When Thomas L. Miller, the owner of a vacant lot in West Philadelphia, heard a woman on the radio talking about her plan to build an “Earthship” in August of 2013, he was quick to call the radio station and donate his lot to her. The woman was Rashida Ali-Campbell, founder of Yeadon-based nonprofit LoveLovingLove, Inc.
The Earthship, which is in development now at 675 N. 41st Street, will act as a Philadelphia branch for LoveLovingLove, Inc, whose mission is to heal impoverished communities with holistic health education. It also hosts programs like Operation Olive Branch, an annual award that recognizes local law enforcement districts with the lowest complaint rates. In its new Earthship office, the organization will hold healthy-living workshops for those coping with diabetes and high blood pressure.
“We want to bring holistic health information and activities to the community through workshops, holding free events on the land, and having workshops for people to learn how to build an Earthship themselves,” Ali-Campbell said, “So that other people who have the desire to build can grab up some of these 40,000 vacant lots and turn them into something beautiful and sustainable.”
But what exactly is an Earthship?
It’s a house that was designed over 40 years ago in Taos, New Mexico by an American architect named Michael Reynolds. It’s a completely sustainable building founded on six principles:
1. It’s built completely from recycled materials.
2. It generates its own electricity from renewable energy sources.
3. It runs its own water, which is collected from cisterns on the roof and subsequently filtered and pumped through the building.
4. It grows its own food sources.
5. Its internal climate is stabilized by thermal mass.
6. It maintains its own sewage; it’s used for food production, and toilets are flushed by undrinkable used water (called “gray water”) collected from the building’s showers and sinks.
Here’s the thing — until now, Earthships have primarily been built in “off-the-grid” locations in Montana, Canada, Easter Island, Belize and Colorado Springs. While there are plans to construct one in Manhattan on the Lower East Side, no Earthship currently exists in an urban environment.
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“We’ve spent the past five years educating city council, the mayor, the governor and many organizations on the design principles and the way the house operates,” Ali-Campbell said.
The only issue the city had with the Earthship was how it looked.
“[City officials] thought it looked like a Flintstones’ house,” added Ali-Campbell. “They wanted to modify it so it looks more like a city dwelling.”
So, Earthship Biotecture, the company through which Reynolds designs his Earthships, modified the West Philadelphia Earthship by adding a second wall purely for aesthetic purposes.
“Now, it will be the first Earthship to have corners instead of rounded walls,” said Ali-Campbell. “[City officials] have been very receptive to those designs.”
Neighbors in the community, on the other hand, haven’t been as easy to win over. Just ask Ali-Campbell’s architect and one of her contractors.
“Initially, when we came into the neighborhood, we had photos of the finished product and flyers about what we intended to do,” said Ali-Campbell. “However, once the tires came to the property, a neighbor called the police and told them we were illegally dumping on their land.”
While the architect and contractor were being placed under arrest and seated in the back of the police car, Ali-Campbell said she was able to rectify the situation. They were immediately released.
Ever since the crew of 20 volunteers started constructing the foundation, rumors in the West Philly neighborhood have been circulating. According to Ali-Campbell, some neighbors are saying the Earthship will be a homeless shelter. Others believe it will be a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.
“Because of that, we got a phone call from [district councilwoman] Jannie Blackwell’s office,” said Ali-Campbell. “She asked us to hold a few more meetings in the neighborhood before we move forward so that we don’t have problems further down the road.”
None of that seems to bother Ali-Campbell, who is happy to divulge information on her project to anybody who is curious. Besides, while the Earthship won’t be a homeless shelter or rehab center, her nonprofit and their sponsors do offer help to the homeless and those in need of rehab.
While only the tires and cans that act as a foundation have been set, building of the actual Earthship will take place in February (pending on a successful IndieGoGo campaign) and will take about six weeks to complete.
To support the building of the Earthship, visit Ali-Campbell’s IndieGoGo page.
Photo courtesy of Rashida Ali-Campbell