Brutalism and Green Walls

Brutalism and Biomimicry
Brutalism and Biomimicry

Brutalism is an architectural style using a lot of concrete to make buildings that appear, well, brutal. I find them depressingly beautiful. They also sometimes replicate natural shapes, like crystals or a bunch of square stones piled on each other or whatever that shape is in the photo above. That biomimicry is beautiful.

But that’s not my point. Many people hate brutalism. It can look very Soviet Block. All that gray concrete gets dirty and the whole thing is depressing.

BUT…as a green wall installer it occurred to me that those large waterproof concrete walls are perfect for living walls!

Keep the shapes but make the material beautiful. Green walls and brutalism.

living wall brutalism
Imagine how beautiful a living wall would look on all those surfaces.

 

Eco Wedding Living Walls

Not all living wall installers focus on the same thing. One of our main focuses is wedding living walls. There is nothing more beautiful than a wedding ceremony with a living wall backdrop. We are an ecological company and one of our pet peeves is when clients ask us to build a living wall for a short event, like a wedding, after which they throw the wall away.

Weddings are by far one of the most wasteful ceremonies we have. So much money goes into that one day, only to throw away so much the day after. And the same goes for wedding living walls. They use it as a beautiful backdrop for the ceremony, take photos and then throw it away.

But we realized we could turn this problem into something incredibly meaningful for the bride and groom and something way more ecological:

We build the wall for the wedding and after we take the wall and install it somewhere else. That could be at the newlyweds’ home, so they can always be reminded of that special day. It could be given to a friend or it could be donated. Schools are our favorite. And you get a tax writeoff!

We call it the Eco Wedding Living Wall. Its a great way to extend the love in an environmentally friendly way.

Eco Wedding Living Walls
Eco Wedding Living Walls

                 Here are some very pretty wedding living walls we love.

Heavy Metals in Brooklyn, Not as Safe as Rock & Roll.

Eco Brooklyn is gearing up for it Spring Soil Remediation Projects. A potential client has sent us their Soil Testing Report and it was time to refresh our knowledge on key components of soil contamination and remediation.

Heavy Metal Contaminated Soil
Backyard Soil Contamination
Backyard Contamination Sample
Soil Sample Report

The level of contamination in their report will require root barriers and the addition of six inches of topsoil.

According to the Environmental Sciences Analytical Center at Brooklyn College It is not uncommon for many New York City gardens to have contamination.  The dense urban environment has contributed to an overabundance of metals including: Lead, Chromium, Nickel, Arsenic, and Cadmium.

Prior to the 1980’s heavy metals were used primarily in manufacturing processes. Lead is one of the most abundant toxins that contributes to soil contamination, and was commonly found in paint, print making ink, fertilizers and gasoline.

Chromium is another substantial toxin found commonly in Brooklyn soil. The element was widespread in the production of paint, tanning salts, car parts, and plumbing fixtures.

Heavy metal poisoning often results in birth defects, autism, allergies, weight loss, and even paralysis.

Safe Levels of Toxic Metals
Soil Contamination and Remediation

The chart above, from California’s Environmental Protection Agency,  displays the safe levels of the most common heavy metals found in soil. The second column displays the levels for which the California Office for Environmental Health deems safe for soil use, such as gardening, while the EPA suggests a significantly higher threshold in the third column.

The State of New York does not currently have specific guidelines or regulations for garden soil. If you own a brownstone or home in Brooklyn you can bet your soil has toxic levels of heavy metals.

Testing for contamination is a simple and inexpensive process at Brooklyn College. Just visit their Soil Testing Website, and follow the five easy steps to receive a Soil Test Analysis and/or a Tissue Analysis of your fruits and vegetables.

Eco Brooklyn recommends following the European ECO Label threshold for heavy metals. Soil containing lead above 100 parts per million should be mediated and it is crucial to apply these standards when children are involved. Green building starts with designing a good foundation whether it involves sustainably sourced wood studs or a contamination free lot to build upon.

-Anthony Rivale

Living Wall in Yoga Studio

Eco Brooklyn recently took on a new project for Area Yoga. This is Area Yoga’s second location which is right in the heart of Brooklyn Heights. The space consists of a large studio, two massage rooms, and a reception area.

When designing the yoga studio, there were two ledges that would only collect dust if we didn’t find a purpose for them. We chose to create living walls. The space is on a diagonal so we couldn’t approach it as a complete vertical garden but neither was it a flat green roof. As a living wall and green roof installer this was a new challenge for us. We are combining techniques we use from experience and creating a new process for an interior living wall.

The living wall shown above is 33’ x 5’ so making a space to contain the plants would be costly due to the structural needs. We chose to approach it as if it were a green roof. The existing structural support has a moisture retention mat, drainage barrier, and a filter fleece. These three items are extremely important because they prevent any potential water damage as well as allow drainage.

The growing medium for the plants is placed on top of this but since the space is sloped we needed a way to retain the soil. None of the available market solutions were a good fit so we decided to build our own soil retention solution. It is stainless steel tension wires traveling horizontally every 3″ with mosquito netting intertwined to create personal pockets for each plant.

Approaching the living wall this way has the best of both horizontal and vertical living wall installations. It is easy to fix common problems like clogged drains or leaks. There is more space for soil which improves plant growth and health.

We also installed fluorescent lights that provide some light to the plants. This is by no means a growing light, but it will help the growth of low light plants while creating a display for the customer. The challenge here was to install the lights without deterring from the intricate old molding. We didn’t want modern and traditional to clash. We addressed this challenge by boxing the lights so they blend into the ceiling.


The spaces which contain the living wall instantly bring the room to life. The traditional molding and plants create a relaxed but high end ambiance that fits in perfectly in Brooklyn Heights. Since it is a yoga studio, we wanted to find a peaceful, minimalist approach while still highlighting the a beautiful historic space. The living wall does just that.

Stay tuned for more posts once the plants arrive!

Using Plants to clean household air

One of the largest issues in a house is indoor air quality. Up until recently most people usually don’t pay any attention to it and subsequently the amount of headaches, foggy headedness, breathing problems and body aches are much higher than need be.

Not coincidentally the above body symptoms are also what happens to you when you are exposed to too much Carbon Dioxide. Basically your typical house has too much carbon dioxide, which is what humans exhale. Along with many other semi toxic gases and vapors.

With a badly built house this issue of indoor air polution is not crucial because the house has leaks that allow it to breathe. But now with high efficiency houses it becomes imperative that indoor air quality be addressed.

When we do a green renovation of a Brooklyn brownstone we seal up every single crack in the building envelope. We caulk, insulate, vapor wrap and tape the entire envelope so that not one iota of air can get in or out. That is great for energy efficiency.

Yet it can be deadly for indoor air quality because now the Brownstone does not breathe like it used to. Because we use natural materials there is no concern of toxins building up in the house from things like paints or wood, but normal living creates more than enough toxins – cooking, breathing, sweating, showering – all these things are a problem if not vented and replaced with healthy air.

So as green contractors specializing in energy efficient Brooklyn brownstones we need to pay extra attention to helping the building breathe. We usually do this with mechanical systems like an Energy Recovery Ventilator. We also design for good cross ventilation, a good stack effect, and for intelligent placement of rooms so they ventilate well.

But we need to remember that removing toxins is a job that has been, since the beginning of the planet, the job of green plants and the earth they root in! As we exhale CO2, the plants are concurrently breathing those gases in and exhaling the essential, pure oxygen that we need.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense to have plants in the house to help filter the air for us. The key is to not let humidity from the plants cause problems. The best options are actually the plants that are traditional in the home: English ivy, rhododendron. and spider plants. These plants seem to be especially effective at filtering out the bad air, and bring pure “green” air into our buildings.

I did some digging on the subject to find out how effective plants are at filtering household air. Its still actually being debated how many plants per person are needed, but I’m told about 40 spider plants could balance out a small studio apartment with one person….that is a lot of plants!

Bill Wolverton did one of the original studies and concluded 100 spider plants would filter a 1200 sq. ft. house. There is a formula per cm2 of leaf area.  Obviously at that level humidity would be an issue amoung other things.

Some interesting work was done with living walls (hydroponic growing walls). One was in a commercial office in Toronto. The studies indicated that even tuolene was removed from the air.

