Nearly a half-century ago, earthen buildings began to rise in the New Mexico desert. Made of packed earth, tires and dotted with colored bottles, equipped with greenhouses and solar panels, they looked like something out of a science-fiction movie.

These Earthships, created in the '70s by progressive architect Michael Reynolds, were originally rugged capsules of self-sufficiency. Built to create their own food, water, electricity and other necessities in self-supporting systems, Earthships were solely for off-the-grid types looking to break free of utility bills.

In Oliver Hodge's Earthship documentary, "Garbage Warrior," Reynolds says that "progress evolves from making mistakes."

Early Earthships leaked, or would be too hot. "But architecture, as it stood, was pointless," Reynolds says. It didn't serve the earth — or even people. "We need to be doing something right now."

Since then, Earthships have moved beyond their counter-culture status. They're largely mistake-proof, though they remain off the grid. Some are expansive and padded with all of the modern amenities. Others have been held up as real solutions for areas suffering in the wake of catastrophic events, from drought-stricken California to earthquake-upended Nepal.

As Reynolds hoped, the buildings are doing something. Right now.

“Earthships, once they're built and you're living in them, they take care of you,” says Deborah Binder, who works to build the homes around the world.

More living breathing system than building, Earthships are built to collect water from rain, snow and even condensation. It's then filtered for drinking water, or used in showers. Produce-bearing plants help filter the lightly used “grey water,” which then goes to flush the toilet. Even the toilet water, once filtered, goes to nurture the landscape surrounding the home.

Deborah Binder at her Earthship in Taos, New Mexico.

Valerie Defert

“The amazing thing about these houses is that they cover any human's basic needs,” Binder says. “They give you electricity, power and lights. They give you shelter, they give you a warm temperature to live in, they collect water, they produce food, and they take care of your rubbish.”

And they're not short on comfort, either.

“A lot of people think that Earthships are a bunch of hippies building these cave-like things, and it really sacrifices your comfort and your lifestyle,” says Binder. “But living in an Earthship is like living in a luxury house.”

Binder lives in her own Earthship in Taos, New Mexico, at Earthship headquarters, a community of nearly 200 of the rammed-earth structures.

But she spoke from Fiji, where she was working on a project that would ultimately produce the country's first Earthship. Though Earthship builds commissioned client products, its nonprofit arm focuses on humanitarian efforts, like the one in Fiji.

The South Pacific archipelago is prone to cyclones, and the resulting devastation costs thousands in donor relief. Earthships are stormproof, and use natural and recycled materials readily available anywhere people live and create garbage.

“There are these deserts, full of tires that are just lying around, and no one knows what to do with it,” Binder says. “That becomes a very natural building material.” Discarded tires, when packed with dirt, become bricks to form nearly indestructible walls. Spent Coca-Cola cans further fortify interior walls, as do bottles, which also act as stained-glass windows.

Empty glass Coca-Cola bottles are used to create stained glass windows in Earthship homes.

“It comes back to this saying that some people's trash is other people's treasure,” Binder says. “It looks beautiful. I wake up in the morning and see the sunrise coming up through the window of the greenhouse of my Earthship, filtering through these colored bottles and reflecting on the other side of the wall. It puts a smile on your face, waking up like that.”

Binder says her colleagues are discussing how to erect some of these incredibly durable structures in Nepal, which will be rebuilding from the recent earthquake for some time. Similar structures built in the Philippines have proved their resistance to extreme nature, says Binder.

“We built a Windship, a typhoon-resistant building, after Typhoon Yolanda,” she recalls. “They had another typhoon later that year, and they were able to take shelter in the Earthship, and they said they couldn't even hear it come by.”

Earthships are even functional in drought-stricken areas, and have been successfully built in African deserts. “Taos is the best example,” Binder says. “We're in the middle of the desert, and still we collect enough water to survive.”

Earthships are particularly efficient in places such as Malawi, a southeast African country that ranks among the least developed in the world. It's also a place where the rain dries up for half of the year.

Binder inside her Earthship home.

Valerie Defert

“They run out of drinking water every summer, and then they have four months of tropical monsoon rains, and nobody collects the water,” Binder says. “And it's something that's so ingrained in our minds, that nobody ever thinks about it — there's water for free. It falls from the sky.”

Malawi is now home to one of the largest Earthship structures, the eight-room Malawi Earthship Community Center. Shaped like a flower, the building has a pharmacy, library, clinic and a women's room.

It's also given the community showers and toilets, all filtered on-site. Even more, it's a completely self-sufficient center where the people of Malawi can have a safe, weatherproof shelter with a wealth of potable water.

It's all made from tricked-out refuse — and there's nary a leak in sight. “It's something that's available to everybody, and we can really make a difference in places where they probably need it more than we do,” Binder says.

For more information about Earthship's upcoming projects,