NORTHWEST OF TAOS – Earthships started as counter-culture, off-the-grid dwellings for hippie transplants who found their way to Taos in the late 1960s and 1970s.
But now they’ve morphed into fancier digs with amenities drawing tourists and the curious who pay up to $330 for a night in an Earthship – as well as into a design template for needed shelter around the world.
“We get people from all over the world who come to check them out,” said Greater World Education Director Kirsten Jacobsen.
Just about anybody who’s been in Taos five minutes knows about the Greater World Earthship community just west of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge northwest of town.
The largely self-sustaining structures, the brainchild of innovator Mike Reynolds – who once fought the bureaucracy of local government to do things his way – these days are being exported to Third World countries as humanitarian projects. Reynolds and his disciples spread the gospel of houses that heat and cool themselves with the sun and recycle water four times.
Currently, there are 65 Earthships at Greater World and it’s planned for a build out of 130.
In the past, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments have invited Reynolds and his disciples to distant lands to do his thing. Those situations can become bureaucratic, said Reynolds during a recent visit with a Journal crew.
“But now we are just doing it,” he said. “I saw the information on the (Philippines) typhoon on the news and the next morning I was sketching on my table.” That typhoon hit near Tacloban in the Philippines last year, and within four months Reynolds and crew were there.
“It was a complete disaster,” said Reynolds. A roof had been blown off a school and in 10 days the Reynolds team built “a little typhoon-proof three-room school” called a wind ship.
Local people donated land to build the school on and students from the Reynolds-run Earthship Biotecture Academy in Taos County paid their way there for two weeks.
The academy and a state law that Reynolds helped pass have spurred Earthship development and helped with efforts to construct the homes in Third World settings.
The Sustainable Development Testing Site Act was passed in 2007 by the New Mexico Legislature, allowing applicants to seek special county use permits without regard for construction codes if they’re doing it off the grid, said education director Jacobsen. Greater World has a two-acre site to try out new methods and techniques, said Reynolds.
“It’s great, it allows us to test stuff, it’s allowing us to rehearse for Third World country builds,” he said. “It’s really paying off.”
Reynolds and company have completed Earthships in Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Jamaica, India, Mexico, Malawi, Sierra Leone, the Philippines, Guatemala, Bolivia and Argentina.
News coverage of Reynolds and the Earthships, and a documentary titled “Garbage Warrior” have brought students from around the world to learn from the master at the academy. There is an indoor classroom on site, but that’s not where the hands-on learning takes place.
For the Philippines trip, 45 people paid a $1,000 each to go and work, said Reynolds.
“Everyone there was busting their ass in the sun. It’s like a learning school that does something rather than rhetoric in the classroom. It funds itself. It’s a perpetual motion machine.”
Housing for the students is in a characteristically bizarre Earthship design of swirling curves and shining bottles.
Just down the road toward Taos on U.S. 64, an Earthship Academy crew from around the world supervised by veteran Reynolds’ hand Phil Basehart is building an amphitheater at the Taos Mesa Brewery.
“That one is not a full arch,” a woman calls out as the framework of a small backstage building is being put together. “Should we be doing that one (an arch) first?” asks another worker.
Anna Wylie, who is traveling the U.S. from Tasmania, is one of those working on the amphitheater. She was rafting the Grand Canyon with her mates and went on the web to find out about the Earthship classes.
“I’ve known about Earthships for years,” said Wylie. “I saw ‘Garbage Warrior’ when I was in university.” Wylie now is joined in her labors by students from China, Sweden, Mexico, Canada and Israel.
What has Wylie gained from the Earthship experience?
“So much,” she said. “We have gone into quite a lot of details and the systems, gray water, etc., passive solar. I want to go and do humanitarian builds around the world. I want to build one at home in Tasmania eventually.”
The worldwide interest that the Earthships have spawned has helped build the educational side of Reynolds’ operation. Twenty-four students just finished an Academy session and 57 are coming for the next course. There are four-week, six-days-a-week sessions and a six-week, five-days-a-week session. The cost is $2,500 a session. Five different sessions will be offered this year.
“It used to be interns would come here and hang out … but it never stops,” said Reynolds.
