Let Children Play With Fire

I once heard a study of two groups of animals, one group were in barren cages, the other group were in the wild. Guess which group had more developed brains: the wild animals. Guess which group lived longer: the caged animals.

This confirms the old saying, if it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger. Or in this case, if a tiger doesn’t eat you, your brain is more developed. And likewise, a life free of challenges may give you a face with less wrinkles but it does no good for your development.

Now go take a look at your average school playground.

playground design

Apart from looking menacingly close to a prison it also is a prison of the senses. It is void of anything dangerous and thus anything interesting for the mind and body to interact with. It is an evolutionary wasteland.

Certainly in terms of deaths per thousand it does great. The stats are low. Thus less law suits.

But what have we lost? What is the real price of this so called safety? I argue it is huge.

Here is a great article that makes this same argument. Titled, “The Overprotected Kid” it headlines with:

A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer. A new kind of playground points to a better solution.

A playground where kids are allowed to play with fire.

A playground where kids are allowed to play with fire.

As a New York green landscaper we come across this conversation a lot. Clients are very interested in creating a “safe” back garden. When we mention a water feature, instead of thinking how great an experience that would be for the kids, the client’s first comment is, “Isn’t that a drowning risk?”

The answer is yes. But I think it is a risk worth taking. Unless you are a crack head parent who doesn’t keep an ear out for your children. when they are playing outside. If you hear water and then silence then take a peek outside. Chances are your child is entranced by a tadpole rather than head first in the water. Their aren’t stupid.

Here is a photo of my back yard:

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

My son exploring our native garden designed with lots of rocks and other sharp objects.

My garden is not a safe place. There are all sorts of things that can cut your skin, burn your eyes, and break your bones. It’s called nature. And it’s also a children’s wonderland. My son can climb like a monkey and run barefoot over loose boulders. There is nothing more gratifying as a father than to see my son confident in his body and with nature.

Gennaro Brooks-Church and son Cazimir checking out the arrival of bees.

Gennaro Brooks-Church and son Cazimir checking out the arrival of bees.

We have a bee hive and the kids play freely around it. Our two year old was obsessed with walking up to the hive and catching the bees. But we gently talked him out of it. And once he did get stung. Now he is six and a master at recognizing which bugs are safe and which bugs are dangerous. Does this skill translate to other things in life? Absolutely. Was it worth the pain of that one bee sting? Tenfold.

For me being a green builder in New York is about bringing back that wonder – we design gardens and rooftops to be diverse, both in the native species of plants and animals but also in the stimuli. We throw in a couple things that require you to, say, step over a water feature. Yes, you may slip and get your feet wet. But it also adds a sense of playfulness and “safe risk” that is crucial for a full and happy life.

I have three kids and have gotten progressively more relaxed about these things. If I found my first daughter eating dog food off the floor I would have freaked. Now, ten years and two kids later, if I were to find my third son doing that I’d just be grateful he was getting protein.

Thus went my attitude towards child gates. The other day a client told me they had spent a lot of money for a Child Safety Specialist to install baby gates on all the stairs. And a Brooklyn brownstone has a lot of them. It made me realize I had never installed gates for my third son.

I had for my first child, I sort of did for my second, but with my third I just made sure he didn’t fall down the stairs until I felt comfortable enough to let him go up and down by himself. It wasn’t because I had a plan. It was more about doing what made sense – and exposing him to a level of danger that I felt he could overcome made a lot of sense.

The results are pretty cool. He has a physical dexterity I think is very good for him. See for yourself how he makes a normal (for us) trip down the stairs. He is one and a half years old.

As a New York green builder and natural landscaper this tells me that if I suggest to my clients a more diverse, slightly less safe (within the boundaries of the child’s abilities) design option that it may improve the development of their children. That’s pretty cool.

ALTERNATIVES TO THE “GREAT” AMERICAN LAWN

Here is a great article by the folks at Sasaki, a design company that does mostly large projects, about cool alternatives to the dead zone some people call a lawn.

The article offers great resources and info on where to get and how to make a more ecological lawn. We all love an open green space. This article offers options that are loved by other animals too. As a New York landscaping company we often get asked to install generic sod for a lawn. And every time we offer these more environmentally friendly options.

ALTERNATIVES TO THE GREAT AMERICAN LAWN

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!

Removing Lead From New York Gardens

Here are two articles relevant to lead remediation in New York garden soil. Eco Brooklyn gets a lot of calls from clients with a child on the way and a recently purchased house. They intelligently tested the soil in the garden to be sure it is safe for toddlers and to their dismay they often find it has lead in it.

Our solution is usually to remove the top layer of soil, add a protective root barrier and then bring in new soil. We then landscape the garden using salvaged bricks or bluestone to create a patio and native plantings  area free of lead contaminated soil.

Garden Soil Remediation

This garden was barren with lead soil when we got to it. We removed the top layer of soil and brought in a layer of rich compost. We then landscaped with all salvaged materials – bluestone, deck, planter, border. We then planted. The ground was planted with ecological grass which takes a season to grow in. 

Removing the soil is costly however. So recently we have started to look into stay-in-place solutions. The most common one is to simply dilute the existing soil with certain kinds of material.

The best options we have found so far are to load the soil up with rich compost, which is full of iron, manganese, phosphorous and organic matter. These elements reduce the uptake of lead in humans and plants. The iron and manganese bind with the lead and thus make it less accessible. The phosphorous and organic matter increase the soil PH, which reduces the availability of lead uptake.

Some studies have found that doing this actually renders vegetables grown in the contaminated soil safe to eat. Getting the soil to be safe for toddlers is more of a challenge but we are becoming increasingly more confident with this new process. We aren’t completely there yet but we are working towards a solution that involves simply adding specific kinds of compost to the soil. This would reduce the remediation time and cost considerably.

As a New York green contractor and landscaper we feel that remediating NY gardens is a crucial part of making our city safe. There is no point in building a beautiful garden if the soil is toxic. Along with building healthy homes, the garden is a top priority for the safety of our children.

