Castle Made of Sand

Robert Westbrook Issue: Section:

I grew up in a complicated city with complicated parents under complicated circumstances, which is probably why the simple life has always called me. In the mid-1960s I was living in the East Village when I read an interview with Timothy Leary in the Voice that made a huge impression on my not entirely coherent adolescent mind. Leary suggested that if everyone in New York City dropped acid – if we could only slip a few vats of LSD into the water supply – there would soon be deer grazing on Fifth Avenue and grass growing where streets had been. People make fun of Timothy Leary today; when he died, the media treated itself to a veritable orgy of cynicism. But personally, I’m still on the look-out for those deer on Fifth Avenue. I can’t help thinking of their gentle eyes and how the wind would blow through canyons of silent buildings.

In any case, such was the siren song of my generation: Sail away, sweet sister . . . leave the madness behind! Bye Mom, bye Dad – I leave you to your martinis and split-level houses and many divorces. Just give me an Earthship, and you’ll quickly see my mast disappearing over the horizon.

In the early 1970s I jumped coasts and landed in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In those days, people were heading into the woods by the droves, emptying out of the cities, and it was in rural California that I first saw “hand-made houses” (as we called them then), fantastical architecture for fantastical lives. I had friends who lived in tree houses fifty feet off the ground, fairy tale structures that defied gravity. Others put up teepees, geodesic domes, gypsy wagons, hobbit holes, castles made of driftwood – no rules, no building permits, usually no running water, clothing optional.

Today the hand-made houses are mostly gone. The Flower Children grew up, Ronald Reagan got elected president – twice! – and lovely redwood forests where once you could live for free became hideously expensive. Before you could say Richard Alpert, a person needed money and an actual job in order to live free . . . and what kind of freedom is that? Yet, the dream goes on, evolved for a new time. As long as America remains the citadel of stress, there will be a part of the population eager to exit the grid for happier climes.

Which brings me to Earthships. How to turn trash into art, and live beautifully in the bargain.

I found my Earthship by accident. (Or maybe it was karma, how can I say?) In 1990, my wife, Gail, and I set out from northern California, unhappy with how crowded and expensive everything had become in our paradise by the sea, and on the outskirts of Taos, New Mexico, we found the strangest, cheapest, most weirdly lovely home I’d ever seen. It didn’t even look like a house. It was dug into a berm, partially below ground level, a long shed-like building with a south front face of slanted glass that peered up toward to the sun as eagerly as any flower.

A real estate agent took us to see the house. My first impression was a kind of sci-fi disorientation, as though we had landed on some alien planet. Venus, perhaps. Or Pluto. From the road, we could see three domes covered with sod peeking up from behind the long front face of the living room. The whole thing sat on the high desert at an altitude of 7000 feet with the Sangre de Cristo mountains rising up sharply from the desert floor a few miles away.

We quickly learned that the house had been built almost entirely from recycled material – automobile tires (collected free from the local landfill) and many thousands of empty beer cans (I hesitated to ask where these had come from). The tires had been rammed rigid with earth and stacked like bricks to create the foundation of the house – a strenuous construction process, I was to learn, not for sissies. A single tire properly filled can weigh as much as 300 pounds. The walls were constructed from a honeycomb of beer cans, tiers and tiers of aluminum cans with cement holding everything together. For variety, occasional wine bottles had been placed in the walls in create a translucent effect. The tires and most of the cans were hidden beneath a stucco shell, but you could still make out their rounded, irregular shapes. There was a spontaneous feeling about the entire structure. I imagined the building crew polishing off a bit of cabernet sauvignon at lunch and saying, “Hey, let’s stick the bottle into the wall by the bathroom!”

The outside of the house grabbed one’s attention, but it wasn’t until we walked inside through an arched, hand-made door that we fell in love. The main room – combination living room/kitchen – was long and somewhat narrow with three ramps leading upward to the back bedrooms, domes with skylights on top. There wasn’t a straight line anywhere, not even a hint of something quite so square as a right-angle. The doors were rounded, the rear windows were portholes, the bathtub was free-form cement with the water coming out from a spout hidden beneath a rock. The floor was flagstone, the inner walls adobe. Everywhere you looked, there was natural wood – actual trees stripped of bark holding up the roof. The ceiling was more wood still – the huge trunks of 28 trees overhead that acted as “vigas,” a traditional element of Southwest design. The vigas supported a herring-bone pattern of “latillas,” rough-cut wood that had been laid-out with meticulous detail.

