Hempcrete for Brooklyn Brownstone Extensions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DIY Rocket Mass Heater

The recent polar vortex has hit us all with some really harsh conditions and as a green contractor based in New York it has made work on our ecological construction sites difficult. Spending cold, winter days inside of an upcycled shipping container can leave you freezing for hours. Space heaters require electricity that you may not have access to.

We’ve figured out a way to heat our workspaces in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way that uses zero electricity and burns zero fossil fuels.  A rocket mass heater is an efficient wood burning stove and space-heating system. Two key things differentiate them as ecologically sound space heaters.

The first is that the design involved creates a small, efficient, high temperature combustion chamber capable of burning significantly more carbon than simply burning wood in a metal can or bonfire. Due to the high carbon-burning capabilities less ash is created and the smoke emitted is much cleaner.

The second is that the cob or clay acts as a thermal mass that physically stores the heat created during combustion for hours and releases it into the space through convection thereby decreasing the amount of electrical energy or fossil fuels used.

A traditional rocket mass heater involves a 55 Gallon drum built into a clay wall and extending into a room so as to transfer the most heat possible. This form is too large and too permanent for use on multiple construction sites.  The technical design of a larger scale heater is more complex, but we needed a relatively small heater that can be transported between sites.

The method of building a rocket mass heater outlined below enables environmentally conscious contractors and individuals to use materials that are more readily available or perhaps lying around the house or job site.

Here we’ve provided the simple DIY steps to creating a rocket stove or rocket mass heater:


5-gallon plastic bucket

2 2-liter plastic soda bottles

Dirt, grass (or hay), and water


Duct tape

Utility knife

A piece of metal lath or mesh


Step 1: Use the marker to trace a circle 3-4 inches from the bottom of the 5-gallon bucket and cut out the circle with your knife.

Step 2: Use the duct tape to tape the ends of the soda bottles together in an L shape. The soda bottles should be filled with liquid or remain unopened.

Step 3: Use the dirt, grass (or hay), and water to make the cob in a different bucket.

Step 4: Put some of the cob in the bottom of the bucket to the height of the bottom of the hole you’ve cut. Place the bottles you’ve taped together inside the bucket with the end of one bottle sticking out of the hole that you’ve previously cut.

Step 5: Continue to fill the bucket with the cob mixture and be sure to smooth all edges. The clay will need a few days to dry out.

Step 6: When the cob feels dry pour the liquid out of the soda bottles and cut off the tops of the bottles. Remove the bottles and tape by reaching into the bottles and pulling them out.

Step 7: If your cob mixture is not fully dry let it set for a few more days. Then place paper and small twigs inside and light a small fire to dry the cob entirely.

Step 8: Place the piece of metal lath or mesh, small enough to fit inside of the hole, in the side of the bucket. This will hold the fuel being used to heat your space. It should be long enough that it sticks out of the bucket to hold longer sticks/kindling.

Step 9: Add your fuel (paper, sticks, any natural carbon-based material will do) and ignite!

This rocket mass heater is safe, environmentally friendly, and portable. For use indoors this structure would need to be ducted to allow exhaust or fumes to be safely expelled outside. Additionally, use of this type of heater in a home remodel is not recommended however for work on an industrial space it is a perfect fit.

Click HERE for a link to a smaller, even more portable version.  We don’t recommend this exact method due to the high levels of BPA inside of soup cans so we suggest purchasing heater duct pipe (un-galvanized) to use instead.


Click HERE to see different designs for large scale and conventional rocket mass heater. These designs are meant to heat a home and emit smoke  and any potentially dangerous fumes outdoors through a duct system.



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

Exterior Shades – The Anti-Heat Wave of the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Jeffrey

Klearwall Windows and Doors

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

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

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

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

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

A model of Klearwall triple paned window.

A model of Klearwall triple paned window.

