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Brooklyn Green Brownstone Renovation Template

The way Brooklyn brownstones are currently renovated does not work. It does not work for the environment nor for the inhabitants’ comfort and utility bills.

Eco Brooklyn is focused on redefining how a brownstone gets renovated. We use the Brooklyn Green Show House as an example of a renovation template that works for the triple bottom line: People, Planet, Profit.

I think all contractors in Brooklyn need to change the template of how a brownstone is renovated. The current template does not work and we’re screwing ourselves and the planet each time we renovate like this.

Here are some basic outlines that Eco Brooklyn follows in our green brownstone renovations. It is a template and anyone can do it.

> Only renovate what you have to
> Only buy what you have to, salvage everything else
> Never buy new wood. Yup, seriously
> Lots of insulation, and then more insulation
> Excellent windows and not too many (even consider closing up north facing windows)
> Airtight, like obscenely airtight
> Controlled ventilation preferably to every room
> Most efficient lighting and appliances practical
> Direct largest proportion of modest window area to the south
> Add the lowest cost and lowest pollution heating source (eg that usually is not electricity but can be in some situations)
> Green roof if possible
> Gray water if possible
> No concrete in front or back yard
> Build It Forward, aka build for a hundred years
> Did I mention insulation?

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2 comments to Brooklyn Green Brownstone Renovation Template

  • As a Brooklyn “brownstone” owner and someone who has experience with passive solar renovations here and in Vermont, I agree with many of the principles in your “template” for brownstone renovations. However, I think some of them are over-simplified and misleading, and, as such can weaken your overall credibility. Let me mention the two positions you take that I find to be the most questionable:

    • You suggest that Brooklyn brownstone renovators reduce overall existing window area and consider boarding up north-facing windows. This is a gross over-simplification of the role windows can play in the life of a comfortable and energy-efficient home.

    While it is true that reducing window area (especially on the north side of a house) can substantially reduce heat loss in winter, this ignores many positive functions that appropriately installed windows and shades can play in an energy-efficient home, as follows: during the day in fall, winter and spring windows can act as solar collectors trapping heat from the sun; in spring, summer, and fall, wondows can act as natural ventilators and air fresheners, allowing late afternoon and night time breezes to rid your home of any heat, odors, and stuffiness that may have built up during the day; and don’t forget that windows let in natural daylight and provide views out to the sky, yards, and the neighborhood.

    Thus, in building or renovating any home a balance needs to be found between reducing heat loss in winter and the many advantages of windows mentioned above.

    Consider, for example your principle of eliminating (or minimizing) north-facing windows. which is, to be sure, an effective way to reduce heat loss in winter. However,
    I don’t believe it applies well to the many Brooklyn brownstones that are attached or semi-attached and so already have few, if any, side windows, which by the way makes for terrific insulation on one or two sides of the house, but greatly reduces potential natural light and winter heat from the sun. To further reduce window area in north or northwest-facing walls in a Brooklyn brownstone, as you propose, would create a claustrophobic, cave-like feeling, not to mention destroying the traditional appearance of the northerly-facing fronts of these houses. As a practical matter, moreover, few Brooklyn brownstones face due north/south, so any reduction in northerly windows would also causes some loss of desirable east light/heat in AM and west light/heat in PM. Far better solutions involve careful installation of well-constructed insulated windows, window quilts, and/or tight-fitting insulated window blinds to control heat gain/loss through radiation, conduction, and convection during all seasons.

    • I think your principle of never buying new wood is similarly over-simplified. I can understand taking this position regarding hard wood that comes from felling healthy old trees in natural areas, but, for example, a great deal of lumber comes from softwood trees planted under state and federal programs for the dual purposes of reforestation and lumbering. This practice helps the economy (including jobs for man rural lumber-people) and re-establishes forests in areas that were once cleared for farmland and would otherwise be useless and unattractive scrub. To mention just one other exception to your rule, there are types of “wood” such as bamboo and cork that are highly sustainable. I really think your position on new wood needs to be thought through and stated more carefully.

  • Gennaro Brooks-Church

    Thanks for your comment and interesting insights. I realize Eco Brooklyns views are not mainstream, but we believe the situation needs a hatchet and not a scalpel as the Governor recently said of the NY fiscal crisis.

    Perhaps if the state of the ecology improves we will be less drastic but right now things are too serious to not take as many steps as possible to reduce green buildings impact on the world.

    We have thought a lot about this and are not being simplistic or uninformed when we make these guidelines for ourselves and hopefully other builders.

    I am bidding on a Passive House renovation of a Brooklyn brownstone and the architect has proposed removing one of the three windows on each floor of the north facing back garden wall. The rooms are far from cavelike or claustrophobic. The remaining two windows allow plenty of light and fresh air. In fact it allows two large rooms instead of one large one and one small one.
    I wouldn’t do this for a street facing wall though since that effects the beauty of the block. Back gardens I think are fine.

    On the south side I think it is worth considering making MORE windows to let in the southern sun.

    In terms of not buying wood, these tree farms you speak of are mono crops with all the harm that comes with that. Mono crop tree forests contribute 3% the oxigen as a normal forest of the same size. I don’t see them as much use.
    Bamboo and cork is still over hyped. Most of it is grown in China, often by clearing forests to plant it. Cork is mostly produced in China too, meaning they ship it from say Portugal, to China, then to the USA. Anything that comes from China is not green IMO.
    NY is abundant with old wood from buildings. We renovated the green show house without buying wood. It is a good feeling to know not one new tree was cut down to gut renovate an entire brownstone.

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