UMass grad student spends summer building sustainable homes

By Nicole Dotzenrod

Courtesy of Emilie Jordao)
(Courtesy of Emilie Jordao)

While most college students’ summer internships are spent in offices, University of Massachusetts graduate student was getting her hands dirty in New Mexico building sustainable homes.

Jordao, a landscape architecture master’s candidate, spent three weeks this summer interning for Earthship Biotecture, a company that builds houses from recyclable material such as tires, bottles and cans. She lived in Tao, New Mexico, building the homes, known as “Earthships,” from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day.

“The ‘Earthships’ are completely sustainable in that they harvest their own water, use solar energy and electricity and more,” Jordao said. Each home is also built into the earth, rather than on top of it, and the houses are available both for rent and for sale.

Jordao explained that the houses harvest rainwater, which is filtered before it goes to the shower and sink. The used shower and sink water, known as “gray” water, is then reused for the toilet. That “black” water then goes into a planter and filters into a septic system which degrades the waste.

Jordao, who is originally from Rio de Janeiro, learned about the company from her mother in Brazil, who saw it featured on a Brazilian television show.

“I’ve done gardening and farming in the past, but not construction,” Jordao said. “People hired by Earthship Biotecture teach you what to do task by task. I learned how to plaster walls with adobe and concrete. I built tire and bottle walls. I did stone floors, tile grouting, leveling, painting and more.”

During the internship, Jordao lived with seven other interns in a model “Earthship,” which also acted as a place to test new ideas.

“Living in an ‘Earthship’ is how I learned about the system,” Jordao said, adding that the experience was liberating.

“I’m charging my computer, but don’t feel guilty because it’s solar, or I’m showering but I don’t feel guilty because it’s rainwater,” Jordao said. “You feel very guilt-free.”

The “Earthships” can be maintained for about $200 a year, the cost of propane for the stove, according to Jordao.

“It’s such a beautiful home,” she said. “They’re so cozy and they just feel right. I loved it so much.”

Because the interns were housed in model homes, there were some glitches in the system, Jordao said. Some days they would experience a lack of electricity or water. However, she said the hardest adjustment was being so isolated, as the group had to travel more than 20 minutes to get anywhere.

“It’s totally off the grid,” Jordao said. “But it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. New Mexico is so different from all the places I’ve been.”

Thirty people interned with Jordao, ages 20 to 60, from all around the world.

“The people were the most rewarding part,” she said. “The people I worked with were amazing and so passionate (about) what they did. There were successful businessmen who left everything behind to work with ‘Earthships,’ and others who were born into the ‘Earthship’ community. … I would do it so many times just to meet the people.”

In addition to internships, Earthship Biotecture offers an academy for extensive training in “Earthship” design and construction. It costs $2,500 to attend the month-long program, where students graduate by building an “Earthship,” according to the company’s website.

“I definitely recommend this internship. It’s something people would love,” Jordao said. “I keep thinking of when I can go back. There is no amount of money that can pay for the experience (I had).”

Nicole Dotzenrod can be reached at [email protected]