COVID-19 is causing dense cities to lose their luster. People are rethinking their lifestyles. Some are fleeing cities for the suburbs, and others are taking up gardening. The majority have stopped driving as they stay close to home. Across the board, the pandemic is forcing people to consider a more self-sufficient future. Living off the grid and building a self-sustaining home suddenly doesn’t seem so unreasonable.
Earthships are made of adobe, cement, and recycled materials such as glass bottles, dirt-packed tires, and beer cans. They tend to be too cool in winter and too warm in summer, but at the low price they cost to build – many residents are prepared to suffer and think of their bank account.
These self-sustaining homes generate their own solar-fueled electricity, collect rainwater, and process sewage. They also support food growth through mini-hydroponic planters and attached greenhouses.
The dwellings—which are highly labor-intensive to create and can be finished by a small team in about 12 weeks. They are all from the same basic template, which has three tiers: the economy model, the standard model (most popular), and a luxury version. Depending on availability beer cans can be used to build, instead of trees -when enough beer cans are being thrown away.
While the cost varies depending on the model and the location, it tends to run between $180 and $250 a square foot; a recent two-bed, one-bath model cost about $300,000 for materials and labor. That is assuming most of the labor is free.
There are currently Earthships on every continent, in more than 40 countries. His firm has built over 1,000 homes themselves, and thousands more have been built by his disciples. These structures are found most densely in New Mexico, although Reynolds’s team has plans to install a split-level version on top of a six-story tower in New York City’s Lower East Side. (Initial designs were well received on the heels of Hurricane Sandy, but construction has yet to begin.)
Though these self-sustaining shelters aren’t exactly mainstream, the coronavirus pandemic is highlighting their value. People in Earthships don’t have to pay for heating and cooling. They don’t have to pay electric bills. They don’t have to pay for garbage pickup, a sewage bill, a water bill, and they are growing a lot of food.
It’s a feeling of self-actualized freedom that Rubén Cortés wanted to provide for residents of the Philippine island of Leyte following the 2014 typhoon. “The rural communities had been heavily affected, and because of their size, nobody was talking about them. Not a single house was standing after the typhoon” says Cortés, cofounder and director of Build for Tomorrow, a sustainable building initiative. Beyond the homes, food supply was eradicated too, so Cortés partnered with Reynolds to build an Earthship.
“The idea was to build a model building, while also involving the local community to make sure they would learn how they could build these kinds of things with as little financial resources as possible,” Cortés says. “The whole design brief was using recyclable or locally available materials. . . . We were thinking how can we make this more replicable for the community?” But since Cortés and Reynolds were only in the Philippines temporarily, they weren’t able to follow up with the project on the ground. Though the model home was built and utilized by the community, no further Earthships were built.
Part of the difficulty with Earthships, unfortunately, is that they’re difficult to scale up. Sustainable, residential architecture, on a macro level, requires massive amounts of money, manual labor, and time. The coronavirus has forced hundreds of thousands of people to work from home. But still many don’t have the job flexibility to live outside of cities, off the grid.
Moving toward self-sustaining buildings will require a fundamental shift in the architecture industry. Also, government has to buy-in and start a large-scale cultural movement toward supporting and funding accessible housing, using natural resources, and living more simply. Until then, Earthships will continue to be built one-by-one, on an individual basis.
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