The following two articles are very interesting and worth reading:
Cornell U.
Biosolids

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

Chemical vs. Natural Swimming Pools

Natural swimming pools or living spas are much more common throughout Europe, but are increasingly becoming more popular in the United States. Now that the spring weather is beginning to surface, it’s time for Eco Brooklyn to open up our Natural Pool for the swimming season. We use it as a showcase pool for clients considering installing a Natural Swimming pool in New York. And we also use it to cool off and enjoy during the summer!

So how does this compare to tradition swimming pool maintenance? Like our design philosophy, Eco Brooklyn’s swimming hole should blend low energy costs with little to no waste or hazardous chemicals.

Here is a simple diagram from Inspiration Green that depicts exactly how natural swimming pools function.

Self Sustaining Pool

Natural Filtration

 

The first step in opening our natural spa is to turn on the tiny 100 watt water pump that feeds the soiled plants, bacteria, and critters that filter the pool’s water.

Next we turn on a very small aeration pump which enriches the water with oxygen, to encourage more plant growth and aerobic bacteria function.

Lastly Eco Brooklyn interns get to spend the morning scooping up algae that has accumulated over the winter. Adding some barley straw is also helpful in controlling algae by producing lignin, which is then converted to hydrogen peroxide in the presence of sunlight.

Natural Swimming Pond

So how does opening a chemically intensive pool compare?

Step one is controlling the pH by keeping it at 7.0 or slightly below. If the pH is above 7.5 the chlorine is only about 10% effective. In most cases this involves the addition muriatic acid.

Step two is to check the alkalinity, which should be between 80-140 ppm. Alkalinity is a measure of the water’s resistance to a change in pH. An improper balance of pH and alkalinity can reduce the effect of sanitation, cause cloudiness, and/ or deteriorate the concrete or siding.

Step three involves determining your Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) and Calcium Hardness. Both of these measurements will affect how corrosive the water is and often requires draining the pool.

Step four is backwashing the filter for cleaning when the gauge moves from 8-10 psi away from clean.

Step five comprises of cleaning the skimmer basket and scrubbing the walls of the pool weekly to prevent plaque build-up.

Lastly, running the filter and vacuum skimmer, often for a couple hours a day, for proper water sanitation is essential.

Considering the immense construction costs, the harsh chemicals additives, high energy pumps, and the endless hours of labor to produce and maintain a traditional swimming pool, it’s no wonder the Natural Pool phenomenon is catching on in America. The aquatic ecosystems are almost completely self-sustaining, and after the initial cost of construction you are basically done with the expenditure.

Eco Brooklyn is very excited to be a Natural Swimming Pool installer for the New York area. We feel the benefits to building a natural swimming pool, or even better to converting a chlorine pool to a natural one, are massive. Because of it’s natural features and fresh water t is such a joy to swim in and look at. It also adds so much to the local ecosystem.

-Anthony Rivale

DIY Indoor Vermiculture Composting

If you are a fan of living sustainably you have most likely felt the urge to reduce your waste and begin composting. But living in New York City often leaves residents without much outdoor space. A large part of Green Building in Brooklyn involves meshing innovative techniques with salvaged materials, which is why do-it-yourself composting is a fantastic solution to a massive problem. Eco Brooklyn is a big fan of “Passive House”  philosophy and indoor composting is as energy conscious as it is environmentally friendly. Composting indoors sounds, or rather “smells,” fishy right? In fact if your compost is smelly it’s probably not functioning correctly.

Black Gold

Black Gold

Composting is a simple process by which organic material, mostly complex carbon and nitrogen molecules, are broken down to produce the basic building blocks to support plant like organisms. This compost or “black gold” is essential to reducing the wasted-tons of organic material sent to landfills every time one throws away those banana peels, coffee grounds and filters, or even used paper towels.

With a little human energy and a bit of patience, one can easily turn their two-pound-per-day organic waste into nutrient rich soil for their house plants or garden. The first step is to find a suitable container with at least four cubic feet of volume; basically a trash can with a diameter of 1.5’ and a height of 2’. The container should be salvaged or recycled, must have a lid, and bigger is better if you have the space.

 

This compostee used an old paint bucket and found a solution to reducing those pesky fruit flies. Her method suggests adding felt to the inside of the aeration holes to prevent any unwanted invaders. I imagine using the activated carbon mesh found at pet stores for cat litter boxes would also do the trick while reducing any unwanted odors.

Keep the Flies Away

Felt on Aeration Holes

 

Use to Prevent Pests and Odors

Use to Prevent Pests and Odors

 

 

Next you will want to find a suitable tray to place underneath the compost bin with some newspaper in case of spillage. The bin should be place in a dark place for best results. Usually under the kitchen sink or on the floor of a pantry will do. Add some soil from anywhere, except near the Gowanus.

 

Then mix in around four pounds of red worms, depending on how much suitable waste you generally produce, as they will eat about half their weight in material every day. Aeration holes are critical as they allow oxygenation for the worms and the aerobic (need oxygen) bacteria. Foul smelling compost is usually due to “anaerobic” (do not need oxygen) bacteria, so make sure to churn your compost once a week and have at least a dozen ½” size holes in the lid or the top sides of the bucket.

 

What can you add to your compost bin? Here is a great list of 81 items suitable for composting. Keep in mind that a higher concentration of carbon rich material; “brown stuff”, newspaper, paper towels, wood clippings, will prevent ammonia smells caused by the anaerobic breakdown of nitrogen rich material; “green stuff”, fruit, veggies, coffee grounds.

DIY Composting Bin

“I’m Red, but I produce Black Gold”

Composting generally takes a few weeks, but this wait is very rewarding. It is probably best two have at least two bins as one will get full after a couple weeks and it will need time to mature, which is a great time to start your second compost bin. Also make sure to add “brown” material with your “green” stuff and sometimes a little water if it is too dry or newspaper if it is too wet. Then churn, churn, churn, because there is always a season for composting.

Too much compost? Donate your extras to a local farm or farmers market. The NYC Green Markets are also happy to take your clippings, and “green” waste for composting.

