Learning about off-the-grid housing in Santa Fe.

We parked and watched a man run across the frozen, snow covered field, chased by a black dog. We approached him. “Where do we go?” we asked, shivering. Through his beard he eyed us, and pointed to one of the structures.

Inside a warm, spacious room a woman took $10 for the two of us and showed us a brief, well-produced video, explaining how you simply:

  1. get 500 tires or so;
  2. dig a foundation;
  3. pound dirt into the tires;
  4. stack the tires into a houselike shape;
  5. plaster the tire-walls with adobe, and adobe with stucco on the exterior;
  6. put in a passive solar system that feeds golf-cart batteries;
  7. insert a 5-stage water treatment system;
  8. ...and unplug from the world, living in moderate comfort far from any grid on your own power, drinking filtered rainwater.

Earthship, outdoor view showing solar panels, outside of Taos, New Mexico.

Inside, the sunlight was terrific, the entire space fairly cozy, but very hobbit-like. And with, let's be clear, fairly low resale value to anyone except a total granola-crunching lunatic like yourself, unless there's a nuclear war and living off the grid becomes handy, at which point you won't want to move anyway, but will want to insert steel bars over all the windows to avoid mutant tribes of 16-eyed irradiated flesh-eating Objectivists.

Earthship in the form of a dome, outside of Taos, New Mexico.

The obligatory hippie-dome, earthship style. A gnome lives there.

Earthship shower, inside the demo earthship, outside of Taos, New Mexico.

Water comes in from the ceiling and drips into a cistern; it is filtered for drinking, filtered for dish washing, and even sewage is turned into manure. The walls of the earthship we saw all featured embedded things - tile, bottle bottoms, anything to liven the walls and catch light. Some walls were painted with linseed oil to darken them, so that they would warm up more readily. A combination of light, heat-soaking walls, and (perhaps) plants processing waste water kept the entire place cozy on a freezing Taos day.

Earthship building blocks, the tires, outside of Taos, New Mexico.

Tires, stacked, ready to become walls. The cans are used to limit the amount of adobe that must be used to fill in the walls; they take up space. The bottles are used to let in light.

We bought all three earthship books, $15 each instead of $20 because they had dented covers, and drove away imagining.

.  .  .  .  .  

“I want one,” she said. “In Vermont.”

“Expensive,” I said. “A lot of hidden costs.”

“But good for the environment.”

“But I want to stay in the shower for 40 minutes today.”

“We couldn't do that,” she concurred. “But our friends might help us build it.”

“Not my friends. My friends don't want to hammer dirt into a tire for 10 hours a day. They like soothing foot baths, my friends.”

“Well, my friends.”

“It sounds like an insult. 'Go pound tires.' Can you imagine raising kids in it?”

“It would be good for kids, teach them to conserve.”

High-pitched: “Mom, why is it always cold? Why is there a colony of earthworms living in my wall? Why can't I be clean? Other families don't use rocks to wash their clothes! Why is my lipstick made of textured tofu?”

“Come on.”

“Why is my Barbie made of hemp?”

“It would be so great. In Vermont.”

“Well, I could see us taking an old house and making it earthshippy, adding passive solar and power storage, and setting up a cistern.”

“Okay, I like that too.”

“I mean, I just want a dishwasher, a nice, middle class one.”

“A dishwasher is totally unacceptable.”

I sighed. “I know. But the dishes are so clean. The sparkle. You can see all the way to the other side.”

“So scrub.”

“With gray water?”

“I want to be off the grid,” she said. “I love the idea.”

“Me too, a little,” I said. “As long as we decorate it well. I'd like to do the entire master bedroom in tires and linseed. And we can make the bed out of corn husks. Did you notice the burlap ceiling back in Taos? I hope we can afford one. Do you think I could get a bicycle made of recycled sewage?”

“The cost of burlap—”

“Prohibitive, yes, a splurge, almost decadent, but worth it. We could even batik it. 'We decided to go wild and do the ceiling in burlap. We got such a deal on it, 7 cents per square mile, we just had to, and damn the expense.'”

.  .  .  .  .  

See also: Earthships.org.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


@20, by Paul Ford. Not any kind of eulogy, thanks. And no header image, either. (October 15)

Recent Offsite Work: Code and Prose. As a hobby I write. (January 14)

Rotary Dial. (August 21)

10 Timeframes. (June 20)

Facebook and Instagram: When Your Favorite App Sells Out. (April 10)

Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley. (April 7)

Welcome to the Company. (September 21)

“Facebook and the Epiphanator: An End to Endings?”. Forgot to tell you about this. (July 20)

“The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. An essay for TheMorningNews.org. (July 11)

Woods+. People call me a lot and say: What is this new thing? You're a nerd. Explain it immediately. (July 10)

Reading Tonight. Reading! (May 25)

Recorded Entertainment #2, by Paul Ford. (May 18)

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