While early pandemic headlines across the United States warned of shortages on everything from toilet paper to meat, one group of Americans felt immune to the tumult.
Out on a high desert mesa of northern New Mexico, this group lives off-the-grid in Earth-sheltered “vessels” that capture rainwater, produce energy and even foster indoor plants with runoff water. They settled in the desert back in the 1970s with humble intentions: to build a wholly-sustainable community. But the Earthship residents are now experiencing their moment of fame as many Americans are looking for alternative, less consumptive lifestyles.
“When the news shows water pipes freezing because the power lines have gone down or the high cost of propane for heating and then [queues of people] waiting in line for water, people will inevitably think, This is not that secure,” said Earthship Biotecture founder Michael Reynolds. “While all that was happening, I was walking down my hallway barefoot harvesting tangerines and tomatoes.”
With his shoulder-length long blond hair, twangy American accent, and unfaltering commitment to sustainability, Reynolds is an architect-turned-movement leader. His ultimate goal? Living within the Earth’s bounds.
“We know this is available now. It is not rhetoric, it is not a pie-in-the-sky idea,” said Reynolds. Far from it.
As of late, sustainably-built, off-the-grid shelters are now global, sprouting up everywhere from Asia to the Caribbean. And since a big component of Earthship life is offering sustainable solutions at all price points, house designs are available as part of an app.The academy offers in-person and online classes, teaching sustainable building techniques, concepts and designs; classes range from $1,200 to around $2,700. For example: the Earthships in Taos mesa typically run around $600,000. They are also immensely popular. At time of writing, there is no additional inventory available as each vessel is already booked.
“We know Earth-sheltered living is available now. It is not rhetoric, it is not a pie-in-the-sky idea.”
Every Earthship addresses six basic needs: heating and cooling, solar and electricity, water harvesting, contained sewage treatment, building with natural and recycled materials, and food production.
According to the Earthship Biotecture group, 30% of all energy that is produced globally is used for heating and cooling structures. With that in mind, Earthships are built to maintain a comfortable temperature at any climate, following the principle of surrounding each living space with mass on three sides. There are two basic designs—the classic Earthship suitable for most climates and then a tropically-designed shelter.
It’s a lifestyle that’s becoming increasingly appealing to a growing number of Americans after years of lockdowns. A global survey found that 60% of consumers were interested in creating more sustainable choices following the Covid-19 pandemic. But for those who already call the Mesa—the flat topped, dusty high New Mexico desert where Earthship first settled—home, the climate crisis was the real motivator.
Early Innovators of Earthship Homes
Raising his daughter and son in an Earthship, Yann Yven, 49, first moved to the vessel in 2004 to show his children the effects of individual actions on climate change. “It is important to show your kid that you have to be careful with your electricity and water, and that you can have a nice house and still be happy,” said Yven. “We wanted to tell them that we need to care for the Earth.”
The family moved out only briefly when Yven’s daughter was a teenager as they needed some additional space. Yven’s two-bedroom house has now been upgraded twice since he and his partner first moved into the community in the early 2000s. Among other updates, technological advances in lithium batteries have made off-the-grid life easier than when they first moved out onto the mesa.
“It is important to show your kid that you have to be careful with your electricity and water, and that you can have a nice house and still be happy.”
“Overall it is not very hard to live off-grid,” said Yven, admitting that it can at first be an adjustment to check power and water levels. Now Yven’s house runs on 1.8 kilowatts of power—triple what they were using when they first moved to the mesa. At that time, solar panels were around ten times more expensive than they are now as they were mostly manufactured in Germany or China.
“[Initially] most of my lights were still halogen and they were using a lot of my solar power,” Yven said. “Within the past ten years it’s changed a lot—LED lighting and fixtures. Instead of 20-watt bulbs, now you’re using 2 watts.”
But sustainable living doesn’t start and stop with Earthships. Using the analogy that consumers can buy electric cars that aren’t necessarily Teslas, Yven is quick to emphasize that the pandemic-motivated buyers interested in being part of his community can live off-the-grid without necessarily living in an Earthship.
Not Giving Up Life’s Luxuries
Part of Reynold’s mission is to show that sustainable life doesn’t have to be less than normal.
Originally not interested in “Earth-sheltered living,” Rita Colleen said a large part of her hesitancy about off-the-grid lifestyles was down to misconceptions. She thought: “Who in the world would want to live in the dark surrounded by garbage like a mole?”
Persuaded by her daughter and her husband, Colleen visited the Earthship community while taking their daughter to visit colleges in the area. It was June 2019, and Rita recalls feeling cool in the visitor center vessel despite the heat. She proceeded to test the bathroom: flushing the toilet and turning on the faucet. She was sold.
“It was like someone switched on a light,” recalls Colleen. “If you can live sustainably without hurting the Earth and adding to the problem, then why wouldn’t you? I became absolutely obsessed.”
“If you can live sustainably without hurting the Earth and adding to the problem, then why wouldn’t you? I became absolutely obsessed.”
The next step was for the Colleens to secure a vessel. And so they started following news regarding Earthship listings from their home in Wyoming, finally settling on an older one-bedroom model from 1999 in late March 2020. It took them five minutes from when they saw the advertisement to call their realtor and purchase the vessel.
No Money? No Problem
Another advantage of an off-the-grid lifestyle? No more municipal bills.
Take Yven as an example. When he first moved into an Earthship with his partner, he was stunned at the low cost of running their new home.
“You can leave and take a trip and you don’t have water bills or electricity,” explains Yven, who estimates his only bills are propane and the occasional water fill up, both of which total around $800 annually.
Held together by no more than a common ethos of sustainability and the Earthship rules of architecture, the desert mesa community is composed of all types. All vessel owners can rattle off their houses’ wattage, their battery capabilities and how much water per square inch their roof captures. Like any intentional community, the numbers are a symbol of sorts, a secret code to show that they belong.
“The Earthship is just about being efficient with what you have. You are closer to nature because you are buried in the Earth. You are part of the Earth. There aren’t really limits to what we can do,” said Yven. “At the end of the day, it feels really good.”