As I promised on Tuesday, I wanted to write more about the earthship that I rented for a few days while I was visiting Taos, NM. I received a few comments and even more emails about them, so it seems that people are interested in hearing about my experience. I cleared it with the homeowner, Jill, so that I could post pictures and talk about her exact home, so let’s take a look at my stay in the HelioHouse earthship, about 15 minutes from Taos Plaza, past the gorge bridge out on the mesa:
The home is in a subdivision of earthships west of town, where every home is off the grid and catches their own rainwater. There are no utilities out here – no power lines, no wells, no gas lines – the homes have propane tanks for cooking with, they use solar or wind energy to power the entire house, from the water filtration system to the television set, and every drop of water in the house is from the cisterns that are part of the home’s design. There is internet access from a WAN network from the earthship offices, and my laptop and iPhone worked perfectly fine with it. The HelioHouse, that I stayed in, had 6 solar panels and 3,000 gallons of water storage – and I used electricity and took showers just like I do here at home. It was strange to think that I was not hooked into any city utilities, but it didn’t feel any different than at home. What a great feeling that must be to have no bills!
This model is what is called the “packaged” earthship, in that it is a standard design from Michael Reynolds that just plain works – the systems are all in place and have been designed to work in harmony. This rental is the one bedroom version, but they come up to 3 bedrooms in size. There is a living room, kitchen, bathroom, and a single bedroom here. Here are some shots:
The reason that they can be off grid without worrying about things like heat in the winter is because earthships use thermal mass to store and retain heat from the sun all day. This heat comes back into the house at night, keeping the temperature inside the home at around 65 even in the dead of winter – without heat. The HelioHouse had a woodstove that we lit for the ambience, not for the heat – although it was about 20-something degrees outside that night, it was very comfortable in the house. So how does it retain all that heat? First off, the windows are situated to take full advantage of the winter sun, which is low in the sky and can penetrate all the way to the back of the home, hitting the thermal wall. In the summer, the sun is higher in the sky and only comes in the windows a few feet – enough to hit the interior planters. This keeps it cool in the summer, without AC, as the cool earth temp stays constant even if it is hot outside. Wait, what? Planters inside? Yep, the planting bed inside the house that allows you to grow herbs, flowers, bananas – anything you want.
You might be wondering at this point what makes the home so energy efficient, and here is the part that turns some people off to the homes – the back and side walls are made from old tires packed full of dirt and covered with adobe plaster, and are buried about 4 feet into the earth, where the earth’s core temp stays the same day and night in all seasons. However, you would never know it unless you built the house yourself. As for how you can make 3,000 gallon cisterns last as long as they need to out there in the desert, the water in earthships is actually used 4 times. First off, the water is caught in the cisterns coming off the roof, and the fresh water is filtered heavily and used conventionally for showering and drinking water. That really is the only time that “new” water is ever used in the house, which makes total sense. Once you use it for drinking or showering, the water gets filtered again naturally inside the interior planters (called botanical cells) and sent back to be used in the toilet – after all, why use fresh clean “virgin” water just to flush a toilet? Once the toilet is flushed, the water is sent outside the home, where the liquid is used to fertilize the outdoor planting area and the solids are put into a conventional septic tank. And no, the house doesn’t stink, the water doesn’t taste funny, and everything works just like a normal house – you wouldn’t even know the difference unless someone told you. It is quite amazing.
These homes make so much sense today, with water and energy shortages, groundwater and river pollution, and wasteful McMansions being built all over the world. Using tires and dirt to make exterior walls, bottles and cans and mud to make interior walls, and a small amount of wood to frame out the windows and doors, the houses have not only a minimal impact on housing supplies, but also has a tiny footprint on the earth itself – water from the sky, energy from the wind or sun, and a self-enclosed and maintained sewage treatment plant. Plus, no utility bills at all! How can you go wrong? If you want to learn more about earthships, check out Earthship Biotecture or see if you can find the documentary Garbage Warrior, about Michael Reynolds the designer of these homes.
So now that you have learned a lot about the house, you might be interested in staying in one. Well, lucky for all of us, Jill and Michael, owners of the HelioHouse, rent the house out year round for the same price you would pay for a hotel room in town. (Believe me, we wish we had stayed there all week instead of in a hotel room) They live right next door in their own earthship, and were so nice to take the time to talk with us about their home and their rental. HelioHouse was so well-decorated and well-appointed that we felt like we were right at home! The bed was very comfortable, there was fresh organic coffee for us to make in the morning, wood for the fireplace, and chocolates on the bedside table – how much more could one want? Oh, and if you do stay there, wait until about 11pm and then walk outside – you have never seen stars like what you see out there on the mesa!
So if you happen to be coming to Taos for vacation you should definitely check out HelioHouse for your stay, I cannot recommend the experience enough. And be sure to tell Jill and Michael that I said hello!