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What are Earthships? Sustainable Architecture - #UNLITTER

Written by Tessa Whitby - @UNLITTER Team

It’s no secret that conventional construction industry infrastructures contribute to a long list of negative environmental impacts including deforestation, the disruption of natural land and habitats, the use of fossil fuels, as well as further pollution. What if there was an alternative way to build affordable houses and communities that work with nature to meet basic human needs? Is there a way that those housing and building designs could incorporate recycled materials and also be fully sustainable? In the desert of Taos, New Mexico, Mike Reynolds has an answer. Earthships are radically sustainable buildings, using advanced biotecture tactics and designs that take the meaning of #UNLITTER to a new level.

Earthship designs first came about in the 1970s but have truly attained perfection in the last decade or so. What started as a simple dream to sustainably live #offgrid has been growing into a small revolution in recent years through the vision of Earthship founder Mike Reynolds and his many students and partners around the globe. The growing academy programs offer unique educational opportunities to anyone strong-willed enough to invest time and work into eco-construction systems that could entirely transform the way communities are built. For those who question that such a sustainable dream is even possible and want to witness it with their own eyes, many of these bio-structures are even available for eco-tourist, nightly rentals.

Earthship Visitor Center - Image from
Earthship Visitor Center- Image provided by

So, what is an Earthship?

Whereas houses are structures independently powered using fossil fuels, expensively maintained, and continuously renovated to withstand the effects of nature over time, an Earthship is more like a living, self-sufficient “vessel.” There are six main principles of sustainability that every Earthship design must incorporate:

  • Water Harvesting

  • Contained Sewage

  • Thermal Mass/ Thermal Cooling and Heating

  • Building with Recycled and Natural Materials

  • Solar and Wind Electricity

  • Food Production

With entire walls and foundations built from recycled tires, bottles, cans, and other recycled materials, Earthship eco-construction designs combine repurposed trash with natural materials to support a completely self-sufficient system. These vessels have the capacity to generate their own electricity, heat and even catch rainwater to be filtered and used for multiple jobs. By using a rain-catching roof system that captures, filters, and recycles water. It is possible to use the same water to shower, flush the toilet, and also feed plants before it’s no longer usable.

Diagram of Earthship Energy and Water Systems - Image from @earthship Instagram account
Earthship Energy System - Image from @earthshhip Instagram account.

How do Earthships use Biotecture?

The term biotecture can be defined as architecture that uses living plants and other organic materials as a crucial part of the design of buildings. The food production aspect of Earthships can actually take up more space in a structure than living space. This allows for year-round produce supply for residents and is an integral part of the water filtration, cooling, and heating systems. Every system in the Earthship structure works together to reuse and circulate water and energy at a cost-efficient and environmentally safe level.

The end goal is to have a fully self-sufficient house that provides nutrient-rich produce and is entirely supported by sustainable systems that operate on renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Biotecture at this level of functionality could mean no fossil fuels, no utility bills, and a year-round supply of local organic fresh food even in harsh winters and poor conditions. Using tires, cans, glass bottles, and other recycled materials alongside natural materials allows us the opportunity to #UNLITTER our trash in a way that might even outlast conventional building materials.

How can Biotecture be better than conventional infrastructure methods?

Below, you will find a list of mission objectives found directly on the Earthship website. These goals set an example of exactly how biotecture methods and designs can offer more functionally sustainable benefits than the conventional infrastructure methods, which we now recognize as destructive to the environment. If a sustainable future is to become a reality, supporting sustainable designs that embrace a symbiotic relationship with the environment and renewable energy is essential to consider as we reshape conventional industries.

  • To reduce the economic and institutional barriers between humans and their habitat.

  • To reverse the overall negative effect that conventional human housing has on this planet.

  • To create a less stressful plane of existence for humans in an effort to reduce the stress that they in turn place on the planet and each other.

  • To interface economics and ecology in a way that immediately and tangibly affects current pressing problems with life on earth.

  • To provide a direction for those who want to live in peace with each other and their environment.

  • To empower individuals with the unarguable forces of nature as opposed to incapacitating them with the smothering forces of politics and bureaucracy.

  • To find & distribute the appropriate soil from which the flower of humanity can blossom.

  • To evolve humanity into an earthen harmony already exemplified by more evolved structures such as plants, animals, and water.

Where to learn more about Earthship Academy and Disaster Relief Projects:

The headquarters for Earthship Academy is located in the desert of Taos, New Mexico. The academy offers both in-person and online programs. The online academy is still relatively new since being made available in October 2019, but it provides the same coursework as the in-person academy sessions. For those who cannot travel to an in-person session, the online academy offers the same content with three months to complete the program and additional field study program options.

Earthship also aims to use these designs and methods to build sustainable housing in communities and countries that have been disproportionately affected by natural disasters and social inequities. Most recently, they have successfully finished a project in Aguada, Puerto Rico, and there are not any upcoming projects that are specifically for disaster relief. The Earthship Haiti project and Puerto Rico school project are ongoing humanitarian projects and are not related to any specific disasters.

During such uncertain times amidst the climate crisis, programs like this are vital to low-income communities in natural disaster zones. Sustainable housing options that can endure problems presented by harsh weather conditions and also offer food production can help bring a new way of life to communities in need. Any questions regarding a disaster relief project should be posed to Earthship’s sister non-profit organization, Biotecture Planet Earth:

For those who are passionate about sustainability and enjoy getting their hands dirty, Earthship programs are a perfect opportunity to dive deeper into training practices that tackle these social and environmental issues head-on.

Earthship Academy Build Site- Image from
Earthship Academy - Image provided

Can we reshape the future through Renewable Energy and Sustainable Eco-construction?

Our carbon footprint is only increasing as we resume using the same conventional practices that originally brought about the climate crisis. It is no longer a question of how we can afford to do this, but rather a fact that we can’t afford not to. What we should be asking is - what is really stopping us from making eco-construction and biotecture methods the norm for building infrastructure? Restructuring our systems to use more sustainable resources and practices is one mission with its own set of factors. Still, there is also the fact we have to figure out what to do with all of the synthetic waste products that we have already created. Reusing these materials in combination with natural materials to build sustainable houses seems like a “no-brainer.”

As we continue to explore new ways to apply renewable energy in our everyday routines, how we continue to build houses and communities, even entire cities should aim toward new sustainable goals that facilitate a functional future for society as a whole. As we restructure conventional systems, we need to figure out ways to make these alternative options the main priority and the new gold standard.

Eco-construction organizations like Earthship have the power to rebuild homes in a self-sufficient and sustainable way that will reshape communities. Using recycled materials to build self-sustainable structures powered by renewable energy sources is the ultimate example of sustainable designs that #UNLITTER.

Earthship bottles and cans foundation - Image from
Image provided from

Additional Sources:

(Earthship Eco-Construction Images provided directly from Earthship websites and social media) - Earthship 101 Video

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