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

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.

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

Preservation or Conservation: Building for the Past or the Future?

One could argue that the greenest buildings are the ones that last the longest- not only because of the material, but also design.

Borgund stave church, in Borgund, Lærdal, Norway, built in the 12th century

Borgund stave church, in Borgund, Lærdal, Norway, built in the 12th century

As with all things – buildings erode. From the 16th century half-timbered houses in Norway to the Chrysler building – even the best built structures wear with time. As time moves forward, and the paint chips off, our emotional attachment to these structures only grows. It seems obvious that we should allocate funds to restore and maintain these buildings as these are icons of a time and space which no longer exist. But then a question arises: do we preserve their original integrity or do we implement new technologies to make these famed structure more energy efficient to comply with changing times?

Conservation is the process through which historic materials and design integrity are prolonged through carefully planned interventions. Preservation is a process that seeks to preserve and protect building, objects and landscapes in their original form.
Although these two schools of thought may seem to be very closely related, there seems to be a tension that has emerged.

To examine these difference in the ideology of preserving and conserving, I will examine two case studies-the first of which is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Seth Peterson Cottage. The second is Mies Van De Rohe’s Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Frank Lloyd Wright was designed over 1000 structures and completed 500 works. He believed that architecture should work in accordance with nature to create a harmonious relationship between the natural and built environment – he called this philosophy organic architecture.

The Seth Peterson Cottage – a two-room, 880 square foot lakeside cottage located in the Mirror Lake State Park in Wisconsin was designed in 1958. Seth Peterson, the owner, took his own life prior to the completion of the cottage; the next two owners completed the project.

The cottage went into disrepair after 1966. It was not until the 1980’s when local activists came up with the idea of completely restoring the now State-owned cottage to offer as a getaway to renters.

The State hired Chicago architect John Eifler to do the restoration. Following the initial inspection of the cottage, Eifler’s mechanical engineer concluded that the existing single-pane glazing (which covers 60% of the façade) would lead to a building that would be virtually impossible to heat in the winter. Eifler proposed a double pane glazing increase the heating efficiency, but the State Historic Preservation Office refused his initial proposal.

Eventually, Eifler succeeded with the proposed double pane glazing and installed his windows and added appropriate Usonian-style furniture and was able to restore the FLT gem to its original glory.

Eifler didn’t just restore the original FLW design but rather built it towards the future by considering the present and expected energy concerns. Eifler added a radiant floor heating system, with insulation beneath the heating system to ensure that the heat rises into the house, rather than seeps into the earth and electronic roller shades that drop down on winter nights providing further insulations.

Mies Van Der Rohe’s Crown Hall

Mies Van Der Rohe’s Crown Hall

Our second case study concerns Mies Van De Rohe’s Crown Hall, which is the home of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Completed in 1959, Crown Hall is one of the most architecturally significant buildings of the 20th century. As one of Mies’s masterpieces, Crown Hall is a perfect example of steel and glass construction and an example of the beauty that is inherently found in function – a notion that is also applicable to Green building.

By 2003, Crown Hall was in desperate need of repair, the stairs were cracking, the once-jet black facade had faded to a shade of gray and ivy had begun to climb up the exposed steel structure.

In order to restore the structure, Krueck& Sexton of Chicago along with preservation architect Gunny Harbow were commissioned to update the iconic structure. In order to maintain design integrity the architects chose to use huge low-iron glass sheets for the façade/ In order to keep these massive sheets in place there were forced to diverge from the original design. They were forced to design diagonal sloping “stops” – this made the right-angle-Mies-worshippers crazy. The result was not only successful but the low iron glass restored the cool elegance of increased natural light which lead to lower light use and cut down on the heating requirements.

Although both these projects are dealing with structures by modern masters, Eifler was dealing was a small, residential building were as Krueck &Sexton were dealing with one of the Mies masterpieces. For Krueck & Sexon, maintaining the authenticity of the original design was the greatest concern and outweighed the energy concerns. To the Crown Hall crew, prolonging the life of the building while maintain the highest level of artistry and expression was the objective. For example they felt it was inappropriate to install a green roof just to cut down the urban heat island effect not merely outfitting a classic example of architecture with solar panels.

It seems that when that there is a pivotal choice that has to be made: what meaning or interpretation do we choose to express in a restoration? Artistic integrity or buildings for the future?

The Eco Brooklyn Showhouse is a hybrid of both the preserve and the converse schools of thought. When Gennaro and his partner, Loretta in 2008 the bought their Carrol Gardens Brownstone was livable but the latest restoration had taken place in the 1970’s. Gennaro knew that he would use this structure has a laboratory for green research, design and construction. Over the past four years he has refurbished the entirety of the interior and exteriors not just by repairing what needed repairs but diving into the history of the structure.

The Eco Brooklyn show house combines original details like the slate and painted flowers with new details like the planters.

The Eco Brooklyn show house combines original details like the slate and painted flowers with new details like the planters.

When cleaning paint off of the siding on the house, Gennaro discovered reminisce of three painted flowers. He has since updated the paint and the flowers are now an interesting and historic detail that is once again visible on the façade.

Gennaro also used the original staircase and banister that connects the first floor to the third. When they first bought the house, the original banister was in terrible condition. Gennaro and his crew had to deconstruct and then rebuild the banisher to its originally glory.

Although, preserving the historic integrity was not the only goal of this Carroll Gardens restoration, this house was to be a green Showhouse, so it not only needed to represent the past, but simultaneously build for the future.
Through the restoration Gennaro suscessfully created an extremely tight thermal envelope similar to the standsards used for Passive House, and also added a natural pool, green roof, and a garden pond.

By going back to these old structures, whether that be a lakeside cottage in Wisconsin, a steel and glass academic building or a classic Brooklyn brownstone one can learn something about efficiency and function. Advancing technology often brings us away from the simplicity of good design. In the Frank Llogd wright cottage, the floor plan centered around the fireplace to effective heat the entire space. The Mies building had large glass windows to increase natural light and the Brooklyn brownstoners abut each other to retain the heat. There is something to be learned from the past as we move forward.

Photovoltaic Doubles as Sun Shade

Installing Solar Photovoltaic (Solar PV) in New York is a great way to put your money into something that gives a steady return year after year. You install it and immediately start saving on your electric bill. After a couple years you have paid off the cost of the installation and you get your electricity for free, year after year. It’s a great deal.

But Solar PV takes up space and space isn’t abundant in New York City. Covering a roof with a PV Array takes away valuable space for a nice roof top hangout.

That’s where the PV array that doubles as a sun shade comes in. Check out these pictures. Eco Brooklyn installs Solar PV and as a NY solar installer we fully understand the need to maximize a rooftop space. If designed correctly, though, you can have a nice shaded roof top space, with sitting area, deck and green roof, AND have an energy generating PV Array that eventually makes your electric bill a thing of the past. Now that is cool. That is beauty to a NY PV installer.

Solar PV pergolla installation

Mix of greenery, pergolla and photo-voltaic installation

Roof top sun shade pergola made out of a Photo voltaic array pv installation

Deck shade made out of a PV installation

The solar PV installer can pick PV modules with more or less light passing through them depending on what client wants

Best Urban Space Remodels: Our Instagram Claim to Fame

In the spirit of awards season, we’re pleased to announce that our green building Instagram account has been awarded an Instagrammy! Improvement Center evaluated the top ten home contractors to follow and we’ve been recognized for having the best urban space remodels.

Our feed features images from our Manhattan and Brooklyn ecological construction projects including gardens, green roofs, renovated shipping containers, passive brownstones, and more. In addition to project updates we include tips on green construction and sustainable design, a behind-the-scenes look at our salvaging techniques, and ways to save energy and reduce your carbon footprint.

Big thanks to Improvement Center and be sure to take a peek at our Instagram account under the handle @ecobrooklyn.

Red Hook container studio built from salvaged materials with a rooftop garden

Red Hook container studio built from salvaged materials with a rooftop garden

Natural Mosquito Control

Summer might not be just around the corner, but once gardens are in full bloom safe insect and pest control will become a necessity. As a NY green contractor that specializes in green roofs and gardens it’s part of our job to ensure that the spaces we create can be enjoyed to their fullest potential.

Mosquitoes and other bugs will exist naturally within any green space and it is important to be able to control their populations. The best option is to use safe and natural methods so as to reduce diseases spread by mosquitoes and maintain a clean and healthy setting. It’s much easier for our clients to enjoy their urban landscape when they are free from worry regarding insects and pests.

With this article we aim to provide a deeper understanding of how one of the most annoying and dangerous pests, mosquitoes, finds a host and the current scientific advancement in safe pesticide production and application.

The focus here is on the mosquito species Aedes Aegypti AKA the Asian Tiger mosquito; most well known for being a royal nuisance but also very importantly responsible for spreading yellow fever. When mosquitoes hunt for a meal they detect a number of chemicals, including carbon dioxide, lactic acid, ammonia, and octenol.

Octenol, in particular, is emitted by all mammals and is a carbon-based compound that has a molecular structure that can take on a “right-handed” or “left-handed” form. Both the right and left forms are a mirror image of the other and the “handedness” of either form determines how its molecular bonds are assembled.

A test performed by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) entomologists concluded that mosquitoes are more likely to be attracted to the right-handed form of octenol emitted by mammals. Information regarding compounds that most attract mosquitoes can be crucial in determining effective pesticide and repellent use.

Traditionally, a variety of man-made chemicals are applied to the body or a garden to repel insects. These chemicals are known to have harsh smells and negative health effects especially when applied directly to the skin. Folk and homeopathic remedies have long been used by indigenous cultures and many are coming under current scientific review.

The USDA and their chief scientific research agency the ARS along with a few collaborators have recently found that the ancient Pacific folk remedy of using breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) to repel mosquitoes actually holds scientific weight.

Three chemicals within male inflorescences of breadfruit have been identified as being more effective at repelling mosquitoes than the leading repellent known as DEET. These chemicals – Capric, undecanoic and lauric acids (or C10, C11, and C12 saturated fatty acids) – have been recorded as being entirely successful in repelling the malaria carrier.

A separate study that examined the effectiveness of a variety of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids as mosquito repellent found that participants wearing a cloth treated with these compounds were protected against mosquito bites. Dried clusters of the flowers can be burned, as is done in native pacific cultures, to release the chemicals and stave off harmful mosquitoes as well. This is the first scientific research validating the effectiveness of the folk remedy.

