My Experience Staying In A Rental Earthship Home In Taos.

May 8, 2008

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:

gorge.jpg

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!

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Comments (35)

  1. Emily says:

    I am such a girly girl and could stare at pretty kitchen photos all day! It looks awesome!

  2. Patrick says:

    Wow! I’m impressed! I wish more new homes took advantage of the technology that is available. The amount of money and resources that could be saved is truly amazing. I would love to own a home that was even partially self-sufficient.

  3. Mrs. Micah says:

    That’s lovely. :) It makes me think of Star Wars: ANH. Except it’s prettier than those were.

  4. David says:

    Oh, it does me too. Some of those houses are very Star-Warsy!

  5. Jenn says:

    Dave, I want one of those houses. Did they give you an estimation about how much of those homes cost? I have been talking to Rob alot lately about going more greener. I am so happy Susie gave me the site. I am hoping your ideas can help Rob and I get our home not only ecofriendly, but overall a safer,less toxic home for the kids.

  6. Allie says:

    I was obsessed with Earthships about a year ago and researched them to death. One of the major concerns is off gassing from the tires, etc. Did you notice any odors or feel like the air quality in the Earthship was a concern at all? Sometimes, I think when something unconventional comes around, people feel threatened and try to stick a pin in it, so I’m wondering if that’s where the off gassing reports were coming from.

  7. david says:

    Nope, no off-gassing at all, everything smelled fine. :-) I think the off-gassing is just that – off-gassing from people concerned about the “status-quo”. The tires are sealed behind adobe walls – they are not in the house or exposed to air at all. But even if they were, I would not be too concerned with it. “Regular” houses are full of glues, formaldehydes, mold, toxic insulation, etc – and that stuff is only behind walls made of paper.

  8. david says:

    Jenn – I imagine the 1 bedroom is about $180K, give or take, plus land. However, if you built it yourself, it would be substantially cheaper. I should look into how much the package earthship is if you assemble it yourself…

  9. Ethel says:

    Found you from your guestpost on “Frugal for Life”.

    What I wonder is how these homes would hold up in a low-sunlight, high-rain area like Seattle. I’m guessing there would be no real water issues – but would there be enough energy if there isn’t regular sun? Is there any back-up source of energy, has anyone tried these in the northwest?

    I love all the windows. What a beautiful house!

  10. david says:

    Ethel – good question, as they depend on sunlight to power the homes. They have been building them around the world (France, Norway,etc), and I know you can do a combo of solar/wind AND a tie to the electrical grid if need be. But out where these homes are in Taos, there aren’t any utilities so they are not tied to any grid at all. Check out earthship.net for a little more info!

  11. Koh Samui says:

    Lovely room !!

  12. Rene says:

    Very cool house. Thanks for sharing the details about it. More people need to know about this type of construction, it’s what’s going to save our butts on this planet.

  13. david says:

    I do believe you are right Rene, we cannot keep building the way that we do!

  14. Oh, that must have been awe inspiring. We’re just back from a wonderful vacation. Now you’ve got me planning my next one.

  15. David says:

    Jessica, if you ever want to stay there let me know, can probably get you a discount! ;-)

  16. This is just so awesome! When I read “For those of you not at the point of building a house out of tires and cans” in your current post, I had to look and heck, I’m ready!!

  17. Bob says:

    I have been traveling around New Mexico for close to 2 years teaching Solar panel building at home.. http://www.thesolarguitar.com ie Simply Solar dvd/download available. Folks in this State are so interested in learning to do this at home…I moved here from the Lawerence. Kansas area (10 years off the grid building my own panels and hooking it up) and now have people Nation wide building their own solar systems (big and small) I can teach folks how to save close to 75% by doing it themselves, AND I consider this builder/designer a GENIUS! I do know they work! and work well! Fine global effort!! bob

  18. Josh Thompson says:

    Greetings from the HelioHouse. Yep, my wife and I are lucky enough to be staying here for a few days. There is over a foot of snow outside, and I am in bare feet and short sleeves, happy as a clam. Not only is this house the most ecologically minded place we’d ever dreamed of, it is the most beautiful place we’ve ever stayed. This is experience is a must.