Living Walls allow air to pass through a wall on which there is moving water and various flora and fauna to clean and condition ventilation air. Do a Google and you should find built examples. (Canada Life Building in Toronto is one, designed by a “Wolf Amelung” , it was probably 15 years or more ago) St. Mary’s Univ in Halifax is the site of another).

There was a school of thought in the previous millennium that one could utilize a plant-filled attached sunspace to function as the “lungs” for a house to provide fresh ventilation air to the house without having to utilize mechanical equipment.

It was a nice idea but unfortunately more mythical than factual according to a study that CMHC did back then. According to them plants do *help* to clean air but it’s actually the soil that’s doing the “purifying”. I would guess the roots of the plants also play a large role in air filtration.

NASA did a study of this recently (presumably for space stations) analyzing the best plants for filtering and Oxygen conversion. According to the Wikipedia description,  the recommendation of NASA is to use 16 good-sized houseplants in 7-inch diameter containers for a 1,800-square-foot house.

For a Brooklyn brownstone that typically means about six good sized plants per floor.

The bottom line: plants do filter air effectively. The above recommendations are probably more plants than most people want to live with but it is a good idea to have plants in healthy soil around the house. They are measurably beneficial to our health.

Living Walls FAQ

Lately, the idea of green walls has become very fashionable. Either part of a building or free standing, this sustainable innovation is healthy and great to look at. Also known as living walls, these vertical gardens are packed with flora that benefits everything from our lungs to our ears!

Let’s have a detailed look into the benefits of green walls and then find out how to install your very own green wall at home…

Lately, the idea of green walls has become very fashionable. Either part of a building or free standing, this sustainable innovation is healthy and great to look at. Also known as living walls, these vertical gardens are packed with flora that benefits everything from our lungs to our ears. Let’s have a detailed look into the benefits of green walls and then find out how to install your very own green wall at home…

Improved Air Quality

It has been scientifically proven that foliage can improve air quality. Indeed, the Amazon rainforest is often referred to as ‘the lungs of the world’.

A green wall will help to vastly improve the quality of air in any environment. It acts as a natural air filter, purifying the polluted air whilst releasing clean oxygen. If installed in an office environment, the presence of green walls can lead to greater employee productivity and overall health, since cleaner air leads to better concentration, healthier employees and fewer sick days.

Excellent Aesthetics

No one who has seen a green wall close up can say that they’re not impressive, especially the larger-scale ones such as Patrick Blanc’s Parisian creations. We’re simply not used to seeing gardens grow upwards, so it catches our eye!

Excellent for the home or the office, a green wall can turn any dull and dreary room into an inviting and alluring environment. This can be great for creating a good first impression on your clients when they visit your business. Or, if you want to give your home a nice colourful touch, it will add some green to your own four walls and be a great talking point when you have guests over.

Reduced Energy Costs

In the Western world, and America in particular, we love air conditioning. However, the costs can be astronomical. Did you know however than installing a green wall acts as a natural air conditioner, balancing humidity levels in the process to keep us comfortable.

Through a process known as evapotranspiration, the air surrounding the green wall is naturally cooled. In winter, a green wall on the outside of a building acts as insulation, reducing the need for costly heating too.

Reduced Noise Levels

You might be wondering how can a bunch of plants help to reduce noise levels! It is one of the lesser-known benefits of a green wall, reducing background noise in loud, communal dining areas, or reducing noise pollution from traffic on busy main roads.

The foliage absorbs and reflects the noise that comes its way, so if there’s a room in your home you want to make as peaceful and relaxing as possible, a living green wall can help – and that’s not to mention the general sense of calm and well-being that comes from being around greenery!

Wall Planters and Wall Plants

As a green wall installer I’m always reading up on the latest developments in living wall technologies. I recently read a book called Wall Planters and Wall Plants, Practical guide to vertical gardening, by Nicholas Jenkins. The tag line is Wall planters indoor and outdoor, vertical planting systems, DIY, planting, pots and plants, decor and ideas, all included.

If the title and tag line seem a little all over the place, then they are a good indication of the book itself. It attempts to give beginner advice on installing green walls. But it is disorganized and unclear.

living walls
A good try at explaining living walls that falls short
My main criticism is that it gives many variations on building living wall installations – pots, soil, artificial growing medium, air plants, yet nowhere is there a diagram. I’m a professional green wall installer and I had a hard time following his instructions on how to build a green wall.

Installing a living wall is not rocket science but you need the visual. You can’t simply write a description of how to build the green wall. You need diagrams of how the watering is hooked up, how the growing media is applied etc.

Even what he does write is not always easy to understand. Take this comment:

Make sure that the components of the system are of the right size; otherwise, when there is a rapid change in the pressure and velocity of the fluid (water), the dissolved air can precipitate and cause damages similar to those caused by cavitations.

What?? Say again?? I don’t know about you but I hate cavitations. They hurt like hell.

On the other hand the book has over simplistic instructions. There is a section called, “Be vigilant around electricity,” and another titled, “Always Handle Toxic Chemicals with Care.” Really? I never knew!

Anyone who knows what caviations means probably knows how to be safe around electricity. Bottom line, your average DIY person is going to be confused on one hand and bored on the other by this book.

As a living wall installer I managed to get some use out of the book. He has some good suggestions for recirculating pumps. I just skimmed over the rest. Overall though, I can’t say I would recommend this book to anyone, laymen or professionals alike.

Green Walls Purify Air

comprehensive report on outdoor air quality globally has just been published by the World Health Organisation. The report claims there are 3 million deaths a year to air pollution.

This isn’t just indoors. We no longer build with natural materials and the added chemicals have lent to declining indoor air quality, too, especially from concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This group of chemicals includes formaldehyde and toluene, two chemicals that greatly contribute to “sick building syndrome”.

If you wanted to get a good whiff of VOC’s, go visit a nail salon. The smell hits you like a wall. Dizziness, asthma, allergies, depression and “fuzzy brain” are all symptoms of “sick building sybdrome” and can be completely debilitating.

living wall instal
Living walls are especially useful in high VOC areas like nail salons, where a good air cleaner is needed.

Many people who study this field, including Dr Vadoud Niri, a US chemist and long time promoter for eliminating VOCs, feel one solution is indoor plants. His research found your normal house plant to be very effective at eliminating VOCs from air.

An interesting note, it turns out the 1970s macramé basket stalwart, the spider plant, to be especially effective at removing VOC’s from rooms.

In the 1980s, as  James Wong wrote, Nasa looked at 19 plants and found that a variety of plants work best because each species removes different pollutants – Costa Farms’ guide, o2foryou.org, has a detailed list of these plants and most of them are plants we regularly use in our green wall installations.

There are some things plants can’t remove, like tobacco smoke, and they won’t completely freshen your house. But a nice living wall will definitely help big time.

And the good thing is that as a living wall ages, it’s root and soil bacteria grows, and with that grows the wall’s ability to purify air.

As NY living wall installers we notice the difference in a room after installing a green wall. The air is definitely fresher. Our professional experience backs up what science has found.

So next time you visit your favorite nail salon tell them about us and how our green wall installation can help them and their clients create a healthier environment. They may give you a free mani for the tip.

Green Walls Increase Awe

There is something awe inspiring about staring up at a majestic green wall. The size and beauty of a living wall reminds us of our immortality and brings us back to what is important in life.

It turns out the benefits of awe inspiring nature is scientifically proven. Researchers at the University of California at Irvine had one group of people stare up at trees for sixty seconds. Another group stared at a building for the same time.

Guess who felt awe. The tree viewers of course. But what is really cool is that the people in the study group looking at trees were more likely to help a stranger than the group looking at a building. Nature made them more compassionate, cooperative and charitable

The researcher of the study, Paul Piff, had this to say:

Experiences of awe attune people to things larger than themselves. They cause individuals to feel less entitled, less selfish, and to behave in more generous and helping ways.

living wall
A living wall doesn’t have to be huge to inspire awe at it’s beauty.

2013-08-26-murvegetal

The researchers also found that regularly experiencing moments of awe lowers levels of inflammatory compounds in the body. The reasoning that nature chills us out and brings us back to a more centered, relaxed state.

It’s not often people experience awe in their very own work space, but a large living wall can do that. People rarely tire of a living wall. It is always growing, changing and being humbling in its beauty.

That feeling of awe and inspiration it turns out is good for our values, keeping us more grounded and with a more healthy perspective on life. Pretty cool. Who knew a living wall can make people better team players.