Air Sealing in Brooklyn

Eco Brooklyn was recently commissioned to insulate a new development in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. As a specialist in insulation and air sealing we have seen an increase in business from the many new multi unit apartment buildings that have shot up – not during construction, but AFTER construction.
As housing demand has continued to rise in New York City, developers have been driven to build quick, and build cheap. In this process, the basic concept of insulation is bypassed in favor of a quickly constructed shell of a building to show potential residents the physical product, but all too late, residents come to realize that they end up paying enormous utility bills because the units they live in are exactly that – a shell.
new development
A brand new development….
 Insulation contractor
As a Green Builder, energy conservation is an important focus for us. Not only do residents personally benefit from the energy savings (40% of energy costs are due to air infiltration that proper insulation will greatly reduce) and a comfortable sound and temperature controlled home climate, but they put less strain on the energy grid as a whole, which has far-reaching effects for the country and the world.
More importantly, the idea of conservation, to use only what is necessary rather than gratuitously simply because we are fortunate enough to be able to, is a multi-layered concept that is all too easy to forget when one lives in a developed country such as our own. The DOE’s Building Energy Codes Program (BECP) provides a guide for national energy codes.
DOE air-infiltration major sources of air leaks
Major sources of air leaks, image courtesy of the US Department of Energy
The two basic forms of insulation that Eco Brooklyn used are Cel-Pak, a loose cellulose spray, and spray foam.
Cellulose is a green alternative to fiberglass largely because of its mostly recycled content of roughly 85% shredded newsprint that has been chemically treated to resist mold, fire, and pests, without the use of formaldehyde, asbestos, and glass fibers. According to the Cellulose Insulation Manufacturers Association (CIMA), “In 2007 about 3,000,000 tons of newspapers went to U.S. landfills.  This paper could have been used to produce an additional 200,000,000 bags of Cellulose Insulation.  There is enough paper going to landfills to produce enough Cellulose Insulation to replace nearly all other types of insulation.” The manufacture of cellulose as well requires significantly less BTU to produce that standard fiberglass.
A large benefit of loose cellulose spray is the ability to conform around plumbing, wiring, outlets, and vents, allowing for a custom fit uniform thermal barrier for every cavity. It has an R-value of 3.8 per inch, allowing exterior wall designs to reach a higher total R-value. Though this is not the highest, its cost per R-value is low enough to make it a sound investment.
Holes are drillled into the tops of walls and the spray cellulose is blown in until the capacity is reached. There is a tendency for the material to settle up to 20%, therefore requiring that the application be continued after some settling time. In this case, Eco Brooklyn used this method to insulate the exterior walls of the building.
Holes are drilled into the walls and ceiling
cel pak truck
Eco Brooklyn insulated our client’s building with Cel-Pak, a regionally produced insulation alternative.
hose running 1
hose running 2
cellulose spray1
The spray cellulose is blown in by hoses connected to the spray containers filled with the material.
Closed-cell spray polyurethane foam (SPF) is a cheap form of permanent flood resistant insulation that is easily available. SPF has an R-value of 6.0 per inch, which is greatly superior to that of cellulose. However, the environmental impact from its manufacturing is far greater and the adverse health effects caused by its chemical makeup have been brought up by the EPA, and therefore minimal use is preferred. Eco Brooklyn used SPF in the exterior walls and behind the baseboards of the building where moisture has a greater tendency to collect, It’s waterproofing feature is best used here to prevent mold growth. Rockwool is used as a filler to reduce the amount of foam needed, and the openings are covered with cut foam board. Tescon tape provides an airtight, waterproofed seal.
Rockwool provides most of the filler for insulation.
spray foam
 SPF provides permanent dense waterproofing.


ac 1
SPF sprayed around the rockwool creates the greatest insulation for the exterior walls.
ac 3
Foam board is cut to conform around opening.
 tescon tape moisture not air   foam board insulation
Tescon tape is used to seal the seems, providing airtight waterproofing.
foam floorboard1
Holes are drilled into the drywall behind the baseboard.
foam floorboard
SPF is sprayed into the holes.
-Anthony Rivale & Liza Chiu

Toxic Paint in Brooklyn

Brooklyn is full of beautiful and historic houses, and Eco Brooklyn is doing their part to preserve these wonders through sustainable lead-based paint removal.

Historical Housing

Historical Housing at Ditmas Park

People have been fascinated with lead since the Roman Empire, when tonnes of lead were produced for plumbing, construction pins, makeup, spermicides,  and even lead based tonics and seasoning. Yum!

Even during the reign of the Romans lead was known to have been toxic, but it was not until the 1970’s that it began to be banned among household products. Lead paint was fervently preferred among master painters for its brilliant white luster and its hydrophobic properties.

Research has shown that even mild lead intoxication can have harmful effects, especially among children, and unborn fetuses.

The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission banned lead in 1977 from toys, paint, and furniture manufacturing. If your home is older than 1978 you may have lead based paint, and if it was painted earlier than the 1970’s you almost certainly do.

As a Green Contractor, Eco Brooklyn utilizes a safe and non-toxic method of lead paint removal. The first step is to assess the paint with a lead test kit, which can usually be found at your local hardware store.

