Earthship to Emerald

It star­ted with a pile of old tires and some dirt on Em­er­ald Street, but loc­al earth­ship en­thu­si­asts are hop­ing it will grow in­to something much big­ger.

On Fri­day morn­ing last week, a siz­able col­lec­tion of tires lined the lush green path­ways of the Em­er­ald Street Urb­an Farm, a little slice of agrari­an heav­en loc­ated at Dauph­in and Em­er­ald streets in gritty East Kens­ing­ton.

And while that trash seemed to clash with the ve­get­able gar­dens, bee­hive and chick­en coop, it, too, was destined for a green­er fate.

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.”

Com­munity build­ers

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. 

 ldquo;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 so far-fetched after all.

For more in­form­a­tion about the Philly earth­ship pro­ject, vis­it­••

Re­port­er Bri­an Rademaekers can be reached at 215 354 3039 or

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