Off-the-grid homes made of recycled garbage, ‘earthships’ could become million-dollar climate-change havens

Real Estate

Mike Reynolds, 76, started building “earthships” in Taos, New Mexico, more than half a century ago. For many years, most people thought he was nuts.

Why is this idiot using garbage to build with, and why is this idiot trying to make buildings that don’t need utilities?” said Reynolds, summarizing what people thought of him.

Now this self-proclaimed idiot is looking pretty smart because more and more people are not just interested, they’re buying in.

“Covid and climate change are causing a current spike. So yes, this is getting to be the right place and the right time for these ideas to really be accepted more than they’ve ever been accepted before. It used to be they just scared people,” he said.

Mike Reynolds in front of one of his “Earthships” in Taos, NM
Mike Killian | NBC News

Earthships are homes made out of recycled materials like tires, cans, and bottles — essentially, garbage. And they are totally off the grid.

The premise is to give people what Reynolds calls the six points of sustenance that they need to stay alive:  Comfortable shelter without fossil fuel, electricity, water, food, treatment of sewage, and treatment and use of garbage.

There are now earthships in nearly every state, costing from from $200 to $400 per square foot to build. They follow similar guidelines from the Earthship academy, a course which explains water systems, solar and indoor farming. They use about one-sixth the power of a regular house and are made from at least 40% recycled materials. They can also be climate resilient.

“One of the things we’re doing immediately is we’re taking a beefed-up design that’s tornado-resistant to Kentucky,” said Reynolds.

All these things would have saved lives last year, when the Texas electrical grid failed following an ice storm. An estimated 246 people died, with close to two-thirds of those deaths due to hypothermia.

“I’m walking down my hallway, barefoot, picking bananas and spinach, and I’m seeing on TV people waiting in lines in cars for a sack of food, and mothers taking their kids out to their cars to turn the heater on so they can keep them warm. And I’m saying, we need to get people to know that this is possible and available. It’s not just rhetoric and a pipe dream and a concept. The building I’m standing in front of is evidence that this is possible. Today, right now,” said Reynolds.

Andrew Bratz first drove through the 630-acre earthship community in 2015 and later bought in. With Reynolds’ help on the design, and much of his own work, his house is almost complete.

“It’s going to be the ark for my family,” said Bratz. “I think we still have a lot of issues to go through politically and whatnot and economically, to me, it’s only going to get harder, and I think this is going to be my saving grace.”

Climate resilience and sustainability were high on Jessica and Brian Johnson’s list when they bought their earthship in Taos three years ago.

“It’s the antithesis of every ticky-tacky box that’s plugged into the grid and feeding utility companies, and that radicalism spoke to us as well,” said Brian.

 They also saw potential beyond just the garbage.

“We turned it into an upscale modern luxury earthship…to show the potential of what an earthship can be if you so desire,” said Jessica.

They added a dishwasher and panoramic sauna, while still using the same water to hydrate and clean themselves as well as water their garden and flush their toilets. As much as they say the house protects and nurtures them, they also see a big potential return, so they may sell it, asking just under a million dollars.

“With everybody spending such gargantuan amounts of time at home over the last few years…earthships, their value, monetarily as well as socially, has just gone through the roof,” said Brian.

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