Sustainable Paint Removal

Lead Paint Remediation Project

We use our own citrus oil based paint stripper (biodegradable), which we cover for a up to 24 hours. The paint can then be easily extracted without dust particulates or hazards within your home. The only intoxication will be from the euphoric citrus scent doing its job, sustainably.  (more…)

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.

Das Haus New York

green builder brooklynLast week, the interns from Eco Brooklyn went to the Net Zero Symposium sponsored by Das Haus in White Plains, New York to hear lectures and view a model of Das Haus, a passivhaus model made from two shipping containers that functions completely off the grid.  The conference was held at the White Plains Public Library and about 100 people were present.


Das Haus (German for “The House”) is a traveling pavilion featuring German innovation in photovoltaics and energy efficiency. Das Haus is calling on ten cities across North America.  Das Haus tour hopes to accomplish two goals: introduce North America to Germany’s innovations in solar energy and green construction, and create an ongoing dialogue across the country about policies, construction materials and techniques, etc., regarding sustainable design.


During the Das Haus conference in New York, the lecturers were a mix of Germans and Americans.  The Americans who spoke are based in New York and addressed what is going on in the state.

Das Haus tour New York


Guy Sliker, from the New York Power Authority personified the attitudes of the typical American: America knows best, we’re number one, look at all that we have accomplished, go America!  Mr Sliker spent the majority of his speech listing numbers that prove these (mis)conceptions.  Mr Sliker was overconfident in New York Power Authority’s progress and too comfortable is the direction the ship is sailing.


Net Zero symposium New York

Kim Curran, PV Instructor from the Bronx Community College, gave a distilled explanation of how PV works and the challenges the industry is facing.  She gave a more realistic picture of the solar industry and the problems it is facing, such as bringing down cost, increasing efficiency, and the state of government incentives.  Kim’s and most of the other presenters’ presentations can be viewed here.


It is an amazing thing that some of Germany’s technology is coming over the pond to North America.  Germany has been using PV panels, energy efficient designs, and green roofs for decades and are lightyears ahead of North America in their development, understanding, and implementation of sustainable ideas.  This is a giant step for progress in North America.


Sustainable Wood

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

The docent mentioned that every piece of the pavilion is German aside from the “sustainable” oak floors. We were intrigued by the concept of sustainable oak since oak trees are protected by law and the meaning of sustainable is often skewed by marketers.  Upon further questioning the docent shared that oak is a particularly good insulator wood, but that he was unsure of what sustainable wood entailed.

After some research we found that there are more than 50 certification systems worldwide, the two largest being the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Both are third-party certifiers in that they are independent and non-governmental. In North America, the three additional certification systems endorsed by the PEFC are the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), the Canadian Standards Association’s Sustainable Forest Management Standard, and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Program. Currently only 10% of the forests in the world have been certified as sustainable.

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

LEED only accepts certification systems that adhere to the USGBC Forest Certification Systems Benchmark. A draft is available here: https://www.usgbc.org/ShowFile.aspx?DocumentID=6225

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

The FSC has 10 general principles for responsible forest management:

Principle 1: Compliance with laws and FSC Principles – to comply with all laws, regulations, treaties, conventions and agreements, together with all FSC Principles and Criteria.
Principle 2: Tenure and use rights and responsibilities – to define, document and legally establish long-term tenure and use rights.
Principle 3: Indigenous peoples’ rights – to identify and uphold indigenous peoples’ rights of ownership and use of land and resources.
Principle 4: Community relations and worker’s rights – to maintain or enhance forest workers’ and local communities’ social and economic well-being.
Principle 5: Benefits from the forest – to maintain or enhance long term economic, social and environmental benefits from the forest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The certification systems promote responsible building practices by allowing builders to work with sustainable materials.  At EcoBrooklyn, we try to work mostly with salvaged materials, which is the most sustainable option available. Certified woods offer an acceptable alternative. We urge builders and contractors to consider purchasing certified woods for their projects.


Green Roof Professional certification

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

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

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

In 2004, Green Roofs for Healthy Cities developed its first training course, Green Roof Design 101. It has since added Green Roof Design and Installation 201, Green Roof Waterproofing and Drainage 301, and Green Roof Plants and Growing Media 401. The classes are available in Toronto, New York, Atlanta, and Denver on select dates. They are each full-day courses recommended as a part of the GRP training program. The following half-day courses are also available, and count as continuing education credits:

·  Advanced Green Roof Maintenance

·  Introduction to Rooftop Urban Agriculture

·  Green Walls 101: Systems Overview and Design (2nd Ed.)