-Anthony Rivale

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.

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

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

Heavy Metal Contaminated Soil

Backyard Soil Contamination

Backyard Contamination Sample

Soil Sample Report

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

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

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

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

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

Safe Levels of Toxic Metals

Soil Contamination and Remediation

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

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

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

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

-Anthony Rivale

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.

Biomimicry and the Eden Project

The Eden Project

As a New York green builder, Eco Brooklyn is always interested in learning about what other sustainable design ideas are out there.  Last night, I listened to an amazing TED talk that took green building to a whole new level.

Michael Pawlyn, formerly with Grimshaw Architects, London, spoke about biomimicry and sustainable design and how he believes we should be looking to nature for both our inspiration and the solution to our design dilemmas. By looking to nature, we can create more efficient systems and usurp the benefits of nature’s 3.5 billion years of R&D.

Michael Pawlyn also addressed the importance of creating efficient cyclical uses of products (beneficial to both humans and nature) instead of the current, inefficient linear model of produce, use, throw away. (This theory is laid out eloquently in Michael McDonough and Michael Braungart’s must-read, Cradle to Cradle.)

Looking to Nature for Answers

Nature is effecient.  Nature epitomizes the mantra waste not want not.  In nature, waste is food.  Humans, on the other hand, are the polar opposite.  We are wasteful, inefficient, and operate on a use-it-once-and-throw-it-away mentality.

Many engineers and architects are practicing biomimicry, looking to nature for answers to the world’s most pressing problems, including us here at Eco Brooklyn.  The passivhaus pond in the backyard, for example, uses no chemicals, but gravel, rocks, and plants, to filter out dirt and other impurities.  Just like nature would in a pond or lake.

The idea of mimicking nature in manmade inventions is not new by any means.  The Greeks applied “the golden ratio”, also called the golden mean or golden selection, to their art and architecture.  The Pantheon is based on the golden ratio.  Even the volutes on ionic columns use these proportions.

Medieval alchemists would initially determine a plant’s potential healing qualities by what it looked like.  For example, the leaves of the lungwort plant, which resemble the human lung, were used to treat respiratory problems.

Cyclical vs Linear Consumption

Nature functions on a closed loop system.  The waste of one is the food for another.  The dead leaves that come off trees in the Autumn become nutrients for the soil and earthworms on the ground to which they fell.  The earthworms eat the leaves and their waste provide nutrients for the tree, which then gives it energy to produce new leaves in the Spring.

Biomimicry is about creating manmade systems that replicate the remarkably efficient systems found in nature.  In one of his lectures, Pawlyn gives the example of Cardboard to Caviar.  The expensive cardboard packaging that caviar comes in was bought from a restaurant and used as bedding for horses in stables.  When that wore out, it was taken and added to a compost heap that feed worms.  These worms are harvested and sold as food to roe, whose eggs are then harvest and sold as caviar at the same restaurant.  These types of closed looped systems are both economically and environmentally sound.  The metabolism of our cities needs to be reexamined so that nothing is wasted and beneficial, efficient systems are created.

The Eden Project

The eden project biomimicry

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to create sustainable, carbon neutral (or even carbon positive), green designs that are more efficient and cost less than the “standard” models.  “It is possible to cut carbon emissions and save money,” says Michael Pawlyn. “The key to it is innovation.”  This has been proven by Mr Pawlyn in his work on many projects, specifically the Eden Project in Cornwall, England.

The Eden Project is the world’s largest greenhouse.  It is the second most visited paid attraction in England.  It was designed by Grimshaw Architects and opened in March 2001.

The site is on a reclaimed Kaolinite mine.  Since the site was still being quarried during the design process, they had to design a structure that could be built regardless of the what the final ground levels were going to be.  The result is a series of bubble-like domes of varying sizes strung along the landscape.  By looking to nature, they discovered that the most effective way to create a spherical surface is by using geodesics (hexagons and pentagons).  These bubbles are a series of giant hexagons welded together and then inflated.

The biomes are made of Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), a transparent polymer that is used instead of glass and plastic in many modern buildings.  ETFE is incredibly strong and much lighter than glass.  Because of the lightness of the material, less steal was use for reinforcement which means more light can enter the space and less energy is required to heat space in the winter.  In fact, the structure itself weighs less than the air it contains

ETFE costs 1/3 less than the traditional glass solution.  ETFE is one percent of the weight of double glazing.

The Eden Project is just one of many examples of biomimicry and how man can learn to be efficient by mimicking what is already happening in nature.  By being aware of how nature solves problems we can improve our everyday lives.  Small things such as composting can make a big difference.  Compost puts nutrients back into the soil, feeds earthworms, and diverts food waste from going to landfills.  Finding new uses for old items gives them a new life.   We saved hundreds of pounds of lovely Blue Stone from a fate of going to the landfill by pulling it out of a dumpster and using it as paving in the front yard.  We can all be eco builders, practicing the principles of biomimicry.

In the words of Margaret Mead, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Here’s Michael Pawlyn’s TED talk: 

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.

 

 

Why Should I Use Native Plants?

A significant aspect of green building and living sustainably is using vernacular materials and buying locally. Being green also means being a locavaore, eating and buying foods grown locally. But what about the vegetation we choose to plant in our gardens? We may choose a particular plant because of aesthetics, how well it will grow well in shade, or the fact that it was on sale at the nursery. Choosing which plants to put into our gardens is another area in which we can make more sustainable choices. Here at Eco Brooklyn, we stress using native plants at home and in all our Brooklyn Green Contractor jobs.

What are Native Plants?Brooklyn Green Contractor

Native plants are those which are indigenous to an area that have not been put there by humans. In North America, that becomes a bit more complicated because Europeans introduced many plants to the Americas beginning in the 15th century which some classify as “native.” Most botanists, however, define native plants to be those which were in the Americas before the Europeans arrived.

Why Should We Use Native Plants?

