In the back corner of the odd-shaped lot, a half dozen volunteers were busy laying the foundation for what will be the city’s first “Earthship-style” structure — a greenhouse made completely from refuse gathered from the surrounding streets.
Earthship style, that is, because to be a genuine earthship — a rather specific term — the small, shed-size structure would need to have much more going for it.
“In order for it to be an earthship, it has to heat and cool itself, produce its own electricity, have its own sewage, have its own running water, and grow its own food — it has to be completely off the grid,” explained Rashida Ali-Campbell.
Oh, and it has to be made completely from recycled materials.
Ali-Campbell, a resident of Yeadon, Pa., and founder of the non-profit Love Loving Love, has been pushing to bring the earthship concept to Philadelphia for several years, and has become a de facto local expert on the super-green buildings.
In a nutshell, earthships are homes or buildings that rely on the sun and heat of the earth along with other natural elements, leaving little to no utility bills.
She got hooked on the idea after watching Garbage Warrior, a documentary about a New Mexico man who builds his very own earthship despite resistance from local authorities.
That man, Michael Reynolds, started the company Earthship Biotecture, and Ali-Campbell acts as the Philly contact.
An urban challenge
To say these structures are revolutionary seems almost mild.
And say that such structures are a challenge to create within Philly’s Byzantine development culture — just building a modern row home can drive developers mad — is an understatement of obscene proportions.
But that hasn’t stopped Ali-Campbell and a growing circle people dedicated to making Philly home to the world’s first urban earthship.
And things are starting to come together.
She was exuberant last week when talking about the greenhouse project undertaken by the Emerald Street group, calling it an ambitious first step toward the greater goal.
“I think it is so encouraging and so beautiful,” said Ali-Campbell. “We love the fact that they have so much energy to the point that they couldn’t wait and just started doing something on their own.”
Nic Esposito lives in the home intertwined with the Emerald Street Urban Farm, which was started in part by his girlfriend Elissa Ruse.
“This was all vacant lots when they first got here, just some trash and a VW bus,” said Esposito, who was busy helping to dig the foundation for the new greenhouse.
Already, a row of tires had been lined along one wall and packed with dirt that will help them hold heat and keep out the cold.
“Originally, I wanted to do something like this in West Philly, but it never came to be,” said Esposito, who runs the urban agriculture advocacy nonprofit Philly Rooted. “Basically, this is something that we hope will allow us to extend the growing season.”
Currently, they work with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s City Harvest program, which provides fruit and vegetable seedlings. Once those seedlings are full grown, Emerald Street donates the produce to local shelters like the nearby St. Francis Inn on Kensington Avenue.
The greenhouse-grown seedlings give them a jumpstart in early spring, allowing the plots to produce more food.
“That City Harvest grant might run out, but we would still be able to keep propagating our own seedlings here,” Esposito said.
While the walls will be made from dirt-packed tires, the ceiling, which will let in sunlight, will be a combination of glass panes and plastic bottles — essentially whatever they can find that will suit the purpose.
“Were going to kind of mosaic it together, see how it works,” said Esposito, who’s excited to see how a completely homebuilt greenhouse made with what is essentially trash will work.
“You go to some of these organic farms, and it’s a little disappointing sometimes when you see it’s essentially business as usual. They are big plastic greenhouses, and a lot of them are heated using traditional energy sources.”
He picked up the tires from a vacant lot at Hancock Street and Indiana Avenue, where he said there was group of drug users congregating.
“It was weird being back there with all those people, but when I told them what I was doing, they thought it was awesome,” said Esposito. “It was pretty cool, actually.”
Helping to oversee the project was Eric Michael Fulks, an intern with Earthship Biotecture who recently helped build several of the structures in British Columbia.
He met Esposito and Ali-Campbell at the Philadelphia Folk Fest, and was talked into coming out to East Kensington to help with the greenhouse.
“The only money we spent so far was on Eric’s bus ticket and buying him lunch,” Esposito joked of the construction costs.
A native of Richmond, Va., and a framer by trade, he started getting into a greener lifestyle after being laid off in 2008.
“My brother called me and told me about earthships, that you could build something out of garbage that will have no utility bills and you can grow food in it, and I had to learn more,” said Fulks.
He’s been interning with the Earthship organization for six months.
“Instead of using plywood or sheetrock, we’ll use plastic and glass bottles,” he said of the greenhouse, which was slowly taking shape as volunteers carried in fresh dirt and tires. “With the sun hitting this, and the dirt in the tires, it creates its own thermal mass and keeps it warm.”
While he’s only been in the neighborhood for a few days, he said he’s impressed to see a new culture taking root and coming together to make use of the urban landscape for a green purpose.
“What I like about it is that you get a group of people that really want to see something get done,” said Fulks. “You weed out the people that aren’t that motivated, and you end you up with people like this who are here getting sweaty and muddy, and they’re doing it just to help out and build something.”
Earth to Philly
Ali-Campbell wants to see that energy continue to grow, and is even looking at bringing an earthship to a 1 acre lot right around to corner on York Street.
To her, the benefits go far beyond making a house that has little environmental impact.
“It’s a way to not only bring jobs back to the city, but it also brings sustainability into low-income neighborhoods,” said Ali-Campbell.
Indeed, in some ways the earthship model looks like a sort of silver bullet for problems impacting inner-city communities.
Abundant trash is put to good use.
Fresh healthy food is made available.
Expensive utility bills are neutralized.
And, of course, housing is created, all while cutting back on harmful environmental practices.
It might seem far-fetched and utopian, but even if earthships can’t heal all wounds, Ali-Campbell thinks they can have a healing quality, especially in minority communities that she said are already getting left behind in the sustainability movement.
To that end, she’s been pushing hard to make a Philly earthship a reality.
For the York Street site, her dream would be an earthship school — a place where people could come to learn about the structures while seeing one on in action. She also thinks such a building would be a great tourist attraction for eco-minded visitors, and fit in well with Mayor Michael Nutter’s stated goal of making the city the greenest in the nation.
“Our group has been all over the city to talk to every City Council member and even the mayor, so that when this comes to their district, they’re not off-put by the concept,” said Ali-Campbell.
It hasn’t been easy, she said — she’s run into barriers ranging from skepticism to racial tensions and just overall confusion.
“I would have to spend half the day just explaining what an earthship is — that it’s not a spaceship,” Ali-Campbell said with a laugh.
But with Earthship Biotecture recently kicking off fundraising for a Philly project, several experts headed to the city to offer consulting, and the already established greenhouse at Emerald Street, Ali-Campbell and her fellow enthusiasts are feeling like a Philly earthship might not be s0 far-fetched after all.
For more information about the Philly earthship project, visit www.earthship.com/philly.
Reporter Brian Rademaekers can be reached at 215 354 3039 or firstname.lastname@example.org.