In the same respect, ARS scientists studied the effectiveness of the Indian and African method of burning Jatropha curcas seed oil to repel insects. Jatropha curcas is a versatile plant with all parts having homeopathic functions.

In an effort to validate the folk remedy, Natural Products Utilization Research Unit (NPURU) chemist Charles Cantrell extracted the smoke from the plant and analyzed its repellent properties concluding that the free fatty acids and triglycerides present were effective at preventing mosquitoes from biting. Fatty acids have previously been observed to have mosquito repelling properties, but this study is the first to include triglycerides in its findings.

Folk remedies are regarded as safer methods of repelling mosquitoes due to the toxicity of modern pesticides. Chemical pesticides often have a strong negative impact on humans due to the similarity in physiological systems shared by humans and pests.

In further scientific advancement, ARS scientists have tested a new form of mosquito control that they have concluded to be safe for humans, yet detrimental to insect populations. This nonchemical approach involves using a molecular pesticide technology that prevents mosquitoes from producing essential proteins necessary for their survival. The protein present in this pesticide is a nucleic acid such as DNA or RNA that interrupts specific genes within pests.

Due to the gene technology involved, this method can be designed to target a specific pest species and is even effective against species that are resistant to certain chemical pesticides. It is important to use caution with any technological advancement, however this alternative to modern pest control is reported by the USDA to negatively affect only the species towards which the method is directed. This new, nonchemical approach to preventing mosquito bites could serve as a model system for developing new, safer pesticides.

When enjoying your days and evenings in your Brooklyn green roof or garden you probably won’t be using natural pesticides like jatropha curcas seed oil or breadfruit to stave off pesky mosquitoes. But we are looking at these ingredients and many more as possible natural mosquito control. We’ll be sure to keep you posted as our research continues!

Exterior Shades – The Anti-Heat Wave of the Future

Temperature has assuredly become a hot topic in offices throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan during the recent heat wave. Eco Brooklyn’s office is no exception to the heat. However, we have a unique approach to the problem.

Passive housing has been a cornerstone of environmental design since the ancient Greeks and Romans (check out this article on the history of passive housing: http://www.planetseed.com/relatedarticle/energy-efficient-building-passive-heating-and-cooling). While technology and techniques have become more advanced, many of the principles used by the ancients have stood the test of time. Most notably, this includes the use of exterior shades to protect from heat in the summer while allowing sunlight in during the winter.

Exterior shades differ from internal shades in a few major ways. Perhaps the biggest difference is that when using internal shades, the sunlight is allowed to enter the room through the window. The heat will be trapped inside of the shades. As it dissipates on the interior, the home is heated much faster.

The second major difference between interior and exterior shades is the dynamic ways one can utilize external shades and shutters. For example, the use of an overhang is an effective way of using angles to shade the windows during the summer when the sun is high. When the sun is lower in the winter, the sun can enter the room under the overhang.

Furthermore, this concept of exterior shading offers an opportunity for synergy – a mark of sustainability in the green building community. Currently, Eco Brooklyn’s offices employ the use of internal honeycomb shades, which are highly effective at absorbing heat. However, we have plans of making an even more effective and synergistic approach. Namely, we would like to install an exterior overhang to accomplish the above-stated goals; with one catch: We will install solar panels on the overhang to absorb the heat and reroute it to power the house. This is a great example of an integrated solar power system.

As global temperatures and sea levels continue to rise across the world (especially in NYC: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/10/new-york-city-flooding-by-2050_n_3417348.html), New Yorkers will be expected to assume a heavy burden of increasing energy bills. One way to combat these growing expenses is by building green. Passive housing is a great way to not only take advantage of the Earth’s natural energy, but prevent it from escaping your house as well.

Another approach to natural cooling is to use a green facade, or living wall. This concept involves the use of growing vines and other vegetation in a vertical direction to cover a wall or other surface of a building that is in direct sunlight. Green walls can vary in design and allow room for creativity. For further information on green walls check out this link: http://www.greenscreen.com/direct/GS_AdvancedGreenFacadeDesign.pdf

A thermal camera reveals the cooling factor of a green wall over solid surfaces.

A thermal camera reveals the cooling factor of a green wall over solid surfaces.

Christopher Jeffrey

InsideClimate News – Brooklyn

Eco Brooklyn would like to recognize the efforts and accomplishments of a fellow green advocate located in Brooklyn.

InsideClimate News is a rising nonprofit news website that focuses chiefly on environmental issues. Their objectives include providing scientific and objective investigations and news stories to inform the public and our officials living in these times of serious energy change. Additionally, InsideClimate News attempts to preserve the tradition and utility of environmental journalism.

InsideClimate News covers a wide scope of environmental information. Their hot topics include Keystone XL, natural gas drilling, climate change, nuclear energy, and environmental economics. It is a great site to keep people informed on green topics – from individuals to companies.

Most notably, InsideClimate News won the Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting for its investigative journalism on a 2010 oil spill in Marshall, Michigan. Their ebook, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of” is the work of journalists Elizabeth McGowan, Lisa Song, and David Hasemyer. The book’s message details how the spill in Michigan was exacerbated by misinformation, substandard preparation, and a delayed response.

For example, the pipeline that leaked into a local stream, which entered the Kalamazoo River and threatened Lake Michigan, was carrying diluted bitumen. Diluted bitumen, or “dilbit” is a very heavy type of crude oil which is diluted with a cocktail of chemicals. More importantly, no one knew that the pipeline was carrying dilbit and the company, Enbridge Inc., did not inform first responders what they were dealing with until days after the spill was reported.

When all was said and done (though cleanup is still going on at some capacity) at least one million gallons of oil over 36 miles of between the Talmadge Creek and Kalamazoo. These bodies of water were closed for over two years and about 150 families were permanently relocated. The $765 million+ that Enbridge spent on the spill makes it the most expensive in US history. The reason why the spill went virtually unnoticed by the popular media was because the BP Deepwater Horizon spill occurred around the same time.

Enbridge is a Canadian oil and gas company. The dilbit that flowed through the pipelines comes from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. It is very similar to the type of oil that would be transported by the Keystone XL pipeline.

For more information check out ICN’s website at www.InsideClimateNews.org

 

Christopher Jeffrey

Klearwall Windows and Doors

Eco Brooklyn was visited today by Klearwall Industries. Klearwall is a certified Passive House windows company. Originally based in Ireland, Klearwall is looking to make its mark in the US market. They offer triple-paned windows and doors for domestic and commercial needs, ranging from single-window installation to entire buildings. Their windows are billed as eco-clad, future-proof, and affordable. All of this is with good reason. 

Klearwall boasts an R-Value as high as 9.8hr.ft².˚F/BTU, which results in a 60% to 74% solar heat gain (depending on single or double glaze). Their PVC frame option is guaranteed to last 35 years and is sold at a bargain of approximately $33 per square foot.

Klearwall’s products are designed, fitted, and tempered in Ireland and shipped to the United States. Their plant is one of the largest carbon neutral factories in Europe and is powered solely by renewable energy. They offer a range of products – from windows in all-wood, aluminum, PVC, or a combination. The PVC and aluminum used is recycled from salvage jobs and treated at the plant.

As a pioneer in passive housing, Eco Brooklyn is always interested in companies such as Klearwall for their business strategy and philosophy. We wish them all the best as they try to help make New York a greener place.

Check out their website at http://www.klearwall.com/

A model of Klearwall triple paned window.

A model of Klearwall triple paned window.

NYC Updated Flood Zone Maps

FEMA reveiled updated flood zone maps two weeks ago, which doubles the previous estimated number of at risk New Yorkers to 400,000 residents and 70,000 buildings. These numbers are still proposed, and will take up to two years of reviews to become official, after which building regulations will be affected.

 

flood zone map

 Proposed updated flood zone map, courtesy of http://maps.nyc.gov/hurricane/

At the city level, Mayor Bloomberg addressed the escalating risk of rising sea levels and powerful storm surge by proposing a $20 billion storm protection plan following the announcement of the newly proposed maps. The recommendations include building seawalls and a protective “Seaport City” south of the Brooklyn Bridge. The full report can be found here.

In the meantime, residents are already affected financially by increased insurance premium rates, and faced with the costly dilemma of raising their houses above the base flood elevation. As a green builder, Eco Brooklyn is involved in several projects focused on the effects of  rising flood waters and nearby contamination. Residences in flood prone areas are constructed with the expectation of flooding to the first floor. We therefore choose to build through processes that reduce water damage, such as waterproof installation and minimizing the use of sheetrock. We encourage the cellar to be used largely for storage only and elevate all mechanical items such as the boiler to above the ground level. Total protection is not ensured, but the reduction of damage risk is the best that can be done for smaller residences where moving out is not an option, and elevating an entire house is too costly a measure.

In light of these proposed flood zone maps, Eco Brooklyn highly recommends that residents assess their new risk level and what preventative measures can be undertaken to ensure the future safety of their families.

-Liza Chiu

Crown Heights Project – 100% Salvaged Material Fence

Eco Brooklyn has been working on an interesting sustainable project in the Crown Heights area. The challenge is to build a fence using only salvaged material.

How does this project work?

Our green building team collects extraneous wood from the local company, U.S. Fencing Systems, Inc. The staff there are extremely gracious and are happy to see the wood go to good use rather than having to see it lugged off by dump trucks every week. The wood is then transported to the work cite where interns and construction workers de-nail the wooden planks, cut them for sizing, and mount the planks onto the salvaged metal poles extracted from a dumpster near Prospect Park.

This job is a captivating snapshot of what we do as green builders. By reaching out to local businesses and the community, people get excited about sustainability and are more likely to build it forward.

Christopher Jeffrey

Crown Heights Fence

Apartment Complex in Flood-Prone Toxic Site

An Eco Brooklyn blog reader recently brought up the June 1st deadline for comments on the Brownfield Cleanup Program application submitted by Lightstone Group for their proposed 12-story, 700-unit development at 363-365 Bond Street, right on the edge of the Gowanus Canal. This reader shared with us that they are very much against building such a project in that area. We agree. It makes no sense.

Photo courtesy of Pardonmeforasking

 As most of you know, the Gowanus Canal was once used as an industrial waterway, served as a dumping ground for industrial waste, and continues to collect raw sewage especially when the local sewer system is overwhelmed by storm runoff. It is so toxic that the EPA declared it a Superfund site in March 2010, one of two in the New York City metropolitan area.