  19. david says:

    That’s great Josh – we live right down the street between the gorge bridge and the blinking light. It is a fantastic house, and if you talk to Jill or Michael tell them I said hello! Enjoy!

  20. Julie M says:

    This is interesting and only recently have I been made aware of these. Not too far from Taos, may have to check it out!

  21. David says:

    Contact the owners, we only stayed there.

  22. Jerelyn Hanrahan says:

    we would be interested n renting this house July or three weeksin August 2009.Please let us know if it is avaialble, and the monthly rate.We are quiet and responsible.I was at the earthship community afew years ago,it was impressive.

  23. Wow such cool looking houses. Interesting information too. Keep up with the good work.

  24. Matt Jabs says:

    Wow, I’m so amazed by what some people have already accomplished, it only motivates me to do more & more! This house is awesome.

  25. Wolf says:

    I had just rented a beautiful (kind of an earthship) house in the very same area very close to the the Rio Grande Gorge and Hot Springs for the whole month of August. We had a wonderful time there, swimming (in the Rio Grande and Hot Springs), hiking and exploring this amazing area. If you are interested in staying in the area for a week or two or three in the month of September ’09 let me know, and I will forward your request to the owner. I can tell you this much, it’s beautiful out there and the rent was so very very reasonable.
    I can also forward some pictures of the place …

    • david says:

      Thanks Wolf. I actually live 4 miles from the Gorge so no need to stay there myself – I already live here! Thanks for sharing.

  26. Very impressive house, when I finally get the money together for my dream home in the Caribbean, I’m going use this house as inspiration.

  27. nan fischer says:

    Great article and photos! I have had clients stay there, and they loved it. Made them look at strawbales and earthships to buy.

  28. Martha Erdem says:

    Hi David,
    Thanks for the great description of Heliohouse and Earth Ships! My husband and I stayed there a few days on a recent NM trip and that was the BEST part of a marvelous vacation.
    Yes, I agree with you that this type of sustainable housing makes so much sense.
    I am a realtor in Southern Arizona, where we are in the process of building our first AZ earthship. It took several years to get the building permits- however now that that phase is done, it should be smooth sailing from now on. If anyone is interested in finding a lovely lot of land in southern Arizona, I would be delighted to help them out-
    Have a sustainable New Year!

    • david says:

      That would be fine, Martha, and I edited your comment to remove your # and contact info, as I don’t accept ads in my comments. Thanks.

  29. Michelle DuBois says:

    I am so jealous! I live in Georgia on Tybee Island and there is nothing like this on my side of the US! There is supposed to be build mid-state in November and I cannot wait! I am a healthy 46 yr old, who bikes everywhere and am in hopes I can learn what I will be able to accomplish on my own – and what I will need assistance with. If anyone knows where I may acquire this information (prior to the November 2010 build) – please forward it to me @ Michelleedenfield@yahoo.com.

  30. Cedrics Mom says:

    I just saw the Weather Channel’s CANTORE’S STORIES on the Earthships of Taos and Googled it for more information. Thanks for this post. Very interesting stuff!

  31. Jason says:

    me and my wife spent a weekend at the heilo house in the spring of 2011. u forgot to metion the planter in the bed room and you dont need to go out side at night to see the stars. we fell asleep at night watching the stars.a glass wall in the bed room is not what you would imagin. it is pritty neet.

  32. Mary @ Green Global Travel says:

    Amazing What a fabulous experience and recommendation! I have read about earthships and would love to experience on in person. I have to admit that I didn’t expect the experience to be so similar to your everyday elsewhere – nor did I expect it to look like a traditional home!