A Ship In Need

A ship in need

A Ship Indeed

A ship indeed

And then there was the quality of light. When we first saw the house, the front face was part glass, part translucent plastic – today it is all double-paned glass, floor to ceiling, with insulated curtains that can be lowered or raised. But even then, the light was astounding – pervasive light, cheerful light, the kind of light that artists seek.

However, art isn’t entirely the purpose of the south-facing façade but rather heat. Taos is cold in the winter, many nights drop down well below zero, and the design allows the sun to heat the house with a minimum of utility bills. The glass front is only part of how the passive solar works; thermal mass is the other component. Basically, the sun enters through the windows and heats the rear adobe wall and the rammed-earth tires behind the adobe; in theory, all this mass, combined with thick insulation on the roof, will keep the house warm in winter without any other source of heat – no bills to pay. In practice, we tend to use our fireplace on cold nights, and if we get a winter storm lasting several days, we start putting on electric heaters in the rear bedrooms and break out heavy sweaters. New Mexico, of course, is a land of sunlight, even in the winter, and as long as the sun appears every few days or so we’re toasty. I often walk about indoors in shorts and a T-shirt when there’s snow on the ground.

In the summer, the sun needs to be kept out, and this is achieved with thermal curtains that close off the front face. There are also side windows for ventilation. The three bedrooms in the rear – the domes – have so much insulation, including several feet of sod on the outside, that they remain pretty much the same temperature all year round, comfortably cool.

Such was my first encounter with an Earthship, the architectural brain child of Michael Reynolds, a mad genius who has been gathering renown and controversy over a career spanning more than three decades. I was impressed. A home that self-heats, rooms glowing with light and a kind of child-like enthusiasm . . . arched doorways, adobe, rough timber, the texture of flagstone on your bare feet . . . either you fall in love with a house like this immediately, or it’s not for you at all. Gail and I fell in love.

And then there was the price. In 1990, this pretty little house with two and a half acres of land and a splendid view of the mountains (world-class skiing forty minutes away), was for sale for $55,000.

That was another part of Mike Reynold’s mad dream: volks homes, inexpensive housing for discerning people
Yes, we said. Yes, yes, yes.
We gladly made the move from California.

Taos has changed since 1990. People like Julia Roberts and Donald Rumsfeld have second homes here now, and our land alone is worth more than the original $55,000.
These days, if you want cheap, Michigan is a better bet than New Mexico . . .
and maybe Detroit will be the next bohemian destination, who can say.

Mike Reynolds went on from his early experiments with houses like ours, to build all sorts of fantastical structures. Our Earthship is on the grid – we buy electricity from our local co-op and every few months a propane truck pulls up to fill our tank. Today newer Mike Reynolds homes are mostly off the grid, with solar panels to provide electricity and water collection systems on the roof. Somewhere along the line, Mike gave up his dream of inexpensive volks homes – he built a few multi-million dollar Earthships for actors like Dennis Weaver and Keith Carradine, and even his simpler projects will set owners back a couple of hundred thousand.

Over the years, Mike Reynolds has added many experimental elements to his basic design. Some work, some don’t – Mike has been sued a few times by unhappy owners, and at one point he lost his New Mexico license to practice architecture (he has it back now). I’ve seen Earthships where the water collection systems on the roof filter down into fish ponds located in the living room. The idea is you can stock your pond with tilapia (the only fish that does well in a living room) and simply reach for your net whenever you’re in the mood for fish and chips. Then you can shit out your waste into a composting toilet (if you will excuse the graphic image) where a specially designed Mike Reynolds “shit fryer” will turn your dinner into fertilizer for the vegetable garden, creating a self-enclosed food chain. (The more you shit, the more you eat . . . and vice versa.)

Today there are several Earthship communities surrounding Taos, including Greater World, which is the largest and most successful. Earthships have also been built in Colorado, Europe, and South America. The basic idea – thermal mass, recycled materials, a south-facing front of glass – has led to many variations on the theme, builders who have taken Mike’s original concept in new directions. Right now, straw-bale houses are more popular than Earthships because they are easier to build and avoid the need for labor-intensive earth-filled tires.
Who knows what’s next. Solar igloos? Venutian yurts? Maybe a nice hedonistic hogan for two.
However you go, may the sun shine down upon you, clean and warm and free.
Robert Westbrook


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