Currently, approximately 25% of the plants growing in North America are at risk of becoming extinct because of human activities. By using indigenous plants in our landscaping projects we can slow or even reserve the threat of species extinction. Native plants also assist in the larger picture of bolstering up native insects, moths, butterflies, and other animals native to the area. Here at Eco Brooklyn, we try to use as many native plants and animals as possible (such as the fish in our front pond or the Eastern Box Turtles in the roof garden).

Native Plants are Low Maintenance

Think of Indigenous plants as your local tour guide – they know the area, the best spots to hang out, and where you can take shelter from the storm. Native plants have become acclimated to the temperatures, annual rain fall, and have a relationship with the local wildlife. Native plants, therefore, require less fertilizer and pesticides, if any, and once established, require no irrigation.

Native Plants Rarely Become Invasive

Native plants stay put. They have a harmonious, symbiotic relationship with other vegetation that is beneficial to all, so native plants do not take over the landscape like “foreign” species do. Native Plants are Part of Our History The plants grown here in the Americas have played an important role in the history and civilization of this country. Herbs have been used by “medicine men” to remedy ailments, tree saplings were used to make bows and arrows, berries were used to make dyes, and let’s not forget our elementary school education of the Native Americans teaching John Smith, et all, how to grow corn.

What plants are native to your area?  

Native Plant Database allows you to do searches based on area, soil pH, plant type, etc.  It’s very extensive and customizable.

How to Maintain a Green Roof

how to maintain a green roofAs a green roof installer we have learned that it is crucial to keep in touch with the client for the first couple years to make sure the roof is cared for correctly.

There are some simple tasks that are important to do during the first two seasons so that the roof develops.

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

 

General Green Roof Maintenance and Care

  1. Weed out unwanted plants. The soil comes with weeds and during the first season it is crucial to remove them to let the still junior plants establish. If you let the weeds run free then the plants we installed will be crowded out and you will be left with a roof full of dead weeks.
  2. Keep the drainage areas clear of plants.  The border around the edge of the roof and the graveled areas around drain outlets and other roof penetrations should be kept clear of all plant life and vegetation.  Plants growing too close to the drain will clog it up, which completely defeats the purpose of having a drain.  Biannual weeding should suffice.
  3. Add compost biannually.  Nutrient-rich compost should be added to the roof garden in spring and autumn.  This provides plants with important nutrients and replenishes the soil.
  4. Weed out unwanted plants (again!).  Being on a roof, seeds dropped by birds or carried by the wind inevitably find their way into your roof garden.  Some of the seedlings are fine and can be left alone.  Others, such as a budding oak tree, are not desirable.  Most likely your roof could never support the weight of an oak, unless your building something like Derry and Toms in London.  Monthly walk-throughs should be scheduled to monitor the types of vegetation growing on your roof.  Unwanted plants, such as the aforementioned oak tree, should be replanted somewhere else, if possible.  Get a group of friends together and do some guerilla gardening with those “unwanted” plants!
  5. Green roofs should be watered as little as possible.  Water is extremely heavy and creates additional weight on the roof.  For lightweight roofs with 4-6 inches of growing medium, desert-type plants are ideal because they require so little water.  Experiment with plant types and, depending on how much rain you get, try to get to the point where you don’t have to water your roof at all.  When it does become necessary to water your plants, err on the side of under watering.  Also, if your roof garden is on a pitched roof, begin watering at the top of the roof to the water can trickle down through the plants at the bottom, which may not need any water at all.
  6. Watch out for pests and diseases.  Keep an eye out for pests and diseases that may come to your roof garden.  While green roofs are designed to attract insects and increase biodiversity, sometimes unwanted insects come along.
  7. Keep a detailed maintenance log/diary.  Schedule when you’re going to do these checkups (and follow through!) and keep and detailed record of your findings.  This will also help you see what plants do best in your roof’s environment.

We Love Motherplants

MotherPlants is a nursery in Ithaca, NY that specializes in growing plants for green roofs. MotherPlants is a women-owned company, committed to environmental sustainability. They use renewable energy, healthy growing practices, and dedicate a large portion of their land for wildlife.

living roof

These woman do green roofs right. They focus on plants that are drought resistant, have shallow roots, and are hearty enough to survive Northeastern winters. MotherPlants offers a variety of plant options such as “plug plants” (already grown plants with developed root systems that will grow immediately), unrooted cuttings (cuttings take less time to install and are cheaper but take more time to get established and should be planted in the spring), pre-grown mats and modules, and they will even grow custom plants by request. Many of these plants are sedums and grasses– check out their catalogue here. They also sell green roof media and can help you design your green roof.

ny green contractor

As an NY green roof installer, Eco Brooklyn is very attracted to MotherPlants because of their expertise, commitment to sustainable practices and native species, variety, and proximity (so as to reduce our environmental footprint.) Many of the plants we use in the green roofs we design are sourced from MotherPlants. When possible, we like to use clippings from the roof garden at the Eco Brooklyn Show House when propagating new roofs to avoid unnecessary use of fossil fuels through transportation… and just because we like to share.

ny green design build

Above is a photo of Eco Brooklyn’s green roof at the Show House. MotherPlants highly recommends on their website that people avoid the do-it-yourself method of installing a green roof. We agree; building a green roof should be done by an expert who can assess a roof’s ability to support the weight of a green roof, can install a well-insulated and well-sealed garden that will not leak, and can choose plants that will thrive in the conditions created specifically by your roof’s location and design.

As an NY green contractor, Eco Brooklyn can help you design and build your green roof in keeping with the most sustainable practices and products. Contact us to learn more about living roofs in NYC.

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.

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

DIY Vertical Gardens

Vertical gardens or living walls are a beautiful and efficient way to maximize green space within an urban context. Aesthetically, vertical gardens can be used to improve the façade of buildings while providing other ecosystem services such as enhanced air quality.

Perhaps first employed by the Mesopotamians to create the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the principles of design have expanded past cascading plants to include plants rooted at different heights of a wall. Living walls vary in size, design, and complexity.

