I’m lucky in so many ways to live in New Mexico. I mean, it’s not blind, dumb luck, it’s the kind of luck I sought out and it actually turned out to have been worth looking for. One very cool thing about New Mexico that not everyone knows about is Michael Reynolds, the innovative architect who creates Earthship communities up in Taos. If you don’t know about Earthships, he’s got a pretty comprehensive website on them. They’re handmade, self sustaining homes made out of recycled materials. They create their own electricity, cache their own water, and maintain an internal temperature in the 70s all year without any heating or cooling systems other than windows and walls. They’re wonderfully eccentric, with spires and walls with wine bottles in them that let in blue and green light and hand-molded bathtubs, and the south-facing windows are always lined with plants because they cleanse the air, the filter out UV rays, they and provide food, and their roots help cleanse the greywater. It’s a cool setup.
I stayed in an earthship over the summer, and it was eye opening. It really does give you a weird, empowered feeling to be totally off the grid, and you don’t realize how much noise is in your life until you live in a house without a HVAC system and with a silent refrigerator. (Since the houses are solar, refrigeration usually comes in the form of motor home appliances, so they’re either 220v, or they’re propane. This one was propane powered, and it was silent.) My wife ended up waiting to brush her hair in one afternoon because she thought the nearly-deafening racket would wake our daughter up in the other end of the house. I was grilling outside the first evening, and I wondered what the gooshy roaring sound was that I heard – after looking around a little for evidence, I realized it was the sound of beer foaming in the bottle in my hand. You can hear bees 50 feet from you, and dogs from 10 miles away. (When it’s not windy.) So, the house itself is quiet, and together, it makes for a quiet neighborhood.
There’s a newish movie about the guy who started it all, Mike Reynolds, called Garbage Warrior. I committed to my copy before it was even released, and I was one of the first people to get a copy. So of course, it sat unwatched for several months. I finally got around to watching it, and man, what a powerful movie. It’s probably the best-written documentary I’ve ever seen, and definitely most engaging. “Garbage,” in the sense that an earthship is made with recycled automobile tires and wine bottles and plastic soda containers and aluminum cans, and “Warrior,” in the sense that this guy has passionate beliefs and has put everything he has on the line to defend them.
The story is pretty simple. Boy meets architecture. Boy grows distant from architecture when his needs change. Boy meets new ideas and runs off with them. Government comes in and shuts down the boy. Boy goes to India to help monsoon victims and to Mexico to help Katrina victims. Government allows boy to operate again. That old chestnut.
Reynolds started out with pretty traditional architecture training, and instantly realized that everything in contemporary architecture is based around obsolete ideas. (Bear in mind that I’m not an architect, and I don’t know if every architectural idea is actually obsolete. But he does make a convincing case.) From early in his career, he instinctively explored thermal mass in his construction and water caching and sustainable building practices. He tried things out. He failed. He improved. He tried again. He succeeded. Sometimes. After years of trying and failing/succeeding/growing, he had 2 communities launched and had attracted worldwide interest in his work. But with that global attention came the attention of regional authorities, and then the problems began. To start with, they stopped all his development efforts. Then he lost his architecture license because he was violating so many building codes. Mostly not in terms of safety or building quality, but rather red-tape issues. For example, “communities” are defined as “individual deeded lots with power and water and phone hookups,” and to apply that kind of code to a house that’s designed to be off the grid is short-sighted. He battled New Mexico’s legislature for years, and the movie documents the red tape and hoop jumping with excruciating detail.
This is juxtoposed with other experiences his company has had. For instance, after the big earthquake and tsunami double-whammy that India suffered in 2005, he was invited with his team to go help out. They inspected the debris, and the area was just wrecked. The 35,000 person town he visited had been reduced to 7000 inhabitants. The survivors lived in shanties made of corrugated metal, single room structures with dirt floors and 3 walls, often housing families of 7. Exposed wells with human remains inside, water was actually being transported in in trucks.
He was horrified and awed by how nature can take the work of mankind and undo it in a matter of minutes or hours or days. They got to work. The spirit of the locals was incredible, and over 14 days, Reynolds showed them how to build an earthquake-resistant, self-cooling, water-caching structure using mostly dirt, cement, and locally found recycled materials. (He sent kids out to collect plastic bottles, for which he paid them 1 Rupee each.) The community dove right in and was mixing cement and hammering dirt into the tires with Reynolds’ core team, and the local engineers and architects were amazed and thrilled. With 100+ inches of rain a year, they’d never need to rely on wells, and the first structure could cache 10,000 liters of water. Instant independence. Suddenly, they had hope. In a perfect world, 4/5 of their population wouldn’t have been stamped out in a matter of hours. In the imperfect world the lived in, they took what was in front of them, and with just a little guidance, made something out of it.
