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Architect Michael Reynolds opens shades on a wall of windows inside the lush environment of an "Earthship" he designed and built in Taos, N.M. A new Taos community of earthships, passive solar houses made of both natural and upcycled materials such as earth-packed tires, is working to show how residents can live in sustainable housing.

It’s 29 degrees in Taos this early morning in late December when Kate Noonan walks out of EVE to start up her car.

EVE stands for Earthship Village Ecologies, a self-sufficient three-story building made with empty cans, bottles and used tires that resembles a modern cathedral because of its complex structural form. It includes high ceilings held by a partial fan-vaulted wall decorated with colorful mosaics, pillars and a stair case leading to three different levels.

EVE’s most unusual feature is perhaps an open space at the end of the upper level with a toilet at the center.

Self-sustaining

EVE is still under construction. When finished, it might house 25 people who will also work and grow their own food in its greenhouse and gardens. At least, that has been environmental architect Michael Reynolds’ goal when he started planning and designing this building at his Earthship community in Taos more than a decade ago.

“We are talking about building a building up with things that you throw away. Over the years I ended up developing these points that I’m responding to, and they are what every village, town, city, tribe has to deal with,” Reynolds said. “They are in fact the issues that all of humanity is having to address. And they are not doing a very good job of it. And, therefore, we have dumps, sewage pollution, endless problems because we are not addressing these issues and we can’t expect the government and corporations to address them.”

Reynolds was referring to the need for comfortable shelter, catching rain water, producing food and energy with the sun or wind, and disposing of garbage and sewage. He added, all of his buildings are self-sufficient and address these issues, and EVE would be the first to house a large number of people and address these issues and “economics” because the occupants will live and work at this building.

EVE has also been Noonan’s home for the past 3 1/2 years.

As her vehicle warms, Noonan, 38, walks back inside EVE.

The temperature stays at 40 degrees inside the building even though there’s no furnace, or electrical or gas/propane heaters inside.

The building is heated by the sun and thermal mass technology. Technically, earthships are enclosed within three walls made with used tires filled and covered with dirt, and plastered inside. This feature makes them look like bunkers, or as if they were buried underground, but they are above ground. The tires are an important component on these buildings because when the sun heats up the tires, they radiate the energy inside the building.

Ideally, when EVE is completed, the temperature in the interior rooms should not go below 60 degrees even on cold days like this. Until then, Noonan heats up her room at night with a wood stove. At the time, she is the only occupant.

“This is an experimental earthship. The temperatures are all different in the old models,” she says walking along an indoor garden where a tomato vain is climbing over a fence and geraniums she planted a few years back are in full bloom. “The new earthships are awesome. The temperature stays in the 70s.”

And that temperature applies for the buildings during the summer as well, as it is the case of the simple survival earthship across the street where a banana tree grows in the greenhouse at an average temperature of 40 degrees this cold day of winter, and where the main living room stays at 60 degrees.

The simple survival earthship is used to house guests, students or anyone interested in renting an earthship and experience offgrid living.

Noonan, who is originally from Michigan, moved to Taos in 2013 to take part in an internship with the Earthship Biotecture Academy, which Reynolds founded in 2011 to teach sustainable architecture to students from around the world. As part of the academy, students get to work in partnership with other nonprofit organizations on disaster relief or humanitarian projects building homes or community buildings based on the earthship concepts and teach local populations about the potential for sustainable technologies.

After her four-week internship, Noonan took a job with Reynolds’ academy as the student housing caretaker, but the job is about to come to an end. In a week, she will move back to a city.

“It has been interesting — a huge social experiment for me personally,” Noonan said. “I’ve been taking care of student housing here for 3 1/2 years now and we have 20 or 30 new people every month and all those people are like, ‘I’m building an orphanage in Mexico. I’m building a community center in Puerto Rico.’ You know, they are carpenters and plumbers and electricians — just awesome.”

The group of students who participated in the academy in November also had the chance to work at Zuni Pueblo helping build the veterinarian clinic, a partnership between Earthship Biotecture Planet Earth, Reynolds' nonprofit, and the Zuni Tribe.

In December, the students helped erect the clinic’s interior footings and set up electrical wiring and plumbing.

The first phase of the Zuni Veterinarian Clinic was completed with donations and grants amounting about $180,000, which included funding from the Recycling and Illegal Dumping Fund and the American for Native American.

Students are scheduled to return in the spring. When completed, this will become the first sustainable vet clinic in the world built with recycled material.

“We get all kinds of different people here. It’s not just the one group of people that’s like, ‘We are gonna eat dirt and live off roots and carry water.’ It’s not just extremists,” Noonan said. “The thing that I noticed, like attracts like. So, every group comes with some common denominator. They all have something in common. That and, it’s like sometimes we get middle age men and they all have trucks and tools, and they are like, ‘I got this, I got this.’ “Or sometimes we’ll get a group with a bunch of college students who are excited about something. It’s interesting,” she continued. “Groups have a similar feel to them, and sometimes they would have their birthdays close together, and they didn’t know each other before they met at the academy. I think its a scientific thing that synergies attract, so they wind up booking at the same time.”

Noonan, who is about to complete her tenure working for Earthship Biotecture, will be moving into an apartment in the city.

“I’m moving to a very conventional apartment to save money for when I can build my own earthship. I’m so scared that I’m not going to be able to sleep in the apartment because there’s this hum (from appliances and furnace), like the hum of my car right now.”

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Entertainment Editor/Features Reporter

Eloise is A&E Editor and a food, entertainment and features writer for The Times, subjects she has covered for over two decades in and around the Region. She was the youngest of eight in a Chicago household filled with fantastic cooks and artists.