Two of the best-known living walls are on the Marché des Halles in Avignon and the Museé du Quai Branly, both designed by Patrick Blanc. However, man-made living walls are not constrained to grand public buildings.

Marche des Halles en Avignon, designed by Patrick Blanc

It is very feasible to create you own, and in fact personal vertical gardens beautifully complement the exterior of Brooklyn brownstones, although it is recommended a professional be consulted for walls higher than 7 feet.

The character of your vertical garden is determined by the framing material and plant selection. While plant selection may vary by individual taste, native species are generally hardier and better suited to the local climate and pest and disease conditions.

Green landscaping with native species is also a proactive way to support the area’s native ecosystems. You may decide to choose a theme to guide your plant selections, such as a foliage wall, mosquito-repellant wall, epicurean wall (pick your salad ingredients!), aromatic herb wall, or a perfumed wall.

Succulents are easy plants for beginners since they do not need substantial irrigation. For vertical gardens created sans soil, epiphytes and lithophytes are necessary plant selections. Epiphytes attach to other objects solely for physical support and are not parasitic. They obtain nutrients from rain, air, and debris. Common epiphytes in temperate zones such as New York are lichens and mosses.

We will list and describe framing methods with increasing complexity.

The Woolly Packet Garden Company offers a series of “woolly packets”, pouches made from recycled water bottles with an impermeable moisture barrier and felt to wick the water. These packets are easy to install and arrange as you please. Although the design is not constrained to vertical garden use, the pouches lend themselves well to such installations. Watch this video for further description:

Flora Grubb Gardens is featuring an example vertical garden installation in their store.

Wooly Pocket installation

For a more complex system, pre-made frames are available for sale from several manufacturers. Gro-Wall offers easy to stack frames.

VGM also offer green wall modules. Drip irrigation coupled with the effects of gravity water the plants in both systems, although this can also be adapted.

Our favorite option at Eco Brooklyn for small walls is using salvaged pallets as a frame for a living wall. We are currently creating a wooden pallet living wall installation in the Green Showroom. Simple and effective, this method limits the amount of new material needed for the project and decreases life cycle emissions and cost.

Pallet living wall

 

Pallets can often be found for free at local gardening stores. Pallets without significant back support may need to be augmented with scrap wood on the back. You can then staple landscaping paper to the back, bottom, and sides to create a secure void for the soil. Soil is poured through the slats and the selected plants are then planted in place and watered. Once planted, the pallet needs to remain horizontal for one to two weeks until the roots can take and stabilize the soil.

There are two easy ways to create your own frame.

The second method does not require the additions of any soil!

Succulent frames

Method 1: Cut 4 pieces of lumber to the desired length and nail them together at the corners to create a box frame. Staple or nail wire mash to the front face of the frame and a piece of plywood to the back face. Fill the void with soil and then poke the stems from plant cuttings through the mesh. Allow the installation to remain horizontal until the plants are securely rooted. Water lightly or use a drip irrigation system. For smaller frames, it may be easiest to lay it flat when watering and allow the soil to drain before hanging it back up.

Note that the above method works best for small frames, as it does not require a complex irrigation or fertilizer system.

 

Method 2: This last method is the most involved in terms of infrastructure but very rewarding. It isn’t that green either since it requires a pump. It is however the most popular system and many massive walls have been created this way.

Noémie Vialard’s book Gardening Vertically offers a more in-depth description of the process, which was initially developed by Patrick Blanc. While it is possible to make a portable system, it is most effective as a permanent display.

Wooden battens are first fixed to the selected wall space, and then a PVC panel and two layers of irrigation matting are added over the battens. The irrigation system consists of a perforated pipe connected to a pump, which activates a couple times a day for a few minutes.

Nutrients can be diluted into the water tank to fertilize the ecosystem. The plant roots are inserted through holes in the second layer of felt (such that the plant is secured between layers of irrigation matting).

Because the system has no soil substrate, there is no water retention. To mitigate the high water usage, you may want to plant perennials at the foot of the wall to consume surplus water or create a fish pond at the base. Use gray water to irrigate if possible.

Apart from the electric load, this system is not sustainable in another way: if you stop the pump the plants die quickly since there is no humid soil to keep them. In that sense it is a very artificial environment. The closest natural habitat is a rock wall in a tropical jungle.

For this reason we prefer the soil based living walls. We build our own structure instead of buying pre-made products because it allows us to save costs and customize to the space.

A vertical garden installation can beautifully augment the aesthetic value of your home. Living walls do not need to be grandiose or complex and the concept can easily be adapted to personal usage. Outdoor walls are easier because you don’t have to worry about flooring issues in the house. But indoor walls, provided they get sunlight, don’t get blasted by weather extremes. Indoor walls need special attention to avoid mold issues, but if that is under control they add a freshness to the air that is wonderful.

Eco Brooklyn is a living wall installer because we really love what a living wall does to a space. It fits perfectly with our mission to turn NY green!

Bioswale Basics

Do you ever think about where all that water goes when it rains?

In a natural system, most rainwater gets absorbed in the ground where it falls. It gradually flows, or percolates, through the soil until it reaches the water table (the point in which an underground area is saturated with water.) As the water percolates through the soil, it gets filtered of contaminants like pathogens, pollutants, and silt. Gravity slowly pushes the groundwater to a retention area, a place that holds the water like a river, lake, or the ocean.

Managing stormwater

In an urban environment where rainwater falls on impermeable surfaces, surfaces that water cannot pass through like parking lots, the rain becomes runoff which flows over the impermeable surfaces picking up pollutants like lead and then directly into a manmade drain. This water flows through a city’s sewer system where it is eventually treated, which takes a lot of energy and money, and is then released (usually not entirely clean and with harmful chemicals like chlorine that are used to treat the water) into local waterways. During times of flooding, which are becoming more frequent in the Northeast, sewer systems become overwhelmed and cities are forced to release untreated, raw sewage into nearby rivers and oceans.

urban runoff

 

To reduce the damaging effects of flooding and wastewater overflow, urban dwellers should create more permeable surfaces like gardens, specifically ones with bioswales. A bioswale is a low-lying area designed to remove silt and pollution from runoff and to manage flooding.