Did we mention that it is extremely flood-prone? Here is a picture of the water on Carroll St & Bond St after Hurricane Sandy, which brought on many contamination concerns for the neighborhoods’ residents.

Photo courtesy of the Observer

In short, Eco Brooklyn does not believe that building a massive apartment complex in a flood zone next to a toxic site is the best idea. It is one of the worst we can think of actually. It seems to be driven by many things, profit being a huge factor, but common sense and community interest are not in the equation.

As a green builder with experience in flood management construction Eco Brooklyn is involved in several projects where rising flood waters and nearby contamination are considerations. These are for smaller residences where moving is currently not an option.

But we would never encourage a new building be built in such an area. The only exception is if it were designed as a type of house boat so it could rise with the surge. A 700 unit house boat isn’t really going to work. Maybe we can just park an ocean cruiser on the Gowanus and be done with it.

–Liza Chiu

Snake Propagation Brooklyn Style

We are building a native habitat at the Eco Brooklyn show house, inspired by the Mannahatta Project – what NY was like in the 1600’s before white settlers. The ecosystems on the property are full of native plants, animals and layouts. This week we went upstate and collected two Garter snakes. We hope the trauma of removing them from their home is smaller than the benefits of increasing Brooklyn’s natural ecosystems. Below is a video showing our very rigid release protocol.

Adverse Effects on Children’s Health From Soil Lead Contamination

An article about the adverse effects of soil lead contamination on children’s health was recently published on WNYC. As a green builder involved in garden soil lead remediation this was very interesting to us.

Perhaps it is the spring weather driving children outdoors in droves, but Eco Brooklyn has been receiving a number of inquiries from local families regarding soil remediation. Back when we first tested the Eco Brooklyn Show House soil in 2010 and got lead results far above what is remotely safe, we realized this is a real problem and became by default a Soil Remediation Contractor for NY and Brooklyn brownstones.

Living in Carroll Gardens, one of the more family-friendly neighborhoods in New York City, Eco Brooklyn cannot emphasize enough the importance of lead remediation for the sake of our children’s health. Our recent posts reviews some of the key components.

-Liza Chiu

New York Green Contractor is Childish

As I continue to grow as a green builder I become more and more childish. Adults might make it sound fancy by calling it my “inner child” but for me it just feels childish. And I love it. Part of this awakening is that I have a four year old son through whose eyes I can see things.

Often we’ll find ourselves laying on the ground lost in the minute world of a small bug, morphing the science of what an exoskeleton is with stories of the bugs heroic escapades as a knight in shining armor. As a green contractor in Brooklyn this is especially poignant.

On average New York city children don’t get exposed to nature like other children. They tend to be very intellectual with more chances of knowing how to get around on the subway than any idea of how to walk through a forest.

My son playing with a native Box turtle on our green roof

This of course is fine and very useful if you need to get uptown. But I increasingly see that they can have both worlds. They can be wonderfully cosmopolitan while also having the incredibly enriching life of the natural world.

The solution is in the design  and implementation of natural worlds existing harmoniously in our very condensed New York living space. This green design process is a large part of what I think about when doing a green renovation; Not just because I want children to enjoy the wonders of nature, but because the natural world brings out the child in all of us.

There is nothing more therapeutic than communing with nature, and there is nothing more debilitating than an absence of it. The word Biophilia is key to this – literally meaning “love of life”, and Biophillic design is the cornerstone of green building.

This psychological life centered view of Green Building may appear contrary to some who like to count carbon offsets and embodied energy. But for me Green Building isn’t about saving energy like so many technocrats like to claim; this is like saying hiking is about covering lots of miles.

Certainly energy efficiency is important because without it life is increasingly being destroyed. But the goal behind all these numbers is more life, or at the very least less killing.

Green building is about creating life – lets break the two words down to see what I mean:

The word “Green” is really just a catch-all phrase for nature and it’s harmony. That is something most people agree with. The word “Building” is a little trickier. I feel that to say the word “Building” only applies to the act of erecting ecological structures for humans is narrow minded in the extreme.

A Green Builder knows this more than anyone because you can’t be a green builder without understanding that everything is connected. A green home in Brooklyn with bamboo floors and super efficient HVAC influences everything from forests of bamboo in China to Copper mines in Columbia. And on a micro scale those HVAC units are going to give off a constant flow of water condensation creating an ecosystem on the side of the house.

So a Green Builder knows that “Builder” is much more than bricks and mortar, regardless of whether they are salvaged. It is about Building Green, literally creating ecosystems, of which humans are part of but certainly not the only ones.

So as a New York contractor I see my role as one of creating multiple ecosystems, literally building green. Part of that is the typical brownstone renovation process, for example, but there is a lot more.

Simply put, I build ecosystems, not brick boxes.

We disguised a hallway with a living wall to provide relaxation in a yoga studio.

 

The green roof, back yard, front yard, the NY waterway down the road, all these things are part of the design matrix that at first people wouldn’t think of when renovating a brownstone. But it is very connected. The interior ecosystem of people eating, sleeping, and bathing uses and creates energy. My job is to make sure this energy is acting in harmony with its surroundings but designing the systems – water, electric, etc.

Considerations involve where the water and sun come from and where they go – solar, rainwater, graywater…if I get it right then there is less garbage (due to salvage) and more life in the world once I am done with the job – life in the form of a happy bunch of humans but also life in the sense that these humans create food for plants and animals in the form of human waste. In turn the plants and animals give back to the humans…

And this is why I am getting more childish. As I surround myself with more and more alive ecosystems that I give to and I receive from I am more engaged, more playful, more carefree. It comes across as childlike. This is a good thing.

And because of seeing how I react to these ecosystems in a childlike manner I have learned to use children as the guide for how I build.

My son exploring our native garden designed with inspiration from the book Manahatta
My son exploring our native garden designed with inspiration from the book Manahatta

An ecosystem that is great for a child is also great for an adult. Children only magnify the experience (as well as the negative one – lead paint for example). As an example of good childish design, at my house I have a pond in the front yard that is literally a child magnet. Children insist on going by my house. It is their daily pilgrimage to see what the water, plants and animals are up to. This is why I know I got the design right.

And sure enough the adults follow. I love watching secretly from my window the childlike smiles of adults as they stop themselves in their harried life and take a moment to look at the pond. They soften and for a brief moment they relax a little. You can see them come alive a little, their curiosity increasing.

And for good reason. Not only does the pond bring back childhood feelings of calm and innocence, it literally brings back ancestral memories. Psychologists believe this is because the vast majority of our evolution was spent as hunter gatherers, closely attuned to nature, and certain things – like a gently trickling pond with clean water and non-threatening fish – offered us things that kept us alive – fresh water, food, a place to rest.

We are so caught up in the now that we forget the weight of our genetics. Roughly speaking, Modern Homo Sapien hunter gatherers (or actually scavengers) have been around for 200,000 years and it is only in the last 10,000 years we became more agricultural.

It is only in the past couple hundred years that we became completely disjointed from nature. And this doesn’t even take into account that there have been human-like beings for 4 million years.

All this is to say that nature is profoundly connected to us in ways we can’t imagine and a couple thousand years of “civilized” living isn’t going to knock that out of us.

Studies have shown that staring at a healthy fish tank produces the same rejuvenation as sleep or meditation. Analysis of recuperation times and pain killer prescriptions have shown that people recover faster and in less pain if their hospital bed has a view of nature. These small and subtle examples only confirm what everyone knows already: nature is good for us.

But I’m starting to realize that nature IS us. “Obviously”, you might say, but it isn’t. We are completely brainwashed by outdated Romantic ideals that clearly see humans and nature as separate. This Romantic view is definitely one of the key players in the Earths largest climactic and species change in history, resulting in massive levels of cognitive dissonance in the human race – some dealing with it in denial (religious groups), others in panic (environmentalists), and yet others in nihilistic acts of self destruction (capitalism).

And so, in the concrete jungle of NYC, I see the role of a green contractor to be one of historian, biologist and psychologist, looking into past ecological designs that offer a sense of safety and peace to humans – a place where our inner child can feel safe – while also offering other life forms a place to grow harmoniously.

This is a lot to fathom when all the client wants is a new kitchen for their one bedroom condo, but it also makes things easier. There is nothing more difficult than living a life without meaning, and there is nothing more meaningless than capitalism in its crudest form. Essentially a green builder is able to weave meaning into that process, explaining to the client that the kitchen is much more important that simply picking paint colors.

Once you understand that all things are connected through systems it becomes clear that in every renovation there is an opportunity to create or destroy life. With this view it is easy to put paint colors into perspective and focus on the more important and meaningful things in life.

Permaculture Tour this Sunday 03/10/13 @ 11:30 am

Eco Brooklyn will be hosting a Permaculture tour of at least 30 people this Sunday. It is open to all who are interested in touring the Eco Brooklyn Show House and learning about permaculture.

Location: 22 2nd Street Brooklyn, NY 11231

Time: 03/10/2013 @ 11:30

No RSVP required, just show up.

Permawhat?

Permaculture is a synergy between land use, agriculture, and human development. Coined by the environmentalist-authors Bill Mollison and David Holmgren from the phrase “Permanent Agriculture.” Permaculture evolved into a social awareness philosophy that focuses on a healthy planet in which to sustain a human population. It thrives on understanding the natural processes of biology to sustainably integrate farming, aquaculture, and land development. Permaculture advances the organic efficiency of pre-industrial farming  and places more value on renewable resources and limiting waste production.

Major concepts of this philosophy include: Food Forests and Guilds, Poultry and Backyard Animals, Rainwater Harvesting, Polyculture and Multipurposing, Watershed Restoration, Natural Building, and Waste Management.


For more information visit the NM Permaculture Institute’s website.

For classes in New York visit homebiome.

Alternative solutions to lead contamination

Brooklyn prides itself in its historic buildings, but these same sites pose an often unknown toxicity risk to inhabitants. Although the use of lead products was outlawed decades ago – lead-based paints were taken off the market in 1978 and leaded gasoline was banned in 1989 – lead’s legacy continues to taint Brooklyn’ s soils. Lead does not break down or biodegrade but instead it sits there as a bioavailable chemical in the soil, meaning it can be assimilated by plants and animals. As water moves through soil, the lead leaches through soil profiles or lead laden dust is blown, resulting in the lead spreading to nearby lots.

