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Fully Sustainable 'Earthship' Building Looks to Land on Lower East Side

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo News Editor

MANHATTAN — The city's first fully sustainable home — complete with rooftop windmills and rotating solar panels — is looking to rise on the Lower East Side.

A local resident is moving forward with a plan to build a completely self-sufficient, state-of-the-art building tucked between two tenements on Pitt Street, complete with all the necessary features to harvest natural energy.

The project is the brainchild of the New Mexico-based "biotecture" firm Earthship, which has been building similar sustainable homes from Japan to Georgia for the past four decades.

Longtime Lower East Side resident Ken Ruck appeared before Community Board 3's housing and land use committee this week to pitch his plan for the empty lot at 61 Pitt St., which he co-owns and has remained vacant for nearly a century, the Lo-Down reported.

"A lot of people think there's no way we can do it in the city," said Jonah Reynolds, whose father pioneered Earthship's sustainable architecture methods. "Earthships are stronger, healthier and safer than conventional buildings."

Since the site sits mostly in the shade, the building's preliminary plan includes a six-story steel structure that will "reach up to grab the sun" by reflecting rays back to down to solar panels that will help power the home, Reynolds explained.

Under the plan, vertical-axis windmills would sit at the very top of the structure — "it gets very windy in the canyons of New York," he noted — giving the building a unique look unlike any other in the city.

Ruck visited Earthship's New Mexico headquarters in the mid-2000s, renting a room in one of its sustainable guest residences, and emerged hoping to bring the model back to Manhattan, Reynolds said.

"Over the years they realized that they could actually pull it off on the Lower East Side," he said.

The city has so far been supportive of the concept, and Reynolds noted that none of the hundreds of homes Earthship has built around the globe have ever been rejected outright.

The two-bedroom home will have its living quarters on the ground and subterranean floors, with a second-story deck surrounded by recycled "bottle bricks" that look like stained glass.

The steel structure above will hold solar panels that will rotate to maximize energy intake, and the building itself will contain its own water catchments, a two-story greenhouse, and a plant-run sewage-treatment system.

"Over the decades, we've basically perfected a building that will provide anyone on the planet with modern amenities — lights, blenders, microwaves, computers — in any climate all over the world," Reynolds noted.

The project can be tweaked to conform to city building codes — something Reynolds said is required in less than 1 percent of his projects — but so far city officials have been warm to the idea.

"The Lower East Side is really pushing to be green," he said. "We're not anticipating any pushback at all."