Earthship Todos Santos
Have you ever thought about building your home out of trash?
Nip up the Pacific coast and you will find just such a house, made from old tires, discarded bottles and other detritus. Tucked back up on a rise overlooking the ocean outside Todos Santos. It is the coolest, most unique structure around, a wonderful example of idealism and ingenuity in an idyllic landscape of palm trees, organic farms and ranches.
Imagine a long, narrow building with skylights, solar panels and glass facade protruding from a giant earth pile landscaped with grass, cacti and desert plants. Round windows, undulating walls and organic shapes make it a little bit Gaudi, a little bit hobbit. A low wooden gate, wildflowers, and a side door which is actually a front door, add to the fairy tale charm.
Colored glass bottles embedded in the sky blue wall of the doorway set an unconventional theme for the rest of the house. They are a fun, decorative element throughout.
This unique structure is an Earthship, a type of energy-efficient, environmentally friendly house, brainchild of Anna Sorrentino and her brother Patrizio. The idea for the Earthship came out of a period of soul-searching. In 2009, Anna, newly graduated, was seeking a more meaningful path for her life. At the same time, Patrizio had just had a third child, and was thinking how to prepare his children for a future with climate change and diminishing resources. It would require a new paradigm for living- self-sufficiency in shelter, energy, water and food, and an ecologically conscious lifestyle that would support the environment and the planet.
The answer came one day when Patrizio saw a Discovery Channel program on houses of the future. The subject was Earthships and Patrizio was hooked. He called his sister in Chicago right away. “I’ve got it! We are going to build a house made of tires!” Their house could then be a prototype for other sustainable homes; they could teach what they learned, get the government and local municipality on board for a larger program. Anna loved the idea, and so the adventure began.
As a surfer, Patrizio knew the area around Todos Santos well and felt that its climate and topography would be ideal for an eco home. Therefore the 2.2 hectare lot they found just outside of town. The bigger challenge was coming up to speed on Earthship science. For that, Patrizio headed to Taos, New Mexico, for instruction at Earthship Biotecture, the company founded by Earthship creator Michael Reynolds.
Think of the Earthship as a living organism interacting with nature- the rain, wind, and sun- to create the needs of its inhabitants.
It is a passive solar house made of natural and recycled materials like bottles, cans and tires. In Anna and Patrizio’s Earthship, old tires were packed hard with earth and then stacked like bricks. This extra thickness creates natural insulation to keep the interior cool in the summer and warm in the winter, not unlike the traditional adobe or rammed earth house. The giant earth berm at the back of the house also acts as an insulator.
Finally, a clever placement of windows and skylights creates natural ventilation that helps to keep the home cool without air-conditioning, even in the hot Cabo summers. In Earthships, south facing walls made of slanted glass take advantage of maximum sun for light and heat. Anna and Patrizio expanded this south-facing glass wall into a greenhouse.
The water supply in Earthships is a self-contained system. All of it comes from rain collected on the roof. It goes through a system of filters to make it safe for drinking and washing. Water which has been used once is filtered again through a tank with live bacteria and plants and then recycled as greywater to flush the toilets. Then, water from flushed toilets is sent to a solar enhanced septic tank, purified, then used to water the garden. None of it is wasted, perfect for a desert environment.
Building the Earthship
Next came months of hunting at dumps for building materials, a sobering process. Just the amount of discarded tires alone was staggering- over 50 million in the La Paz dump, 30 million in Cabo San Lucas, and 2 million in Todos Santos.
Construction began in early 2010. Michael Reynolds came down with a team of 20 volunteers and their families. By this time, word had spread about the project, so that other volunteers arrived as well, some coming from as far as Australia and Japan. They camped on the site and were given one meal a day. Sometimes, passersby would also stop to lend a hand. All in all, there were at least 70 people working there at any given time.
It is awesome and moving to think of those volunteers, some of whom came from great distances, giving their time and energy to a project they believed in. Even local residents and businesses got in the spirit. Many of the restaurants and bars in Todos Santos, for example, donated their empty bottles. The lady who owns the strawberry farm volunteered her truck. It brings to mind other community building activities like Amish and Mennonite barn raising, or the work of Habitat for Humanity, which I find so beautiful.
With that many workers, it took only 20 days to build the Earthship. Once everyone left, completing the interior space, detailing and landscaping, took a year. Usually, this stage is also handled by Earthship Biotecture. But Anna and Patrizio tackled it on their own through trial and error. As Anna says, it was “a journey of design”.
Inside the Earthship
The interior follows a simple shotgun house layout with a long, blue and white tiled corridor running the entire length, separating living quarters to the right and a glass walled greenhouse to the left. The rooms on the right are arranged one behind the other: two bedrooms, bathroom and a large room consisting of a kitchen and living area. The glass wall provides light and views.
The bedrooms are simple, with a pleasing, rustic appeal: white painted wood plank floors, wooden ceiling, white washed walls.
The wall in one room has a playful, glass studded sun and moon design made from raised, raw stucco. In the next room, the same technique is used to make a crazy wave on two facing walls.
My favorite room, though, is the bathroom. It has a fun, nature theme and makes creative use of recycled materials and found objects. The floor is a great, stylized tree mosaic made from broken tiles with branches that twist and curl up the step to the shower.
The glass bottle wall motif repeats in the shower. Inside, a big sunflower or octopus shaped mosaic of broken tiles decorates the faucet and shower controls.
The centerpiece, though, is the bright, turquoise colored sink.
All furnishings came from thrift stores and dumps. The entire cost- $1,000. The result are cool, shabby chic living spaces and a contemporary farmhouse style kitchen complete with trendy blackboard, vintage cabinets, mismatched wooden table and chairs.
In this spirit, empty coffee cans become hanging lights and discarded old milk bottles a wall decoration. Logs cut on the cross section are patio stairs.
At the back of the great room is a marvelous, sunburst shaped glass door which leads outside.
In the patio area are two loungers, a table and chairs, and an outdoor bed under a canopy for sleeping under the stars.
It is great how Anna and Patrizio were able to transform rejects and trash, bound for the streets, beaches and oceans, into something beautiful and valuable. It is an inspiring example of what all of us can do to live greener lives. They feel no sense of sacrifice for living off the grid or for furnishing their home in this manner. In Anna’s words, their Earthship is “super cozy”- cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
As the Earthship was meant for cooler climates, some of its original design had to be modified or topicalized for sunny Los Cabos. For example, the batteries on the roof had to be replaced after a few years with a different system because they boiled in the hot sun. The glass greenhouse, which was intended to draw warmth into the Earthship in cold winters, was a little too efficient and had to be modified with a canopy. The biggest challenge for Anna and Patrizio, however, was the cost of the technology and equipment they needed to build their Earthship, because all of it had to be imported from the US. Nonetheless, the experience was life changing for them. Today, Patrizio is an engineer working with alternative materials like bamboo. And Anna is a chef, part of the organic foods restaurant scene. They still hope to build more on their Earthship property. It will be interesting to see how their story unfolds.
By Mei-lan Chin-Bing
We invite you to visit our properties in Todos Santos and the Pacific Side online.
Want to learn more? Don't miss "Earthship" on the Discovery Channel.