Lifting Off: Mike Wird Launching Earthship Movement in Denver

How to address the environmental cost of growth in a boom time, like the one Denver is experiencing? Mike Wird, a 33-year old Colorado-born writer, rapper, educator and environmental activist, has an idea: Build earthships — alternative housing structures that are off the grid and of the moment.

“Earthships give us a whole new way to think about and use energy,” says Wird. “I see it as a first step to starting to wean off of a complete dependency on fossil fuels. As a human species, we have to start on this path, or we simply won’t exist.” 

Wird envisions a future city where urban dwellings are made from natural, recycled and found materials: Frames made of dirt-stuffed used tires instead of aluminum or steel; insulation from old soda bottles and beer cans rather than foam or fiberglass. Powered by solar energy, flowing with reclaimed and captured water and filled with plants and light, earthships combine indigenous building techniques with a modern approach to holistic system design. Made from round objects, they’re curvy, curious structures — half kiva, half greenhouse, both high and low tech.

“Earthships apply ecological design techniques to living situations,” says Wird, who recently traded his trademark afro for a springtime buzzcut. “They use natural forces without a lot of inputs. There are no wires coming in from a power plant. There are no sewer lines coming in and out.

“It’s a matter of looking at what’s available now and putting it to use,” he continues. “Like, old tires? You can find those anywhere. Let’s make good use of them. Trees are really useful for other things like oxygenating the planet and offsetting our carbon footprint, so let’s maybe not chop them down for houses.”

Bringing Taos to Denver

In Colorado, earthships are found mostly on private land in rural settings: in the sandstone plains of Grand Junction and wide-open pockets of the San Luis Valley. Wird is involved with new earthship developments in Colorado Springs and Salida. His vision is to bring the movement to Denver; earthships, he says, would provide an affordable, green alternative to conventional mass construction in an increasingly dense Denver.

In 2011, Wird was the first Coloradan to complete a rigorous earthship training program at the Earthship Biotecture Academy in Taos, New Mexico, an anchor for the growing earthship movement. Wird worked alongside trainees from across the United States, Canada, Central and South America, learning the core principles of earthship construction.

“It was people from all over, from all walks of life,” says Wird. “The issues that earthships address are relevant to everyone. It’s just common sense, really. We have this planet, and we can’t just use it all up. So, what are we going to do?”

So deep was Wird’s commitment to the training that brought his family to Taos with him; his wife, Robin Eden, gave birth to the the couple’s fourth child in the earthship they’d rented for the month.

“That whole experience was representative of what Robin and I are willing to go through, to really learn this philosophy and this set of skills, so we can be an asset to the community in the future,” Wird says. “Our work is getting the community together to ground the idea of earthships and then take the practical steps to make it real and solid.”

With Robin, Wird runs the Boulder-based Regenerative Lifestyles, which leads trainings and workshops in permaculture and other sustainable practices. In 2013, they hosted a three-day conference on earthships and alternative housing which drew more than 200 people toGreen Spaces, in Denver’s RiNo district. 

Vision for a mothership

The couple are in the early stages of developing an earthship visitor and education center in central Denver, a place where ecotourists, school children and the community can explore creative solutions to ecological problems. The center would be modeled on Earthship Biotecture Academy’s facility in Taos, which drew more than 15,000 paid visitors in 2014.

The goal is to slowly raise awareness about the viability of earthships — which are estimated to cost between $150 to $250 per square foot, plus the cost of land — and to chip away at barriers to their construction. From zoning to building codes and permitting, it’ll be a long slog before earthships get the green light in metro Denver. Wird and Eden are encouraged by recent developments in Marin County, California, and Portland, Oregon, where updates to city building codes have made it easier to build alternative housing.

“It’s a movement, and it’s inching along, at a turtle’s pace. But the idea is here. It’s only a matter of time before there is a critical mass. But that’s the whole suspense of our time: Will we reach that critical mass? Is the damage that we’ve done to our world irreversible?”

Environmental sustainability and social justice are themes of Wird’s work as an emcee and hip-hop artist; as a member of the Soul Pros, he performs with the leaders of Denver’s thriving community of rappers, spoken word artists and activists who use art to elevate consciousness about the root causes of issues like poverty and racial inequity. As an instructor with Youth On Record, a nonprofit that deploys musicians and artists to bolster the creative education of the most vulnerable young people in Denver, Wird teaches about earthships to demonstrate that there is, indeed, hope for a future that sometimes looks bleak.

“It’ll take a few years for it to slowly sink in with all of these students, but I want to wet their whistle, for them to know that we’re not just doomed,” says Wird. “There are cool ideas that make life fun again. For me, that’s earthships. They just make life more fun.”

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This story originally appeared in Confluence here