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Home > Editorials > Mike Reynolds

Mike Reynolds

 More than seven hundred miles from the nearest ocean, the high desert of Northern New Mexico seems an unlikely place to find answers to the problems of coastal communities devastated by hurricanes and other natural disasters.


Nestling against the folds of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and spread across a wide valley, lies the town of Taos. Long before Hispanic settlers founded the town, around a thousand years ago Taos Pueblo became home to the Tewa, a Native American tribe of farmers and craftsmen.


Many legendary figures have found their way to Taos. The author DH Lawrence, photographer Ansel Adams and the painter Georgia O’Keefe all lived there. The iconic movie Easy Rider was shot partly in Taos and the town hosts KTAO, the world’s first totally solar powered radio station. It would seem that Taos was, is and probably always will be, a place for rebels and revolutionaries.


If you head out of town up Pueblo de Paseo Norte and drive towards the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the vast expanse of the mesa opens out before you. Soon you are confronted by an extraordinary sight: Earthships seeded from the dreams of renegade architect and sustainability visionary Michael Reynolds.


Within the four Earthship communities around Taos, you will see a pyramid, a castle, an ice cream coloured confection, a structure resembling an oilrig and others that could have landed from Mars.


Graduating from architecture school in 1969, Michael Reynolds was highly critical of conventional architecture, which he believes adheres too closely to out-moded theory and practice rather than focusing on quality of life.


Reynolds maintains that, instead of focusing too much on the aesthetics of a structure, a creative builder must be prepared to experiment and fail in order to find better solutions. He wanted to produce autonomous buildings that would ‘take care” of the occupants, offering them freedom from the infrastructure and the burden of utility bills by using natural and recycled materials while not imposing stress on the planet.


Moving to Taos, Reynolds built Thumb House in 1972. Educated in a brick based culture, he combined earth, wood and glass with bricks made from used beer cans that created thermal mass, which, once established, maintains heat. This build also taught him the importance of south-orientated windows to catch the best of the sun.


Now recognized and reproduced all over the world, Earthship Biotecture is based on six core elements to enable a sustainable, autonomous life: building with natural and recycled materials, solar and wind power, thermal/solar heating and cooling, rainwater harvesting and filtration, self contained sewage treatment and food production within the structure itself. (To see more visit www.earthshipglobal.com)


Nearly half a century later, Reynolds’ theory of architectural evolution through trial and error has not only come to fruition but is more relevant than ever. Earthship Biotecture is the number one eco-construction and self-sufficient living company in the world but this was achieved via a courageous and at times punishing journey involving difficulties that would have defeated lesser men.


To enable this progress through experimentation, clients were needed which often involved a risky gamble when testing new ideas that might not work. Due to the angling of the windows, Reynolds’ first attempt to build a two-storey home created too much heat even in winter. So extreme was the temperature that the owner’s heritage typewriter literally melted into a pool of plastic!


Among other potential risks, running sewage through a living room proved costly when things went wrong! These experiments have meant that occasional lawsuits have been an integral part of Earthship evolution, though happily those times have passed.


Most problematic of all was the temporary loss of Reynolds’ state and national architectural licences when his building methods came under fire, as they did not align with existing legislation. Forced to surrender his licences to avoid prosecution for malpractice, Reynolds took it upon himself to become a Trojan horse within the system. This involved him in long years of negotiation and legal battles with various authorities.


Having regained his architectural licences, Reynolds now refers to himself as a biotect. To allow his company and others to experiment with unproven methods, Reynolds forged new legislation establishing the right to use land as ‘building test sites’.

The manifestation of Reynolds’ vision has come a long way since he constructed Thumb House and went on to develop the Earthship concept.


Built in Taos in 2005, The Phoenix requires no power, gas lines or water coming in, no energy is used, sewage management is internalized and up to 6,000 gallons of water can be stored. The house provides a beautiful setting while maintaining a year round temperature of 70F, impressive considering that outside it can swing from 30F below to over 100F, yet there are no utility bills to be paid.