As a NY green wall installer I knew this intuitively based on my experience and client feedback. There’s a real sense of wonder at these plants that magically climb the wall. It’s just cool to have it scientifically verified.

Green Walls Lower Blood Pressure

New York green wall installers are working in the most developed place on the planet, the birthplace of the term “concrete jungle”. That’s why a NY living wall installer can make such a difference. There is so much wall to cover in the big apple.

green wall
The soft color variations in this green wall are soothing to the eye.

This is important work given the health benefits of greenery and the stress of living in a big city. NY green wall installers are literally contributing to stress reduction with each living wall they build.

This claim is not baseless. Studies have shown that exposure to plants helps reduce high blood pressure, a large cause of stress related sicknesses. According to the results of one study in Australia where they exposed people to nature and measured their blood pressure, the author of the study says,

If everyone were to make time for nature, the savings on health care costs could be incredible.

She goes on to say,

It requires effortless attention to look at the leaves of a tree, unlike the constant emails at work or the chores at home.

The main conclusion of the study is that surrounding yourself with some nature reduces stress due to it’s relaxing effect.

New Yorker’s barely have time to sleep, let along take time off to seek out nature. It is a shame. But one thing that helps is to bring nature to New Yorkers in the form of living walls.

Living walls allow busy New Yorkers to look up from their desk and stare upon a wall of lush greenery. Or at home one might gaze upon a living wall in the bathroom as you take a bath and unwind. Wherever the living wall is in the building it allows people to stop for a second and ponder the shapes and the textures of the plants.

This effortless appreciation of living walls is soothing and relaxing to the eye. It is a momentary respite in the bustle of the city.

Green Walls Reduce Stress

In my research on Living Wall installations I came across a little article about Japan and trees. In the 1980’s the Forest Agency of Japan started recommending people spend more time in forests because it increases good health. Fair enough, makes sense, but where’s the science behind their claim. It turns out there is some.

Research coming out of the Chiba University of Japan found that people who spent 40 minutes in a forest showed lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which effects blood pressure and immune system, compared to when the same people spent 40 minutes in the lab.

Living walls may not be able to have redwoods, but it definitely can have small bushes.
Living walls may not be able to have redwoods, but it definitely can have small bushes.

Another researcher at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, found that plants emit aromatic compounds called phytoncides, which when inhaled can spur healthy biological changes in the body.

Furthermore they found that people who spend time in nature show changes in their blood chemistry  that are associated with better protection against cancer, better immunity and lower blood pressure.

Recent studies have also linked humans’ interaction with plants to increased relief from health issues like heart disease, depression, anxiety and attention disorders.

So there you have it. Green walls are good for your health. Installing a green wall in your office isn’t like walking through a redwood forest, but try doing office work in the redwoods. It sucks. Pine needles everywhere.

A living wall installation on the other hand fits perfectly into your office or home and offers documented health and emotional benefits. So what are you waiting for? Hire us to install a living wall for you. Your health and stress levels will be grateful.

Living Wall vs. Green Wall

We install Living Walls. But the lay person might call them green walls. That’s fine. Most people don’t sweat the difference and use the two interchangeably. Technically a living wall and green wall are different though. A living wall has the plants rooted on the wall whereas a green wall also can have the plants rooted on the ground and growing up the wall.

green wall
A green wall can be as simple as a vine climbing up the wall.

In terms of how the wall is build, the difference is huge. It takes a lot of technical know-how to build a living wall but not so much for a green wall that grows from the ground. For a living wall you have to know how to attach the plants to the wall and once they are up you have to know how to keep them alive. As many a failed living wall has shown, this is no easy feat.

A green wall on the other hand is much easier. Anyone who has put a vine in a pot and let it grow up the wall has created a green wall. Over time the vine will cover the wall and create a wall of greenery. As long as you water the roots. Green walls are much hardier for many reasons.

The main reason is that the roots can sit in your traditional soil. And watering it is easy. When it gets cold the soil helps insulate the roots from cold damage. When it gets hot the soil retains water so the roots don’t dry out. Every good gardener knows that the secret to healthy plants starts with healthy roots.

livingwall2
A living wall, because the plants are on the wall, provides many more opportunities for designs.

Living walls offer one big challenge: lack of soil depth, if there is soil at all, which there usually isn’t. The trick on a living wall is to create a vertical environment that may not be soil but the plants like it nonetheless. The variations on this are many. Some companies use little pockets where you plug the plant into. These pockets could be molded plastic, felt, stainless steel, even terra cotta. Other companies use trays where you pre-install the plants.

Although a green wall is great, we only install living walls for the most part. The opportunities for creative designs are far greater. You can use plants that don’t climb. You can have hanging plants as well. You can control the textures and colors much more. With a green wall you are limited to vines and you can’t really control how they grow.

But like I said, most people don’t sweat the difference between a green wall and a living wall. If you asked us to install a green wall we would gladly do it, but just remember we would really be installing a living wall :). And now you know the difference.

Eco Brooklyn has Changed Again! We are Living Wall Installers!

Eco Brooklyn is now a Living Wall installer! We have had eight glorious years of being an all round Green Builder. We have build Passive House buildings, Earthships, a Container House, countless green roofs, salvaged floors, Natural Swimming pools,  salvaged glass decks, and a thousand other cool green building jobs. And yes, even living walls. If it involved green building then we’ve done it. It has been an amazing learning experience. A day didn’t go by when we didn’t feel like we were doing good for the environment and the world.

green wall
A living wall with a focus on ferns.

But now it is time for a change. WE will still do all that stuff but we are ramping up our Living Wall efforts. Living Walls. They are beautiful, healthy, and ALIVE. They are as much a joy to build as they are to view. We made this change because after many years of being a generalist we want to try out being a specialist. We want to go deep into one thing.

Many living wall installers also do green roofs. There are definitely crossovers. In both cases you are installing plants in a hostile environment with very little root depth. And to be honest if somebody asked us to install a green roof we wouldn’t turn it down. But we are putting ourselves out there as purely green wall installers. We want to be THE living wall company in NY. With service and quality beyond compare. It is easier to keep quality high when specializing because you need less experts on the team. Through repetition we will perfect the living wall to an art form.

We hope you consider installing a living wall in your home or work space. It is a magical experience to have a green wall in your space. If you want to see what one looks like, give us a call. We’d be happy to show you some of the ones we have done.

Living Walls, Green Roofs, and the Heat Island Effect

Installing Living Walls and Green Roofs not only provide a refreshing natural aesthetic in a concrete jungle, they also reduce electrical costs and help combat the heat island effect. The heat island effect is an urban phenomenon in which a bubble of heat surrounds a city.

The bubble is caused by the development of urban populations (generally 1 million +) and the expansion and conversion of natural, moist land into skyscrapers and other dry masses. This conversion drastically increases the temperature of urban environments because there is less land absorbing heat, and an increasing amount of urban structures (skyscrapers, shopping centers etc…) amplifying it.

As Green Builders at EcoBrooklyn, we strive to reduce the heat island effect by creating Living Walls, Green Roofs, and gardens that absorb heat and give back clean air into the environment. While Green Roofs are costly to install, research shows that they are more durable than standard roofing, and depending on the size, can drastically reduce the temperature around a home, which in turn lowers the amount of electricity needed for cooling throughout the hot summer.

Green Roof technology is equally as useful in the wintertime as the insulation it provides effectively seals the house off from bitter cold temperatures- reducing the amount of electricity, or gas needed to heat the house. Aside from temperature stability, Green Roofs reduce the chance of urban flooding by retaining excess rainwater and slowly releasing it over time, preventing the sewer system from overflowing.

Green Roof1
Show House Green Roof

Living Walls function similarly to Green Roofs in terms of temperature stability and energy reduction, but they do not have the same benefits of water retention for urban flooding. Living Walls are a great way to infuse nature to the interior or exterior of a home and they are relatively easy to install.

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Living Wall Prototype

 

Living Walls can be as simple or complex as the individual wants. EcoBrooklyn intern, Adam Horowitz, recently revamped a previous Living Wall prototype made from a fan cover and other salvaged materials. The barred fan cover provides an ideal growing space for most plants as it has deep and rounded area for soil to be packed in and filled with roots. Living Walls are extremely convenient for apartments or homes with limited soil space. Vertical planting is a great way to take advantage of unused space while cleaning and cooling the air around your home.

