Earthships Look Weird, But Could Save You Over $2K in Utilities Per Year

A stange type of house structure in the desert called an earthship.
Glass bottles add a touch of whimsy (and support) to the walls of an Earthship near Taos, New Mexico. Jamie Cattanach for The Penny Hoarder

Bespeckled with glass bottles and surrounded by tires, they rise up out of the northern New Mexico desert like clay-colored spaceships. But these unique dwellings are a “ship” of a different kind.

They’re Earthships, a form of alternative housing designed for sustainability — both within the home itself and on a global, ecological level. Constructed largely of upcycled materials and providing their own water, power and climate control (all through natural, off-the-grid means), Earthships promise a way of life that’s both ultra-green and ultra-affordable.

But can this seemingly utopian way of living really deliver all that? And if so, how come you don’t already live in one?

What Are Earthships, Anyway?

an earthship structure
An experimental Earthship structure near Taos, New Mexico, where new design concepts are implemented and tested. Jamie Cattanach for The Penny Hoarder

Earthship Biotecture, the organization at the epicenter of the Earthship movement, defines an Earthship as “a type of house built with natural and recycled materials with energy conservation in mind. It is designed to produce water, electricity and food for its own use.”

In other words, it’s a self-sustaining, ultra-green, off-grid dwelling — one that eliminates the need for external utilities and drastically reduces your grocery bill to boot.

How, exactly, can a house do all that? By following six careful design principles that take advantage of natural resources and create a symbiotic relationship between human and Earth.

Pretty cool idea, right? Let’s break down exactly how it works.

We’ll start with the biggies — climate control and protection from the elements. In most parts of the world, this is why we seek shelter in the first place: to avoid freezing or sunburning to death. (Not getting pelted by rain and hail are also nice benefits.)

plants at an earthship
A bell pepper grows in the antechamber space of an Earthship structure in Taos, New Mexico. Jamie Cattanach for The Penny Hoarder

Remember learning about Native Americans’ use of adobe structures in history class? Earthships use a similar kind of construction, relying on the principle of “thermal mass” to create natural insulation.

Earthship walls are, in most cases, made of recycled tires packed with rammed earth. These thick clay walls absorb the sun’s heat during the day, keeping the interior of the dwelling cool, and then radiate that trapped heat in the evening, making the interior toasty. The tires work both to strengthen the structure and to take care of a growing ecological problem — namely, what to do with all that used rubber.

In addition to using thermal mass to maintain a fairly even air temperature, Earthships are also designed with large, south-facing windows, which work to increase internal heat (making the dwellings livable even in winter) and to provide ample light for the internal greenhouse — which we’ll get to in a second.

Now that the “shelter” part is taken care of, what about the other two main necessities: food and water?

This is where that greenhouse comes in. Each Earthship is equipped with an antechamber, a space between the wall of south-facing windows and the interior wall of the main dwelling. This area will be the hottest during the day, helping keep the living space cool — and making for an excellent place to grow food crops year-round.

Water for everyday use is collected from precipitation in large cisterns and run through a biomechanical filter before it comes out of shower heads and taps, just like in a normal home. The relatively clean wastewater from sinks and showers (also known as graywater) is recirculated, using the greenhouse plants as part of the filtration system. The rest of the household’s waste (the truly noxious stuff euphemized as “black water”) is processed by a traditional septic system.

Finally, electricity is collected using solar panels, wind turbines, or a combination of both. The house is equipped with specially designed, energy-saving appliances that require only a relatively small stream of power.

When it all works correctly, you’ve got a self-heating, self-cooling, self-powering house, complete with an ample and self-circulating supply of water.

Oh, and as if all that weren’t enough — earthships are super cool-looking, too.

How Could an Earthship Save You Money?

An earthship in the desert.
An Earthship, aided by solar panels and south-facing windows, provides a warm and cozy shelter even in harsh New Mexican winters. Jamie Cattanach for The Penny Hoarder

One of the main goals of Earthship living is to drastically reduce the dweller’s carbon footprint.