More than half of The Phoenix’s floor space is devoted to food production. There are water features and an internal jungle where twenty-foot trees grow with tropical birds, insects and bugs living amongst the foliage. Tilapia, other fish and turtles swim in a pond. Outside there is space for ducks, chickens and goats.


The Phoenix can support a family of four without the need to leave the house for anything! It offers its residents totally autonomous living or freedom if you prefer.


Alongside its commercial work, Earthship Biotecture has developed Biotecture Planet Earth, a not-for-profit wing through which they teach people to build autonomous houses, they organize sustainable development, disaster and poverty relief projects around the world as well as enabling the public to learn about sustainability through their visitors’ centre and nightly rentals of Earthships.


Based in Taos, the month long courses at Earthship Academy focus on Earthship design principles, construction methods and philosophy. Led by Michael Reynolds, top Earthship builders, electricians, plumbers and plant specialists teach students from around the world through a combination of classroom studies, laboratory, tours and hands on construction experience.


In response to Hurricane Mitch in 1999, Michael Reynolds led a team to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to build “Hut”, which demonstrated hurricane resistant building methods designed for warmer climates and small, affordable projects. Since then the team have undertaken a variety of sustainability, poverty and disaster relief projects in places such as Uruguay, Little Andaman Island, Mexico, Nepal, Malawi, the Philippines, Easter Island and Haiti.


Using as much waste as possible, these ventures are undertaken by a core crew from Earthship Biotecture, assisted by academy graduates, other volunteers and local residents to enable them to build and teach others how to construct the buildings themselves.


Last September, along with other Caribbean islands, Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico, destroying homes and leaving thousands of people without shelter, water or electricity.


This February, with Earthship Biotecture’s senior foreman Phil Basehart, Michael Reynolds will lead a small disaster relief trip to Puerto Rico where they will build a hurricane resistant Earthship demonstration building in San Juan.


Speaking about the project, Michael Reynolds says, “We want to teach as many people as possible how to build very low-cost, hurricane resistant buildings that can be used as shelters. Depending on how much money we can raise, we will have various teams working at the same time to construct as many buildings as possible and teach participants how to do this themselves.”


To cover the initial five-day build, Earthship Biotecture raised $5,000 to cover clearing the land, materials, flights and salaries for the key crew. Twenty international volunteers and a group of locals complete the team. The land has been donated and there is more on offer when the necessary finance is in place to produce additional buildings. Local government representatives and many of the island’s seventy mayors will visit the build.


The design is based on a five-petal flower. While each is slightly different, the five-petal model was used in Sierra Leone, Malawi and Easter Island. The design works well in warm and tropical climates where it is unnecessary to position buildings towards the sun. It creates a lot of shelter with a large roof area to catch and store rainwater.


Although the initial build will produce two structures, Reynolds intends to return to complete the remaining petals and install the necessary infrastructure including a bathroom once funds are to hand. It is a testament to the passion and loyalty that he inspires that academy graduates and other volunteers are prepared to fly in, cover their own costs plus a donation and follow him all over the world, so hungry are they to keep building.


Reynolds claims that, if the funds are available, he could bring an Earthship army a thousand strong to work continuously until the whole of Puerto Rico is rebuilt with hurricane resistant buildings.


Like other Caribbean islands, tourism that includes attractive moorings for yachts, luxury hotels, elegant homes, glamorous restaurants, entertainment venues and other infrastructure is an essential element of Puerto Rico’s economy and character. Earthships capable of withstanding future natural disasters can be designed for these and other purposes.


How amazing would it be if the response to these disasters could result not just in recovery but transforming coastal communities into inspirational examples of the way forward worldwide?


Impressive as it is that Earthship Global has the expertise, ability and manpower to reconstruct whole islands, the organization requires the means to buy and transport supplies and personnel plus access to other expertise and local knowledge dependent on where they are working.


Who has the funds, connections, manpower and inclination to enable this? Is this an opportunity for the yachting fraternity that is so reliant upon coastal communities for its livelihood and pleasure cruising?