His wife, Chris, says Reynolds is obsessed with work, and that work draws anybody and everybody. In the documentary, she tells Reynolds he’s “like a freak magnet.”
Mesa Brewery owner Peter Kolshorn has worked with Reynolds before. “We worked with Earthships 25 years ago. It’s completely in line with our ethos here,” he said of the plans for the amphitheater. “We are a music venue and we want to create the premier outdoor music space for Taos.”
Kolshorn hopes to have the amphitheater, which he sees as “similar to the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater in Santa Fe,” finished by June 14, when the Blues, Brews and Bikes Festival headlined by Robert “Bilbo” Walker Jr. will be held there.
Work started last fall, although actual construction began only recently. With a crew of 30 to 40, the work goes fast. “We try and expose them to a lot of things,” the Earthship Academy’s Basehart said of the students.
Kolshorn said he had no trouble getting his neighbor and former mentor interested in the amphitheater.
“He (Reynolds) got excited and participated in the design, and got his students and interns to come out and build it.” A fundraiser for a Reynolds project in Malawi was also held at the brewpub, said Kolshorn.
Bottles and beer cans
Reynolds still can recall the exact day, 26 years ago on May 2, that he completed the first Earthship with his signature earth-filled and compacted tires as an integral part of the structure.
Before that Reynolds was known for using beer cans and bottles in the walls of the homes he built. “It was research leading up to Earthships,” he says of the beer-can abodes.
In the “Garbage Warrior” documentary, Reynolds is shown with his first beer-can house built in 1972, dubbed the “thumb house” because of a protuberance that resembles a thumb.
Reynolds credits the zeitgeist of the ’60s and ’70s as played out in the news media for helping foment his ideas. “We were doing things as a response to what the media said were the world’s problems,” such as forest clear-cutting, garbage and lack of clean drinking water, he said.
“Charles Kuralt (CBS News) would do a story on the beer can trash problem so I responded to that, building out of beer cans,” he said.
Reynolds cites wind, water, garbage and energy as universal environmental concerns.
“Every city and every country has these issues,” he said. “Garbage is an issue everywhere, water is an issue everywhere. Electricity is clearly an issue … . We have mountains of garbage in every country and every city.”
The Earthship decentralizes and individualizes the world’s environmental issues, Reynolds believes. “We are transcending major screw-ups that are going on right now,” he said.
Reynolds, who was born and raised in Kentucky, describes what influenced the direction his life took. “I was raised as a Baptist. No dancing, no drinking, no gambling. So I got the hell out of Dodge,” Reynolds said in the past. He got a degree in architecture from the University of Cincinnati but questioned the value of what he learned
He believes “that progress evolves from making mistakes,” he said in a prior interview. The way society was going, he felt like he was in a herd of buffalo heading for a cliff. “I am not going to go down that way. I am trying to save my ass and that is a powerful force,” he says. “We know in the future we are rendering this planet damn near uninhabitable.”
Tom Duke and his wife bought property at Greater World 16 years ago and built a small place until he could build a larger Earthship. He now works as an Earthship educator and, on a recent tour, he showed off the crown jewel – the Phoenix house – that is rented by the night.
“This is the place that impresses people the most,” Duke said, as he led visitors into an indoor jungle where lush plants thrive under the sun that pours through an array of south-facing windows. There is also a fish pond with a turtle. “There are birds in here, believe it or not, parakeets, and lots of food has been grown in here.”
The master bedroom has a bathroom with ropes near the bathtub to open skylights for venting and light. The bathroom has a wall that exposes the bottles used in the construction. “The sun hits the bottles and they light up like jewels,” said Duke. Red-painted steps go up to an elevated bed with accompanying red dresser.
More humanitarian construction lies ahead for Earthship devotees, as Reynolds, sitting high up in his tower office with a commanding view of Taos Mountain, rattled off possible future projects on Easter Island, and in Uruguay and Malawi.
We asked Reynolds, who figures he is on the road half the time and was soon to be off on a lecture tour of Europe, if it was good to be home?
“Yeah, it’s great, I love Taos,” he said.
As he stood outside his Earthship office looking out over the Mesa, he reflected on the most important thing he has learned over the years.
“I think that to get outside of everything that we have set up already and look back,” he said. “… There’s a lot more paths than the one we are taking.”