Many considerations need to be taken when designing a bioswale:

  • Location: must be in a low-lying area where water tends to collect.
  • Gradient: flat areas or areas with a slope greater than 5% are not practical for bioswales.
  • Drainage: use highly permeable mediums like gravel or coarse sands. Do not build a bioswale in an area with a high water table.
  • Plants: choose plants that are both flood and drought resistant. Native plants are better because they do not need fertilizer, will handle the climate more heartily, and will increase biodiversity.
  • Purpose: design your bioswale to solve a specific problem like flooding, high levels of nitrogen/phosphorus, pollution mitigation, or lack of biodiversity.

As an NY green contracting company with landscape design services, Eco Brooklyn can help you design and install a bioswale that will effectively resolve flooding problems, reduce the amount of contaminants entering local waterways, increase groundwater volume, and aid local biodiversity all while adding beauty to your backyard.

backyard flooding brooklyn

This is an example of a bioswale designed specifically to reduce the effects of flooding. It is placed at the lowest point in the yard and is sloped downward to move water to either a drain or retention area. The gravel allows water to enter the ground quickly to stop flooding. We would add more plants to this one if it were ours.

NY green builder

Rain Gardens are a type of bioswale. They tend to have a more aesthetic focus while still redirecting stormwater back into the ground and away from sewer systems.

As part of the city’s plan to retrofit New York, a number of 5 x 20 ft bioswales will be built along city streets.  Read more here.

Eco Brooklyn is planning on building a 5 x 13 ft tree planter that will act partly as a bioswale in the sidewalk outside the Green Show House. We are getting our applications in and revising our design so we hope the project will be underway shortly! More on that as we progress…

 

ADDENDUM: WATER CONTAMINANTS 101

  • Silt: Silt is made up of fine particles of soil, sand, and dust. It is easily transported by runoff because it is so light. When silt enters a waterbody it tends to linger at the surface of the water and eventually settles at the bottom. Not only is the cloudy effect of silt unattractive, but it also blocks sunlight from reaching the aquatic plants inhabiting the water body. Without sunlight those plants will die, diminishing habitat and food sources for aquatic animal life. Aquatic plants also play a major role in adding oxygen to the water. Without them, water bodies can become anaerobic, devoid of oxygen, which makes them inhospitable to plant and animal life and undrinkable for humans.
  • Phosphorus and nitrogen: These are the two elements that drive plant growth. Excess nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) enter groundwater mainly from fertilizer that gets washed away as runoff. Large amounts of N and P in waterbodies tend to support large algal blooms. Algae is microscopic and lives at the surface of the water. With enough sunlight, N, and P, blooms can become so large that, like silt, they can block sunlight from entering the water, starving the aquatic plants. When the algae eventually dies, it sinks to the bottom of the water where it will be decomposed, a process that uses up oxygen, thus subtracting further from the water’s oxygen levels. Further, some algal blooms can be toxic, harming the animal life around it, or can be ingested by fish then making them toxic for humans to eat. If you use fertilizer in your yard, consider using plants that have high-phosphorus absorption.
  • Pathogens: A pathogen is a virus, bacteria, or other microorganism that can cause disease. Pathogens are most commonly introduced to water through agricultural runoff of manure and animal wastes.
  • Pharmaceuticals: When we ingest drugs, traces of them are excreted in our urine. These chemicals make their way through the sewer system and into local water bodies. Scientists are not entirely sure how much of an impact pharmaceuticals really have in water systems. It has been suggested that increased levels of estrogen, which come from birth control pills, may be effecting sexual development of some aquatic animals.
  • Heavy metals: Heavy metals enter the hydrosphere mainly through industrial practices like mining and smelting. Heavy metals are dangerous because in large quantities they can be poisonous to humans and animals. If your backyard has a lead problem, for example, use plants that absorb metals. Eco Brooklyn also offers soil remediation services.
By Malone Matson

 

Natural Pools

We at EcoBrooklyn engage in a number of exciting green building projects and experiments throughout the year, but with the hot months ahead at the top of our list is the natural pool for the show house and with its completion so close we can almost feel the cool, energetic, life infused water on our toes.

A “Natural pool” is more about incorporating nature into the design and functions of the pool, harnessing natural processes to maintain quality, swimable water and blurring the line between built and naturally occurring.

A healthy body of fresh water has a number of checks and balances that keep it in balance. A Natural Pool simply recreates these elements. Nature does the rest.

A Natural Pool has the swimming area and then another area called the regeneration zone. This zone contains plants and, most importantly, surface area usually in the form of gravel that microbes can live on.

The plants and microbes compete with algae for food and since you pack it with surface area the microbes beat out the algae. In essence you create an environment where food (leaves, soil, bugs, and other organic matter) is scarce, so what food there is becomes eaten by plants and microbes instead of algae.

The process is fairly flexible and can be as simple or complex as you like as long as you have a few basic elements:

-No chemical fertilizers/ pesticides used adjacent to the site

-Natural filtration system

-A variety of different plants, surface area and microbes to promote a balanced ecosystem

The beauty of natural pools

The primary appeal of a natural pool is the absence of the typical cocktail of harsh chemicals designed to kill pretty much everything in the water, except the swimmer more or less.

The second attraction is the positive ecological effect; this is something you can build with salvaged and recycled materials while helping to reinstate local/native ecosystems.

As with most things green there is a degree of time and thought investment not usually associated with the typical energy sapping, chlorinated eyesore.

there’s no competition really

 

Maintenance is still simpler and less expensive, but one needs to learn and follow a set of steps and rules, which as one grows with the pool these steps become second nature, or perhaps first nature…

Thankfully there are always pioneers braving new frontiers and providing the general populace with valuable resources and tools to implement in their own projects.  The Europeans especially have been at the forefront of the natural pools race for over a decade now. They have built massive public natural swimming pools that cater to thousands of people with great success.

beautiful design

wide range of options

Below is a list of websites and organizations specifically geared towards natural pool construction; they provide excellent technical suggestions for all types of designs and constraints as well as helpful trouble shooting for any problems that may arise.  Also they can provide you with competent local green contractors and builders in your area familiar with this sort of construction.