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Living Wall Prototype

Vertical Gardens – Living Walls

As a NY living wall installer I just devoured Garden Up, Smart Vertical Gardening for Small and Large Spaces by Susan Morrison and Rebecca Sweet.

Humans have become very good at building up with cement and metal. We cover large parts of the planet with buildings of all sizes. We all see the value of building upwards in this way and we rejoice with each building built.

Humans are also very good at planting in the flat ground. We can make beautiful gardens and abundant farms. And of course we all see the value in that too.

But for some reason this obsession with building up has yet to apply to gardens. It is just not done. It is not part of our global culture. Most people would feel an empty back yard is a waste and that it should be planted. But nobody walks by a building and says, “Look at that wall, how come they haven’t planted it yet?”

ugly wall in need of a living wall installer

This cultural view point is global and a reflection of our inability to see nature as our partner. We think it is perfectly fine to build massive cities devoid of nature, as if humans and nature can be separated without deadly consequences.

As we evolve we need to bring nature with us. We can’t leave nature behind. People leave their home town and go to the city. Over time they may see their childhood friends back in the little town as less sophisticated than city dwellers.

In our arrogance we view nature the same way. In our arrogance we think we can live without nature. But increasingly as our planet becomes hostile to our destructive habits nature is telling us otherwise.

One of the solutions to reintegrating humans and nature is growing up, double pun intended. Better said I mean planting up. A human made wall should be seen as a dead space in need of plants.

Living walls should become as necessary as insulation and windows on a building. We can’t afford to waste such valuable real estate. Our survival depends on increasing our exposure to nature and walls are the key.

Garden-design-with-vertical-wall

Eco Brooklyn has invested a lot of time researching the best vertical wall and living wall installations for the New York environment. We have become active living wall installers for the NY area. New York of all cities, currently devoid of living walls and yet famous for building up with concrete, needs good living wall installers.

The Garden Up book is a step in the right direction. A handbook for DYI homeowners, the book discusses the many styles and techniques of turning your garden vertical. It may simply be a narrow part of the garden where the only space is upwards.

They suggest design styles for layering plants so that you can maximize your ground space. They list good plants and trees that are tall and slender.

They also cover the different kinds of living walls – non-soil systems, soil systems, pocketed structures, modular planting, irrigated, non-irrigated etc.

Don’t expect an in depth explanation of how to install large living walls. The book is more an idea book and an intro to what exists as options. It is full of wonderful pictures and easy small DIY projects. And don’t expect a list of native plants. They list lots of plants and it is up to you to make sure which plants are native to your area.

It isn’t a farm gardening book either. It touches on edible gardens but the techniques outlined in the book won’t solve world hunger.

The main benefit of the book is that is proposes the idea that gardening upwards is a viable and beautiful thing. The book adds to the discussion and cultural viewpoint that growing up is as normal as growing flat.

In todays society where building upwards is commonplace we need to catch up and grow upwards as well. Our balance with nature and the planet depends on it.

vertical garden installation

plants-on-wall

Eco Brooklyn is a NY living wall installer. We install sedum walls, grass walls and mixed plant walls. Vertical gardens and living walls is an increasing part of our business as we expand into ecological gardening, green roofs and living walls. We focus on low maintenance soil living walls that consume little potable water or gray water and harvested rain water.

We combine the living wall with other parts of the house so that the household gray water is reused to feed the wall. We set up rain water collection systems to route the water into the wall instead of into the sewer. The idea is to create beauty out of waste and ugliness. We take a barren wall, combine it with waste water that normally floods our sewers and rivers and turn the ingredients into a vibrant beautiful space.

The synergies are many – we divert water from sewers, increase the insulation value of the wall, increase the beauty, increase the flora and fauna of the neighborhood and ultimately help re-balance the human/nature relationship.

We do this with all out New York green contractor work but being a living wall installer is especially poignant since the addition of life is so startling in contrast to the barren wall we cover. Simply put, we love it!

Greenbelt Native Plant Center

Native plants are equipped to live under a specific set of conditions including but not limited to climate, soil types, amount of sunlight, and surrounding species of flora and fauna. Plants and animals that have evolved together depend upon one another for survival. Native plants do a better job of providing food and shelter for native wild animals. Sometimes, only a single species or sub species can fill a niche role in an ecosystem. For example the iconic monarch butterfly relies on a single species of milkweed in order to survive. It lays its eggs on the fleshy, sap-filled leaves. Larvae feed on the plants sap, absorbing the toxins which remain in the insect throughout adulthood, making them resistant to predation. Milkweed plants are often destroyed in agriculture in landscaping. Many do not realize the plants serve a significant function in the lifecycle of an iconic species.

Problems often arise when homeowners or professional landscapers plant. In my experience as a landscaper in central Connecticut, aesthetic value often overrules the use of native plant species in decorative landscapes. Clients often have a very specific idea of what they want to achieve, and many falsely assume that planting natives will result in a look far from the immaculate images in their minds.

At Eco Brooklyn, almost all of the plants used in landscapes are native. In rare cases, the species that aren’t are not harmful to the surrounding ecosystem, have a low probability of environmental contamination, and require low levels of maintenance. The aesthetic created captures the natural beauty of the New York City area. Planting native landscapes in gardens, rooftops, and natural swimming pools is not only for aesthetic reasons however. A changing attitude about the plants we interact with is the most valuable result of planting native. Changing the common opinion on natural plants from a method that, although environmentally sound, will lead to lackluster results, is paramount to creating a healthier urban ecosystem.
Greenbelt2

 

To carry out our projects, plants are sourced from the Greenbelt Native Plants Center. Greenbelt is a nonprofit nursery and seed bank located in Coney Island serving all 5 NYC boroughs. It specializes in providing native plants, grown on its 14 beautiful acres, to the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation as well as professional landscapers in order to restore degraded land and enhance the city’s green spaces. There are over 2000 plants native to the New York area, 336 of which are cultivated using seeds collected from wild, local populations. Species also include submersibles, plants that thrive underwater some or all of the year, often a rarity for growers.

For Eco Brooklyn’s most recent natural pool project on Fire Island, over 800 native submersibles from grasses such as sedge to brightly flowered irises were used. Due to Greenbelt’s status as a nonprofit organization, the plants are extremely affordable, and the staff is extremely knowledgeable about their products, providing consultations and advice on the plants they care so much for. We simply could not do what we do without the easy access, and I would like to encourage anyone interested in taking a thoughtful approach to landscaping.

 

Department of Buildings Offsite Folder Request

Everyone in the NYC building industry has their personal horror story of dealing with the Department of Buildings.

My favorite: I was looking for some information and I was sent to seven different offices, eventually ending up at the first office I visited. It was like a sick joke.

One time I was looking for a property folder. Records Department said Certificate of Occupancy Department had it. Certificate of Occupancy Department said Records Department had it. I must have gone back and forth between the two departments ten times begging for some sanity. They eventually told me my engineer must have lied about dropping it off. Finally somebody found the folder abandoned in a corner. WTF??

My most recent frustrating encounter with them was when I wanted to retrieve a building folder from the off-site storage area. You need to make the request via Email. Simple enough, except nobody knew the email…

I called one number I got of the web site that also doesn’t list the email), no answer, but it did offer a list of seven other numbers I could call. None of the other numbers answered. But they did offer the number of all the other numbers. So I found myself calling in circles.

A couple times I got somebody on the line they transferred me to voice-mail. I left a message (I called back three times and left three actually). A week has gone by with no call back.

After hours of calling around, I had amassed twelve numbers that theoretically should help me….

Finally I find yet another number and somebody responds who has the email.

So here it is, if you need to request a folder from the Brooklyn Department of Buildings you need to email BROOKLYN-OFFSITE@BUILDINGS.NYC.GOV

Northeast Pool and Spa Show: Where’s the ECO?

The 2015 Northeast Pool and Spa Show is coming up this January. It is a big deal. All the players are there. It is the BIG event for pool people on the East Coast. They have hundreds of classes, seminars and presentations.

And not one on Natural Pools…

Just in case you forgot how beautiful a natural swimming pool is.
Just in case you forgot how beautiful a natural swimming pool is.

As a natural pool builder I just shake my head in amazement. Do we even share the same planet?

A natural pool uses no chemicals, has a tiny pump if any, and is the most wonderful magical swimming experience you can imagine.

Toxic pools use massive amounts of chemicals that take a lot of energy to make, they have energy guzzling pumps and lots of PVC materials, and is like swimming in a giant cup of noxious chemicals.