The EPA advises remediation at lead levels of 400 ppm or higher, yet this is substantially higher than advised in many countries, where 100ppm is the average.

In terms of being exposed to lead, no minimum limit has been found at which lead ceases to be toxic. Small children may suffer brain damage, lowered I.Q., slow growth, and behavior problems, while adults may experience muscle pain, nerve disorders, reproductive problems, cognitive decline, and hypertension.

the Eco Brooklyn show house back garden had 2500ppm lead contamination. We remediated it by removing 6" of soil, then digging a hole to access the non-contaminated soil beneath, which we then spread over the rest of the garden. We turned the hole into a natural swimming pool, pictured here.

As a green builder in a lead-contaminated area, one of our primary concerns on a job site is lead containment. In our renovations we find lead everywhere – paint, posts, soil, pipes, railing ends, to name a few.

Molten lead was used to hold iron fences in blue stone like this iron fence at the Eco Brooklyn show house.

Our focus is to achieve our renovation goals while not exposing workers and clients to lead.

 We achieve this through an understanding of how lead spreads and how to contain it. We constantly test for lead, and even when we don’t find any we act as if there is lead and we simply have not found it. For example, we are very careful to contain dust that may seem harmless yet should it contain lead could be devastating to a family, and we never store construction debris in the back yard (a common practice) if we suspect it contains lead since it would leach into the garden soil.

When New York customers come to us with soil remediation projects for their gardens we see lead concentration numbers around 800-4000 ppm. According the Dr Chang at Brooklyn College, where we get our soil tested, this is a very common range in New York.

Our crew remediating a Brooklyn garden.

Traditionally, the primary objective of lead remediation is to remove the lead from the site and move it to an area where people will not come in contact with it. This is the method recommended by Brooklyn College since it removes the lead from the site and is relatively foolproof if correct measures are taken to isolate the house if we are moving soil from the back yard of the brownstone to the front.

Our current service is limited to this method. Although very effective at soil remediation, it is labor intensive and consumes energy due to the need for trucking the soil back and forth.

Because of the drawbacks of typical soil remediation we are researching alternative means of lead remediation in order to improve our services and find more ecological and cost- and labor-efficient solutions.

Another option is phytoremediation, where plants are grown in the lead-contaminated soil, allowed to absorb the lead in their tissue, and then removed from the site. Accumulator plants such as sunflowers and the Brassica family are especially efficient at pulling lead out of the soil. It is very important that these plants are not eaten or used as compost, as this would return lead to the system or contaminate the consumer.

Phytoremediation is good in that it removes the lead from the site, although it does take many seasons for any significant lead reduction to occur. In New York, where every minute is crucial, and where most homeowners are seeking lead remediation because they have young children, waiting several years before playing in their back yard is not a practical option.

A garden where we implemented phitoremediation as part of our soil remediation strategy. We waited until the weed plants had reached maximum height before removing them from the site with the intention that they absorbed some of the lead in the soil.

In the past 15 years scientists have begun to explore the concept of in situ stabilization, or binding the bio-available lead to other compounds in order to limit the concentration of lead in the soil that is actually digestible and therefore toxic to humans. The idea is to treat lead in place instead of simply moving the problem somewhere else. With these methods, lead will still show up on a simple soil test, but it is no longer free to contaminate plant tissue or humans. In essence it is no longer bioavailable or mobile.

Although some scientists are not keen on this approach since it does not remove the problem but merely renders it dormant, it does have some compelling ecological and cost benefits.

In situ stabilization has a couple elements. One is pH control, the other is binding the lead.

Lead is less bioavailable to plants and people in soils with a neutral pH. Soil pH can be controlled by bioremediation. Compost, or organic matter, balances pH levels in the soil while providing essential nutrients for your plants.

The synergistic benefit of adding organic matter like compost to lead tainted soil is that the lead also binds with the organic matter, limiting the amount of total bioavailable lead.

The most efficient form of in situ stabilization involves the use of chemical additions to the soil. Phosphates are a great option since as well as immobilizing lead they also bind with other heavy metals such as copper, zinc, cadmium, and uranium as well.

Eco Brooklyn using calcium phosphate to reduce lead toxicity on a job.

The EPA description for chemical in situ stabilization reads as follows:

Phosphate Immobilization – Using phosphate to bind with the lead, which will allow the metal to pass through the body if it is inadvertently ingested with significantly less harm; combined with

Green Capping – Using compost and green cover such as sod or planter boxes to create a protective layer above the treated soil

The most ideal phosphate source is fish bones. Judith Wright invented the process used to create apatite II, a phosphate mineral apatite particularly efficient at immobilizing lead (patent #6217775). It binds with lead to crystallize as pyromorphite.

She uses crushed Alaskan Pollock fish bones sourced from fisheries and found that when added to contaminated soil caused a 50% reduction in bioavailable lead within the span of a few weeks. Fish bones are free of contaminants and the use of a fishing industry by-product limits the overall contribution to environmental cost. Catfish bones have also been found to be appropriate for the process.

The product was applied in a large-scale project in the heavily contaminated South Prescott community of Oakland, California. Residents were asked to volunteer for remediation, which was handled by the EPA (the area is a superfund site). They were provided with one to two weeks of hotel accommodation for the duration of the work on their yards, as well as landscaping and design assistance post-remediation.

About 3 lbs of fish bones were tilled into each sq ft of contaminated yard, and then covered with 3-6 in of clean soil and plants. Landscapers would then arrive prepared with a series of conceptual yard designs from which to work from in order to restore the inhabitant’s gardens to the most ideal condition. The eco-friendly conceptual designs emphasized native plants, water efficiency, and maximized outdoor use.

Apatite II remediation site in the South Prescott community (Oakland, CA)

The community embraced this method, as it was more cost efficient and environmentally friendly than typical remove and replace soil remediation techniques, while also reducing the disturbance caused by the remediation efforts (removing and carting tones of contaminated soil is not easy).

The traditional dig-and-haul method is estimated to cost $32 per sq ft while remediation via phosphate addition is generally around $18 a sq ft. However, these numbers are EPA estimates, which tend to be less cost-effective.

EcoBrooklyn charges a lot less than EPA estimates for dig-and-haul remediation but it still isn‘t cheap for something that looks the same once the job is done (dirt with lead or without still looks like dirt). The greatest contributor to our cost is labor and the demands of safely bringing toxic soil through a brownstone.

The importance of doing this correctly cannot be understated and we make no apologies for charging more than contractors who see the job as simply removing dirt from a yard. If done incorrectly more harm than good is done because now you have the lead contaminated back yard dust all over the INSIDE of the house. It is no joke.

EcoBrooklyn is very interested in in situ remediation for this reason. Not having to worry about safely moving toxic soil through a home would reduce our costs, so phosphate addition is something we are looking into seriously.

The active ingredient in fish bones is calcium phosphate. While apatite II is the optimal form of the compound for metal remediation, other forms of calcium phosphate have been tested and found to have significant effect on lead bioavailability. Tricalcium phosphate [Ca3(PO4)2]., dibasic calcium phosphate / dicalcium phosphate [CaHPO4], and hydroxy calcium phosphate [Ca10(PO4)6(OH)2] can also react with lead to form pyromorphite [Pb5(PO4)3Cl] and other insoluble lead compounds.

As mentioned before, a simple lead test will not show improvement post phosphate addition since the lead elements are still present. To evaluate the concentration of bioavailable lead, the EPA recommends obtaining an RBA value (relative bioavailability) via an IVBA assay (in vitro lead bioaccessibility). However, it has not yet officially approved the method for the assessment of phosphate amended soils.

A TCLP (toxic characteristic leaching procedure) test determines the mobility of both organic and inorganic analytes. This test would determine how much of the lead in the soil is mobile post phosphate-amendments, although its cost is prohibitive for a New York brownstone back yard soil remediation budget.

A study completed by the U.S. Military on a small arms firing range found that a 5% addition of hydroxyapatite or tricalcium phosphate lowered lead concentrations by 90-95%.

Dibasic calcium phosphate/dicalcium phosphate is a calcium nutritional supplement that can be obtained from some pharmacies and vitamin shops. EcoBrooklyn obtained pure dibasic calcium phosphate powder from Freeda Vitamins. We have been applying it on the recently salvaged lead-contaminated bluestone and soil in the Green Showroom yard.  Since the powder is designed to be ingested as a nutritional supplement, the particles are not toxic to residents.

After boring out the bluestone that contained the lead filled holes around the fence posts we scrub the bluestone with soap then coat it in calcium phosphate.

EcoBrooklyn is also in the process of obtaining apatite II. Although we will probably not stop removing the lead from the site since this undeniably removes the problem from the site, we do see the possibility of removing less soil and adding in situ remediation as part of the process. With these new tools such as phosphate amendments we hope to offer a wider range of lead contaminated soil remediation services to the New York area.

How Can We Clean Up the Gowanus?

Before New York City as we know it today existed, the Gowanus was a tidal wetlands and stream ecosystem. In the 1860s, the area was dredged to become the Gowanus Canal, a major route for oil refineries, tanneries, chemical plants, manufactured-gas plants and other heavy industries who settled along the canal’s banks. These factories dumped wastes and leached pollutants like PCB’s and heavy metals into the water, putrefying it into a lifeless sludge.

NY green builders

By the 1960s much of these industries had left the area. Now the Gowanus’ is surrounded by residential neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens, Red Hook, and Park Slope. Despite industry’s absence, the water has remained so toxic that the US Environmental Protection Agency has declared it a Superfund site.

Though there have been efforts to clean the canal, we have not progressed far enough. In 1911, The Gowanus Flushing Tunnel was installed. This tunnel, in an attempt to get rid of the canal’s powerful stench, flushed its dirty water into the Buttermilk Channel. Alas this effort made little to no difference. In 1999, the water flow was reversed so that clean water from the Buttermilk Channel would be pumped into the Gowanus. The idea was to add oxygenated water to the canal to eliminate the anaerobic bacterias which cause the bad odor.

ny green roof

Today the odor has waned; though you can still get an unpleasant stench after a rainfall. Still the water remains contaminated. It is reported that the air around the canal is “acceptable” in terms of contamination standards. People have the right to use the canal for canoeing and such, but the EPA strongly warns against swimming in it or eating fish from the canal. Of course, “acceptable” is not good enough for those of us living near the canal.

