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COVID-19 has made living off the grid irresistible. Are these self-sustaining homes the future?

The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the need for architecture to play by new rules.

COVID-19 is causing dense, urban areas to lose their luster and making people rethink their lifestyles. Some are fleeing cities for the suburbs, others are taking up gardening, and the majority have stopped driving as they stay close to home. Across the board, the pandemic is forcing people to consider a more self-sufficient future; living off the grid suddenly doesn’t seem so unreasonable.

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[Photo: Build for Tomorrow/courtesy Earthship Biotecture]
This is a future Michael Reynolds, a New Mexico-based architect and creator of a concept he calls “Earthship Biotecture,” envisioned over 40 years ago. His Earthships are made of adobe, cement, and recycled materials such as glass bottles, dirt-packed tires, and beer cans. But they’re more than just eclectic, eco-friendly desert dwellings—they provide autonomy for the homeowner too. These self-sustaining homes generate their own solar-fueled electricity, collect rainwater, process sewage, and support food growth through mini-hydroponic planters and attached greenhouses.

Phoenix [Photo: courtesy Earthship Biotecture]
The dwellings—which are labor-intensive to create but can be finished by a small team in a month—are all derived from the same basic template, which has three tiers: the economy model, the standard model (most popular), and a luxury version. “We got the idea to start using beer cans to build instead of trees, because beer cans were being thrown away and trees were being cut down. So it became a way . . . to see if [trash] could be used as building products rather than wood,” the architect says.

[Photo: Build for Tomorrow/courtesy Earthship Biotecture]
Reynolds offers consultations through his Earthship Biotecture firm (usually after a client has bought land), and he and his team are responsible for gathering the materials used in the construction. While the cost varies depending on the model and the location, it tends to run between $180 and $250 a square foot; a recent two-bed, one-bath model cost about $300,000 for materials and labor.

Reynolds also runs the Earthship Academy, which teaches budding architects and curious hobbyists how to build Earthship homes from the ground up. Reynolds’s students are then able to help build private homes for clients and disaster relief shelters for communities around the world.

[Photo: Build for Tomorrow/courtesy Earthship Biotecture]
Reynolds says there are currently Earthships on every continent, in more than 40 countries. His firm has built over 1,000 of the homes themselves, and thousands more have been built by his disciples. These structures are found most densely in New Mexico, although Reynolds’s team has plans to install a split-level version on top of a six-story tower in New York City’s Lower East Side. (Initial designs were well received on the heels of Hurricane Sandy, but construction has yet to begin.)

Though these shelters aren’t exactly mainstream, the coronavirus pandemic is highlighting their value. “[People in Earthships] don’t have to pay for heating and cooling. They don’t have to pay electric bills. They don’t have to pay for garbage pickup, a sewage bill, a water bill, and they are growing a lot of food,” Reynolds says. “It has reinforced that if we’re observing this in a pandemic, then the future problems that we’re going to have on this planet [can be partially addressed with Earthships].”

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[Photo: Build for Tomorrow/courtesy Earthship Biotecture]
Taylor Bode and his wife, former students of Reynolds’s, built a 560-square-foot Earthship studio in 2013, inspired to live life more simply and to reduce consumption as much as possible. The studio, nestled in central California’s Santa Cruz mountains, has no internal walls and is bifurcated by a cluster of oak trees, which were there first. After they bought the land, the structure only cost $10,000 to build because they did all the labor themselves.

Santa Cruz [Photo: courtesy Taylor Bode]
The glass for windows was free, as were the old junk tires that formed a buttress for the Earthship. The L-shaped building uses solar power, collects rainwater, and utilizes the area’s moderate climate to heat and cool the home. The Bodes also grow their own food. “The moment right now is reflecting the social and systemic fragility [that exists],” Bode says. “But if you start to build up a level of self-sufficiency, you start to have more independence.”

It’s this feeling of self-actualized freedom that Rubén Cortés wanted to provide for residents of the Philippine island of Leyte following the 2014 typhoon. “The rural communities had been heavily affected, and because of their size nobody was talking about them. Not a single house was standing after the typhoon,” says Cortés, cofounder and director of Build for Tomorrow, a sustainable building initiative. Beyond the homes, food supply was eradicated too, so Cortés partnered with Reynolds to build an Earthship.

Phoenix [Photo: courtesy Earthship Biotecture]
“The idea was to build a model building, while also involving the local community to make sure they would learn how they could build these kinds of things with as little financial resources as possible,” Cortés says. “The whole design brief was using recyclable or locally available materials. . . . We were thinking how can we make this more replicable for the community?”

But since Cortés and Reynolds were only in the Philippines temporarily, they weren’t able to follow up with the project on the ground. Though the model home was built and utilized by the community, no further Earthships were built.

Part of the difficulty with Earthships, unfortunately, is that they’re difficult to scale up. Sustainable, residential architecture, on a macro level, requires massive amounts of money, manual labor, and time. And though the coronavirus has forced hundreds of thousands of people to work from home, many don’t have the job flexibility to live outside of cities, off the grid.

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Moving toward self-sustaining buildings will require a fundamental shift in the architecture industry, as well as government buy-in and a large-scale cultural movement toward supporting and funding accessible housing, using natural resources, and living more simply. Until then, Earthships will continue to be built one-by-one, on an individual basis. Maybe COVID-19 is the catalyst the movement needs to become mainstream.

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