But Earthships also promise long-term financial savings: When the dwellings work properly, Earthship inhabitants never have to worry about utility bills again — or at least, not very large ones.

Think about the energy cost of heating and cooling alone. According to Choose Energy, artificial climate control accounts for almost half of total home energy consumption on average — that is, half your electricity bill. What’s worse, air conditioning is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

A large room inside an earthship.
Beverage cans line the grand stairway inside the Earthship Biotecture’s experimental “apartment-style” structure near Taos. Jamie Cattanach for The Penny Hoarder

So living in a house that takes care of climate control naturally does away with a huge chunk of money from your utility budget — and goes a long way toward creating a greener lifestyle.

That’s before you add in the other ways traditional homes rely on electricity and pumped-in city water and sewer services. Earthship Biotecture estimates the average yearly homeowner’s utility spending at about $2,580, as opposed to about $300 for Earthship dwellers.

If you do it right (and eat your veggies), the greenhouse can make a serious dent in your grocery bill, too. Although you’ll probably be unable to sustain yourself entirely, you could conceivably cut your yearly food spending in half.

Finally, the upfront cost of construction is significantly lower than that of traditional housing, since Earthships are built primarily of upcycled materials. At least, that’s the theory.

Which leads us to an important question.

… So Why Don’t We All Live in Earthships Already?

Originally conceived by Michael Reynolds back in the 1970s, Earthships aren’t exactly a new idea. And they’re not that rare, either — they’ve spread from their native Taos, New Mexico to every one of the United States and over 40 countries.

All of which come as a surprise if you’ve never heard of them before. There are a number of reasons this seemingly perfect style of dwelling hasn’t taken off like wildfire.

First of all, Earthships’ unique construction techniques make it difficult to build them outside of extremely rural locations. For one thing, building with glass bottles and rubber tires doesn’t usually stand up to building codes — which also generally forbid going off-grid entirely. Although several dedicated Earthship communities exist, they’re usually in pretty remote areas… like 15 minutes outside of the already-small desert town of Taos, whose population is less than 6,000. Small-town living has its advantages, to be sure, but living that small isn’t for everyone.

An earthship structure in the desert.
An Earthship structure featuring a large number of south-facing windows and a second story. Jamie Cattanach for The Penny Hoarder

Secondly, Earthships aren’t all that easy (or cheap) to acquire. Since they’re not a traditional dwelling, most lenders won’t create a mortgage agreement for an existing one; building one yourself is possible, but it takes time… and a lot of hard, physical work. Hammering dirt into used tires is backbreaking labor — each one takes about four full wheelbarrows of dirt and weighs 350 pounds once it’s finished!

Earthship Biotecture will build one for you, but it’ll cost you about $250 per square foot. Even for a humble abode, you’re talking tens of thousands of dollars.

Finally, the theoretical self-sustaining nature of Earthships doesn’t always work as advertised. Those rubber tires in the walls eventually begin to break down, which can cause potentially toxic off-gassing. Because it’s an evolving concept, design flaws are often inadvertently discovered — but only in the process of living in the house and seeing what doesn’t work. See, for instance, this list of common complaints from Santa Fe-based architect Rachel Preston Prinz, who has worked with several Earthship dwellers as clients.

How to Afford Housing — No Matter Where or What Kind It Is

A view of the desert through the doorway of an eartthship.
The mountains of New Mexico are visible through an earthen doorway at the Earthship Biotecture headquarters near Taos. Jamie Cattanach for The Penny Hoarder

Whether Earthship living sounds amazing or atrocious to you, chances are you’d like to spend less on keeping a roof over your head.

Fortunately, you don’t have to become a remote desert dweller to do it.

From navigating the labyrinthine puzzle of first-time homeownership to refinancing an existing mortgage to saving on utilities, we’ve got lots of great tips and insider secrets to securing shelter without draining your wallet.

But if you do find yourself in northern New Mexico, it’s worth your time to pay these alien-looking abodes a visit. (Psst: You can even spend the night in one, thanks to Airbnb.)

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a writer whose work has been featured at Fodor’s, Yahoo, SELF, The Motley Fool, Roads & Kingdoms and other outlets.