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Earthships: Future-proof buildings

  • Story Highlights
  • Self-sustaining Earthships brainchild of "biotect" Michael Reynolds
  • All have own power supply and water systems
  • Can be built anywhere in the world
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By Dean Irvine for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Half buried in the dry, red earth of New Mexico, are a series of buildings, unconventional in appearance and radical in design. They're Earthships -- sustainable, self-sufficient homes -- and the 50 or so that are scattered outside the New Mexico town of Taos constitute the Earthship world community.

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Recycled materials, radical ideas: Earthships offer a vision of sustainable living.

Earthships are the brainchild of Michael Reynolds, a motorcycle-riding son of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s and 1970's. Having trained as an architect in Cincinnati he moved to New Mexico to experiment with his designs, ride motorcycles and avoid the Vietnam War.

From building houses using aluminum cans in the 1970's to the state-of-the-art Earthships currently being built around the world, Reynolds has devoted his life to building self-sufficient homes. It's been an evolutionary process.

Steel and aluminum cans, tires and other reclaimed materials are all used in Earthships, but they are far from primitive frontier cabins. Rather they are self-sufficient, off-grid homes that provide their own water, power and heating.

Long time residents of Taos, Tony Marvin and his partner Katy Grabel are recent converts to Earthships, which seem to be a way or life as much as a place to live.

"Having been here for more than 18 months now, it really has exceeded all our expectations. It really is quite an art form, and we're not roughing it by any means. Reports are that it is the best functioning Earthship to date utilizing all the latest technology," says Marvin.

Self-sufficiency at heart

All Earthships are built around a few core concepts.

Water is collected from rain or snowfall and stored in large underground cisterns. It is then used a number of times, first for bathing or washing. It is then recycled into "gray" water, which is used to flush toilets before being taken out of the internal water system as "black" water. It is then treated and used to water the Earthship's plants.

As Michael Reynolds says: "If water is falling from the sky, and it is on the majority of the plant, it's crazy not to catch it."

Power is supplied by solar panels and wind turbines and even in areas where sunlight is more likely to be caught through overcast skies, modern photovoltaic technology means that they can still be effective enough to make any Earthship anywhere in the world self-sufficient.

"It sounds sophisticated and it is, but really it is the profound simplicity of Earthships that means it really doesn't take much for an average person to figure out how to work it and even build it themselves," says Marvin.

"I'd known Michael Reynolds for a long time. I'd seen his early examples and was unsure of them at first, but a few years ago when we were in process of retooling our lives and looking for a new place to live, we saw this Earthship and were completely blown away by it.

"There really was nothing as beautiful in Taos at this price. We also really chose to live here to participate in the concept of Earthships -- to live off-grid and be self-sufficient.

"It's like in the olden days of the 1960's -- the drop out, hippie thing of not wanting to be dependent on huge energy companies. That ethos is still there, but now it's also about conservation. And it's not just a worthy project. People with lots of money are looking at buying them," says Marvin.

Experiments and obstacles

If Earthships are now finding favor among people who wouldn't normally adhere to a conservation or alternative lifestyle ethos, they haven't had a smooth ride.

Reynolds' architecture license was revoked in the early days of his experiments building Earthship -- radical ideas of running sewage through the front room fell foul of the authorities -- and he recently battled for three years to pass a law in New Mexico that allows more research into sustainable building projects.

At it's most basic, Earthships can be simple shelters with their own water supply. Basic but essential, especially in the aftermath of natural disasters, where Reynolds has built Earthships on the Andaman Islands after the Tsunami in 2004 and New Orleans after the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina.

Kirsten Jacobsen has spent 14 years working with Reynolds and says that a completed system is possible within six weeks. With new Earthships planned across the world, a 16-unit project is scheduled to be built in Brighton, England, the hope is that whole towns are built from Earthships.

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"As much as idealism there really is a pragmatism to Earthships. Even people working within the energy industry acknowledge that we have to adapt and need to look at decentralized systems in the future," said Jacobsen.

"It's been an evolutionary process. The systems used in Earthships are now more exacting and more reliable than ever before, so more energy can be put into creating beautiful interiors. I'd say were at the apex of what Michael's been working towards," says Marvin. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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