The canal continues to be polluted today by toxins that are still leaching from the former industrial sites, street surface runoff, and combined sewage outflows (CSOs). CSOs are the city’s solution to flooding. When a rain is so heavy that a water treatment center cannot support the inflow of water, it will release a combination of raw sewage and rainwater into the ocean. (Watch a video)

brooklyn landscaping

Landscape architects and designers have proposed numerous ideas for how we can creatively rehabilitate the Gowanus Canal. “CSO-to-Go,” developed by Local Office Landscape Architecture, is one such design. The architects recognized that New York City’s waterfront property is too expensive to purchase for a city-funded project and worked their design around that reality. Their solution was a portable barge that would house a series of phytoremediation tanks. Each tank would hold plants that absorb specific contaminants like heavy metals, petrochemicals, and excess nutrients out of the water. The barge could be parked directly at the outflow point of the CSO; that way the dirty water is caught and treated before entering the ocean.

soil remediation

The barge could be moved to various other outflow points around the city. Residents and tourists could visit the site to learn more about the problem and the process of cleaning it up. They would even be able to monitor the pollution levels at each tank to see how well the  phytoremediating plants are working.

eco-landscaping

“CSO-to-Go” and related projects have yet to be implemented as they lack the funding needed. We hope the city of New York and the EPA continue to make strides in cleaning up the Gowanus Canal, but until then there are a few things that those of us  living in the Gowanus’ watershed (the area of land that eventually drains its water into the Gowanus– see image below) can do.

ny pond designer

By reducing our water consumption across the board, we can mitigate how much water we are putting into the sewer system. We can do this by installing low-flow faucets and shower heads, using native plants that require less intensive watering, and by making a conscious effort to reduce the amount of water we use on a daily basis. Also by creating more green spaces in our city, we can provide storm water with a place to infiltrate instead of washing over pavement and into the sewer system (see “Bioswale Basics“). This could be done by installing more garden space in your backyard or a green roof.

As an NY green contractor and landscape designer, Eco Brooklyn can help you find ways to reduce your water consumption in your home and increase your permeable surfaces/green spaces in your yard. Please contact us to learn more about how you can help protect the Gowanus!

 

By: Malone Matson

Das Haus: First NYC Passive House in BK

For those of us who live in historic homes we know that our period dwellings bring us both joy and frustration. The frustration is largely attributed to the endless repairs that classic Brooklyn Brownstones require and their not so efficient envelope.

Eco Brooklyn has renovated many brownstones and knows first hand how challenging it can be to air seal and insulate an building while still keeping it’s traditional character.

With the advent of new energy efficient building techniques Eco Brooklyn is part of a new trend in Brownstone renovation: instead of following traditional guidelines to fixing up a house, some Brooklyn homeowners are transforming their townhouse into a Passive House – a German technique that can reduce a homes energy consumption up to 90%.

This past week, the Eco Brooklyn interns took the metro North train up to White Plains for the Das Haus Symposium. There were a number of speakers, some coming all the way from Germany to talk about projects, ideas and products that have either already migrated to the US or are on their way. The Passive House concept was a topic of interest.

The Passive House standard focuses on 5 main strategies:

  1. Insulate strategically
  2. Stop Thermal Bridging
  3. Achieve air tightness
  4. Install high-performing windows for thermal comfort
  5. Reduce mechanical systems with heat recovery ventilation

Jordan Goldman, the engineering principal at Zero Energy Design was a speaker at last week’s symposium. He is a Passive house consultant who recently finished a passive house restoration at 23 Park Place in Park Slope. The completion of this project marked the first certified Passive House in New York City!

The original structure at 23 Park Place was built in 1899 and had been owned by a few artists until it was abandoned a few years ago. After the new owners purchased the dilapidated property they decided to do a Passive House retrofit on the existing structure. Julie Torres Moskovitz from Fabrica718 was the lead architect on the project. She enlisted Jordan Goldman as the engineering consultant on the design.

Since this property was not land marked the retrofit became a complete makeover for the structure. For instance, all the fireplaces and chimneys were replaced to increase the overall air tightness of the space.

As noted before, air tightness and a system of interior and exterior air exchange are the key stone elements to creating  a cohesive thermal envelope ensuring maximum energy reduction.

23 Park Place met the air tightness requirements of a passive house, and far surpassed the requirements of NYC. 23 Park Place is not only 15 times tighter than a current building norm is achieved the highest air tightness level in all of New York City-  .38!

In addition to the insulation, comprised on 23 inch thick walls and three pane windows

Passive House calls for all the joists and meeting points to be sealed to create a continuous thermal envelope.

Although after so much emphasis on the insulation, you must be wondering how could anyone possible endure such stuffy conditions. The answer to this seemingly uncomfortable air is the energy recovery ventilator or E.R.V.

Essentially, the inside air is pulled through the ventilator, the heat is then transferred to a membrane, the air is cooled and then exits as exhaust. The fresh air outside is simultaneously being pulled in and warmed by the membrane. This system, which is referred to as “counterflow” maintains a constant temperate within the thermal envelop.

The Passive House energy use standards are far more stringent then those used by the US Green Building council, which issue certifications for LEED and the Energy Star program. It is considered excellent if a LEED certified structure can reduce energy consumption by 30% and Energy Star homes typically save about 15 to 20%.  With a Passive House there can be up to a 90% reduction in heating and cooling.

Now that’s a paradigm!

Fortunately there are a number of Passive House projects underway in New York City, many of which are located right in Brooklyn. As a New York Passive House builder we hope to see an increase in the demand for Passive House design in the upcoming years. It costs within the range of normal construction yet greatly decreases a building’s impact on the environment.

Natural Fungus Gnat treatments

As a green builder, EcoBrooklyn is a green wall installer. Recently we designed and installed two green walls in the Area Yoga studio on Montague St. in Brooklyn, one in the entry office and one in the studio itself. The luscious plants beautifully enhance the serene and calming vibe of the space and allow for an escape from the stressors of urban life. The cascading vines and tropical hues transform the studio into a peaceful haven.

Intern Malone Matson tending to the yoga studio's living wall

The system we created uses soil with high organic matter content to nourish the plants. Many of them are of tropical origin and therefore have high nutritional needs. In addition, the studio is hot and humid, a requirement for both the plants and the activity type it was designed for. Our building philosophy embraces low-impact building, and as such we do not use pesticides to keep the plants flourishing. Additionally we allow organic matter to compost on site. The wall is irrigated by a gray water system that keeps the soil generally moist.

While the conditions in the studio are ideal for both the yoga participants and the plants on the green wall, they also provide a welcoming environment for fungus gnats. The gnats feed on organic debris, fungi, algae, and nibble on the small roots of plants.

We have developed a multi-layered plan to keep the gnat population at bay. Much like our plant-based mosquito repellent service, we rely on natural sources of gnat control to diminish the population.

Like our mosquito treatments, we attack all stages of the gnat’s life cycle. Fungus gnats have larval, pupae, and adult stages.

Anti-larval treatments

1) The primary treatment involves the use of cinnamon. We are using a cinnamon spray (cinnamon bark, cinnamon oil, water, and baby shampoo to reduce surface tension) applied twice a day to deter the gnats and create an uninviting environment for them. Cinnamon is a fungicide, reducing the larvae’s food supply.

There are two types of cinnamon: ceylon (cinnamomum verum), and cassia (cinnamomum burmannii). Most cinnamon found in conventional North American stores is cassia, but this form is not a fungicide.

cinnamomum verum on the left and cinnamomum burmannii on the right

2) We are also using Summit mosquito/gnat bits, with the active ingredient bacillus thuringiensis subspecies israelensis. These bacteria are a biological control for larval Dipterans such as mosquitoes and fungus gnats due to the presence of cry toxins. When fungus gnat larvae eat bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) crystals, the cry toxins bind to receptors in the gut and the larvae cease to eat. The gut wall breaks down and the toxin spores and other gut bacteria enter the larvae’s body, which results in death.

The bits are scattered throughout the soil and replenished every two weeks.

Bt does not affect beneficial insects or plants and is a naturally occurring soil bacterium.

According to the EPA, thirty years of widespread Bt use has produced no confirmed reports of immediate or delayed allergic reactions despite significant oral, dermal, and inhalation exposure to the product. Bt has not been found to affect the endocrine or immune systems. Although it does not proliferate in aquatic habitats, it should not be applied to drinking water.

Studies have shown no toxicity or pathogenicity to birds, non-target insects, honeybees, freshwater fish, and estuarine and marine mammals. However, it has been found to be moderately toxic to Daphnia freshwater invertebrates and is under further study. Since our affected site is an indoor planting site, in this particular case we are not concerned about the affect on Daphnia species.

Anti-adult treatments

1) We have applied yellow sticky pads on wire stems hidden within the foliage. The gnats are attracted to the color. We change these out when the surface area of the pad is covered.

2) We have filled jars with apple cider vinegar with a couple drops of baby shampoo or dish soap to break the surface tension. We poke a couple holes in the lids to allow the fungus gnats in but not out. The jars are better for office spaces and bathrooms, and seem to be quite effective.

Additional treatments:

1) ‘Damping off’ is a condition cause by fungi such as Phtophtora and Pythium. The gnats help the fungi proliferate. The fungi infect seedlings and result in a constricted stem and eventual death. The condition can be prevented by the application of chamomile tea. Although this does not attack the gnats themselves, it treats a related condition.

A plant that has experienced 'damping off'

2) Adult fungus gnats like to lay eggs in moist soil. We recommend applying a sand topsoil, which drains quickly and thus prevents the laying of eggs.

3) Sliced raw potatoes placed throughout the affected area attract larva. These can be deposed of and replaced as often as is deemed necessary (they can get pretty infested).

 

We have been treating the green walls for about two weeks now, and have noticed a huge decrease in the fungus gnat population. The workers and customers at the studio have also had positive reports. Not only is the cinnamon spray affective, the aroma of cinnamon pervades the space and complements the character of the studio. EcoBrooklyn will continue to test natural methods of insect control at its job sites.

 

 

Sustainable Wood

Last Tuesday the EcoBrooklyn interns attended the dasHAUS symposium and tour in White Plains, New York. The touring exhibition features the mobile dasHAUS pavilion, constructed of fully functioning sustainable energy technologies. The pavilion’s design is inspired by the Technical University of Darmstadt’s winning Solar Decathlon entries in 2007 and 2009. The tour, organized by the German American Chamber of Commerce, is meant to engage and educate the community while also connecting industry professionals. After a series of lectures by various professionals in related fields, the attendees were guided through the pavilion and introduced to the unique elements of the design.

