'Earthships' in the Desert Save Owners Cash

Eco-friendly, energy-efficient 'Earthship' homes are made of garbage.

ByABC News
December 29, 2010, 2:47 PM

Dec. 29, 2010 — -- Out in the desert near Taos, N.M., they're building houses out of garbage.

Using old tires packed with dirt, trashed appliances, and discarded bottles and cans -- the stuff that stays in landfills forever -- architect Mike Reynolds and his crew are turning our trash into solar-powered, self-sustaining, energy-efficient houses.

"It's kind of a machine, not a house," Reynolds said. "And it's a machine that involves biology and physics to make it so that the people can NOT need municipal utilities."

He calls his creations "Earthships." They are off-the-grid wonders of physics -- angled south to catch the sun's rays through solar panels on the roof so they remain naturally cool in summer and warm in winter. No heat or air conditioning required, Reynolds said. Earthships hover at about 70 degrees year-round, even when it's below zero in the high-desert winter.

"You just have to orient it right," Reynolds said. "Admit the sun in the winter, because it's low. And block it in the summer, because it's high."

Touring his "model" home, a three-bedroom, two-bath Earthship which Reynolds calls The Phoenix, he points out that Earthships are comfortable on homeowners' wallets as well.

"The total utility bill of this house would be $100 per year to run the propane for the cook stove," Reynolds said. "That's $100 per year total."

Earthships begin with a foundation of old tires, about one thousand per house, each individually packed solid with dirt so they're firm as bricks. Reynolds said he "contrived" the use of tires just to recycle them at first. "But now, as an architect, engineer, contractor, builder," he adds, "I could not dream up a better way to build. If somebody gave me $30 million to invent the best building block, I'd invent the tire."

The tires are stacked high and cemented with desert mud, interspersed with aluminum cans, to form walls. The recycled cans create an irregular surface to hold the next course of mud, Reynolds said. Walls are then built to form rooms, just like a regular house -- living room, bedrooms, kitchen, and baths. Rainwater is captured and used -- and re-used. What looks like stained glass is actually the bottoms of plastic bottles and cans, added to let in light and give interest to the walls.