A New Generation of Earthship Owners Looks for Climate Solutions in the Past

Archetypes of 1970s utopian living, these self-determining homes in the desert have been embraced by a younger cohort eager to create a more sustainable future.

Highway 64 is a lonely, two-lane blacktop that runs east-west in northern New Mexico, spanning the Taos Plateau, part of the Rio Grande rift. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise in the east. The sky is vast. After the road crosses the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge heading west, the river, a slender green ribbon 650 feet below, bends north, and they come into view: curiosities half-hidden in hillsides, reminiscent of hobbit holes, Tatooine caves, or ancient cliff dwellings—earthships. These fanciful, rustic structures embody contradiction. They’re bona fide roadside attractions, cultural icons among the competitive real estate of Taos, a preeminent tourist town, yet they are also countercultural and highly individualistic, radical spaces that reimagine almost every part of contemporary life.

Built by Earthship Biotecture founder Michael Reynolds and his team in 2009, an earthship outside Taos, New Mexico, is the shared part-time home of friends Trent Wolbe, Izzy Tang, and Steve Jewett, who purchased it in 2021.

Built by Earthship Biotecture founder Michael Reynolds and his team in 2009, an earthship outside Taos, New Mexico, is the shared part-time home of friends Trent Wolbe, Izzy Tang, and Steve Jewett, who purchased it in 2021.

Earthships are self-contained and self-sufficient homes, bearing whimsical, curved adobe facades and tall, slanted windows. Straight lines and right angles are almost nonexistent because of the materials’ non-standardized nature, and at the right time of day, passersby are dazzled by a chimera of reflecting glass. Though all earthships follow a basic formula, no two are exactly alike. They’re off-grid, proudly iconoclastic.

Long before "sustainable design" was a buzz phrase, treading lightly was baked into earthship construction, from harvesting rainwater and snowmelt to processing blackwater and gray water to energy production via solar panels. Building and maintenance techniques are intentionally simple so that they can be taught and learned by laypeople. Recycled materials—trash—serve as building blocks. Dirt is sledgehammered into old tires, which are stacked to form the outer, load-bearing structure; glass bottles, suspended in grout and concrete, become translucent, honeycombed walls. 

For the owners, the pull of the place has been unexpected. "I’ve become a total evangelist, and so have all my friends," says Izzy. "It’s one of our collective favorite places in the world to be. That was a happy surprise. I didn’t know that was going to happen."

For the owners, the pull of the place has been unexpected. "I’ve become a total evangelist, and so have all my friends," says Izzy. "It’s one of our collective favorite places in the world to be. That was a happy surprise. I didn’t know that was going to happen."

Dwellings are dug into the land for natural insulation. (Tubes run through a 30-foot earth berm behind the house; when it’s hot, opening a window or skylight at the front of the earthship creates a simple convection that draws air through the ground and into the rooms, quickly cooling the home.) In the northern hemisphere, earthships face south to take advantage of passive solar gain and rely on a greenhouse buffer zone in front for interior climate control and an auxiliary food source. Gardens can be wonderfully lush and host plants—like banana trees and blueberry bushes—that would otherwise struggle in an arid, high-desert environment.

The first earthships were made in the early 1970s by Michael Reynolds, an architect from the Midwest who started building houses out of cans in an unpopulated area on the mesa west of Taos—the city and the Pueblo, the latter of which is the oldest continually inhabited settlement in the United States. Reynolds, the subject of a 2007 documentary, Garbage Warrior, is a large and polarizing figure in and outside the community. He clashed with county officials over land use and permitting in the 1990s, and last year, a former student and staffer at his educational apparatus, Earthship Biotecture, accused Reynolds of sexual assault in a series of blogs and Instagram posts. (Reynolds has denied the accusations.)

Cracked timber beams run the width of the house. These beams, called vigas, are typical of Southwestern adobe construction.

Cracked timber beams run the width of the house. These beams, called vigas, are typical of Southwestern adobe construction.

Perhaps improbably, structures once known primarily for housing retired hippies sit at the intersection of the most urgent challenges of our time: adaptation to a changing climate; the absorption of lessons from the past while the retrograde is jettisoned; learning to live well with less.