How in the world is it possible the pool pros aren’t pushing natural pools as the best swimming experience? Apart from the swimming experience, the two paragraphs above explain very clearly why the pool industry is not pushing Natural Pools. With Natural Pools there isn’t anything to sell! You build it and walk away. With a toxic pool you build it and guarantee a lifetime of product sales in chemicals, pumps, filters etc.

This image shows how much energy toxic pools consume, and this does not include all the energy it takes to make the chemicals. A natural pool consumes nothing.
This image shows how much energy toxic pools consume, and this does not include all the energy it takes to make the chemicals. A natural pool consumes nothing, or at the very most it uses a small pump (about 100W).

Natural Pools have to come through customer demand, not industry supply. The pool industry is just fine with what they are selling and don’t want to stop selling it. But if customers stop buying things change.

Demand a natural pool. If you have a toxic pool, convert it to a natural one. Lets get right of toxic pools and increase natural aquatic ecosystems that are good for humans, plants, and the planet.

Converting a toxic pool to a natural pool is even more ecological. Not only do you create a natural swimming pool using less energy but you also remove a toxic one.

What is the best wall construction for Passive House?

A recent article in the Home Energy Magazine analyzes the embodied energy of different wall structures for Passive House construction in cold climates. Basically, it’s great to have super insulated homes, but home much extra energy does it take to build them? Said another way, how many years will it take before the embodied energy it took to build the walls becomes less than the energy those walls saved.

They compared the following wall structures

  •  TJI frame with blown-in fiberglass insulation, built in Urbana, Illinois.
  • Insulating concrete form (ICF) with exterior expanded polystyrene (EPS), built in southern Wisconsin.
  • Structural insulated panel (SIP) filled with urethane foam with an interior 2 x 4 wall filled with blown-in cellulose, built in Belfast, Maine.
  • Advanced 2 x 12 stud framing filled with open-cell spray foam and insulated on the exterior with either EPS or vacuum insulated panels (VIPs), built in Bemidji, Minnesota.
  • Double 2 x 4 stud wall insulated with blown-in cellulose, built in Duluth, Minnesota.

The energy payback time for the wall assemblies ranged from immediately for the double-stud wall to 4.4 years for the mass wall—not a big chunk of a building’s expected lifetime. Because of the HFC blowing agent, the advanced frame with spray foam envelope has a carbon payback of 23 years.

Although the double-stud wall comes out smelling of roses in these comparisons, as long as you avoid specifying insulation made with an HFC blowing agent and minimize the use of energy-intensive materials, such as concrete and OSB, all of these envelopes would have a good energy and carbon payback.

Here is the double studd wall with cellulose:

The double studd walls stop thermal bridging while the cellulose insulation has very low embodied energy.
The double studd walls stop thermal bridging while the cellulose insulation has very low embodied energy.

As a New York Passive House builder the big question for me is how does this affect Passive Houses built in existing Brownstone buildings. The double stud and cellulose can easily be applied on the inside of the Brownstone brick walls. But there are two problems with this.

One problem is space. Brownstones cost a lot of money and to loose an extra several inches of floor space is a big deal.

The second problem is deterioration of the brick walls. Those brick walls have survived wonderfully for the past 100 years thanks to the nice warm heat from the building. Once you install the double stud walls you isolate the brick on the outside of the thermal envelope and the bricks are susceptible to freezing.

When the mortar in a brick wall freezes it expands. When it thaws it contracts. Over the years this wears away all the mortar and the wall falls apart. How long this takes is still a bit in the air since all Passive Houses in NYC and Brooklyn are only a couple years old.

One solution to both these issues is to build a less thick wall. You gain space and a little heat is lost to the outside, stopping the bricks from freezing. Clearly this is not ideal given the lost energy.

If anyone has solutions to these issues I am very interested to hear them.

Hempcrete for Brooklyn Brownstone Extensions

We at Eco Brooklyn have been in love with Hempcrete – a mix of lime and hemp for walls – for years. A hempcrete wall provides strength, protection and insulation all in one.

Compared to stick and frame building it uses much less wood and is much more solid of a structure. A hempcrete home feels solid. And the soundproofing qualities are amazing.

The one drawback is that you do need a thicker wall – at least 12′. In space starved NYC this can be a problem. The wall doesn’t, however need any kind of finishing (sheet rock for example) so space is saved there.

We think a Hempcrete application is perfect for a brownstone extension. It is so much greener than the cinder blocks often used. And in terms of comfort it is unmatched. No air leaks or thermal bridges.

Eco Brooklyn is a New York Hempcrete installer. We feel that it has it’s place in the NY green building lexicon. More and more, though, the green building lexicon is simply becoming building lexicon. Green building makes sense.

We are eager to install more hempcrete walls. Even if it is just one wall that acts as a centerpiece, the visual beauty and tactile comfort of hempcrete is makes it practically a work of art. Optionally you can plaster the wall with clay, another beautiful material.

Check out this video on how a hempcrete wall is built. You will notice how very simple it is.

Wood Certification

A little while ago we visited a green pavilion with “sustainable” oak floors. We were intrigued by the concept of sustainable oak since oak trees are protected by law and the meaning of sustainable is often skewed by marketers.

After some research we found that there are more than 50 certification systems worldwide, the two largest being the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Both are third-party certifiers in that they are independent and non-governmental.

In North America, the three additional certification systems endorsed by the PEFC are the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), the Canadian Standards Association’s Sustainable Forest Management Standard, and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Program. Currently only 10% of the forests in the world have been certified as sustainable.

The Forest Stewardship Council was the first established third-party certification system and many others followed suit. There is criticism that the abundance of certification systems results in consumer confusion in relation to standards, therefore allowing some systems to uphold laxer standards.

LEED only accepts certification systems that adhere to the USGBC Forest Certification Systems Benchmark. A draft is available here.

Currently only Forest Stewardship Council – certified wood is eligible for LEED points. FSC accredits its associated certification bodies and checks compliance through audits.

The FSC has 10 general principles for responsible forest management:

Principle 1: Compliance with laws and FSC Principles – to comply with all laws, regulations, treaties, conventions and agreements, together with all FSC Principles and Criteria.

Principle 2: Tenure and use rights and responsibilities – to define, document and legally establish long-term tenure and use rights.

Principle 3: Indigenous peoples’ rights – to identify and uphold indigenous peoples’ rights of ownership and use of land and resources.

Principle 4: Community relations and worker’s rights – to maintain or enhance forest workers’ and local communities’ social and economic well-being.

Principle 5: Benefits from the forest – to maintain or enhance long term economic, social and environmental benefits from the forest.

Principle 6: Environmental impact – to maintain or restore the ecosystem, its biodiversity, resources and landscapes.

Principle 7: Management plan – to have a management plan, implemented, monitored and documented.

Principle 8: Monitoring and assessment – to demonstrate progress towards management objectives.

Principle 9: Maintenance of high conservation value forests – to maintain or enhance the attributes which define such forests.

Principle 10: Plantations – to plan and manage plantations in accordance with FSC Principles and Criteria.

The FSC certification promotes forests that are exemplary of ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable management practices. Sustainability has been defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, so the certification ensures that forest managers ensure the long-term health of the forest in question.

FSC also provides chain-of-custody certification, which takes into account all companies that have touched the lumber before it is purchased by a consumer.

The detailed standards can be found at www.fsc.org.

The certification systems promote responsible building practices by allowing builders to work with sustainable materials. At EcoBrooklyn, we try to work mostly with materials salvaged from dumpsters, which is the most sustainable option available. It is rare we buy new wood any given year.

Certified woods offer an acceptable last option alternative. But as a green building company we are skeptical of certifications. Most of them are simply labels that allow the consumer to feel better about their purchase and allow the producer to sell more, but in reality not much has changed. Trees are cut down, habitats are destroyed.

It is impossible to reproduce that. Even when companies replant trees, they do it as a mono-culture with one species of tree. That is like saying elevator muzak and Mozart are the same. One is lifeless. The other is full of life.

Understandably our view is not main stream. If it were then most construction would come to a screeching halt and we would love that. But realistically certifications are a move in the right direction for mainstream builders. With time hopefully the certifications will get more and more stringent.

Are Illegal Drugs Green?