The docent mentioned that every piece of the pavilion is German aside from the “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.  Upon further questioning the docent shared that oak is a particularly good insulator wood, but that he was unsure of what sustainable wood entailed.

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: https://www.usgbc.org/ShowFile.aspx?DocumentID=6225

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 salvaged materials, which is the most sustainable option available. Certified woods offer an acceptable alternative. We urge builders and contractors to consider purchasing certified woods for their projects.

 

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 in Toronto, New York, Atlanta, and Denver 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.

Unfortunately, the accreditation process is rather expensive. Tuition for each full-day course is $399 USD and is accompanied by a course manual. Each course manual can be purchased for $199 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 $495 USD to enroll and cannot be taken online, but is only offered in Denver, Toronto, New York, and Chicago, incurring further transportation costs. 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.

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 grew by 115% in 2011, drawing many more interested professionals and increasing public awareness. Much like LEED in their field, GRHC monopolizes the accreditation process and effectively takes advantage of all the growth.

The existence of the certification is a double-edged sword: while it assures potential consumers that the professional hired has a sound informational backing, it also forces those who want to become green roofers to submit to the monopoly as it becomes the standard.

As a guerrilla green builder, EcoBrooklyn works with clients who seek the most cutting edge techniques. We reduce the net energy of each project by maximizing the use of natural and salvaged materials. The green roof methods taught in the GRP program adhere to the contemporary methodology involving plastics and other foreign materials. While we agree with the basic ideals driving GRHC’s mission (in that the application of green roofs is an essential component to reducing building impact and bettering the urban environment), we do not believe that adhering to the methods prescribed in the accreditation program are necessarily the only right way to build a green roof. In addition, as the organization grows, there is the danger that monetary and political pressures skew the curriculum towards supporting certain brands and materials which may not necessarily be the most ecologically friendly. The GRP curriculum is updated to include new knowledge, and we hope that GRHC’s updates will move towards greater net sustainability.

As it stands, the program is a good way for interested people to learn about green roofs as long as they allow themselves to expand on the ideas taught by GRHC. While we applaud Green Roofs for Healthy Cities’ organizational and promotional achievements, we hope that it does not become a prerequisite to legitimize oneself in the field but instead serves as a possible stepping-stone for professionals.

I am A Weed (part 2)

This blog post is in response to my post last week, “I Am a Weed.

NY green build-design

Since a lot of Eco Brooklyn’s work involves creating ecological plant-scapes, the issue of weeds and native species arrises a lot. As an ecological landscaper we’ve learned that the only difference between a weed and a plant lies in the definition of the beholder. For example we plant a lot of native grasses, considered your archetypal weed to the typical green lawn installer. In general we tend to plant in a much more “wild way” than your typical landscape design.

We also plant in a lot more places than considered normal in a city – on roofs, walls, stairs and any other surface. By doing this we are aware that our work spreads a lot of native plants throughout the city through wind and bird droppings.

If cities were to increase their leniency toward spontaneous urban plants, how could they do so responsibly? There are some valid points to be made in the argument against weeds. Some plants, such as ragweed, cause allergic reactions. Others have the ability to completely dominate a landscape and kill off any other competing plants, like japanese knotweed. In a few rare cases, exotic spontaneous plants have brought in diseases or funguses that affect native plants. Dutch Elm Disease, which was actually introduced by an insect, not a plant, is the most infamous of these. It’s an impressive feat for a plant to survive in the crack of a building, but if it grows so large that it jeopardizes the building’s infrastructure then that is a problem. So where should these plants be grown and how?

A passive answer to this question are brownfields. Brownfields are abandoned or underused patches of land that once facilitated industrial or commercial activity. These unattended sites can quickly become inhabited by spontaneous plants and given free reign, soon grow into little forests, discreetly nestled within a city block. In these scenarios, an unsightly vacant lot morphs into a green field with zero human effort or money put into it.

 brooklyn contractor

A more proactive way of including spontaneous plants in our urban environments is via brown roofs. Brown roofs are very similar to green roofs. They share many of the same construction methods and benefits. The difference is that the dominant aim of a brown roof is to increase biodiversity, whereas green roofs tend to focus more on aesthetics. A green roof requires a certain amount of tending whereas a brown roof is purposely left undisturbed so that local wildlife can colonize it. In this unmanaged state, brown roofs offer hospitable land for the airborne seeds of spontaneous urban plants.

urban landscaping

A brown roof can be seeded when it is first created or it can be designed to set up the proper conditions (i.e. a plantable substrate) for plant life to grow and then left to the forces of nature. In the latter scenario, it takes about two years for the brown roof to fully grow in. Although somewhat popular in Europe, because of the slow rate of return and lack of control over the roof garden’s aesthetic, brown roofs are very rare in the US. I think it is understandable to prefer a green roof on one’s home or in a public area, but I propose that large buildings like factories looking to cut down on energy costs consider building brown roofs as they will help insulate the building while requiring very little maintenance.

ny green roof builder

Sometimes piles of logs or stones are added to brown roofs to further promote biodiversity

To clarify, although brown roofs can largely be left to themselves, they don’t and shouldn’t be left entirely untouched. Undesirable plants, such as those that cause allergies or are aesthetically unappealing, can be removed. Invasive plants should be pruned or taken out. What it comes down to is reconsidering “gardening” altogether, not just the plants being used. Recall land artist, Michael Heizer’s, work Double Negative (see “The Earth Art Movement”). Heizer makes us question whether something is art if it is created purely by subtraction. With a green roof or any other garden, we choose the plants and place them where we like– addition. However, a brown roof that is left to colonize itself can be developed simply by taking away plants– subtraction. Subtraction, in this case, is the less energy intensive option. It is working within nature instead of outside it.

In the book Eaarth, Bill McKibben suggests that global climate change has reached the point where it is no longer preventable. It is happening and there are going to be dramatic changes to our world. McKibben says we can either keep wasting our time trying to stop the unstoppable or we can accept the reality of our situation and prepare for a new way of life. To a lesser extreme, I believe the debate about spontaneous urban plants is a similar one. Perhaps it is time to realize that eradication is impossible and to start working with them instead of against them.

Ecological builder brooklyn

 

By: Malone Matson

I Am A Weed

How does the nature we find in and around our city reflect who we are?

There are two approaches, generally speaking, one can take when dealing with habitat conservation in urban areas. The first and most common is an attempt to return to the historical habitats that were found in the city long before it had been built. In this approach, native plants are protected and natural systems, like streams and fields, that have been disrupted by city infrastructure are attempted to be restored. This is undoubtedly a noble effort.

Another approach, however, is to accept that cities are new and unique environments, therefor nothing can be native to a city. Of course life is resilient and these new environments have been successfully colonized by a mix of historically native and non-native plants that have been able to survive despite the harsh, polluted conditions that cities provide. These plants are characterized by their abilities to be both flood and drought resistant. These traits make them well-suited to life in the shallow cracks of a sidewalk or building, which get flooded during a rain and, with no soil to retain the water, quickly become dry until the next shower. The collective term for this kind of flora is “spontaneous plants.”

ny green garden

Spontaneous plants offer a plethora of services for the urban environment. They, like all other plants, filter the air to provide us with oxygen while reducing the carbon imbalance of cities. Spontaneous plants supply green cover which in turn reduces the heat island effect and increases storm water retention. They create habitat for insects who become food for birds. Some even have the ability to remediate contaminated soils by absorbing heavy metals. And they provide greenery in otherwise gray and barren urbanscapes.

The Biophilia Hypothesis, introduced by Edward O. Wilson, asserts that humans hold an inherent bond with living systems. “Biophilia” literally means love for life. Our love of plants and animals, it is suggested, evolved from our dependence upon them for survival. Simply being around plants brings us pleasure so we protect them, and in doing so, we are also protecting food sources, shelter, and habitat for animals we might eat. This love can have a substantial impact on humans when they are exposed to nature. Studies have shown that people who live close to green spaces tend to be happier than those who don’t. Hospitals that look out onto greenery or that have images of nature in their rooms have faster rates of healing. Unsurprisingly, properties that have trees or are located near parks are worth more money. So it would seem that spontaneous plants are beneficial for urban areas because they fill in the cracks, literally and figuratively, with greenery. Yet many people do not see them this way.

Spontaneous plants can go by another name: “weeds.” Their presence is often seen as a sign of decay, poverty, or neglect. They are actively sought out for removal, even when their absence means an empty patch of gray.

During an informal interview with David Seiter, a visiting professor at Pratt Institute’s program for Sustainable Planning and Development and the principal of Future Green Studio, Seiter described the value of spontaneous plants in this way (I’m paraphrasing): Remember when you were a child. You would search for dandelions and make a wish while blowing away their fluffy white seeds? Or look at some of the fanciest restaurants in Brooklyn; you can see dandelion leaf salads on their menus. But when a dandelion sprouts up in a backyard, people are quick to pull them out or douse them in herbicides. How can something with so much value– a food source, a plaything, a bright yellow flower– be looked upon with so much disdain?

ny green contractor

Seiter explained that society seems to find worth in things that are difficult. A garden of roses takes time to grow, requires careful attention, and must be watched with an anxious eye as its fragility makes it ever so prone to destruction. When we grow a rose successfully, we are proud. Meanwhile, the real hero here is the dandelion who has adapted to the harshest conditions, who can grow in seemingly impossible places with no help. Dandelions and other spontaneous plants don’t just survive, they thrive. It’s incredible really. But they are dismissed, despised even, for their independence and tenacity.

As Seiter recounted these thoughts, I felt a twinge of emotion stir inside me. I kept thinking, he is describing me. 

I would not be the first to make this connection. Look at Betty Smith’s novel, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. The author likens the struggle of an immigrant family in Brooklyn to the Tree of Heaven, a common non-native and invasive weed in New York City. The plant struggles to find its place. It is neglected and trampled upon. But once it takes root, it puts up an inspiring fight, and despite the odds, eventually flourishes into a beautiful and imposing tree.

