Alibi V.24 No.19 • May 7-13, 2015 

Summer Guide 2015

Hacking the Earthship

Rachel Preston Prinz takes a fresh look at sustainable architecture

Nearly 8,500 feet up the side of a steep mountain half an hour north of Taos, a 20-acre cluster of slanted-glass-fronted houses shimmers above the Valdez and Taos Valleys. Designed by Earthship Biotecture founder and green-living visionary Mike Reynolds, the Rural Earthship Alternative Community Habitat (REACH) has been a vibrant experiment in sustainability, permaculture and optimism since the early 1990s.

Ideally, Earthships—structures typically employing one “light wall” (hence the south-facing windows at REACH) plus three exterior walls made with used tires that have been rammed full of dirt—are affordable, customizable, made of recycled and natural materials, and act as self-contained systems when it comes to water, electricity and food. They are often rich in handcrafted details, from colorful bottle-glass walls to cozy sleeping nooks, and they can exude a special sense of being connected to the natural world.

Author and architecturally trained designer Rachel Preston Prinz
Author and architecturally trained designer Rachel Preston Prinz
“[REACH] is one of the most beautiful Earthship communities in the world,” says Rachel Preston Prinz, author of Hacking the Earthship: In Search of an Earth-Shelter That Works for Everybody (Archinia Press; paperback; $39.95). Unfortunately, the structures at REACH—like many other Earthships and natural homes—fall short of the ideal.

“I love the idea of self-sustainability,” explains Prinz, an Albuquerque-based designer and preservationist with a Master’s of Architecture from Texas A&M. “I love the idea of being able to grow your own food, capturing your rainwater, creating a life that’s in relationship with the land.”

But she’s also a pragmatist who wants “to save people money and frustration and time” before they pour their life’s savings into a home that’s ultimately unlivable. “That the Earthships have some issues is an established fact,” she writes in Hacking the Earthship. “What was not fully established are the reasons or patterns that explained why.”

Stairs in a beautiful home in the REACH community
Stairs in a beautiful home in the REACH community
photo by Rachel Preston Prinz
[click to enlarge]
Of REACH she writes, “Not everyone wants to climb stairs in the dark to get to bed, to be colder than comfortable in winter, overheated in summer ... Or to listen to your neighbor’s conversations because the site acts like a natural amphitheater.” Design missteps have left many of the REACH homes empty except when they can be used by Earthship Biotecture interns or rented to tourists in the summer.

But she’s also a pragmatist who wants “to save people money and frustration and time” before they pour their life’s savings into a home that’s ultimately unlivable.

With their endless sets of steep stairs, they’re also not usable by anyone who has experienced a loss in mobility. REACH isn’t alone in this problem; Hacking the Earthship laments the regularity with which all designers “build things that cannot easily be modified” to accommodate the ill or injured. For that reason, Prinz includes a section called “Universal Design.” “It’s literally a checklist of all the things that you need if you want your house to be fully accessible by anybody in a wheelchair, anybody on crutches, anybody who is differently abled in their ability to grasp or is differently abled in their ability to find their way through a space,” she says.

You might not be worried about climbing stairs now, but what if you break your leg? What if your elderly parents visit? “Once you’ve experienced it ... the empathy develops,” says Prinz, whose Achilles tendon has been reconstructed twice since a mountain-climbing accident at age 15 and who also lives with macular degeneration. “To me it’s a fundamental aspect that’s missing in the conversations about sustainability, because you shouldn’t have to spend $100,000 to make your house workable when you just found out you have ... cancer ... [or] you’ve lost your leg in an accident or whatever it is; the last thing you want to do is not be able to go home. Everybody wants to go home.”

