Students Sample Earthship Life with ‘Off-the-Grid’ Study Tour in Taos, N.M.

Webster stduents visit Zena Kohlshorn's Earthship during a Taos, N.M., study tour.

Some Webster students hit the beach during spring break; others relaxed at home. Six Webster students, however, spent their break in Taos, New Mexico, living in and investigating an off-the-grid community—-one that is independent of public utilities.

The students were taking part in a hybrid course, Living on vs. off the Grid. The topics in physical science course was taught by Julia Griffey, assistant professor of interactive digital media, and Alix Henry, a Taos architect who designs self-sufficient, passive-solar homes known as Earthships.

Earthships: built from natural and recycled materials

Earthship originator Mike Reynolds, right, talks about his work to Webster students.

The brainchild of architect Mike Reynolds four decades ago, Earthships are built from natural and recycled materials. Features include thick walls, which provide thermal mass for natural temperature control; water harvesting and reuse; and natural ventilation. Sewage treatment and food production are also incorporated into the homes’ systems.

The story of how Griffey and Henry came to teach a course on off-the-grid housing began when they were toddlers playing together in a park. The two have remained close friends throughout their lives.

Griffey earned a civil engineering degree in California, and soon thereafter went to Taos to visit Henry, who was already working on Earthships.

“I just fell in love with Taos,” Griffey recalled.

Abundant sunshine has helped make New Mexico the Earthship capital of the world.

After working for nine months in a waste-water treatment plant in San Francisco, Griffey decided to change her career goals; she acquired more education and eventually became an interactive digital media professor.

Conversations two years ago led Griffey and Henry to realize that with their combined backgrounds, they could co-teach a class on off-the-grid living. Griffey decided to narrow her off-the-grid approach to science and found a home for her class in the Department of Biological Sciences.

“Stephanie Schroeder (biological sciences chair) was awesome and very supportive,” she said.

Class topics: waste water, water, power, and thermal comfort

Griffey, who reached into her engineering background to plan the classroom instruction that preceded the Taos study trip, homed in on four topics related to on- and off-grid living: waste water, water, power, and thermal comfort. She dedicated an entire class period to each topic.

Then, it was off to Taos during spring break, where the same four subjects were studied and experienced—one day for each. The students stayed at the Greater World Earthship Community, one of three off-the-grid communities in the New Mexico desert town.

Henry planned a variety of experiences for the Webster group, including visits to a spa, a brewery, and a solar power manufacturer, all incorporating off-the-grid technology.

“Alix’s relationship with the people in Taos who gave us presentations was priceless,” Griffey said. “And she more than delivered on the guest lectures and working together on the theme of each day.”

Tamping sand into used tires

The last full day in Taos was spent performing the intense manual labor that Earthship construction demands. In the students’ case, they tamped sand into used tires, part of the prep work for a playground.

Earthships' south-facing windows provide light and warmth.

Griffey and Henry are pleased with the success of the new hybrid class and look forward to offering it again. “I think students learned a lot, and it got them thinking about things they never considered,” Griffey said. One example: anaerobic digestion.

The co-teachers praised the group dynamics of their six students. “They were lovely,” said Henry. “Very well-read and very informed, very curious and—I have to say—very polite.”

Griffey agreed. “They were really kind, easy-going, fun, respectful…just a really good group.”

The Taos trip gave students plenty of food for thought.

“The most surprising thing was how functional the Earthships were,” said Claire Tyson, an environmental studies junior. “I expected them to have a lot of problems but the ones we saw were perfect. After the first night I spent in one, I became convinced that on-grid systems were the wrong way to be getting power.”

Devin Walk, an audio production sophomore, admitted to being skeptical of Earthships before he went to Taos. “What I found out surprised me. They work well and you can actually live comfortably in them.”

Walk said the “artsy” look of Earthships may be a deterrent to most people. “I think the average American would be more willing to buy a house that has the looks of an average home,” he said.

“You fall asleep at night listening to crickets…”

Tajar Work, a religious studies senior, said that staying in an Earthship left an indelible impression on her. “You fall asleep at night listening to crickets in the gray-water planters and wake up in the morning to sunshine and mountains,” she said. “Understanding the systems and knowing that the water I was using was going to be reused, and that the electricity comes straight from the sun was, well, just really nice.”

Work said her Taos experience left her ready to learn more and that she is considering applying to study at the Earthship Biotecture Academy.

“I think that Earthships, or at least the ideas behind Earthships, will definitely be a part of my future,” she said. “I have wanted to connect my religious studies major with ecology, and I think that there are ideas underlying the approaches to Earthships that can appeal to many people, not only on economic, but also spiritual levels.

“It is an amazing way of life that I would like to be part of.”

View the Webster Journal video of the Taos study tour.

Taos study tour participants, from left, Evan Brownstone, Devin Walk, Sam Hopwood, Neil Peterson, Tajar Work, Julia Griffey, Al;ix henry, Claire Tyson, and Hayley Luke. Luke covered the trip for the "Webster Journal."