Architect Mike Reynolds, founder and owner of an unconventional design-build company, uses recycled materials to construct a sustainable enterprise.
By Richard Massey
Mike Reynolds, the founder of Earthship Biotecture, rose from obscurity outside of Taos, New Mexico, to become the internationally known designer and builder of sustainable, “off-the-grid” housing made out of used tires, bottles, concrete, and aluminum cans.
While he started out in the early 1970s by himself, he now has more than 40 employees, and if needed, says he can muster as many as 1,000 people for a specific build event. Featured in the New York Times as far back as 1974, Reynolds is revered for challenging the status quo in the name of his Earthships.
Even with a global following, Reynolds is not without controversy and detractors. Some people say his Earthships, for a variety of reasons, really don’t work that well, and that they are too expensive to build. And to this day, Reynolds does not hold an architecture license in his home state of New Mexico, although he is registered in Colorado and Arizona.
He drives a 1973 Mercedes Benz that runs on recycled grease, wears his hair in a tangle, and is unabashed in his commitment to save the world, one Earthship at a time. To say the least, he’s an unconventional architect. But it appears to work for Reynolds. His backlog is healthy enough that he has to turn down work, and he can’t realistically employ all the people who want to join his team.
Reynolds recently returned from a month-long stay in Uruguay, where he oversaw a design-build for an elementary school. The Zweig Letter caught up with him by phone for an interview at his home base in northern New Mexico.
A conversation with Reynolds.
TZL: How have apps like FB, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms played into your journey from “outlaw” architect to sustainability guru?
MR: I started doing what worked for me. And then my friends and neighbors, people from around town, the country and the world, started doing it. (Earthship has over 189,000 likes on Facebook, over 8,400 followers on Twitter, over 500 connections on LinkedIn, and a raft of videos on YouTube, in addition to over three decade’s worth of mentions in traditional media.)
TZL: At some point your enterprise had to start making a profit for it to survive. How does Earthship deal with real revenue?
MR: The money goes back into building. We’re solid in terms of revenue so that we have jobs. But we’re not weighed down by the need for profit. If we’re not trying to make a billion dollars then the profit goes back into the technology. The entity is growing, becoming more powerful, and has more equity. (Earthship has an assortment of products for sale on its website – books, DVDs, construction drawings, and clothing. The company administers a popular building academy, and even sells its own app for the Simple Survival Earthship, in addition to other product lines.)
TZL: You have a powerful brand. How has branding benefited your business?
MR: We came up with the word Earthship because it’s not a house, it’s a vessel. People were using our brand to teach and they didn’t know what they were doing. [If they are working without our direct input] we demand that they say, “earthship-inspired.” If you are going to do a [real] Earthship, then we have to be involved. It’s working pretty good.
TZL: How do you recruit and retain the best people for your company?
MR: We’re turning people away. A lot of people come through the academy and want to stay. We pick the best ones – law, graphics, internet, tech – there’s no shortage of talented people.
TZL: You wrote the rulebook on Earthships. How important is it to be an expert?
MR: I’m always thinking of biology, physics, structure, economics, and psychology. People ask me if I think [my knowledge] can be stolen from me. It’s too involved. You can steal my horse, but you can’t ride it.
TZL: How have you managed growth over the years?
MR: It’s not easy. A lot of people help. I’ve been absorbed by this, but it’s not a sacrifice. It’s fun. It’s hard work and there’s battles and stress, but I got lucky on this.
TZL: How important has marketing been in your journey from misunderstood architect to renowned designer of Earthships?
MR: We’ve never done formal advertising. It’s out there, and if it’s appropriate for people, they’ll take it. A virus spreads on its own, and this is a good virus.