Behold the aesthetic possibilities of a well-designed bottle wall.
Behold the aesthetic possibilities of a well-designed bottle wall.
photo by Rachel Preston Prinz
[click to enlarge]
And should you ever decide to sell your house, Prinz points out that aging Baby Boomers are often willing to pay a premium for homes designed to be accessible, which aligns neatly with most people’s motivation for building an Earthship in the first place. “Sustainability isn’t just the stickers ... on your appliances—sustainability is, How am I gonna do this when my hands don’t work anymore?

Hacking the Earthship represents an attempt to answer the many friends who used to visit Prinz when she lived in Taos and asked what she would do differently in designing a natural home. Frustrated by the lack of communication about Earthship design changes, she wanted “some kind of legacy document that says, oh, they did this, but they don’t do this anymore, and here’s the solution, and here’s why they need it.” When that never materialized, what began as a simple list of problems and solutions on her own website blossomed into an encyclopedic (though admittedly incomplete) survey of everything from roofing types to the academic research on tire off-gassing. ("Nobody knows if there's off-gassing," says Prinz, but because various carcinogens employed in tire manufacture have raised concerns about using them in the walls of your house, she quotes the science and offers alternatives.)

Trouble in paradise: Aluminum cans are a common material in Earthship interior walls. But they’re also prone to problems like the mold you see here.
Trouble in paradise: Aluminum cans are a common material in Earthship interior walls. But they’re also prone to problems like the mold you see here.
photo by Rachel Preston Prinz
[click to enlarge]
Despite the book’s meticulous emphasis on materials, methods, logistics, costs and other nitty-gritty, its heart centers on questions of long-term happiness. “Because sometimes we create spaces—you get in them and you’re not happy, and there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s no amount of gluing stuff on the wall that’s going to make it all right,” she says. “I’m starting to realize that without that spiritual part of it connected, it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. Like we can fix one little piece of it—the pragmatic part is one little piece of it—but the happiness part has to factor in, and the longevity part has to factor in.”

DIY yes, but DIY incorrectly in an Earthship, and you might end up with a leaking back wall like this one.
DIY yes, but DIY incorrectly in an Earthship, and you might end up with a leaking back wall like this one.
photo by Rachel Preston Prinz
New Mexicans are in a unique position to appreciate how architecture that keeps longevity in mind and incorporates locally sourced materials with well-chosen sites can make a place extraordinary. For example, for the Chacoans, whose first-millennium architectural genius created the sophisticated complexes still standing in Chaco Canyon, “It wasn’t just that the cliffs were facing south; they had an overhang, so they had a natural roof system—it wasn’t just that though. It was that the rock broke in the right way ... so that it was easy to stack .... with no mortar.” Such innovations “are responses to their situation, and I think that’s why New Mexico has so much of this. ... I mean, the agriculture centers, the acequia systems, all of that was sweat equity. And they created all of this out of nothing. Nothing! So I think that’s why people do it here. We have a long history.”

And we have plenty of opportunities to keep doing it. She cites nearby resources like the ABQ Old School run by Leila Salim, earthbag construction programs at The Hive, and UNM’s Sustainability Studies Program. There’s also the permaculture training course offered by the Lama Foundation north of Taos, the Four Bridges Traveling Permaculture Institute in Española and Santa Clara Pueblo’s Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute. She even says, “I will absolutely advocate, if you are passionate about doing Earthships—go to Earthship Central in Taos, go to Greater World, take the program.” But Prinz especially recommends the green technology program at UNM Taos. “They will cover how to build and install solar panels, how to make a fireplace, how to do electrical systems, how to do an earth berm, how to do adobe. They literally tear apart the building and put it back together piece by piece—and to me that’s an incredible program because [of] the breadth of it.”

For many people, Earthships and other natural homes represent a dream—a way to live responsibly and beautifully, off-grid and independent. While Hacking the Earthship dismantles many of the myths surrounding the dream, Prinz is indefatigable in her efforts to replace idealism with practical techniques, realistic calculations and honest analysis. Whether you want to plunge into building an Earthship or simply learn more about what truly sustainable architecture consists of, it’s a smart place to begin.

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