Captain of the sailing yacht VIVID for twelve years and General Manager of YachtAid Global, Tim Forderer sees the connection between the yachting and coastal communities as a karmic relationship; “All of us need to take part in a discussion about the lessons learned from the last few months. We must recognise how essential it is for the yachting community to support a full time humanitarian organization that represents the entire boating fraternity in support of the world’s coastal communities upon which we rely for our destinations and from whom we receive so much.”


Founded ten years ago, in collaboration with a worldwide network of volunteers, approved NGOs and disaster relief experts, YachtAid Global (www.yachtaidglobal.org) coordinates the acquisition and delivery of humanitarian aid to coastal communities in need or impacted by natural disasters. It also provides disaster relief management.


In 2018 YachtAid Global is expanding its mission to support coastal communities through on going humanitarian initiatives that yacht owners, crews and industry leaders can participate in. To do this, they are collaborating with AYSS, a global collective of the best super yacht agents.


While all agents offer standard information to yachts, Estela Shipping has an outstanding book about Palma and the Balearic Islands featuring bunkering, provisioning and more. YachtAid Global is encouraging other agents to produce similar books that will also promote how to become more involved in local culture and identify potential volunteering opportunities worldwide for owners and crew plus other issues.


By making this information readily available, when the next storm comes, the industry can be efficiently proactive rather than reactive which will allow the right aid to get to the right people at the right time.


To enable their expanded mission, YachtAid Global is looking to yacht owners to step up and make significant contributions in the form of a YachtingPledge. This pledge is based on the GivingPledge.org model created by Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates. Through GivingPledge.org, between one hundred to one hundred and fifty of the world’s ultra High Net Worth philanthropic families are making a public commitment to give away a large percentage of their financial worth.


Some thirty of those individuals are yacht owners. YachtAid Global is asking them to channel some of their energy and resources to YachtingPledge. This contribution will also include expertise and knowledge to ensure assets are used to their greatest potential.


Forderer hopes that, through YachtAid Global and other enterprises, the habit of making a humanitarian contribution will become deeply rooted within the entire yachting sector. He says, “I truly believe that when a yacht crew looks back on their time at sea, they won’t so much remember hundreds of nights in the pub as they will installing clean drinking water filters or solar lighting solutions so that kids can study into the evening. These are the memories they will cherish.”


Basehart echoes Forderer’s sentiments. Having finished construction on his own Earthship with no mortgage or utility bills to pay, he realized that he could enable others to do the same and, through that, change their lives for the better. Travelling with the Earthship Biotech crew to majority world situations, he saw how people with very limited incomes are caught in a cycle of renting inadequate homes and paying for utilities from which neither they nor their children or grandchildren can escape.


Basehart’s life mission now involves helping such people. As he points out, those who experience natural disasters soon find themselves in such conditions, which happened in Puerto Rico.


While Michael Reynolds looks to bring an Earthship army with the force of a hurricane to rebuild Puerto Rico, YachtAid Global’s vision is to make Dominica the world’s first totally resilient country, a place where Reynolds’ team are already in discussion with tribal elders!


Looking out across the Bay of Palma, home to Europe’s largest marina, it is easy to see how important a contribution the yachting fraternity can make to answering the needs of the disaster stricken Caribbean islands and other such places. However, as Tim Forderer states, “The time for competition outside sport is over and, instead, it is time for us all to build unity.”


So the question must be quite what could be achieved if two such powerful forces as the global yachting community and Reynolds’ Earthship army were to work together? For sometimes, as Reynolds says, “It takes a disaster for the world to prepare.”


Whether you are a billionaire owner, a newbie deck hand or a landlubber who gets seasick when you step on board a pedalo, here is an opportunity to be part of a world changing crew.


Alongside the possibilities that the yachting sector offers, you could help through a donation to Biotecture Planet Earth, volunteering on a disaster build or attending the Earthship Academy. (To donate to the Puerto Rico Disaster Build, visit www.biotectureplanetearth.com/donate)


Each one of us has something we can bring to this remarkable odyssey, and as Michael Reynolds says, “It will be a shot heard across the world.”




By Rosalinda Much

© Rosalinda Much