Are Illegal Drugs Green? The answer is no. Reason being anything that isn’t regulated is driven purely by monetary benefit without any rules or oversight. If you think big corporations are bad for polluting rivers, think what damage a large meth lab can do. Not only do they have a lot of chemicals to dispose of but they need to do it secretly – they aren’t going to pack the contaminants into barrells and send them off to an approved waste processing plant. They are going to dump it into a secluded river. “Secluded” being another word for no humans, meaning nature.

This occurred to me when I read the cool info on this Addiction Support site. They offer fantastic info on how drugs as they are made now are not sustainable.

Clear cutting forests in South America for Cocaine production. If stopping legal companies from destroying the rain forest is hard, it's almost impossible to stop illegal companies.
Clear cutting forests in South America for Cocaine production. If stopping legal companies from destroying the rain forest is hard, it’s almost impossible to stop illegal companies.

As a green builder in Brooklyn we work near the Gowanus Canal, a great example of what happens when waste is not regulated. Now we are paying for that big time. The millions they saved by using the canal as a dumping ground is many millions more that we have to pay to fix it. Thank’s guys! Next time just charge me a couple cents more for the product and do the right thing.

Gowanus-1851
The mouth of the Gowanus Canal 1851.
A much more strangled and destroyed Gowanus Canal in the 19th Century.
A much more strangled and destroyed Gowanus Canal in the 19th Century.

From an environmental point of view it is a lot healthier for our society to legalize drugs. Tax the hell out of them, regulate them up the wazoo and strictly control where, when and who can consume them. And most importantly, control how and where they are made. Are they clear cutting mountains and drenching them in illegal pesticides to grow that marijuana or are they growing it in low footprint warehouses using solar electricity and city waste-water?

Global Drug Routes. Hmmm...who's the biggest drug addict?
Global Drug Routes. Hmmm…who’s the biggest drug addict?
Parts of the US have been ravaged by illegal drug production. The local authorities admit they have absolutely no control over the gangs doing it. There is just too much area to cover, too much money and too much demand.
Parts of the US have been ravaged by illegal drug production, like the clear cutting for Marijuana growing in California above . The local authorities admit they have absolutely no control over the gangs doing it. There is just too much area to cover, too much money and too much demand.

People are not stupid. Well, that’s not true. Many are. But it is my experience from having three kids that working with them is much better than against.

Why is alcohol legal and other dangerous drugs aren’t? Makes no sense to me. Why is is totally legal for my six year old to light a fire in our fireplace and yet I can’t legally buy some pot to light up on my back porch? Trust me, my son lighting a fire is a million times more dangerous to society than my addled brain on pot could ever be.

And I don’t even like pot. I want this stuff legalized – and meth and LSD and crack – because I am a New York green builder and I understand that burning down tropical forests in Burma to grow opium is going to directly affect my life in the big apple.

I want to see sustainably grown opium in my corner store. I want it to be really expensive and I want the profits to go towards Addiction Counselling and a new swing set for my local park. Now that is something I could get high on.

Green Roof Layers

Eco Brooklyn installs different kinds of green roofs but the basic technology is always the same: to replicate a normal soil environment in a very shallow depth and a harsh environment.

images
A green roof replicates a much deeper soil depth similar to normal planting.

The basic components are plants, growing medium and then an assortment of water retention, drainage, root barrier and soil retention. This can be one layer or a bunch of layers.

 


drainage_plate

We love doing slanted roofs and usually build our own soil retention structures but the general idea is like the image below.

This is a good product for slanted green roofs.
This is a good product for slanted green roofs.

Here are the basic steps:

These are the steps for a green roof installation. There are actually several different ways to do it but this one works.

Installing a green roof is really cool and pretty simple. The problem is that you are high up in the air on the main barrier between the building and rain. So lots of things can also go wrong. As a green roof installer we have learned a lot and thankfully haven’t screwed up too badly. Despite the fact that we are constantly pushing the barrier. Our latest installation involved a river on a roof. Pretty cool.

River on a Brooklyn Green roof.
River on a Brooklyn Green roof.

Green Roof Professional certification

The Green Roof Professional (GRP) certification system was developed by Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a not-for-profit industry association working to promote and develop the market for the green roofs throughout North America.

In addition to providing a professional accreditation program, the organization facilitates the exchange of information, supports research, and promotes the establishment of effective public policies. The organization presents Awards of Excellence to celebrate innovative professionals and organizes the annual CitiesAlive conference to develop supportive policies.

Green Roofs for Healthy Cities has been committed to developing a professional accreditation program to legitimize green roof designers and provide education to fill knowledge gaps and improve the quality of work.

In 2004, Green Roofs for Healthy Cities developed its first training course, Green Roof Design 101. It has since added Green Roof Design and Installation 201, Green Roof Waterproofing and Drainage 301, and Green Roof Plants and Growing Media 401. The classes are available throughout North America on select dates. They are each full-day courses recommended as a part of the GRP training program.

The following half-day courses are also available, and count as continuing education credits:
· Advanced Green Roof Maintenance
· Introduction to Rooftop Urban Agriculture
· Green Walls 101: Systems Overview and Design (2nd Ed.)
· Integrated Water Management for Buildings and Sites
· Ecological Green Roof Design
· Green Infrastructure: Policies, Performance and Projects
· Green Roof Policy Development

Each course is accompanied by a course manual, which includes all the material on the accreditation exam.

Tuition for each full-day course is around $400 USD and is accompanied by a course manual. Each course manual can be purchased for $200 USD separately for those who choose not to take the classes in person. The accreditation exam itself consists of 100 multiple-choice questions and lasts 2 hours. It costs $500 USD to enroll and cannot be taken online, but is available at select times throughout the year.

In order to maintain GRP Certification, you must be a Green Roofs for Healthy Cities member ($160 USD annually), and renew your certification every 2 years. This involves completing a minimum of 16 continuing education credits, 8 of which must for GRHC related activities, and paying a renewal fee of $95 USD.

Interestingly, each continuing education course is listed at 3.5 units, effectively forcing members to increase the number of classes they must take to maintain their accreditation. Some of the half-day courses can be taken online for $125 USD as part of the Living Architecture Academy.

Here we used Gaia Soil as the growing medium (recycled Styrofoam) and native wildflowers.
Here we used Gaia Soil as the growing medium (recycled Styrofoam) and native wildflowers with some low laying native sedum.

While the accreditation process may be designed to increase the reliability of green roof designers, Green Roofs for Healthy Cities is also cashing in on the deal. The North American green roof industry is growing by over 100% each year, drawing many more interested professionals and increasing public awareness. Much like LEED in their field, GRHC accreditation does require a financial commitment.

For standardization reasons, the green roof methods taught in the GRP program teaches industry standard techniques, usually involving brand name products. As a guerrilla green builder, EcoBrooklyn works with clients who seek the most cutting edge techniques. We reduce the waste of each project by maximizing the use of natural and salvaged materials.

This means we often go outside the envelope of normal green building techniques. We’ve tried all sorts of green roof experiments using alternative salvaged materials. We’ve used bottle crates as soil stabilization on sloped roofs. We once saved 6,000 used diapers and used them as the base for the growing media. The plants loved that one. And we almost never use the traditional palette of non-native sedum, preferring to use native plants and grasses.

How to Maintain a Green Roof

Whenever we install a green roof we strongly recommend the client pay for ongoing maintenance, regardless of whether they do it with Eco Brooklyn. It is not like caring for a green roof is difficult, in fact it is very easy and pleasurable, but if you don’t there could be problems.

EcoBrooklyn's green roof with Strawberries
EcoBrooklyn’s green roof with Strawberries

Green Roofs, like all gardens, require some amount of maintenance and, like gardens, the type of green roof you have will determine the amount of maintenance it needs. Intensive green roofs (more than 6″) will require much more time and effort than extensive ones. So as there is no simple answer to the question of “how to maintain a green roof,” here are some general green roof maintenance tips.

General Green Roof Maintenance and Care

Keep the drainage areas clear of plants. The border around the edge of the roof and the areas around drain outlets and other roof penetrations should be kept clear of all plant life and vegetation. Plants growing too close to the drain will clog it up, causing possible leaks and in stress to the building structure. If plants grow near roof penetrations it could cause a leak, or it could make it hard for maintenance. Biannual weeding should suffice.

Add compost biannually. Organic mater in growing media decomposes over time. It gets absorbed by plants and gets washed away. Nutrient-rich compost should be added to the roof garden in spring and autumn. This provides plants with important nutrients and replenishes the soil. How much really depends. A rough rule of thumb we use is to add 1/4″ of compost, making sure it does not cover too much the existing plants.

