Overnight in an Earthship: Sustainable Voyage in Taos

The windows on the front of the house let light and heat into the house.
The front of the earthship is made entirely of windows to let sunlight and heat into the house. Photo by Sterling Stowe.

Welcome to the Earthship

It’s the beginning of December and there is a deep chill in the air. While it has been an unusually warm year with low precipitation in the Taos region, right now there is snow on the ground and the below-freezing air bites at your face.

After spending most of the day in a well-heated car, the cold felt paralyzing when my girlfriend and I made our way to check in at the Earthship Biotecture Visitor Center. I was checking into their newest model, the Picuris Earthship, named after the nearby Picuris Pueblo, which like the rest of the Earthships in the community was devoid of a heating system inside.

Tours are available at the visitor center
Self-guided, educational tours are available at the visitor center. Photo by Sterling Stowe.

Earthships are not your traditional house. They do not have power lines connecting them to the outside power grid. The water isn’t piped in from a distant facility and the waste water isn’t well, wasted.

The Earthship community, or Greater World Community as it is formally called, is just outside of Taos, New Mexico. This “experimental” community is the work of architect Michael Reynolds who has pushed the envelope on sustainable living. It is home to permanent residents as well as travelers who can rent an Earthship and experience what it’s like to live off the energy of the sun.

Earthship construction utilizes cans and bottles as materials to build these unique structures.
Earthship construction utilizes cans and bottles as materials to build these unique structures. Photo by Sterling Stowe.

I wasn’t worried about running out of water over the weekend and I assumed that the solar panels would convert enough sunlight to keep my phone and laptop charged. I did wonder though, if there would be enough blankets to keep me warm. I heard that temperatures in the area had gone as low as -35 F, and while the forecast only showed it dropping into the low teens, I still wondered how I could possibly stay warm.

After checking in, we made our way down to the Picuris Earthship with Ryan Halpin, our guide who is building his own “Bachelorship”. He gave us a tour and showed us how to use the ship during our stay. He opened the front door and lead us into the garage where, unknown to me at the time, a little pond with fish was cleaning water that had previously been used in the house.

The greenhouse in the earthship is multifunctional. It heats the house, filters water, provides food and is a stunning view.
The multifunctional earthship greenhouse heats the house, filters gray water, provides food and offers a stunning view. Photo by Sterling Stowe.

My fears of freezing were immediately quelled as we made our way into the main part of the house. A long hallway stretched out spanning the entire front of the house. The wall to the outside was made entirely of glass and let light from outside shine in turning the hallway into a long greenhouse. Built-in planters snaked along the wall, filled with a variety of plants. A small banana tree stuck out as an impressive feat for the semi-arid climate in Taos.

The check-in guide brought us through all the rooms in the house, showing us how we could open vents from the main rooms to the greenhouse hallway to heat up the house. Additional vents that led out through the back wall and earth to the outside could be opened to cool the house, a feature that we wouldn’t likely need in December, but would be useful in July.

Ryan showed us the water board that filtered the rain water to different levels according to how it would be used. There was one filter that purified the water to drinking standards and another filter that purified it to showering and washing standards. Each sink in the house was equipped with two faucets, one for drinking and another for washing your hands or doing the dishes.

Stained glass lets light from the green house into the bathroom, it's not a bad view either.
Stained glass lets light from the green house into the master bathroom, it’s not a bad view either. Photo by Gabriela Rodriguez.

The water that flushes down the toilet isn’t the filtered rain water. Instead, water that has already been used at the sink runs through a purifying system of the plants in the greenhouse. Unlike a typical house, an Earthship isn’t flushing perfectly good drinking water down the toilet.

Throughout the house, there are lights just like a normal house, though during the day you hardly need to flip a switch because so much light is let in from outside. The solar panels on the roof collect the light from the sun and convert it into energy to be used in the house. The energy is stored into a battery bank in the garage. All appliances in the house are energy efficient and they ask guests to not use hair-dryers and other energy hungry devices.

As we finished our tour of the Earthship, I was awestruck with how innovative this building was. One, it produces all the water and electricity needed to live comfortably. Two, it provides a source of home-grown foods. Best of all, it does all this discreetly. If I hadn’t been told about all its functions, I would have thought it was just a fancy house with a greenhouse attached. It combines utility and function into an elegant and sustainable atmosphere.

I spent the rest of the evening saying, at an annoying frequency, “I can’t believe how incredible this place is.”

I caught the sunrise from the back patio of the earthship
I woke up early to catch the sunrise from the back patio of the earth ship. Photo by Sterling Stowe.

The next morning, we took advantage of not being in a hotel and made breakfast on the range in the Earthship. Our home-cooked bacon and egg breakfast was cooked with one of the few things the Earthship didn’t directly provide us with – gas. Though only a small amount of gas is used in cooking and it’s nothing compared to what a house would use for heat, it is worth noting that it still uses a small amount.

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