To explore these challenges, Dwell spoke to friends and business partners Steve Jewett, Izzy Tang, and Trent Wolbe, part of a new generation of earthship owners looking to take the niche interest in these dwellings to a new level. (Wolbe is a graduate of the Earthship Academy, a monthlong course during which participants learn sustainable building techniques.) The trio bought an earthship in 2021 as an experiment in entrepreneurship, disconnecting, and shifting narratives about abundance and scarcity via "a more meaningful vacation home." (Like many earthship owners, they visit throughout the year and rent out the space when they aren’t there.)

Trent, Izzy, Steve, and Jess (from left) walk the dirt road that adjoins their property.

Trent, Izzy, Steve, and Jess (from left) walk the dirt road that adjoins their property.

The three talk about one day living on the mesa full-time to close the gap between real-world life and earthship life until they are one and the same. Our conversation, which took place via video chat and email, has been edited for clarity.

Steve Jewett: The fundamental thing earthships and pueblo-style architecture have in common is they’re both built with natural materials that are relatively cheap and local. The catch is you need a community to get the work done—it’s not something that two normal contractors can slap together themselves in any realistic or sensible amount of time. Earthships are hard to come by because they’re built mostly by the experts of the community, in conjunction with teams that are learning how to do it. I don’t think there’s a single one that was built by a normal construction company. In that way, they’re outside the typical capitalist home-building scape. You can’t just pop out 10 of them at scale. We took the shortcut—we bought. That doesn’t mean we won’t build.

Trent Wolbe: We never met them, but we bought from a California couple. There was a young ski instructor dude living there as a rental. It wasn’t in terrible shape, but his cat had been peeing in all the planters, and it was dorm-like. We paid $396,000. The agent grew up in an earthship and owns a few rentals. The process was fucking insane. First, there are no real earthship inspectors. The bank inspection took a zillion years, and so did the title work. We had to bend over backwards to give the bank so many different documents and had to explain to them so many times what the deal was with this place. And then getting insurance was another story.

We decided to buy rather than build because it was easier. We felt like we were getting a good deal, and all of us are older, have kids/dogs/farms not in Taos. I spent some time building [earthships] when I came out for the academy in 2012 and didn’t want to go through the rigmarole of dealing with Mike [Reynolds], his crew, two-plus-year timelines, and all of that. The carbon/waste footprint of buying versus building new is way better, even when the house is made of trash. There’s this concept of materiality: You have to reapply adobe consistently. Considering maintenance is a part of every day, you have to have somebody there using the systems to make it a functioning ecosystem. If it’s hot outside and cool inside, you want to let the outside in. You’re constantly operating doors, windows. If it rains, you better make sure you close all your skylights. You gotta pay attention to what’s happening around you in a way that you don’t in a conventional house.

Steve’s wife, Jess Ludwicki, who helped with the interior design, plays guitar in the living area. "Probably Fleetwood Mac," says Trent. "RIP Christine McVie." The walls in the earthship are adobe, and the floors are poured concrete with a linseed oil finish.

Steve’s wife, Jess Ludwicki, who helped with the interior design, plays guitar in the living area. "Probably Fleetwood Mac," says Trent. "RIP Christine McVie." The walls in the earthship are adobe, and the floors are poured concrete with a linseed oil finish.

Izzy Tang: In a way, that’s enjoyable.

TW: It’s sort of the point, yeah. You’re gonna spend a lot more time dealing with your garden because it’s inside your house. And you’re gonna spend more time dealing with bugs because of the gardens. And none of those things are bad! They’re forcing functions, to help people get closer to the land.

IT: I’ve been there when it was minus 14 degrees in January with a bunch of my city friends; we’re all obsessed with it. Because it’s so comfortable—not just in the temperature, but it feels like you’re in nature—it’s so very perfect as a setting. [In the city] I sometimes feel at odds with the natural world. [At the earthship] you can feel the peace. It sounds really woo-woo, but it’s true: You’re not in tension with what’s around you.

SJ: When I was there for three weeks, I spent way more time inside the house than I would normally, because it’s so comfortable and quiet. I spent more time reading or playing guitar because I had the mental space. When I returned home after three weeks of peaceful, introspective time, I heard my heat kick on. [Mimes a jolt.] My farmhouse in New York is beautiful, but all of a sudden, everything felt drafty, loud. The earthship might be the best house I’ve ever been in. It creates a feeling that’s impossible to capture in a traditional home.

A large greenhouse is sandwiched between two rows of south-facing windows. "We primarily grow a massive brassica," says Steve. "We can pull from it anytime for a kale-like green to add to dishes." They also grow lemons, aloe, rosemary, and thyme and plan to add more edibles soon.