Eco Brooklyn hopes to become a leading natural pool installer in the New York area. We feel this is an excellent option since it adds so much to a garden, both for humans but for native wildlife.
http://www.motherearthnews.com/Do-It-Yourself/2002-08-01/Natural-Swimming-Pool.aspx
http://www.biotop-gmbh.at/

http://www.ibnature.com/

http://www.totalhabitat.com/p&p.html

http://www.clear-water-revival.com/

 

-Michael DiCarlo

How Our Soul Connects to the Earth

I spent the day in the Eco Brooklyn garden with seven interns today hauling salvaged blue stone around and working on the natural swimming pool. Typically we are working around the pool so they have their shoes off.

Adding the final touches to the natural swimming pool

But today I had them wear shoes to protect them from the heavy stones they were hauling.

I know the garden very well and can navigate the many native plants and stones with my eyes closed. For the most part the interns have been pretty good at where they put their bare feet as well, even if it is more to protect their virgin feet than to protect the garden.

But today they were like a herd of elephants. Carried away with their work, they forgot what was beneath their shoes. And asking them to be more aware didn’t lessen the damage.

Considering they were so intelligent in other areas I expected a much higher level of awareness from them and I found myself getting frustrated. And it wasn’t like they didn’t care or had physical disabilities. These college level athletes were mortified when I pointed out the damage their feet were doing.

It made me think about intelligence in general and how different societies value different things. In mainstream North America intelligence is measured in college test exams. In the Jungles of the Amazon intelligence is measured in whether you step on a snake or not.

But more importantly I had this profound realization that these seven intelligent college grads had spent the vast majority of their lives walking on dead materials – concrete, tile, car carpet, varnished wood – with shoes. They were completely illiterate when it comes to talking to the alive earth with their feet.

99% of the time they don’t need to be aware of where they are stepping. They have to navigate dead objects like getting out of a car, running on a track or walking up stairs but these things are all standardized – hard, flat, lifeless – so the process requires minimal awareness. The worst that can happen is they step in dog crap and never do they worry about killing anything.

The Eco Brooklyn back yard, however, is full of life and far from standard. There are little piles of stones to be toppled, plants of all sizes to be trampled, snails and bugs to be crushed, and all sorts of other life forms like mushrooms, moss, lichen, and berries that a Nike shoe easily kills.

Bees from the roof drinking water from moss in the Eco Brooklyn show house pond.

This lack of connection between our feet and the soil is powerful. I saw these kids with great intentions slowly trampling their surroundings and it brought up in me much more emotions than what was at hand. It reminded me of the many times I see environmental destruction due to a lack of awareness of and connection with the earth.

People are good. But disconnect them from their surroundings and they become killer monkeys.

This was a real learning experience for me as I work with them as a mentor. I have extra wide feet because I spent most of my summers as a boy barefoot. I remember crying from the pain of trying to put my feet into shoes at the end of summer for school. Maybe this gives me good connection between my feet and the soil. It isn’t much compared with so many people on this planet who live closely with nature but in NYC’s concrete jungle I’m an exception.

It drove home in me that more important than understanding the ecology of a natural pool or eco garden is having the awareness of where we step, both physically and metaphorically. An awareness of ourselves as we move on this planet and impact other life forms is the height of environmentalism. This has been a valuable lessen for me both in my own life and in my teaching.

International Center of Photography Pics

Last week students from the International Center of Photography came by to photograph the show house green roof and back garden. Here is what they came up with.

Our Favorite:

RobertSJohnson_EcoGarden

As green roof installers we are particularly in love with the green roof on the show house. It is where we do a lot of experimentation to see what works on NY green roof installations.

 

As New York green roof installers we are particularly interested in creating roof top sanctuaries not only for humans but for native animals. This birds nest is part of that process of turning a bleak roof into a home.

New York Natural Swimming Pool

From the green roof you can see the back garden which is under construction. It has all native plants arranged in a native hardscape. It also has a natural swimming pool that will be cleaned by plants and stones.

 Eco Brooklyn NY green roof service is doing well and we are now expanding to provide natural swimming pool construction services for New York residents with small back yards. We feel this is a great thing that adds to the ecosystem and quality of life. Our first one is being built in the Eco Brooklyn green show house. We are making all the mistakes we can to perfect the process.

The natural pool is common in Europe but Americans are still stuck on keeping nature and humans apart, and this applies to chlorinated pools as much as it does to other things. But as we learn that nature (bugs, microbes, dirt) actually can help keep us healthy it makes a lot of sense to swim in a natural swimming pool.

With time we hope more and more people will see that chlorinated pools are actually lass sanitary that natural swimming pools due to the connections between chlorine and health issues like cancer, rashes and breathing disorders.

 

Eating With The Seasons

One of the things we have realized is that if you build a green home but the inhabitants are not green you have lost half the benefit. As a New York green contractor we learned that educating ourselves and our clients in green lifestyle habits is an important part of the green building process.

One of the huge elements of green living is being in harmony with your surroundings – your neighbors, your community, the cycles of day and night and the seasons – very much like it is important for a green building to work in harmony with its surroundings – rainwater runoff, energy consumption, sewage discharge, heat island effect…

One of those things listed – the seasons – has a lot to do with died. There are benefits to eating local as most people know, but equally connected to this is the importance of eating seasonal. If you don’t eat seasonal there is no way you can eat local. For example if you live in New York there are no naturally growing watermelons in the winter. If you eat one they come from far away – Central and South America most probably, but possibly as far away as China.

The exception to this is the evolving art of greenhouse growing and/or hydroponics, a synergy between traditional farming and current science – plastics, pumps, plant food extracts, electric lights…not to say this can’t be green but it definitely is more carbon intensive than carrots in the old farmer’s soil.

