Want An Ecologically Correct House? Architect Michael Reynolds Builds Earthships Out of Beer Cans and Tires

UPDATED 01/14/1991 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/14/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

Architect Michael Reynolds carefully steers his red Dodge pickup toward a collection of strangely shaped earthen mounds rising amid clumps of sagebrush and chamiso west of Taos, N.Mex. He stops to point out odd adobe domes, pyramids and castles dotting the mesa. "In my opinion, we have World War III going on right now," Reynolds says softly. "It's between the world and humanity. Because housing is the root of how we live, architects can make a difference."

This moonscape outside Taos is Michael Reynolds's laboratory. For 20 years the 45-year-old maverick architect has been trying to perfect a state-of-the-environment house that will, in his words, "reduce the stress level of the planet." Earthship, the radical design Reynolds finally unveiled in 1986, incorporates materials like discarded tires and beer cans and has propelled Reynolds into the front line of eco-architects. Already, 70 Earthship-style houses have been built in the Southwest, and their popularity is spreading. Actor Dennis Weaver commissioned Reynolds to build a $1 million, 10,000-square-foot Earthship in Ridgeway, Colo. Weaver's friend and neighbor, actor Keith Carradine, signed up Reynolds for a $1.5 million, 13,000-square-foot edifice. Unable to meet the demand, Reynolds has begun to market Earthship plans to would-be owners for $1,000 apiece. "I'd like things to happen a little more slowly than they're happening," he says. "Right now, people are beating down my door."

In designing Earthship, Reynolds grafted modern technology onto ancient building techniques. Like the Anasazi Indians, who constructed cliff dwellings in the Southwest 1,000 years ago, Reynolds carves his houses out of hillsides, using the earth to create rear, side and interior walls. The front of his Earthship, ideally facing south by southeast, consists of a long double-paned glass hallway that traps winter sunlight and conducts heat into the rooms leading off it. Each Earthship has a bank of photovoltaic cells on the roof that converts sunlight into enough electricity to power lights, appliances and computers. (The only outside energy source is a propane-gas tank used to fire the water heater and stove.) The front hall can double as a year-round vegetable garden, which is nourished from tanks of water recycled from sinks and washers.

The key to heating Earthships is the three-foot-thick walls constructed out of what Reynolds calls "natural resources"—aluminum cans and discarded tires packed with dirt. In winter, the steel-belted, rubber-encased brick walls trap heat and release it gradually into the rooms, resulting in what the architect calls a "2 A.M. phenomenon. People wake up in the middle of the night warmer than when they went to bed," he claims. In summer, cool air ventilates through the front windows while warm air is released by opening a skylight in the back. Building with tires has the added benefit of recycling rubber that would otherwise end up in landfills. "Common sense is what I call it," says Stephen Trujillo, an officer of First National Bank in Albuquerque at Taos, who recently moved into a house Reynolds built overlooking the town plaza. "I told myself, if you're smart, get out of the conventional residence.' I think this is something that can really work for a lot of people. Mike has it all together."

While many of Reynolds's peers have lauded his ingenuity, some experts wonder about the longevity of the Earthships. Ray Sterling, director of the Underground Space Center at the University of Minnesota, argues that the houses' dirt walls are suited only to dry climates like those in the Southwest. "You can build an Earthship any place you can build a conventional house," counters Reynolds. "In a wet climate, you would build the house entirely above ground and use more tires and beer cans."

Reynolds admits that he is consumed by his quest for the self-sufficient house. The son of a milkman and a homemaker, he was raised near Louisville, Ky., and attended architecture school at the University of Cincinnati. In 1969, seduced by southwestern architecture, Reynolds moved to Taos.

The next year Reynolds saw a report by television correspondent Charles Kuralt about the proliferation of beer-can litter. Reynolds figured there must be a way to use discarded objects in building cheaper houses. He bought 20 acres of land outside Taos and began experimenting. First he built a large meditation pyramid out of beer cans set in mortar. A few years later he began building with discarded tires, which he packed with dirt. (By last year, Reynolds had used so many of the old tires in Taos that he was forced to travel 125 miles to Albuquerque to get more.) Reasoning that he is his own best guinea pig, Reynolds has lived in each of the experimental homes he built while developing Earthship. "I've gone through it all," he says with a laugh. "Too hot, too cold, not enough electricity. You have to be a test pilot if you're going to go through this."

In the end it was necessity that spawned the Earthship design breakthrough. Divorced from his second wife, Reynolds was strapped for cash and needed a place to live with Chris Simpson, 40, an astrologer he married in 1987, and their three children from previous marriages. Reynolds drew up the plans for a 2,000-square-foot prototype for Earthship, and he and his family built it between May and October of 1989. The cost: $17 a square foot. Now that Earthship has been launched, Reynolds wants to test his creation in harsher environments. He has begun to build a cluster of self-sustaining homes in the rugged Sangre de Cristo mountains northeast of Taos. Reynolds has no regrets about his decision to forgo conventional architecture. "I know I could have made a fortune 10 times over," says Reynolds. "I've sacrificed big bucks to do this, but what I've got inside couldn't be bought for a billion."

—Susan Reed, Michael Haederle in Taos

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