Back in the states, the fumfering New Mexico legislature repeatedly blocked his experimental housing bill, and were it not for one enlightened soul on the government side who eventually took up his cause and pushed it through person by painful person, it would still be blocked. His “experimental housing” bill wasn’t asking for money, it was asking for the right of individuals to designate specific housing sites as experimental so they’d could be free to innovate outside the limitations of current housing code. One telling moment in the movie was when he was bemoaning his first big government shutdown and, “They took away my right to try and fail.” In post-disaster India, no red tape. In disaster-free New Mexico, hemming and hawing, and Reynolds seems genuinely bugged that it might take another Katrina-level catastrophe to convince people in government to allow any changes to how we’re permitted to house ourselves. He’s not talking about a forced, universal change that would be imposed on others, all he wanted was the right for interested individuals to explore options in how they housed themselves and their families. Doesn’t sound that controversial, but it’s apparently a pretty threatening notion to some people. Personally, I would have quit in frustration less than 4 minutes into the process; I don’t have the patience for red tape that he exhibited in the film, but he might not have either were it not for his conviction. Watching someone fight for what they believe in can be an awesome sight.
Rather than just being a pedantic hippy-treehugger sermon to our culture of consumption, this was a snapshot of a real American and his very real spirit. He’s a crusty individualist determined to survive in the wild and wooly West using his brains and his backbone and his ingenuity. He is a think-different character who practices what he preaches, and rather than just lofty, academic lectures to get his point across, he’s got his sleeves rolled up, his face sunburnt, and dirt under his nails. Like a lot of so-called environmentalists, his concern is humanity, our kids, our kids’ kids, but with him, it’s far more than just words. He’s trying to come up with mostly compromise-free ways of addressing the concerns he has. He’s not saying “stop using electricity!” or “there’s no water, panic, panic!” When he identifies electricity as an issue for the future, he works to create his own solution and creates housing that both creates its own power and also requires less. If water’s the concern, he attempts to address it by creating built-in caching systems that lead to complete independence from municipal connections. He envisions a world where housing not only has a lower environmental footprint, but could actually have a reverse footprint – surplus energy output, home-grown food, impactful use of materials that need to be recycled anyway. Taos, New Mexico gets something like 14″ per year in annual rainfall, and if a house up there can cache enough water to be independent of municipal systems, there are pretty big chunks of the rest of the world that could pull it off, too. Taos can be -13F in the winter, and an Earthship, with no HVAC systems, maintain a constant interior temperature in the 70s just using construction techniques and windows. It’s hard to watch the presentation without occasionally thinking something along the lines of, “Why wouldn’t you do this?” (Much of the movie is spent addressing this; fighting The Man to get one built is a bigger challenge than many of us would bite off. But that might be the only obvious obstacle.)
The movie is inspiring, not in a polarizing “liberal” or “greenie” way. I’d be lying to avoid mentioning that it hits some of those buttons, but it’s the spirit of the movie that really moved me, the independence, free will, celebration of the individual, the pit bull determination, the brazen balls to fight the system when someone believes the system is wrong.
The houses are amazing, Mike Reynolds is a genuine character, and the hope that the presentation instills is invigorating. I know from actually being in one of the Earthship communities up there that there’s an almost giddy naughtiness in the designs – you look a some eccentric spiral or a wall with blue wine bottles in it or a semicircular building shape, and you wonder, “Can you really do that? Is that OK?” Between this movie, my own research, and sampling the real deal firsthand, I know I’d love to live in one of his houses. The film is far from a thinly-masked marketing tool for his company, it’s a film that leaves the viewer fired up to want to make a difference. Somehow. In one’s own way. The feeling you get when you see some of the eccentric spires and rounded walls and blue-wine-bottle inlays is, “Wow… Can you do that? Is that OK? Can you get away with that?” Our ingrained conformity goes deeper than we realize, and seeing someone refuse it provides a strange and uncommon thrill, and knowing you could take part in the refusal – if you wanted to – is even better.
I’m left with the feeling that I’d never force someone else to build or live in housing like his, but I think it’s tragic that more people don’t have the option to because of archaic and inflexible building codes. Or simply because too few people even know to consider them as an option. Ultimately, it’s about expanding our choices, and protecting our freedom to make them. Regardless of your personal stance on global climate change, manmade or otherwise, it’s hard to argue with the idea of letting people be free to live as they choose.
I’ve got a new hero. A highly recommended documentary.