NY green construction

ny green landscaper

For those of us who are living and thriving in New York City, we can all look back on our struggle to take root. In the most obvious sense, think about apartment searching and how difficult it is to find your space in the city. Then there is the search for resources: money, food, air. We had to adapt to the harsh conditions of the city: pollution, noise, suffocating crowds, the heat, the cold. I’ve watched as friends have come and gone from the city, unable to “hack it,” and I’ve known many others simply too scared to try. We are the non-natives who have invaded and thrived.

And isn’t that what New York City has always been about? When I hear a native New Yorker claim ownership of the city, I admit I scoff at them. Were their parents or grandparents not immigrants? Aren’t immigrants the ones who built this city? Indeed the urban environment, especially that of New York’s, is a unique one that is constantly changing and growing and adapting. Nothing is static in the city and that is the way it should be; that’s progress. A dandelion is to a sidewalk crack as a hipster is to Williamsburg. It’s theirs now.

NY green design build firm

 So how do we better incorporate spontaneous plants and all their benefits into our city? Peter Del Tredici, senior research scientist at Arnold Arboretum and author of Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, said, “I consider ‘weed’ to be a politically incorrect term. There is no biological definition of the term weed. It’s really a value judgment.” Certainly a change in perception is needed. As I was walking through Carroll Gardens this afternoon, I overheard a four year-old boy admonish his father for casually trampling a weed that had sprouted in the sidewalk, “Daddy, you’re stepping on the plant! Look out!” This child was seeing the plant as equal with all other plants, which he knows not to stomp on. He had not yet been taught by society that some plants have lesser value.

Why do we spend so much time and energy trying to green our cities with supposedly native or cosmopolitan plants who can’t hack it when there are so many plants that will willingly take their place? Why do we overly invest ourselves in removing spontaneous plants when they provide us with so much? Why do we devalue any object of nature?

More importantly, if these attitudes can be overcome, how do we prudently incorporate spontaneous plants into our cities? I do not believe by any means that these plants should have free reign. Surely a place like a graveyard or a government building overrun with weeds would send the wrong message. Still it is something we should consider.

landscape urbanism

Red Hook is my favorite Brooklyn neighborhood and is an excellent example of how spontaneous plants can bring life to an industrial wasteland. Take the above photo, for example. Without those plants, the dilapidated building would have a more foreboding and, quite frankly, ugly appearance. Their presence stirs a biophilic response in us. The success of life juxtaposes the death of a building. It reflects the burgeoning aesthetic of the 21 century which is characterized by an attraction to things that are vintage or down-to-earth (i.e. the wealthy hipster who dresses like a hobo.) I urge you to take a walk to Fairway or the Valentino Pier in Red Hook. Look out for walls of Queen Anne’s Lace lining chain-linked fences, then try to tell me that that is not beautiful.

NY urban gardener

urban plants

NY sustainable design

urban renewal

By Malone Matson

Photo Credits:

  • http://urbanplants.wordpress.com/2009/06/07/a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn-in-the-unlikeliest-places/
  • http://www.peterdeltredici.com/index.php?/contact/gallery/
  • http://www.flickriver.com/photos/cavanimages/4460203563/

Natural Mosquito Repellent

Brooklyn’s beautiful summer days coax us outdoors to converse and lounge in our parks, backyards, and porches. In the heat of the summer, water features are a welcome cooling sight and draw the abundance of people looking to maximize their free time. However, these same water features are also home to pesky mosquitoes, diminishing the quality of our outdoor experiences.

At Eco Brooklyn, we are developing natural methods of mosquito control. These methods aim to diminish the mosquito’s presence while maintaining the balance of our fragile local ecosystems. We have a mosquito-repellant service with several components and options, which we make available to the community in an attempt to combat the mosquito problem on a larger scale.

Our service uses three main tools to reduce mosquitoes:

1. Landscaping Mosquito repellent plants – yards, pots and living walls.

2. Water features for mosquito predators – Fish and Dragonfly ponds.

3. Natural oils applied to the skin and garden area surfaces.

New York and Brooklyn were originally full of marshes, rivers and wetlands, which most probably had lots of mosquitoes. The difference now is that those areas are gone, and so are all the creatures and plants that kept mosquitoes at bay.

Now, with little left but clogged gutters and putrid waterways like the Gowanus Canal, there are few predators to the mosquito. Add to that the introduction of non-native mosquitoes from Asia that have even less predators here, and you have a real mosquito heaven (for the mosquito that is. Not for us humans).

Mosquitoes are a problem worldwide.  A wide variety of defenses have been put into effect to reduce the impact of the insect, some with more success than others.

Many of these methods have negative affects on the surrounding environment and may in fact be simultaneously attacking the mosquito’s natural predators. Broad-spectrum insecticides such as the organic pesticide Pyrethrum may kill mosquitoes and other insect pests, but they also kill beneficial pest-controlling insects such as ladybugs and lacewings.

Any attempt to reduce mosquito numbers must be founded in the natural lifecycle of the mosquito itself. The mosquito lays its eggs in standing water and hatches as larva before changing into pupae, then emerging and taking flight. Any standing water greater than a bottle cap’s full can serve as a mosquito-breeding site.

As such it is very important to eliminate small containers that have the potential to fill with rainfall and remain inactive. The elimination of all rainwater collection sites, however, is far from necessary. Slightly larger ponds can be effective methods of mosquito control by acting as habitats for the mosquito’s natural predators.

Some of the mosquito’s natural predators are dragonflies, damselflies, bats, and numerous fish species. While bats do consume mosquitoes, they are at most 5% of their diet. Extensive bat preservation policies, while beneficial to the bat, may not in fact greatly diminish the inhabiting mosquito population. Many fish will consume mosquitoes, but some are better adapted to the task than others.

Fish

The highly touted mosquitofish Gambusia affinis can consume 42-167% of its body weight in mosquitoes per day.  Its mouth is faced upwards towards the sky, allowing for more efficient consumption of mosquito larvae. It can tolerate various temperature changes in the water, salinity, decreased food supply, and organic pollutants and is compatible with goldfish, koi, and karp.

A nonnative species, it was first introduced to New York’s waters as a biological control for mosquitoes. However, mosquitofish were found to be ill-adapted to the cooler waters. Most importantly, it is not compatible with native species and very few instances of coexistence exist.

As such EcoBrooklyn does not recommend the introduction of mosquitofish into existing garden ponds. If your brownstone garden already includes a fish pond, we recommend finding a hardy native fish species that can reproduce in the local climate, such as the fathead minnow.

Dragonflies and Damselflies

Fish are not the only mosquito predator reliant on a pond source. Dragonflies and damselflies lay their eggs in foliage above or below the waterline of a pond. They then hatch as aquatic predators, consuming mosquito larva to feed and grow.

Depending on the species, this stage of life takes 1-2 months to 5 years. The larva then climb out of the pond via a plant stalk or rock and seek protection in nearby foliage before taking flight and attacking mosquito adults.

The life cycle of dragonflies and damselflies therefore shadows that of the mosquito, but the predator-prey relationship remains the same effectively controlling mosquito populations. Adult dragonflies and damselflies return to water features to feed and sun themselves, and eventually lay eggs in the pond.

Eco Brooklyn offers a dragonfly pond building service as a component of its mosquito solutions. Dragonfly ponds are a beautiful addition to a brownstone garden, and the insects provide welcome entertainment on a summer’s eve.

15% of North America’s 307 dragonfly species are in danger of extinction, and a new dragonfly habitat can help the graceful insects to reestablish themselves while also providing a welcome solution to the mosquito problem!

A dragonfly pond by Carole A. Brown

A dragonfly pond should vary in depth, with a segment around 2 ft in depth and flat rocks such as slate on the shallow side. Water plants should be included in the deeper parts of the pond to serve as nurseries, with perching sedges and rushes on the side for adults. It is also recommended that a small wildflower grassland be planted on the side of the pond.

The pond should include erect and submerged plants to allow for dragonflies and damselflies at all stages of the life cycle. A small pump can be included to keep the water clean and oxygenated, although this is not necessary for larger ponds. While the best dragonfly ponds are 20 feet wide, this width is not practical for a NY lot nor is it necessary to maintaining a healthy population.

In fact, adapted whiskey barrels, fountain basins, and earthen or plastic lined ponds can all provide welcome habitats as long as there are sloped sides and varying depths. The dragonfly larvae like to hide in the depths of the water to escape predation, but sufficient plant cover may substitute for that in the case of shallower ponds.

A simple stake in the pond can substitute for erect perching plants. It is very important that the pond be 70% in the sun and that no fish are added to the water.

Fish consume dragonfly larva as well as mosquito larva and are therefore incompatible, unless we design the pond to have two sections so there are safe places for the larvae to escape.

Once the pond is built we jumpstart it with a few spadefulls of soil from a nearby pond with a known dragonfly population.

The following plants work well in a dragonfly pond:

Deepwater -submerged plants

Curly pondweed – Potomogeton crispus

Water Starwort – Callitriche spp

Hornwort – Ceratophyllum demersum

Spiked Water Milfoil – Myrophyllum spicatum

Deeper water Floating Plants

Stiff-leaved Water Crowfoot – Rannunculus circinatus

Frogbit – Hydrocharis morus-ranae

Broad-leaved pondweed – Potomegetum natans

Amphibious Bistort – Polygonum amphibium

Yellow Waterlily – Nurphar lutea

Fringed Waterlily – Nymphoides pelatata

Shallow water emergent plants

Flowering Rush – Butomus umbellatus

Water Horsetail – Equisetum fluviatile

Bur-reed – Sparganium erectum

Water Plantain – Alisma plantago-aquatica

Common Spike Rush – Eleocharis palustris

Bog Bean  – Menyanthes trifoliate

Plants

EcoBrooklyn also installs plants as  a direct means of mosquito control. We offer several plant-based services:

-vertical frames planted with mosquito repellant plants, to be hung on the walls of porches, balconies, and other outdoor activity areas. The frames are made of cedar or pine as both of these woods repel mosquitoes.

-plant troughs filled with mosquito repellant plants, placed near outdoor activity areas

-herbal oil concoctions designed to specifically repel mosquitoes; these can be applied directly to the skin or sprayed on the surfaces of an outdoor activity area

-dried mosquito-repellant plants placed into sachets to be hung in desired locations

Below we have organized known mosquito repellant plants into two categories: native and nonnative species. Edible plants are subcategorized. We work with clients to offer aesthetically pleasing plant combinations.




Once planted, it is advised that plants be brushed before engaging in outdoor activities in order to release some of the scent. The compounds citronellal, geraniol, geranial, and pulegone are all known to repel mosquitoes. Plants containing these compounds are the most effective.

