Matt Frock spent eight years as an art teacher, but decided he was ready to return to an earlier career: construction. He’d been a builder for six years in San Francisco and Portland.
Frock wasn’t looking to work for just any contractor, though.
As a nature-lover who likes to backpack, I knew I wanted to incorporate sustainable building as much as I could, he said.
After some research, Frock started working with Earthship360, a Philadelphia-based design-build company that specializes in deep-green projects. (He also opened a home-remodeling business in Philadelphia.)
If Earthship360 sounds familiar, that’s because Earthships have been around since the 1970s. The concept was developed by architect Michael Reynolds, a green-building pioneer known for his radically unconventional off-the-grid structures.
The passive, solar-powered homes are well insulated and often made with recycled or scavenged materials like bottles, aluminum cans and rubber tires. They also use natural water-filtering systems that recycle gray water and even black water, which can be used for outdoor irrigation. Interior planters use gray water to grow produce.
Frock said he thinks of an Earthship as a well-lit cave.
While some Earthships, with their bulging shapes and bright colors, would look at home in Antoni Gaudi’s fanciful Park Guell in Barcelona, they’re not meant as novelties.
We’re not interested in shrugging off the mainstream, Frock said. We want to make (sustainability) as practical as possible.
Earthship360 was founded in 2014 by Jonah Reynolds, the son of Earthship creator Michael Reynolds.
Jonah, 42, said that by building off-the-grid structures often with volunteer labor that don’t require their owners to pay utility bills, we can help people in need.
Reynolds said his company is working on a pair of projects that fulfill its humanitarian mission, a block-size multi-use development called One Art, and an Earthship demonstration and education center that would become the country’s first urban Earthship. Both projects are in low-income parts of West Philadelphia.
A higher-profile Earthship project will involve a 4,800-square-foot education center for the Atlantic County Utilities Authority in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It’s the first Earthship partnership with a government agency.
I’d love to do some really big things on that commercial, government level, Reynolds said, such as retrofitting schools in West Philadelphia or even rebuilding war-torn cities in Iraq.
Earthship360 is forming a nonprofit arm so it will be eligible for donations and government grants. Separately, the company is working to provide accredited educational programs that will allow students to learn Earthship techniques for college credits.
Reynolds doesn’t have an architecture degree, but has been involved in green building all his life, thanks to his father. He’s learned the trade, including design and construction, through experience.
At 4 years old I was on a jobsite rolling tires around, he said.
By 13, he was giving lectures on sustainable design, and grew up participating in conferences and think tanks. He said he considered getting an architecture degree, but couldn’t simply test into a program at the appropriate level, given his already-considerable experience.
I found I could be more productive by getting back into the field, he said.
Next month, Earthship360 will hold a 12-day workshop in Jamaica, where student volunteers will help build the International Reggae Museum.
The project will involve constructing a small cafe, seating area, bathrooms and parking. Students will also install a cistern and a transmitter for the museum’s radio station.
Museum Director Chazz Morris said that Earthship360 seemed like a great fit for the project, given its rural locale. The site is a couple of miles from Bob Marley’s mausoleum.
Food and electricity in the area are very expensive, she said, and there’s no running water.
She sought out Earthship a couple of years ago after reading about the buildings.
Reynolds was very receptive to the idea and was willing to go out on a limb to help to make my dream become a reality, Morris said.
The 4-acre museum site, which Morris owns, will be developed in phases. She estimated the project will cost a few million dollars to complete.
She’s been working with Californian Roger Steffens to relocate his extensive reggae archives to the museum. The collection documents the history of reggae from its inception, she said.
Funding is urgently needed to acquire this and ship the collection after the structure has been built and secured, Morris said.
Frock with Earthship360 is responsible for the student program at the museum site. He said he hasn’t visited yet, but expects to find enough building materials on site including tires, bottles and cans to complete the job. He’ll be one of five staff members there.
A concrete mixer will be brought up, he said. The very first day we’ll lay out the tire perimeter and await the students.
Reynolds said coordinating projects outside the U.S. can be challenging and expensive, and the construction schedule in Jamaica won’t leave any wiggle room.
At the site we can’t tack on another day, so we gotta really work hard, he said.
Reynolds said he’s seen strong demand for acquiring hands-on experience in sustainable design and construction. He said he’s been working with area schools such as Temple, West Chester and Stockton universities to improve their sustainable design curricula.
Reynolds takes a dim view of the green building industry in the U.S., which in his view isn’t as committed to sustainability as it should be.
LEED is a complete sham, he said, adding that the system is more focused on using certain products than on worthier goals, such as unplugging from local utilities.
All these green building organizations, we are so far ahead of them, it’s a waste of time (trying to work with them), he said.
Frustrations aside, he’s committed to changing minds about green building practices, and works with utilities and local officials to construct projects that meet or exceed code requirements.
Reusing wastewater for toilets or irrigation can be legally problematic in many areas, so there’s plenty of legislative work still to be done.
That’s just the way it is, Reynolds said. Codes and regulations must be loosened up.