Back in the summer of 2005, I had the opportunity to travel for a number of days throughout New Mexico on a dual vacation/educational endeavor (what isn’t educational,I ask?) Whilst digging through images to upload to Flickr, I found a hidden trove photos from that trip as well as some notes for an article I was writing and decided that an extended post was appropriate.
For those of you that did not get my reference in the title, the trip included a number of highlights, the biggest contrast coming from in one day. The start of the day included visiting the renowned and rustic semi-DIY ecological dwellings called Earthships outside of Taos, NW – followed by the evening of checking into and staying at the posh eco-resort – El Monte Sagrado, in Taos proper.
The architectural differences are pretty evident, although both utilize local materials and apply them in ways specific to the arid desert environment such as thermal mass, daylighting, passive cooling and cross-ventilation, and earthen materials. And tires… did I mention tires?
To clarify with a definition, via the Earthship Website: “Earthship n. 1. passive solar home made of natural and recycled materials 2. thermal mass construction for temperature stabilization. 3. renewable energy & integrated water systems make the Earthship an off-grid home with little to no utility bills.”
:: Tires and bottles at the Earthships – L+U
And to further clarify, El Monte Sagrado, via their website: “El Monte Sagrado, well-known as a leader in alternative energy, blends its commitment to sustainability with a setting of indulgent luxury. Of special note for our environmentally conscious travelers is the Biolarium and The Living Machine, a holistically designed eco-structure that incorporates recycled water, plants, and rock formation into a self-sustaining ecosystem that flows throughout the resort and creates an enclosed, lush sanctuary around the resort’s pool. By treating and recycling the water with natural filters and purifiers, El Monte Sagrado is able to sustain a lush and fertile year-round environment, even at 7,000 feet above sea level. With sunlit fish-filled streams, tropical flora, and the sounds of calming waterfalls, the nurturing effects of El Monte Sagrado’s Living Spa begin from the moment of your arrival.”
So, conceptually these are not two peas in a pod… but locally each strive for off-the-grid (to a degree) cutting edge sustainability in the desert ecosystem of Taos. One thing I was very interesting in checking out was the use of stormwater and wastewater treatment facilities – particularly outdoor waste processing and polishing from constructed wetlands. This reminded me that I did pick up a book on Water while at the Earthships that I should pull out some time and check into. It is authored by Mike Reynolds whom also fancies himself a practitioner of Biotecture, which is “…the profession of designing buildings and environments with consideration for their sustainability.[or]… A combination of biology and architecture.” Sounds like a quality portmanteau to me…
The water treatment at El Monte Sagrado was a bit more refined, and definitely in a high-visibility location (as you enter the pool area. This particular garden was a bit unruly, but another further along the path was more put together, evoking the concept of desert Cenote – which is a natural groundwater sinkhole common in Mexico. The design of EMS is the brainchild of local firm Living Designs Group out of Taos, who specialize in regional sustainability – interjecting the designs with sustainable strategies that are reflective of regional differences. For instance – Pacific Northwest Sustainability, for instance, is very different than Southwestern Desert Sustainability… we say with a ‘duh!’
The heavy lifting for wastewater is done with indoor living machines. I know for sure that El Monte Sagrado uses actual trademarked Living Machines – long stolen from John Todd – but not sure if I can use that term legally for Earthships. The contrast in technology here was less distinct and pretty consistent – as you can see from the following photos. Functionally similar to one another, each used the idea of plants, flora, and fauna, to break down wastes. Simple, right?