Weed out unwanted plants, also known as volunteer plants. Being on a roof, seeds dropped by birds or carried by the wind inevitably find their way into your roof garden. Some of the seedlings are fine and can be left alone. It’s your call. Others, such as a budding oak tree, are not desirable for obvious reasons. Smaller bushes and plants are also not desirable because they may have aggressive roots that may cause leaks. Monthly walk-throughs should be scheduled to monitor the types of vegetation growing on your roof.

At the very least a thorough weeding should be done in the spring to get them as they are freshly coming out of the soil. And then another weeding should be done in the summer just before the weeds get a chance to spread their billions of seeds.

The best practice is to also just weed a little every time you see one. It takes two seconds. Be sure to remove the weed from the roof. Throwing it on the soil could release its seeds.

Roof maintenance is great fun.
Roof maintenance is great fun.

Green roofs should be watered as little as possible for ecological reasons. But there are times when it is so hot and dry that some water may save them. Experiment with plant types and, depending on how much rain you get, try to get to the point where you don’t have to water your roof at all. When it does become necessary to water your plants, err on the side of under watering. Also, if your roof garden is on a pitched roof, begin watering at the top of the roof to the water can trickle down through the plants at the bottom, which may not need any water at all.

Watch out for pests and diseases. Keep an eye out for pests and diseases that may come to your roof garden. While green roofs are designed to attract insects and increase biodiversity, sometimes unwanted insects come along. This is rare given the harsh environment up there. Pests can find much more pleasant places to bother.

If you are at all inclined, keep a detailed maintenance log/diary. Schedule when you’re going to do these checkups (and follow through!) and keep and detailed record of your findings. This will also help you see what plants do best in your roof’s environment. This is optional. Maintenance is really pretty simple and doesn’t need much except some common sense.

Shipping Containers as New York Buildings

If you are interested in green building, environmentalism, or architecture, chances are that you have seen some of the chic structures coming out of the shipping container building movement. These structures range from the Redondo Beach container home, which won an award for innovative design from The American Institute of Architects in 2007, to the 85 foot tall Freitag container structure located in Zurich.

Redondo Beach Container House
Redondo Beach Container House Shows Containers Can Be Luxe
Freitag Store is World's Tallest Shipping Container Structure
Freitag Store is World’s Tallest Shipping Container Structure

Closer to home here in Brooklyn there are several container structures.

5,000sq.ft single family residence in Brooklyn made out of containers
5,000sq.ft single family residence in Brooklyn made out of containers
Eco Brooklyn built this 1,500sq.ft container building as an art studio space for a client in Brooklyn.
Eco Brooklyn built this 1,500sq.ft container building as an art studio space for a client in Brooklyn.

Although these buildings are architecturally interesting, the reasons container homes really shine in the eyes of Eco Brooklyn are more practical: environmental, cost, and function.

A container home is environmentally sound because it is the product of reused materials. As the economy ebbs and flows and as import and export changes, there inevitably are shipping containers that fall by the wayside to gather rust and eventually become scrap metal.

In terms of time savings, re-purposing a shipping container into a home allows the supporting structure along with the ceiling to come with almost no new production, resulting in large savings in lumber. This process also cuts down on the energy that would be required to turn a container into scrap metal before that metal is reused.

It should be noted though that the biggest mistake people make is underestimating the extra work a shipping container requires. To turn a metal box into a cozy home takes a lot of cutting, welding and drilling. Nonetheless if designed correctly a shipping container can be cheaper than a normal structure.

The modular nature of shipping container construction allows for building the modules in a large warehouse for example. This creates savings on production materials, labor hours, and carbon emissions in comparison to conventional on-site building. These advantages are gained through the ability of shipping container home construction to be carried out in a central location free of things like weather, site constraints and delivery issues.

This allows for the project manager to easily have materials shipped to the assembly location so there is no reason to buy more material than is necessary, which is common practice for on-site construction. The laborers can work in a climate controlled setting with all of the necessary tools readily available, and it is not necessary to move large quantities of people to an obscure job site every day.

Of course getting the modules to the final site is not always easy. But keep in mind these are shipping containers, designed to sit nicely on trucks, trains and boats.

Shipping containers are extremely functional when it comes to use as a pre-fabricated building material considering their low price (as low as $1500 per unit). These functional advantages include strength, availability, stackability, transport ease, speed, and addition ease. Shipping containers are used as heavy cargo carriers with the ability to be stacked upon one another on sea-going ships. This means that the containers are far stronger than what is necessary for a home.

Their modular nature also means that building does not have to be done all at once. You can build one container, then add another one later.

In port cities (most of the biggest cities are port cities) used shipping containers are readily available in all kinds of sizes and conditions. Even if you are not located in a port city, shipping containers are easily transported by truck. This allows for the use of shipping containers in very remote areas, like the Australian Outback, because they can be built where the work is and then easily transported to where the remote home may be located.

Shipping container construction is inherently fast. This is because the relatively small amounts of site work including foundation pouring and landscaping can be done simultaneously with the container construction. This allows for about 50% shorter construction time. Unlike conventional homes, container homes can be easily added onto without needing to make large changes to the existing structure since the modules are individually supported.

Shipping containers have some inherent disadvantages regarding their design and previous uses. Since steel conducts heat very efficiently shipping containers must be heavily insulated in extreme climates. There is nothing more uncomfortable than being in a steel box when it is cold or very hot.

Used shipping containers have possibly been filled with food spills, pesticides, and lead paint. When cargo crosses country borders it is common for the border patrol to spray the containers with pesticides to reduce cross country contamination of rodents and invasive plant species.

Because of this, the container needs to be cleaned thoroughly before conversion and in some cases it is necessary to remove the wood floor that they come with and seal or get rid of lead contaminated paint entirely.

Since shipping container architecture is new, another hurdle is acceptance by local building inspectors. Steel is an uncommon structural material for homes and it can be difficult to acquire a zoning permit and for the structure to pass building code.

Aside from some easily fixable inherent disadvantages with shipping containers, and one very difficult to deal with issue concerning zoning and building code, container homes create an elegant sector of green architecture. Companies like Intermodal Design are creating simple and affordable housing solutions by taking advantage of these structures.

Other companies like Container Home Consultants Inc., run by Alex Klein, are finding ways to help families help themselves by showing them the relative ease of DIY shipping container (ISBU) home building compared to conventional home construction.

Eco Brooklyn is a shipping container builder and we are experimenting with new ways to make the containers more habitable. One technique is covering the roofs with green roofs, reducing the heat in the summer. We also like berming two or even three sides of the container, much like in Earthship construction.

We are currently working on a shipping container music studio for a client in Brooklyn. The challenge there is soundproofing, since metal is not a great material for that. But we think a green roof, some berming and lots of sound deadening cellulose insulation will work just fine. We’ll keep you posted when that gets started.

Dumpster Diving Goldmine

Eco Brooklyn does a lot of dumpster diving. Most of the materials we use for jobs – floors, decks, pergolas, paving, stairs – comes from dumpsters in the New York area. One reporter called it “guerrilla green building.”

Salvaged Beams from Dumpster
Salvaged Beams from Dumpster

 

The very same wood from the image above was turned into a roof garden. The Pergola and Bulkhead are made from the wood.
The wood from the image above was turned into the Pergola and Bulkhead in this rooftop garden.

Our lucrative dumpster diving is a testament to the massive waste our society creates. We have literally rebuilt an entire brownstone using salvaged materials for everything but the mechanicals and windows (those things needed to be new because it was a Passive House renovation). And this is high end NY construction.

This is why we love Rob Greenfield. He does the exact same thing only with food. Check him out. Think about it next time you buy a bag of perfectly shaped shinny apples at the store. Don’t you wonder where all the other apples that aren’t 100% perfect go? But perfection won’t even keep food from being thrown out. Sometimes it’s just cheaper to throw it out than store it for the next day.

One Dumpster Diving Excursion
One Dumpster Diving Excursion

Smart Grid

As green building gains momentum so does the quest for new sources of power and ways to tap into that power. And as those energy sources keep increasing there becomes a need to organize them. Enter the Smart Grid.

The smart grid will bridge that gap between buildings and power sources, both the new green sources like solar and the older traditional ones like damns.

