Earthships of the desert


In New Mexico, David Whitley goes to have a laugh at some weird hippy houses – but comes away with a less cynical view


On closer inspection, it seems that the circular blue and green spots on the walls are made from glass. Or, more specifically, they’re the bottoms of glass bottles. Decorative, surreal and making good use of recyclable materials then.


In all honesty, though, the glass bottles are probably the least weird thing about the homes in the Greater World Community. On a high altitude desert plain, just outside Taos in New Mexico, this initially appears to be an odd-looking hippy commune. But there’s more to it than that – the emphasis is as much on saving money as saving the environment.


The houses aren’t really houses – they’re ‘Earthships’, and the Greater World Community acts as a showcase for them. From here, workers go around the world to construct these weird little homes – some of which look like Gaudi has been let loose on an igloo.


They’re designed for people who want to live sustainably and off-the-grid. Heating and cooling systems are built into the construction, water is reused as many times as it feasibly can be, and a combination of new science and old wisdom is used to make everything work.


The outer walls are done adobe style (clay, sand, straw and water), just as the native Americans in the area have done for centuries. But those walls are made thick to keep the heat in – and the interior insulation is hundreds of old tyres, packed with earth. The theory is that you can find old tyres pretty much everywhere in the world – it’s as close as you’re going to get to a renewable building material.


The sun-facing wall, however, is made of large glass windows – natural lighting at its finest. And behind those windows are all manner of plants, grown using an aquaponic system that requires 90% less water than soil-based gardening. Fish are kept in tanks, their droppings used as fertiliser for the plants. The water for watering those plants? Well that’s channelled from the sinks and showers.


Drinkable water comes from rain and snow, stored in rooftop tanks. Energy comes from sun and wind – notably the solar panels on the roof. And utility bills come in at under $100 a year.


In theory, they can be built anywhere – and Earthships have cropped up all over the world, from France to Honduras.


The disturbing thing is how eminently sensible this all seems. I’d come for a cheap, curious giggle at some weird-looking houses. But unconventional doesn’t necessarily mean stupid. Particularly in areas with plenty of sunshine, this is a practical way of building and running affordable housing. It might not look like anyone’s dream home, but sometimes dreams have to be tempered down for the real world. Strip away the hippy feel, and that’s where these odd-looking homes are grounded.


by David Whitley



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