Earthship Festival: Architecture for a Regenerative Future

It was the early 1970s in the desert of Taos New Mexico, where a young architect began a lifelong journey into the world of eco-construction. Freshly graduated from the University of Cincinnati, Michael Reynolds, started developing a system of building, using recycled and reclaimed materials that aimed to address the growing environmental and affordable housing. Reynolds first construction project, named Thumb House, was built in 1972 and was comprised of over 70,000 beer cans. Thumb House was just the beginning of the Earthship journey.

Today, Earthships are autonomous houses that can be found all over the world. They’re designed to work with the physics and biology of the earth to provide sustenance for people, in place of utility grids. “It’s unique,” says Reynolds, “because it doesn’t need anything of the grid . . .   economically, physically, [or] politically, that the existing buildings and housing do.”

According to Earthship Biotecture, Reynolds’ company that builds and teaches Earthship architecture around the world, humans have six needs to obtain a harmonious life: food, energy, clean water, shelter, garbage management, and sewage treatment. Earthships meet all six of these needs without taking away from the natural environment. “The idea with Earthships is that they make a contribution to the planet, not for a moral reason or anything but just because it’s smart to contribute to the thing that is contributing to you” Reynold explains.

Earthships are constructed from natural or repurposed materials. A primary feature the Earthship design is the building’s ability to heat and cool itself without electricity. The critical component for this construction is automobile tires, packed tightly with earth – Earthships estimates that at least 2.5 billion tires are stockpiled in the United States. That number is growing by 2.5 million each year.

You can find images of Earthships with large windows, smooth concrete surfaces and colourful bottle dotted walls. They look like something straight from a 1960s sci-fi adventure to the not so distant future. And maybe they are the future? With humans producing a constant supply of waste and garbage, it seems that building materials are not in short supply.  

To Reynolds, Earthships are another part of a regenerative lifestyle. “Regeneration is sort of like the perpetual motion machine that just keeps on making motion, it keeps on making energy, nobody has really been able to achieve it, it’s kind of a myth,” he explains. “I don’t think it’s a myth that people can live in a way that can be constantly enriching the planet . . . Right now due to the fact that humans are on the planet it is getting worse as a planet for every creature on it and for every human on it. If we can just turn that around with the way people can achieve sustenance, we would have a pretty bright future.”  

Earthships Biotecture offers an Academy to teach students how to build Earthships. The Academy includes classroom instruction as well as hands-on building experience. In February 2019, 80 students from around the world gathered in Colonia del Sacramento to build the four-unit Caliu Earthship Hotel.  

Just as the Caliu was nearing its completion, the Come to Life Sudamérica tour was beginning. This three-week tour’s goal was to bridge North and South America through regeneration, music and art inspired by the Amazon’s Prophecy of the Eagle and the Condor. This legend explains that when the Eagle (representing the mind, industry and masculinity) and the Condor (representing the heart, intuition and femininity) fly together in the same sky humanity will be able are able to reconnect their hearts and their minds. In that spirit the Come to Life Sudamérica tour’s goal was to connect South America (our hearts) and North America (our minds) to create an elevated awareness of ourselves. The tour included Rising Appalachia from North America performing alongside local South American bands and musicians.

It was very fitting that a tour representing connectivity, art and regeneration should begin with the completion of an Earthship – a vessel connecting humans to the earth. The Come to Life team spent three days working alongside the Earthship crew, constructing a festival grounds. The goal of the festival was twofold. Firstly, to celebrate the construction of the new hotel. Secondly, to invite the community to the property to learn about Earthships and regenerative building.   It was “a festival to celebrate the recycling of materials, built with recycled materials,” says Agustina Flores Maini who helped organize the full event.

The grounds were put together in the same spirit as the Earthships, with recycled and repurposed materials. Tables were built from pallets, sidewalks from old cable reels, cushions from recycled fabric, and the back of the stage was covered in dark-stained pallet wood.  

What might have seemed like an unlikely group of students, builders, musicians, locals and governments officials gathered together for the same purpose of celebrating the Earthship community. At the end of the event, everything was salvaged. The structures were reused for the bar at the hotel, and the raw materials were left to be repurposed by the Earthship Academy.  

Living in a regenerative way can mean a lot of things to different people. Still, one common thread between definitions is it means to live in connection with the earth, to be a part of its systems and to give to it as much as you take. For Reynolds, the Earthship community is doing just that, “I would like for Earthships to be just unarguably, a regenerative virus on this planet that makes this planet richer for the planet for the humans and animals and plants and insects that are here.”