage, disconnecting themselves from the municipal infrastructure — the power grid, waste management, the water supply — that most rely on every day.
Earthships are based on a passive solar prototype drafted by architect and Airbnb host Michael Reynolds. The way he sees it, all humans face six fundamental problems: “They need shelter, water, electricity, food, and they must do something with their sewage and trash.” So Michael set out to create a vessel that addressed those issues. Today, there are around 70 homes in Greater World; more than a dozen can be rented by the night. The rest of the land — some 347 acres — is preserved as a green belt. And what started as a radical experiment in New Mexico has now spread to all 50 states and more than 20 countries.
Like other Earthships, Dan’s has walls designed to trap heat in winter and vent cool air in summer, maintaining 72 degrees year-round. The greenhouse windows frame mesa landscapes by day and provide a front-row seat to the Milky Way at night but also offer sunlight for the indoor garden. Rainwater and melted snow are caught on the roof, filtered, and then piped to the sinks and a solar-heated shower. Gray water from the shower and sinks hydrates greenhouse plants and then is used to flush the toilet, while sewage is treated and waters an outdoor planter. As a guest I learned what it took to run this well-oiled machine — namely, how to check the solar battery and operate the air vents. Even a short stay in an Earthship felt transformative, as it made me more conscientious at home. Did I need to do laundry twice a week? Switch on the AC the second the mercury hit 78?
I wasn’t the only newcomer drawn to this concept of off-grid living. Superhost Jason Waters was inspired by Garbage Warrior, a 2007 documentary about Michael Reynolds, and he eventually gave up his software career to work in regenerative housing. Now he and his partner, Dorothea Hoffmann, own an Earthship in Greater World. “One thing we try to be clear about to guests: This house requires active participation,” says Dorothea. “There’s no thermostat to adjust — you open windows and vents.” The couple leaves notes, reminding guests to take brief showers and shut off the faucet while doing dishes. “Those are significant changes necessary to live on a water budget that falls from the sky,” says Jason. Engaging in the maintenance of the house is key to the experience, he says: “It’s not a chore. It’s a way of getting in touch with your surroundings.”
“There is a whole culture that arises around alternative building. The people it attracts are interested in Earthships for ideological reasons:. They’re not just looking for the cheapest, easiest way to live.”
— Jason Waters, Airbnb Superhost
Though conservation is core to the Earthship lifestyle, deprivation is not. Kirsten Jacobsen, former education director at Earthship Biotecture, cofounder of sustainable housing and education company Eco Living Matrix, and Airbnb Superhost, is on a mission to show that living off-grid needn’t be primitive. She spent eight years building her first Earthship, adding features like stainless-steel countertops and bamboo floors to make the space “less hippie, more comfort.”
As her guests discover, Earthships can be tricked out with chef’s kitchens, speedy internet, and Netflix. “For someone to stay in a modern home with a flat-screen TV and a surround-sound system, yet it’s run off solar and water harvesting and the temperature of the Earth and Sun, that’s just, like, whoa,” says Kirsten. “People are proud of themselves that they’ve ‘survived’ off-grid for a night. But then they realize they were comfortable.”
Michael Reynolds agrees that the only way to change people’s minds about sustainable housing is to have them try it. “If they wake up in an Earthship when it’s 10 below zero outside, but it’s warm and they pick a banana out of their greenhouse, it blows people away,” he says.
About the author: Ashlea Halpern is the co-founder of Minnevangelist and editor-at-large for AFAR Media. She edited New York Magazine’s pop-up travel blog, The Urbanist, and writes regularly for Airbnb Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, and Artful Living. After spending almost four years traveling Asia, Australia, the Arctic, and North America, she settled in Minneapolis, MN — the most underrated city in the lower 48, bar none. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern and @minnevangelist.