A large greenhouse is sandwiched between two rows of south-facing windows. "We primarily grow a massive brassica," says Steve. "We can pull from it anytime for a kale-like green to add to dishes." They also grow lemons, aloe, rosemary, and thyme and plan to add more edibles soon.

TW: We’ve had water delivered two or three times [this year]. We could have gotten that down to one if we’d had a bigger truck.

It’s just gonna get drier in the Southwest. We built a great outdoor irrigation system using our gray water, and we had a freak summer that I’ll chalk up to Taos vortex energy. It was great. We can’t depend on that. I still believe that even in a really dry year, you could survive in the earthship. You would shower maybe once a week, and it would be a short shower. But you’d have enough water to drink. You’d have enough water to cook with.

IT: It’s so efficient, the gray water and blackwater system. We use more water than we actually need to.

In the bathroom, a hand-formed mint-green bathtub matches the grout between the tiles. The tub is raised so that exhaust water can drain into the earthship’s gray water system via a passive gravity feed.

In the bathroom, a hand-formed mint-green bathtub matches the grout between the tiles. The tub is raised so that exhaust water can drain into the earthship’s gray water system via a passive gravity feed.

TW: I’ve been looking into source panels. Basically, it’s a condenser, an air conditioner without the air-conditioning, a compressor attached to a solar panel. Spits out a gallon of water a day. Essentially, you’re harvesting water from the air. Not a lot of water. And it’s expensive, the desalination of desert living. But I would love to not have to get water delivered from down the street, from an aquifer that’s already being tapped. It’s a big question. The biggest question.

IT: I don’t think this is an earthship problem; it’s a climate change issue. [We want to] be a part of looking into those solutions and driving the technology. That’s the way to go, versus freaking out and running away.

SJ: I’d rather order water three times a year than order oil to heat my house. Since every earthship faces the same direction and has a massive dirt berm on the back side, the houses can be very close together and yet feel completely private. The thickness of the walls blocks out sound.

In upstate New York, everyone feels like they need five acres in order to be protected from their neighbors, and they can’t be near a busy road or they won’t be able to sleep at night for some reason. There’s a need for total seclusion, and it’s anti-community and inefficient, as far as land use.

"The earthship might be the best house I’ve ever been in. It creates a feeling that’s impossible to capture in a traditional home."

—Steve Jewett, resident

A banana tree sits in a corner of the guest room. "The indoor plants get less light, so we have different constraints for what can be grown inside, especially since we’re not here all the time," says Izzy. "Fortunately, one of our neighbors manages the gardens when we’re not around."

A banana tree sits in a corner of the guest room. "The indoor plants get less light, so we have different constraints for what can be grown inside, especially since we’re not here all the time," says Izzy. "Fortunately, one of our neighbors manages the gardens when we’re not around."

TW: Efficiency of design with the land and orientation in mind for passive HVAC isn’t new. It isn’t technology. It’s been included in Indigenous home design since humans have settled, which makes it harder to sell in a capitalist society. You have to spend way more money up front for a designer, and insulation is expensive to build in. People say, "This housing isn’t affordable," but that’s shortsighted. After the first few years, the money spent designing with the sun in mind will be more than saved by having no heating bill. Water catchment and filtration should be a part of every new home—especially in the Southwest—and every new roof should be capable of harvesting drinkable rainwater instead of the typical Dow petroleum-based shingles that currently dominate. Metal roofs are more expensive, but they last longer, and you can drink water off of them. Every home should be generating and storing its own power with solar PV+ batteries.

My partner and I work in sustainability on the corporate and nonprofit scale. We think there’s potential—once we figure out our business model and break even—that the earthship itself can be a hub for learning. We’d like to eventually offer it as a place [for] mini corporate retreats or smaller nonprofits to use to think about problems in a way that’s more holistic.

The idea of living with less and doing less is anti-American. It’s anti-capitalistic. Most people living in America would say it’s anti-human. I’ll be controversial: We need to do less, as people. We need to stop expanding as quickly as we do. We need to stop treating the earth like both a shopping mall and a trash can. There is another way to do things. It requires fossil fuels to build an earthship, and if you get water trucked in, that requires gas.

Nobody’s under the impression that this is a perfect solution. But it forces you to slow down, to take your environment into account. Even the idea of passive HVAC and orienting your house toward the south, of building things that don’t require subscriptions to either oil or electricity, is so anti-capitalistic and antigrowth. It’s almost shocking to say that you can live like this and not have any monthly bills. I’m not going to kid you and say that we’re net positive money. But just the idea that you can do it and not suffer terrible consequences, living off the grid.

