The foliage blossoming from the roof of the Shake Shack
at 20th and Sansom in Center City is the work of Mario Gentile and his company, Shift_Design
. Their portable 'living tile,' aka green roof tile, offers urban homes and storefronts a DIY method of adding rain-absorbing shrubbery to any impervious surface, be it a concrete patio or any of the countless flat roofs in Philly. Their latest edition, the Fairmount Living Tile
, will be demoed at the Design Philadelphia
event, Up and Dirty
“A green roof for the masses is not easily accessible yet,” Gentile says. “The costs associated are exorbitant. We wanted to solve larger issues—stormwater management, heat island effect, and air quality—by offering an accessible, well designed living tile kit that makes it easy for the end user. No need for a structural engineer, landscape architect, contractor, roofer, installer, etc.”
The tile, a rectangular aluminum tray, includes specially formulated Gaia soil
, which is half the weight of typical soil, but absorbs twice its weight in water. According to the company’s structural assessment, Gaia soil can be supported by the roof of a row home during maximum snowfall, but it’s so light weight it easily blows away. Shift_Design includes burlap casing, made from La Colombe
coffee sacks, to mimic natural ground floor covering and keep the soil in place.
Shift_Design was founded in 2008 when Gentile—who currently teaches biomimicry architecture at UPenn—pulled a few of his former Temple design students for a residential rain barrel project. The company has since graduated from Good Company Ventures
as experts in elegantly designed passive stormwater management technologies—ie raised gardens, living walls, rainwater collection etc. Their work is installed at Shake Shack, Urban Outfitters Headquarters, and countless homes across the city.
Sure, it looks pretty, but greening also serves an impending urban need. Sixty percent of Philly’s sewers are “combined" sewers meaning they carry both sewage and rain water. As climate change increases the east coast’s annual rainfall, combined sewers carry the risk of overflow, creating a potential citywide sanitation hazard. The Philadelphia Water Department
has proposed a $2 billion plan to catch excess water before it hits the sewer using greening and other passive technologies—it’s a lot cheaper than building new pipes.
In addition to stormwater reduction, green walls and roofs support dwindling pollinators, remediate air and water pollution and lower household energy consumption by regulating temperature. In their market segment study, Shift_Design found east coast cities, including Philly, New York and Baltimore, have a profusion of impervious surface ripe for alteration.
“Flat roofs are abundant and they’re doing nothing for these cities,” Gentile says. “Adding just a little bit of greening, a little bit of life, to your home reduces stress. If many households do it, the added benefits [for the city] are incredible.”
Gentile, who has a track record of hiring his employees directly from Philly schools including UPenn, Temple and UArts, will also launch a kickstarter campaign for manufacturing toolage during Design Philadelphia. With advanced equipment, Gentile says, Shift_Design can increase production and lower the price point even further while adding a few green manufacturing jobs to our area.
Mario Gentile, Shift_Design