The living machines were remarkably similar, housed in a glass enclosure and rife with tropical vegetation. The Earthship prominately displayed their machine in the front room, where the series of multiple machines at El Monte Sagrado (treating all of the graywater from the hotel and spa) where tucked away behind the indoor pool in a lush and humid tropical garden oasis). Both were much more fun than a septic tank or mechanical room. Also, the bottom pic, You can see this living machine is chock fun and churning away at a load full of soap suds at this point…
:: Earthship Eco-Machine – L+U
What could the off-the grid eco-pioneers of Earthships and the swank high-brow lifestyle of the transient residents of El Monte Sagrado in common. In some sense, quite a lot. In others, absolutely nothing. What struck me was the continuum on which ecological design exists – and that it is perhaps able to transcend many social structures – but sometimes is a very powerful way of accentuating the haves and have-nots. Or perhaps it’s the have’s because you can afford it, versus the have’s because you had the ingenuity to figure it out.
The details of both of these projects start to hammer home this point. For instance, the use of glass bottles for daylighting inside the Earthship – as well as a striking exterior facade articulation using beer cans and bottles.
The water features and paving details at El Monte Sagrado speak of sophistication and simplicity – which seems to fit into the theme of this place – and separate the two even further. Water at the Earthships is for function primarily – at El Monte it is for function – plus art. Stone is the same way – as a natural material – or a paving accent – perhaps both giving a clue to the geology and geography in which projects exist.
Or the utilitarian solar array, versus the whimsical… the solar panels prominentely displayed at the Earthships to maximize exposure – while I don’t think I saw one at El Monte Segrado, save this sculpture below:
When it comes down to it, my major beef with the DIY ecological design is the overly rustic aesthetic. While I think the DIY eco-aesthetic is fine, and some would argue more authentic to the vernacular, there’s a certain level of refinement that seems lacking – and this is usally chalked up to utility. I think that this utilitarian rationalization is just a cop-out due to lack of design talent and sophistication. A lot of project may be technically brilliant or regionally authentic – but look like crap (in the case of some cob building, literally.) Face it, functionalism can only bring you so far without the poetry. Or is there poetry in the simple functionalism? Organicism via shit-shaped structures – is not poetic organic form. Let’s compare for instance, some materials choices for the two projects… first, the used tire and beer can wall filler of the Earthships…
It’s not that I dislike this. I find it refreshing, fun, and interesting. But, is it an aesthetic that would be widely transferable to most people? Not likely? Is it because we are elitist pigs? Or is it just that when the choice is given,we’d rather not have Budweiser cans jutting from our mud-packed tire walls… On the flip side, the admittedly expensive sculptural wrought iron bridge railing – and stone inlay in the paving from El Monte Segrado. Not everyone’s taste I’m sure – nor everyone’s budget. Both seem specific to place and user – which makes them both equally authentic.
Many think that the concepts and technologies of ecological design are only available to the upper eschelons whom can afford either the design expertise or the rigors of implementation to make for sustainable living. While this is true to a degree – you can buy your way into sustainability – it’s a matter of degree what success you can attain when looking at true sustainability. In the end, both are sustainable, in different ways.
This is not to make a value judgement, or to delve into monetary elitism (ok, maybe a bit – but I would guess the monthly operating cost for an Earthship is probably on par with one night at El Monte Sagrado). The purpose of pointing out a number of these differences (amidst the similarities) is to highlight the schism that inevitably is inherent in either of these types of development. One swinging along with the pendulum to minimalism, extreme reuse, and function. The other drifting into the realms of artistic expression, material excess, and decadence.
My point (if there is one amongst this rambling) is that, both projects aim for and are guided by a similar subject (for continuity let’s call it desert sustainability). The direction, goals, and motivations for the designers, and ultimately the end users, of these spaces couldn’t be more different. Yet do they differ as much as we think? The unifying theme is an ingrained searching for individuality that seems caught up in sustainability.
The individuality of forging on your own in the bare desert necessity of the Earthships is one way to acheive this – perhaps as a statement against society, excess, and on a budget. The individuality of choosing to pay a high premium for eco-luxury is another – perhaps to education or confront notions of lifestyle choice and opportunity.
In the end, one may ultimately be more sustainable that the other long-term (i’ll leave it to you to decide) – but in our world of disparities, can there be room for both individuals – if they ultimately want the same thing?