TAOS, N.M. — Before the Heaven's Gate cult committed mass suicide, the biggest stigma Earthship builders had to overcome was that they were making houses out of trash.
Then, in March, 39 people killed themselves in Rancho Santa Fe and left behind a bizarre-looking stacked-tire fortress in the mountains of New Mexico, drawing attention--the wrong kind--to a company focused on saving the planet.
"Are we doing something phenomenal? Definitely. But we're teaching people here to connect with the planet, not leave it," says Michael Reynolds, a shaggy gray-haired visionary who builds self-sustaining homes out of tires, bottles, cans and dirt.
For the last 25 years, Reynolds, an architect, has been perfecting his trademark structures called "Earthships."
There are about 1,000 around the world, ranging from the multimillion-dollar luxury home of actor Dennis Weaver in Ridgway, Colo., to a tidy little Earthship housing a family of laborers in a village in Bolivia.
The structurally sound homes use no electricity or gas; they produce no sewage; they don't pump water out of the ground. And these Earthships have nothing to do with suicide, angels, UFOs or cults.
"These are really ships that will sail into the future without politics, without economics, without taxing the Earth," Reynolds says.
Prompted by televised reports in the 1970s of a planet overwhelmed by lumber shortages and trash, Reynolds has quietly and persistently worked to find a solution.
With his tight jeans, reflecting sunglasses, wild hair and snug black shirt, the 51-year-old Kentucky native looks more like an aging rocker than an architect. But there's nothing unpolished about his stylish homes.
The Nautilus model Earthship near Reynolds' Taos headquarters in northern New Mexico is a voluptuous, molded, sensual building.
Step inside and find lush planters filled with banana trees and grapevines--an anomaly in most homes, but an outright contradiction in this 7,500-foot-high desert where arid is an understatement.
The homes are connectable, but not connected, to utilities. Instead, Earthships are powered by solar panels and windmills, heated with sunshine, cooled with underground ventilation tubes. They use water captured from a bowl-shaped roof.
Residents brag about being "off grid"--disconnected from pipes and wires that are a conventional lifeline for most homes.
"It feels like I'm in the arms of the mother in it. It's a very soft feeling, all surrounded by earth,' says writer Bess Savitri, who settled into her El Prado, N.M., Earthship almost three years ago.
Savitri says she spends about an hour a month cleaning water filters and adding water to her solar batteries.
The only other problem she has found is that the indoor foliage attracts insects. She solved this by giving nine bug-hungry lizards a home in her planters.
In Hastings, Mich., Beth Farner says she and her husband Matt's Earthship "is very peaceful, really wonderful."
The floors are slate and tile, the library lined with oak bookshelves, the walls thick and warm. Farner says she takes "long hot showers" in the winter, uses a washing machine and dryer, and can flush her toilet whenever she feels like it.
Again, the drawbacks are few: In heavy snowstorms, the Farners have to go outside and scrape off their slanted windows. And hanging pictures can be tricky on the mud walls.
"Decorating is kind of a humorous experience," she says.
Reynolds' first Earthship attempts were not as successful.
Pane windows directed so much sunlight onto the kitchen counters you could fry an egg on them. Water-catching roofs leaked, in random trickles, onto the floor of living rooms. And meeting government housing codes was an additional challenge.
Today, a typical Earthship costs about $75 per square foot to build, comparable to a moderate wood-frame house. Reynolds also has a very basic package--a $35,000 small "Nest" with entire self-sustaining systems and no utility bills--that his crews can put up in two weeks.
He also will provide the plans for those who want to build their own. A sign on his office door reads: "Architects cost $50 per hour." Or a generic set of architectural drawings can be had for $2,000.
"Once the Earthship is built, it does not tax you or the planet," Reynolds says.
"I find that people with no mortgages and no utility bills are just nicer to each other and nicer to the Earth," he says.
Reynolds is constantly expanding his business, and his company is growing.
He's working on three self-sustaining communities, renting model homes to visitors, teaching weekend seminars, training architectural interns, and publishing books and newsletters. About 50 employees and interns are paid between $6 and $25 an hour to support all the projects.
In northern New Mexico, Earthships are proliferating and the effect is being felt--especially at tire stores.
"We've had people get into fights in the back over the tires," says Melba Martinez, owner of M&M Tires in Taos, who gives away old tires.