The metal scales on the roof are made from recycled scraps of old washers, dryers, and car siding. Reynolds chose the design for a number of his builds, says Trent. "It leaks a bit, so we’ve had to do some maintenance," he adds, "but it’s no big deal." Six solar panels feed into a battery box behind them.

The metal scales on the roof are made from recycled scraps of old washers, dryers, and car siding. Reynolds chose the design for a number of his builds, says Trent. "It leaks a bit, so we’ve had to do some maintenance," he adds, "but it’s no big deal." Six solar panels feed into a battery box behind them.

IT: The "less" paradigm is bad branding with Americans. I don’t think it is less—you’re living in abundance with nature. It’s powerful, fruitful, valuable. As we think about the types of sustainable housing we want to build in the future, how do we tell the story in a way that’s palatable? My background’s in innovation. It might seem crazy and impossible, because Americans need this level of comfort or are too lazy to open a window once a day. I think that’s the biggest lesson for corporations in the sustainability movement: [to challenge] our assumptions about what Americans will bear or have an appetite for. Mike Reynolds has proven that, on some level. Our earthship is constantly booked out, whereas our cabin in upstate [New York] is not. What are the elements of earthship living that we can bring into a different kind of more scalable design?

I always thought, when I got brought into this, this is Trent’s crazy dream; I’m just going along with it. But I’ve become an evangelist. It’s insane to me that homes in California and other drought areas aren’t required to have some type of gray/blackwater system. Part of the beauty of the earthship is its simplicity—you don’t need fancy technology or machinery to make or live in one. However, the pace of improvements in sustainability technology, for instance in battery life and storage, will go a long way in making future earthship dwellers’ lives easier.

TW: I’ve always loved Taos and want to acknowledge our privilege as coastal people who managed to find this place that’s getting gentrified and where housing is getting more expensive. I hope that, long term, we can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem—trying to find a way to make this sort of housing more scalable and affordable. The people of Taos appear to welcome new people in a way that is not typical of places we’ve been in the past.

Trent replenishes the earthship’s batteries with distilled water. "I hope that, long term, we can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem—trying to find a way to make this sort of housing more scalable and affordable," he says.

Trent replenishes the earthship’s batteries with distilled water. "I hope that, long term, we can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem—trying to find a way to make this sort of housing more scalable and affordable," he says.

 IT: We’re not just obsessed with the house; we’re all in love with New Mexico, with discovering the riches of our own country. It’s not a vacation like Disneyland; it’s a real place with real people and real problems. I guess you could argue the earthship is like a Disneyland, but it’s not really. We would not have bought in downtown Taos or downtown Santa Fe. Not that they’re not lovely, but they’re tourist destinations. The value of the earthship is different, the realness of it. It’s a singular experience.

In terms of design, parts of ours are quirky, but I like making it feel modern and nice. That’s important to me: fighting the stereotype of what it means to be "green." To me, it’s not even like "It can be just as good." It’s better, using the parts that are resourceful, working with the environment, and adding a layer of design.

The hand-built ruggedness of the earthship complements the scruffy, rock-strewn terrain of the mesa. The skylights are operable and, when open, pull warm air out, working in concert with the huge thermal mass built into the earthship to provide passive HVAC.

The hand-built ruggedness of the earthship complements the scruffy, rock-strewn terrain of the mesa. The skylights are operable and, when open, pull warm air out, working in concert with the huge thermal mass built into the earthship to provide passive HVAC.

TW: To throw in the requisite Bjarke Ingels quote, he calls it sustainable hedonism. He’s mostly talking about the power plant with an artificial ski slope on top that he built, but also the city of Oslo’s sustainability plan is about making life not just as good as it was without fossil fuels, but in fact way better. Not just a little bit better— hedonistically better. Trying to live with less is one thing, but we’re trying to live with more under the same circumstances while consuming less. The baseline understanding of off-grid living has somewhat increased, but this concept is never going to fly with people like my mom and dad as it’s currently presented. We’re trying to show people—renters, our family, you, literally anyone who will listen—that the earthship world is a very comfortable world. We have fast Wi-Fi.

1/20/23: This piece has been updated to correct which of his projects Bjarke Ingels references when discussing sustainable hedonism.

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