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Portrait de Mike Reynolds
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Building with recycled materials isn’t new! Read the story of Mike Reynolds

4 min


In the field of modern architecture, ecological transition is not a new topic. Decades ago, a handful of pioneers created a movement, paving the way for future generations. In the 1970s, the first sustainable houses, called ‘earthships’, made from recycled materials were designed by a man named Mike Reynolds.


One person’s waste is another person’s home

During his architectural studies at the University of Cincinnati Mike Reynolds began looking at different ways of using waste to construct buildings. His classmates remember his provocative and anti-conformist work well. After graduation, this idealistic hippie got on his bike and left the state of Ohio for New Mexico, where he put his ideas into practice.

In 1972 he finished building Thumb House, using everyday waste such as beer cans, assembled to form bricks. It was one of the first houses of its kind in the United States! Thumb House, laid the foundations for Mike Reynolds’ Earthships and the concept of "biotecture".

Extra terrestrial earthships

Mike, soon to be joined by a merry band of just as daring disciples, developed the concept over a period of 40 years, by means of trial and error. He set up an experimental community in Taos, New Mexico, where he built the first Earthships using natural local materials and waste: aluminum cans, glass bottles, food cans, etc. One of his great ideas, were these walls, made of worn tires filled with compressed earth which naturally regulate the inside temperature.
Gradually, dozens of colorful, comfortable houses with organic, soft shapes, landed in Taos. A far cry from the conformist "little boxes" parodied by Malvina Reynolds in the 1962 song. Mike’s Earthships look like post apocalyptic shacks, alien spacecraft, or Hobbit houses. Houses from other worlds that solve real problems here on Earth. Partially buried, facing the sun, Earthships are passive, energy-autonomous buildings with their own water management and treatment system. Off-the-grid houses that care for the environment and their residents in symbiosis with nature.

Renegade architect raised to the rank of hero

Mike Reynolds’ radical and rebellious vision of architecture brought censure from many of his fellow architects, who considered he was a disgrace to the profession (no less!). However, in the 70s, he was one of the first (and only) people to see the importance of sustainable architecture. In 1990, architecture’s governing body in New Mexico withdrew his architect's license - for 17 years! In 2007, the documentary film Garbage Warrior, a moving testimony to this difficult period, traced the life and work of Mike Reynolds and brought him to the notice of the general public.
Today, the man is regarded as a hero of the environmental movement, and thousands of Earthships – from the Global Model to Single Survival, built for the first time in Haiti – have spread to every continent. Students from around the world come to New Mexico to learn how to build these Earthships - incarnations of a sustainable and self-sufficient lifestyle at a time of climate change and international crises. Some will end up staying forever...


Credits: The architect, Michael Reynolds - ©