The deserts of northern New Mexico, USA are a far cry from the green hills and glens of Scotland, as are the rice field mountains of Japan, or the cold Russian steppes, yet there is a tangible thread weaving the cloak of sustainability over them all. Mike Reynolds, principal architect of Solar Survival Architecture in New Mexico pioneered the Earthship over 30 years ago. The result is a home that can be adapted worldwide and is arguably the "flagship model" of self-sufficient living.
The Earthship is made almost entirely from recycled materials, can produce its own electricity, catch its own water, treat its own sewage and grow some food all year round. The building functions entirely off-grid, making it possible, and often cheaper, to build in usually inaccessible and remote sites. In addition, the skills required to build an Earthship can be learnt in relatively little time. The objective of Solar Survival Architecture to produce construction techniques that address the Earth’s most urgent environmental problems appear to have been achieved in the design of this low impact, affordable home. Whereas most homes are designed to protect us from the environment, the Earthship takes advantage of the cycles of Mother Nature.
The combination of passive solar design, thermal mass, and the use of solar and wind power generation guarantees an energy-efficient heating and cooling system as well as no dependency on fossil fuel generated power. With 360 days sunshine a year and reliable desert winds the climate of New Mexico lends itself perfectly to renewable energy systems. Though don’t stop reading if you live in a wetter, cooler climate — the basic Earthship concept and the technology are adaptable for all climates around the world.
The indoor planter beds of the grey and black water sewage treatment systems thrive under the large south facing windows, providing occupants with a fresh, on-hand supply of food. The inches travelled by the herbs and tomatoes from the kitchen beds to the cooking pots while waiting for the sky to deliver the next batch of water fully capture the essence of permaculture and low impact living. The 3000-6000 gallon water cisterns of the average sized Earthship in New Mexico are still adequately supplying house owners with water although the state is in its second year of drought. In Scotland where water never seems to stop falling from the sky we still trip ourselves up relying on an energy-intensive infrastructure to bring those raindrops miles across country to our taps and fixtures. Even the West coast island of Muck had a drought last summer when supplies ran out.
The recycled materials used to construct Earthship walls are car tyres, cardboard, beverage cans and glass bottles. The layers of adobe style mud and straw pack out to give a smooth organic interior wall in the New Mexican Earthship that leaves no trace of the materials that by-pass the landfill site. The exterior walls are finished to suit the buyer’s taste and budget. In Scotland facing the earth-rammed tyre walls with stone appeals to our traditional palette and makes the building look more like something from our Highland crofting heritage.
Speaking from first hand experience of visiting 3 communities of Earthships in New Mexico it has to be said that one of the most appealing characteristics of an Earthship, apart from its efficient use of waste, is its uniqueness. Both the exterior impression and the interior detail of the homes integrate the use of available materials and the builder’s/home owner's creativity. The use of recycled and natural materials curve and flow their way through the Earthship leaving the visitor with the recognition that he is in a building that makes perfect sense. The ecologically sound philosophy behind these beautiful homes appeals to our ethical nature and expands the exhilaration and “feel good” factor created by the simplicity and the earthiness of natural skilful designs.
Whether it’s the light, the flowing space, or the organic feel of the Earthship, the experience can definitely be described as “whole” and takes the home dweller several gigantic steps down the path of living sustainably and in harmony with nature rather than building against it. Choosing to build an Earthship can be a self-empowering experience for the homeowner-builder. As he takes building his home into his own hands he also takes responsibility for his actions on the environment.
With Scotland’s burgeoning demand for new houses in the new millennium the government has a great opportunity to stop and take stock of what they want to project. Cries of sustainability are barely audible within the streets and cul-de-sacs of energy intensive and resource hungry “semis”, and it is those cries that are needed to carry Scotland through the 21st Century.
There may be something better, but the Earthship is adaptable with a basic concept that can be incorporated into thousands of building designs all over the world. Sustainable Communities Initiatives (SCI), based in Fife,  are working for the development of Scotland’s first Earthships, with the aim of demonstrating how well they will function in the Scottish climate, the costs involved and their path through the planning and building control maze.
SCI is available for slideshows and presentations to community groups with an interest in the concept and its adaptability to a project centred around their needs.
Training programmes are integral to projects to enable local people to learn the basic skills and knowledge in Earthship building.
To book a presentation or for more information please contact:
Sustainable Communities Initiatives
email Paula 
See The EarthShip website for pictures.