In December 2020, on one of my first world tours since the pandemic hit nearly a year ago, my partner and I headed to Taos, New Mexico, to visit the Greater Earth World Group. Since I had spent time in New Mexico in the 1990s and had anthropology friends who did ethnographic fieldwork within the New Age communities of Taos, I was familiar with land ships but had not seen them up close. We figured it was a very coronavirus safe way to take a short vacation, so we set out on our adventure.
What is an earth ship? According to the website of Earthship Global, the group that operates the Earthship community in Taos, including our rental, an Earthship is: “A type of home built using natural and recycled materials with energy conservation in mind. Designed to produce water and electricity and food for their own use.” Land ships have six basic design principles, “all of which make use of natural phenomena found on Earth”:
Building with natural and repurposed materials
Thermal/solar heating and cooling
Solar and wind electricity
Containing wastewater treatment
The concept and design principles for the land ships and land community of Taos Earthship were conceived by architect Michael Reynolds, who came to Taos in 1969 after graduating from architecture school. Earthship Global describes the beginning of Earthship movement:
Inspired by television news stories about the problem of garbage and the lack of affordable housing, Michael created “Can Stone” out of discarded steel and tin cans. Ten empty cans, four flat and six not flat, were joined together to make a building block.
Early buildings used discarded steel or tin beer cans (this was before recycling existed). These cans were empty and were simply used as free space units to form light and strong concrete walls. These “garbage” homes immediately began getting press coverage even though they weren’t as sophisticated as the land ships of today. All over the world, trash, especially tires, is now widely available and severely harmful to the environment when left in nature.
Over the next decade, designs continually evolved to include thermal mass, passive solar ventilation, and natural ventilation. The homes we now build with frames rammed from the ground are so strong that no foundation is needed, providing load-bearing walls and massive heat storage. Solar glazing along the front of the structure allows the sun to heat floors and walls providing comfortable, stable temperatures indoors without the use of fossil fuels or wood. Operable windows and skylights provide natural ventilation to cool buildings.
There are now about 60 homes that are part of the larger global land community, located outside of Taos, New Mexico. The website describes the community as “the largest off-network legal subsection in the world”. There is space for a total of 130 homes:
Community members own their land, a small fee. There are approximately 60 homes in the community at the moment. Members own lots that range in size from 0.75 acres to 3 acres. More than half of the total land is jointly owned. This 347-acre “green belt” will never be built on. A community is exclusively homes on land. There is a board of directors that implements the Land User Act. The annual community fee is currently $150 for road maintenance and the Community Improvement Fund. Property taxes are assessed by Taos County.
Earthship Global also teaches a variety of workshops on how to build land ships, has a visitor center where you can learn all about land ships, and has a few land ships available for charter if you’re interested in what it’s like to live in one. The land ship we stayed in was incredible. Felt like I was on another planet! They’re literally built out of trash—discarded tires, bottles, and more. It’s absolutely amazing how artistic and creative the designs are and it’s really cool that they are all free standing and capable of generating clean water, clean air, electricity and more, all off the grid. According to the UC Boulder Environmental Center:
Land ships provide their electricity through photovoltaics (the conversion of light into electricity) and wind power. They contain their own sewage and treat it. They fish for water and can even serve as indoor greenhouses to grow food and treat water at the same time.
If you are looking for a great place to stay and learn about ways to live off the grid, I highly recommend going to stay in a land ship!