This will make it easier for a solar installer like Eco Brooklyn to install a solar array and plug the source to the grid without any fancy wiring. This reduces installation costs, worker skill set, and in turn makes solar a much more attractive option for homeowners.

Smart Grid
Smart Grid

Con Edison has already put plans into motion to build NYC’s 3rd generations’ grid – The new grid structure will include smart meters, building management systems, smart Photo Voltaic installations, and the ability to plug in hybrid vehicles.

Currently our grid only delivers power mainly in one direction and there is almost no communication between source and user. It is possible to install a Grid-Tied solar system, where a home owner’s solar array sends unused electricity back to the grid. But the process is not optimal and remains clunky to install. The new system allows for flexibility and two way communication needed to accommodate and manage growth and energy need of future generations.

The automation increases the reliability and security of our power supply too. Smart meters gather information and send it back to ConEd which allows them to see how we are using energy; enabling them to monitor the supply more efficiently.

Given the US electric infrastructure is grossly outdated and overtaxed, increased monitoring can mean the difference between a working air conditioner on a hot summer day and a complete blackout in the entire state.

The smart meters have an in home display that shows the user how they are using the energy, giving them the capability to manage power hungry devices. The term ‘out of sight out of mind’ will be something of the past as far as energy use is concerned. The in home monitors are the first step for users to first become aware of and then break their old energy using habits. Now that they know how much it costs to run the A/C at 65 degress they may get comfortable with a little more heat in their life.

Given the intelligent two way monitoring of a Smart Grid, electric powered cars can be charged easily and have the option to charge when prices are low.

All of these improvements make it easy for green builders and green contractors to incorporate new power generation sources for the consumer. In turn the new grid gives the average consumer the capacity to adjust their power usage to save themselves money and consequently reducing load on our power delivery system. For Eco Brooklyn this simplification is good news. We struggle to explain the benefits of a solar installation but the Smart Grid makes our job much easier.

Composting Toilets

The book Everyone Poops states an obvious fact, and so humanity has forever been forced to answer the question: what do I do with this shit? Literally. Throughout history, societies have come up with a range of strategies to dump what’s been dumped, from burying it in pits to simply letting it run in the streets. For those of us born into the affluent West within the past 250 years, however, there has been only one acceptable system: the flush toilet.

Forget What’s Your Poo Telling You? (does it float? Gassy stomach), the flush toilet took a giant pair of shears to the connection between ourselves and our waste. Simply make a deposit, and a magical current of sparkling, drinking quality water will whisk all evidence away, to a never-never land, the great sewer in the sky. The flush toilet officially makes your poop Not Your Problem.

Certainly there are health and hygiene benefits to be found in separating human populations from mountains of fecal matter. But the system we have become dependent on to solve this issue was never going to be sustainable. Its basis lies in taking clean potable water, polluting it, then using more energy to clean it from the waste we added.

According to U.N. water statistics, conventional flush toilets in middle-class households account for approximately 30 percent of global water use.
According to U.N. water statistics, conventional flush toilets in middle-class households account for approximately 30 percent of global water use.

Or worse, the sludge is dumped into in a river or ocean where a normally very beneficial and nutrient rich mix creates havoc on the water ecosystem.

The flush toilet was thus perhaps the most harmful, least beneficial and yet most celebrated invention to ever be celebrated as a success of “development.” These seemingly luxurious seats of porcelain take a helpful, nutrient-filled substance and turn it into waste, while dirtying clean drinking water. The traditional toilet where it’s mixed with fresh water and thrown away just doesn’t make ecological sense.

There is evidence of water-powered sanitation systems even in archeological sites dating from the 31st century BCE, in Britain’s Skara Brae, Orkney, but it wasn’t until the 1850s that our familiar, clean water-intensive toilets became widespread. Since then, people have polluted an obscene amount of drinking water by using it as transportation for their waste, not to mention using energy and polluting through our bathrooms. Americans alone flush 4.8 billion gallons of water down their toilets every day. The waste from water toilets accounts for 90% of each household’s environmental pollution, and toilets account for about a quarter of the average home’s water use.

Skara Brae house site, Orkney Islands. There is evidence that water was piped under the settlement, possibly for sanitation.
Skara Brae house site, Orkney Islands. There is evidence that water was piped under the settlement, possibly for sanitation.

Luckily, after only a few generations, people are beginning to realize what an error we’ve made, and are designing toilets that combine ancient understandings of human waste’s potential with current sanitation technology.

Enter: the composting toilet.

A composting toilet is a dry toilet that uses a predominantly aerobic processing system that treats excreta, typically with no water or small volumes of flush water, via composting or managed aerobic decomposition.

By installing a composting toilet, you can transform your waste from environmental problem to solution. These toilets eliminate the use of water, instead transforming waste into compost through aerobic decomposition. The benefits to you and the environment are enormous. A compost toilet will provide you with a constant source of quality soil, save you money (installing a compost toilet costs 25-75% less than a septic system), and spare waterways the harmful runoff from common sewage systems.

After the initial time to get over any lingering squeamishness you might have after a lifetime of seeing your waste magically sail away, the transition to a composting toilet doesn’t have to be difficult at all.

There are two main types of composting toilets: self-contained appliance toilets, which compost waste directly under the toilet seat within the room, and central systems, also called remote or bi-level, which transport waste to a container located in another location. When preparing to make the switch, first consider what your space is like. Do you have enough for a bilevel? Do you have access to an adequate supply of energy, or will you need a passive design? Compost is catalyzed by heat, so consider whether you can put your toilet in a heated room or will have to heat and insulate your toilet separately? Consider locating your toilet next to a south-facing window or near a heat-generating machine to effortlessly increase its temperature.

Composting toilets appear similar to flush toilets. Their structures range from simple boxes to familiar ceramic seats, many of which have two chambers to guide the separation of urine from feces. After each use, all composting toilets require additional input of a cover material, such as ash, peat moss, or wood chippings. Bacteria and fungi then work their magic to alchemize human waste into humanure- a rich, humus soil, which is 10 to 30 percent of the original volume.

Composting toilets range from multi-thousand dollar high-tech machines to buckets with a toilet seat. Self-contained units allow waste to decompose right under the toilet, and must be emptied, while more complex remote systems funnel waste to a further location, perhaps a basement or backyard. Most pre-built composting toilets cost around $1,500 to $3000but pay for themselves in avoided water and sewage bills. Many high-tech toilets include special features to catalyze decomposition and prevent odor, including heating units, injected air, air baffles, and worm units. These add-ons will naturally require some energy input, however. A simpler model, built yourself, can be as cheap as the materials you can salvage.

Adding a composting toilet to a New York City residence is not easy. Eco Brooklyn has done it when we do gut renovations. We did it in a brownstone and in a shipping container building. The reasons for doing this in Brooklyn or NYC are primarily to reduce the flooding of the rivers with sewage when it rains.

In places outside of the city it makes even more sense. If you are in a place that uses ceptic systems then the reasons are even greater.

If you’re ready to take the plunge, you have a variety of options:

You can build your own.

Instal an Aquatron system to decompose your waste at a distance or in your basement.

Buy one of Envirolet’s dual-fanned toilets.

These are half the price of most models.

Sun Mar produces self-contained models if you don’t want a separate holding tank.

A less expensive, simple box design.

A high end firm that consults and installs their own designs.

A New York and Brooklyn Composting Toilet Installer: Eco Brooklyn. These gays are amazing.

One unfortunate hurdle to installing a composting toilet is that, as with any building project, you must apply for a permit, and since they are relatively unknown in the United States, composting toilets sometimes face ignorance-induced discrimination from the local department of building (DOB).

This happened to Eco Brooklyn when we applied for a permit to install a composting toilet with SunMar. The DOB denied us because of concerns that it might release too much carbon dioxide, despite the fact that composting toilets are vented like any other toilet. Bottom line, their response was not based on fact: they didn’t know how a composting toilet works so simply denied it. A bottle of sparkling water releases more carbon dioxide into a house than a composting toilet. And besides, who cares. Carbon dioxide is hardly dangerous to a home.

Once installed, a composting toilet requires slight maintenance. Frequent addition of carbon heavy organic material is the most frequent maintenance, but think of that cupful of sawdust as the equivalent to a flush. Composting toilets will only clog if you overload it at a pace more rapid than it can decompose, so you no longer have to worry about dragging out the old plunger. If it does start to smell, troubleshoot by adding more cover material. You can put anything you would put into a normal composting pile into your composting toilet.