The one pro greenhouse/hydroponics argument is that you can grow more food per square foot than traditional farming. Maybe. But at what carbon footprint cost? And compared to what? Certainly not compared to Permaculture.

Even so, it pays to eat seasonal and local whenever possible. The food is fresher and there is nothing more magical than eating in harmony with the season. A watermelon in the dead of winter just isn’t the same as one in the life of summer.

Here are two great graphics showing the availability of of fruits and another vegetables for a Northern Hemisphere location. They are not only beautiful but extremely helpful. The one caveat is that they aren’t locally focused. For example they list kiwi and pineapple as available in the winter….available from New Zealand maybe.

But nonetheless it just takes a little common sense to use the charts for local and seasonal eating.

Bon Apetit.

Review: Anthony Archer-Wills, Water Garden Designer

green pond designer Anthony Archer-Wills is a world class water garden designer who has built over 2,000 ponds, water gardens, waterfalls, and streams across the globe.

He has several books out, among them The Water Gardener and Designing Water gardens: A Unique Approach.

Gennaro Brooks-Church, Eco Brooklyn’s Director, had the opportunity to take a course with him on designing natural swimming pools, hosted by the US distributor of Bionova Natural pools. Eco Brooklyn is building a natural swimming pool at the Green Show House.

Anthony sets the bar for water design. He is best known for his mimicry of natural water systems and the resulting subtlety of his designs. Where most “watershapers” go wrong, Anthony says, is how they design the inflow of water. Often it is not well-concealed or does not attempt to appear natural. Water fountains, for instance, do not resemble any kind of natural event (and, if I might add, increase water consumption through evaporation.) That’s why they look out of place, tacky even.

The most successful water gardens are the ones that you can’t tell are manmade, that look as if nature had placed them there hundreds of years ago. Not only are they more aesthetically appealing but they also work more harmoniously with nature. Read more here.

Here are some examples of his work:

Backyard pond design NY

NY Green Contractor

NY Sustainable construction

 

The one hitch in his amazing designs is the amount of energy used to pump water. His projects are sometimes so large – lakes, rivers – that the pumps used to move the water are massive. Though we are in complete awe of his art there is definitely an element of energy waste.

Some of his clients have the money to move mountains, and although the water work is amazing, the drive behind the work is not always ecological but rather somebody’s desire to have a lake view where there previously wasn’t one, cost and waste be damned.

Building water places, or in some cases rebuilding them, is important work. Of paramount importance is to consider the amount of waste produced and what is done with it during the construction phase, how much energy is used to maintain the water system, and what the water garden’s implications are for the surrounding ecosystem (it is likely that such water systems add to the biodiversity of an area but you cannot forget about the area that was destroyed to make it).

Eco Brooklyn is interested in learning from Anthony Archer-Wills’ naturalistic design and applying those techniques to smaller scale, low or zero energy green water gardens, natural swimming pools, streams and pond designs in New York City.

By using gravity fed rain runoff and gray water with solar power we are learning how to make water features perfect for the New York City garden.

As NY green contractors and innovators of sustainable design, we are pushing ourselves to build with as little ecological impact as possible while trying to maintain the design tradition pioneered by Anthony Archer-Wills.

Our latest job is being build in a Brooklyn garden that had very high lead levels in the soil. We used the digging of a small natural swimming pool as an opportunity to flip clean soil from deeper in the ground over the contaminated soil.

Then, using walls from salvaged brick and broken sacks of cement we built a container. The end result will be a pool for people to play in that uses no chemicals and integrates naturally with the rest of the garden, designed by Eco Brooklyn with stones and native plants to look wild.

Another job we completed was a pond and little stream.

We wanted the pond to look like it was as natural as possible.

Eco Brooklyn was largely inspired by Anthony’s work in the design of this pond and waterfall. We tried to imagine how the rocks and pebbles would fall and settle in a real river, where riparian plants would most likely take root, what kind of nooks create the best hiding places for our fish, and so forth.

Keeping in mind Anthony’s warning, we have tried to make our water source as well concealed as possible so that it looks like the water is seeping out of the rocks.

We are constantly rearranging the pond’s plants and rocks in an effort to best match nature (and, to be honest, just for fun.) But we feel that this constant rearranging is yet another imitation of nature as we know that rocks, plants, and animals are always in motion in a stream environment.

Green water garden/green pond

Here is a video of a robin bathing in our stream!

Earth Bags And Their Urban Gardening Applications

Earth bags are sacks, usually made of burlap or polypropylene, stuffed with natural materials like clay, sand, or dirt. They can be used to construct buildings as well as retaining walls, ponds and raised gardens.

First used by the military to create durable structures that are quick and easy to erect, the technique has become a popular green building tool.

sustainable building ny

Sacks can be salvaged from old feed bags, though new ones are still inexpensive. The fill, if the bags will be used to create a structure, can be sourced from the soil removed to build the structure, avoiding landfills. Or, if your bag will have a gardening or agricultural application, you can use compost. In other words, earth bags are very sustainable.

Earth bags can be used to create long lasting structures that are impervious to fire, natural disasters like earthquakes, and even bullets. They have been helpful in creating strong but inexpensive shelters for people in undeveloped countries.

They be useful to an urban setting for the following:

Pond walls

Rain Gardens

Raised planters for decoration and food

Landscaping walls

One story structures

Eco Brooklyn is particularly impressed by Filtrexx®‘s commitment to sustainability and quality in their production of earth bags. This company has designed earth bags that can be used as planters for gardens or farms, protecting the plants from weeds and pests and creating a raised bed to prevent drowning. Bags can be stacked vertically to make living walls.

Their tube shape makes landscape design very simple and contains the plants without extra maintenance. Filtrexx also produces bags designed to remove heavy metals from contaminated soil, which is a widespread problem in New York and other major cities. Finally the bags can be used to divert rain water, create bioswales, and prevent soil erosion.

For help designing and/or installing an earth bag garden, living wall, soil remediation project, or runoff prevention, contact Eco Brooklyn, your local NY green contractor and landscaper.

NY sustainable design