It is important to note that the plants themselves will not repel mosquitoes, it is the oil within their leaves that acts as a repellent. This is why brushing the leaves (resulting in small breaks) helps to repel mosquitoes. Our plant troughs and vertical installations  are meant to be a reliable supplier of leaves for your own herbal concoctions while also aesthetically ameliorating your home.

We highly recommend troughs consisting of edible mosquito repellent plants, which provide the additional ecosystem service of providing food.

Herbal solutions

While there are many variations of mosquito repellant liquids, they are made similarly.

The first method uses actual plant leaves from mosquito repellant plants. These are steeped in water, strained, and then the liquid is added to isopropyl alcohol.  Any combination of plants works well as well as using a single plant per batch.

The second method involves mixing 2 ½ teaspoons of any combination of essential oils (basil, cedarwood, cinnamon, citronella, juniper, lemon, myrrh, palmarosa, pine, rose geranium, rosemary) with 1 cup of 190-proof grain alcohol. These concoctions can be applied directly to the skin or used in a spray bottle. If applied to the skin, it may take some experimentation to determine what combination of oils works best with one’s body chemistry.

As described by the above overview, there are many natural means of combating the mosquito problem in Brooklyn. EcoBrooklyn is constantly improving its services through experimentation in the Green Show House and offers its solutions to the community.

These solutions aim to repel mosquitoes, add to the aesthetic value of Brooklyn brownstones, and support native species and the local ecosystem.

Riverside Park: Flushing Away the Porter Potties, Adding Composting Toilets

In 1875, Fredrick Law Olmsted designed Riverside Park, in 1935 Robert Moses built a highway right thought, but somehow the park has prevailed and it now going to be home to one of the greenest structures in the city – a composting toilet.

Riverside Park is home to the cities only clay tennis courts, this of course results in waits up to two and three hours. Waiting on a grassy knoll with perfect views of the Hudson doesn’t sound to shabby, but as nature calls, there is an inevitable need for a bathroom. That is why the Riverside Clay Tennis Association has decided to build a facility that will accommodate the needs of the parks visitors while being ecological, something public toilets rarely are.

The Riverside Tennis Association has commissioned Rick Cook of Cook & Fox to design a facility equipped with composting toilets and solar panels. Cook & Fox are also responsible for the LEED certified Bank of America tower across from Bryant Park.

Cook & Fox are taking this incredible concept one step further by designing this center to the Living Building Challenge standard, which is one of the toughest green standards out there. We recently wrote a blog about Bucky Fuller and the Living Building Challenge -a standard that we at Eco Brooklyn aspire to.

Living Building Challenge is difficult to achieve for multiple reasons, but the most challenging aspect of the standard is the water limitations. Buildings have a hard time qualifying for the LBC because bathrooms use such a large amount of water. The standard is so tough that in most places it is illegal, as most building codes demand a connection to water and sewer – the LBC standards call for net zero water (capturing rain water and discharging it onsite).

The design proposed a small building; the majority of it located underground, equipped with composting toilets, the compost generated by the toilets will be used to fertilize the greenery. Which is the one of the main reasons that we, at Eco Brooklyn ae so excited about this project. As green builders, we have installed numerous composting toilets. The design also incorporates photovoltaic panels which will be scattered in tree-like formations to power the building. Solar panels are another element that makes this project to actractive to NY Green Contractors like ourselves. We currently have plans to install solar panels on the rook and siding our the Ecpo Brooklyn Showhouse.

Composting toilettes typically use about three ounces of water compared to the 1.6 to 0.8 gallons per flush that typical high efficiency toilets use.

The design incorporates other green aspects besides composting toilets and solar panels. The architects plan to use recycled building materials, a green roof planted with native species and blast furnace slag in the concrete to circumvent the carbon heavy manufacturing process of cement.  For the past two weeks, we have been researching and planting native plants in the Show house. Last week we were weeding and plantings native species on a green roof in Brooklyn. We are excited to see that Cook + Fox have taken native species into account to create this NY design.

The Green design came out of necessity. The high water table and proximity to the Hudson makes it impossible to install a septic tank and leach field, in addition to those obstacles there is no connection to the city sewage system (sewage lines stop on the other side of the Henry Hudson Highway). Essentially their only option was to go green. Once again green building pushes past limitations that we humans have created for ourselves.

The bathrooms replace two portable toilets, a small brick shack and a repurposed shipping container that is used for storage; it will be built on the southeast corner of the courts.

The facility’s estimated cost is around $5.5 million and is scheduled to open this summer.

The Art of Shipping Containers

Recently a group approached Eco Brooklyn to help build a cool project involving shipping containers. The project is ambitious: three walls of containers arranged around a central triangular courtyard. The
walls are six levels of shipping containers high totaling 84 shipping containers overall. This is a second attempt to get such a project going. Their first attempt – an eight story shipping container on the Upper East Side – fell through.

As a New York green contractor we really like shipping containers as buildings; they appeal to our affinity for creative reuse and modular construction. Thousands and thousands of shipping containers are sitting stagnant in ports all over the world. In the 1970’s “shipping container architecture” began as trend in design and more recently the already existing building material is moving to the forefront of the sustainable architecture movement. Here are a few examples of architecture which ingeniously utilizes these bountiful, colorful, movable boxes.

Sky is the Limit

Typically when we think of a Japanese tea house, we think of low, thatched roof structures, but with Sky is the Limit, Portuguese artist, Didier Faustino decided to perch this space resting high above the rough sea in Yang Yang, South Korea.

He used two shipping contains to provide a sea-facing observation space atop a tower made out of scaffolding. Visitors must first climb five flights of stairs in order to reach the top of the 65-foot scaffolding.

 

Holiday Cabana at Maduru Oya

Sri Lankan architect, Damith Premathilake was commissioned to design and build a holiday cabana at Maduru Oya.

The lake house sits on an army training camp surrounded by jungles facing a lake as mountains appear in the distance. The structure is made out of materials that were all found on site such as timber from weapons boxes and shipping container.

The project took a total of one month to complete and is total of 700-square feet.

 

OceanScope

Korean designers, Keehyan Ahn & Minsoo Lee have used shipping containers to design a public observatory called Oceanscope. In order to overcome the restraints of the building site, where the ground level is too low to view the sunset across the harbor, the architects utilized old shipping containers to overcome the limitation.

The shipping containers are angled at 10’, 30’ and 50’ to achieve different views. As depicted in the diagram, the observer enters the shipping container and rests ones back against the angled wall, to view the reflection of the sunset through the mirror on the opposite side.

Shipping containers are used for temporary shelter in many rural areas of Korea because of their low cost.

However, indiscreet uses of this recycled product often don’t create harmonious relationships with the natural context because of their industrial aesthetic. Keehan Ahn & Minsoo Lee have been able to take this construction building block and mold it into an innovative prototype for the future of shipping container construction.

Normad Skyscraper

Globalization has given people the ability to not just be citizens of one city or region but become citizens of the world. Luca D’Amico and Luca Telso, two Italian architects submitted this “Nomad Skyscraper” design to a Skyscraper competition in 2011.

The concept centers on using shipping containers that act as individual, personalized apartment units, which can be plugged into the permanent scaffolding.  The main structure would provide basic infrastructure as well as recreational areas.

Units could theoretically be transported by ship, truck and train and transported to other cities, which have this same infrastructure.

Dekalb Market

These shipping container projects are also happening right here in Brooklyn. Take Dekalb Market for example, this low impact, relatively low cost, shopping center has become a centerpiece for the architecture of New York City.

Newark, New Jersey is home to one of the largest ports in North America, there is plethora of these module containers (in a variety of colors!) sitting and waiting to be shipping back to their port of origin. UK developers Urban Splash created a configuration made out of 22 shipping containers occupy a portion of Downtown Brooklyn.

Frietag Flagship Store

One of our readers spent us a link to another incredible example of innovative shipping container design. The Frietag flagship store is composed entirely of rusty, recycled shipping containers that have been gutted, reinforced and configured to serve Frietag, a Swiss company that specialized in products made from recycled materials.

Frietag took its initial objective (creating beautiful products from truck tarpaulins) and pushed it a step further by selling its recycled products within a recycled product.

The building is striking upon first glace, the first two floors are composed of four shipping containers (4×2), and the number of shipping container decreases as the height increases.

This structure is the world’s tallest recycled building, but short enough so that it does not infringe upon the coding laws of Zurich.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Biophilia in Brooklyn

As I was walking to the subway after work today, I passed a man who was leaving a few belongings on the sidewalk in front of his house. He is moving to DC tomorrow and, instead of just throwing the stuff away he couldn’t bring with him, he was leaving it out for passerbys to take. There were a few books, some old records, half broken appliances, but the prize giveaway was this massive pot of aloe vera plants.

ny green builder

I quickly grabbed the plant and continued to the subway. As I was riding the J train out to Bushwick, everyone in my car was eying my plant. People were pointing and whispering. When I got off the train and commenced the two block walk to my apartment, I kid you not, everyone on the street stopped to tell me how beautiful my plant was.

A young latino man who was working outside an appliance repair shop stopped me to talk about my plant and asked if he could take one of the baby aloe vera shoots extending from the mother plant. I happily gifted him a young sprout.

I continued walking and was again stopped by a group of Jamaican men who were barbecuing outside their newly opened thrift and clothing store next to my building. They too asked for a shoot, which I gladly relinquished.

Just outside my apartment I was stopped yet again by a young woman. She saw that I had given the two men a sprout and she asked if she could have one too. She didn’t know what kind of plant it was or how to care for it so I taught her a bit about both. She walked away thrilled.

Now the plant, which is still quite sizable, is sitting on my balcony overlooking the J train where commuters can easily look out and see it.

I felt compelled to write about this because I was so impressed by how a green action like donating items instead of throwing them away led to a whole chain reaction of community engagement. It’s incredible that a mere plant can stir up so much intrigue among city dwellers! This especially struck me because earlier in the day I was reading about E. O. Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis. Biophilia is a love for living things. The Biophilia Hypothesis suggests that there is an instinctive bond between humans and living systems (i.e. plants and animals). Wilson suggests that as humans were evolving we developed a love for nature because it sustained us and because our love for nature sustained it.

After my experience today, I have no doubt that Wilson was on to something.

 

By Malone Matson