TAOS, NEW MEXICO — Underneath a sky of stars on a dry New Mexico mesa, Tajar Work stood next to the fire she and her friends built together. She flipped her hood up around her shoulder-length dreadlocks and lit a Pall Mall cigarette. The smell of burning wood and sage from the fire lingered in the cold night air as she exhaled.
“It’s been really nice to spend time away from the city — away from lots of cars, away from TV, to be under the stars out here,” Work said.
While the coyotes howled and the dogs barked, six students gathered around the fire. They joked with one another, talked about movies, books, politics and the day’s events. These students enrolled in an “Off the Grid” science course, which took them to Taos, N.M., during spring break. They lived in and studied the systems of sustainable homes called Earthships.
Throughout the week, the students met owners of Earthships and toured their individual homes. From the exterior, some Earthships look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Other Earthships are huge mounds of dirt with just a door peeking through the brown dust, while another looked like a cabin from outer space. They are colorful, angular and unique in design. The Earthships are constructed from recycled materials such as car tires, cans and glass bottles — a radical form of sustainable living.
Zena Kolshorn lives in the Earthship her two sons constructed for her. The large windows, which span the entire south-facing wall, shed sunlight through Kohlshorn’s entire home. Kolshorn doesn’t need to turn on lights until dusk. The bottoms of colorful glass bottles encased in cement walls create a large flower pattern where light shines through, working as a stained glass window. Wood floors and furniture give the home a “cabin in the woods” feel — not a home in the middle of New Mexico. After walking through the drying cement during construction, her kitten’s paw prints remained in the floor, which she said added a personal touch to the house.
Kolshorn gratefully invited the group of students in, excited to show off the gift her sons gave her and tell stories of her past to the eager listening students.
Devin Walk, sophomore, said his visit with Kolshorn and other Earthship owners surprised him because of how welcoming and innovative they were.
“She just let us into her home and she was one of the most heartwarming people I’ve met. She was really an inspiration to us,” Walk said. “We’ve met some really interesting people on these tours and what really struck me was how clever and creative these people are with the way they make these houses.”
Unlike contemporary living, Earthships are completely off the grid. This means the homes are not connected to any form of public utility system to retrieve power, water, heat or cooling. They are designed with specialized systems to catch rain and snow water, filter it and reuse it. The sun’s natural energy generates all electricity in the home and is harvested through solar panels. During construction, different techniques are used to stabilize the temperature to either cool off the house or keep heat in. Earthships are not reliant on on-grid companies, so there are no utility bills. The homes have the same amenities as modern living, but residents of Earthships have to be very conservative with their consumption of resources. Work said she thought the biggest advantage to Earthship living is being able to provide for herself and not being dependent on companies.
“I think the benefits of living in an Earthship are not just that you don’t have to pay for electricity, water or gas, but that you’re actually learning how all the systems work and learning how to (provide) for yourself,” Work, junior, said. “You have to be more conservative with your water and energy use, but I think that’s a good thing. Instead of going to technology to solve our problems, we need to make lifestyle changes.”
Julia Griffey, associate professor of interactive and digital media, and her childhood friend Alix Henry, co-taught the course. Griffey and Henry met at a playground in St. Louis when they were one. They grew up together, but after graduating Clayton High School, college took them to separate states.
Henry attended Washington University for architecture. She said she struggled with the idea of architecture while in school because she didn’t agree with the amount of resources it took to build a structure. She became interested in sustainable architecture and did a lot of research on the field before it became a mainstream field of study.
After graduating, Henry received an internship with Earthship Biotechture — the company that created and continues to build Earthships — and remained with them for six and a half years. She and her husband began building their own Earthship in 1996, which at first consisted of only two rooms. Over the years, as their family grew, they built on additions.
Henry said life in an Earthship is a beautiful way of living. They live in the Greater World Earthship community — one of three Earthship communities in the Taos area — that spans 650 acres of the Taos county mesa. The homes are widely spaced, with mountains spanning the horizon in every direction. Henry said raising her children in a home where they have to be conservative with their energy and water usage has been interesting to see. They understand more than other children who they have to be careful with their resources. When the family goes to the junkyard to retrieve extra tires, cans and other materials to build with, Henry said her girls see it as a place to find items, not throw them away. Their perspective is different. However, there are some struggles to living off the grid and further away from town, she said.
“One of the reasons we moved back (to Taos) was to have a family here. Our children don’t know any different… They have a different reality than how I grew up in St. Louis,” Henry said. “The biggest challenge for us is where our home is. It’s very far from the town of Taos. We use a lot of gas and it’s not good to be driving so much.”
Griffey and Henry continued to keep in touch over the years. Griffey traveled to Taos many times to visit. She got engaged there, took her family there and was the maid of honor in Henry’s wedding. About a year and a half ago on a trip to Vancouver, Canada, Griffey and Henry started planning a class that would take Webster students out of the traditional classroom and into off-the-grid culture.
They determined Griffey would teach four sessions at Webster before spring break. Those classes covered how on-grid systems work and the basic science behind them. Then, the group would travel to Taos and stay in Earthship rental homes. Henry was responsible for planning the spring break week’s events that would teach the students about off-the-grid living in an experiential way.
By tapping into her resources of friends, neighbors and colleagues, Henry was able to create a four-day schedule of tours and trips to teach the students about the different systems necessary to run an Earthship. Guest lecturers from organizations including spa companies, breweries and solar panel manufacturers throughout Taos, took time to meet with the group and tell them about their business’ alternative systems. Each day was planned thematically to cover water systems, wastewater, power generation and thermal mass comfort. Walk said he had been on class trips before, but felt this one was less stressful, which helped his learning.
“I like how (Griffey and Henry) are laid back, but they really know what they’re talking about and they keep the class interesting,” Walk said. “Here, it’s been flexible and I’m not afraid to ask questions. It’s relaxed, the environment.”
Griffey and Henry plan on teaching the course again. Henry said she feels the class went over really well, but she’ll know what changes could be made for next time after receiving student feedback.
“I think when you teach a class a second time… you stumble upon more resources, so year after year, your information becomes a lot more rich,” Griffey said.
Thursday morning, the students started their day with some manual labor. The gallon of water was full and the sun was hot. The theme of the day was to learn about thermal mass comfort. A swing set sat off the side of the dusty dirt road and recycled tires were piled on the ground. This space was in the workings of becoming a playground for the Greater World community. Students were to learn about how tires packed with dirt help insulation in homes. The students pounded dirt into the tires. Ted Elsasser of Earthship Biotechture showed the students the technique of creating a tire-wall. The tires they were pounding and stacking were going to create a sandbox for the community playground.
“Its great, experiential learning,” Neil Peterson, senior, said. “You can only absorb so much by somebody talking at you, but actually experiencing it first hand is a whole different level of absorption knowledge. You get to come to your own conclusions and take in your own data versus reading it off the page.”
Earthships originated in Taos more than 40 years ago. The natural resources in N.M., like the presence of adobe and the climate, have made an ideal location for the design, but Earthships can and have been adapted to be built in locations all over the world. Peterson said he didn’t expect the trip to be as sophisticated as it turned out to be. After the trip and learning more, he said he’s more open to moving to the area later in life.
“A lot of people are very down to earth and honest about what they’re doing,” Peterson said. “They don’t have to make as many sacrifices I thought they’d have to make for living the way they do. They’re not roughing it.”