·  Integrated Water Management for Buildings and Sites

·  Ecological Green Roof Design

·  Green Infrastructure: Policies, Performance and Projects

·  Green Roof Policy Development

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

Unfortunately, the accreditation process is rather expensive. Tuition for each full-day course is $399 USD and is accompanied by a course manual. Each course manual can be purchased for $199 USD separately for those who choose not to take the classes in person. The accreditation exam itself consists of 100 multiple-choice questions and lasts 2 hours. It costs $495 USD to enroll and cannot be taken online, but is only offered in Denver, Toronto, New York, and Chicago, incurring further transportation costs. In order to maintain GRP Certification, you must be a Green Roofs for Healthy Cities member ($160 USD annually), and renew your certification every 2 years. This involves completing a minimum of 16 continuing education credits, 8 of which must for GRHC related activities, and paying a renewal fee of $95 USD. Interestingly, each continuing education course is listed at 3.5 units, effectively forcing members to increase the number of classes they must take to maintain their accreditation. Some of the half-day courses can be taken online for $125 USD as part of the Living Architecture Academy.

While the accreditation process may be designed to increase the reliability of green roof designers, Green Roofs for Healthy Cities is also cashing in on the deal. The North American green roof industry grew by 115% in 2011, drawing many more interested professionals and increasing public awareness. Much like LEED in their field, GRHC monopolizes the accreditation process and effectively takes advantage of all the growth.

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

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

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

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.


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


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.

The Living Building Challenge- Winner of the 2012 Buckminster-Fuller Challenge

Green building and eco-sensitive design is currently at the forefront of our modern ethos.   What this means for the green builders, contractors and architects of NY, and the world, is a period of dramatic change and challenge is ahead if not already begun. A change in the way we think about new buildings and construction, in how we consider “used” materials and how we use and interact with space.

As Scholar David Orr stated-

“We are coming to an era the likes of which we’ve never seen before, we’re in the white waters of human history. We don’t know what lies ahead. Bucky Fuller’s ideas on design are at the core of any set of solutions that will take us to calmer waters.”


One of the most prominent voices in sustainability and responsible design since the 1960’s is R. Buckminster Fuller.  Fuller pioneered in fields from architecture, and mathematics, to engineering and automobile design and only patented 12 designs allowing the vast majority of his work to be open-sourced and free to the public.

His life’s mission and philosophy was simple, “to make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.”

Even today, years after Fuller’s death his name is still the vanguard of the sustainable design community. The largest testament to his legacy is the R. Buckminster Fuller Institute and their annual international competition the Buckminster Fuller Design Challenge.

According to the institution’s website $100,000 is given “…to support the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems. Named “Socially-Responsible Design’s Highest Award” by Metropolis Magazine, it attracts bold, visionary, tangible initiatives focused on a well-defined need of critical importance. Winning solutions are regionally specific yet globally applicable and present a truly comprehensive, anticipatory, integrated approach to solving the world’s complex problems.”

In 2012 at an awards ceremony held here in NYC at Cooper Union The International Living Future Institute was awarded first prize for their “Living Building Challenge” initiative.  According to the institute’s website the Living building Challenge is:

-a PHILOSOPHY, ADVOCACY PLATFORM AND CERTIFICATION PROGRAM. Because it defines priorities on both a technical level and as a set of core values, it is engaging the broader building industry in the deep conversations required to truly understand how to solve problems rather than shift them.

-an EVOCATIVE GUIDE. By identifying an ideal and positioning that ideal as the indicator of success, the Challenge inspires project teams to reach decisions based on restorative principles instead of searching for ‘least common denominator’ solutions. This approach brings project teams closer to the objectives we are collectively working to achieve.

-a BEACON. With a goal to increase awareness, it is tackling critical environmental, social and economic problems, such as: the rise of persistent toxic chemicals; climate change; habitat loss; the collapse of domestic manufacturing; global trade imbalances; urban sprawl; and the lack of community distinctiveness.

-a ‘UNIFIED TOOL’. Addressing development at all scales, it can be equally applied to landscape and infrastructure projects; partial renovations and complete building renewals; new building construction; and neighborhood, campus and community design.

-a PERFORMANCE-BASED STANDARD. Decidedly not a checklist of best practices, the Challenge leads teams to embrace regional solutions and respond to a number of variables, including climate factors and cultural characteristics.


The challenge seeks to encourage designers to bridge the gap between the built environment and the surrounding ecosystems thus reinventing the typical developers’ business model and transforming the role of the building occupant from passive to more of an involved partnership with the earth and her resources.

For all manner of development the Living Building Principles are applicable, whether, “… a single building, a park, a college campus or even a complete neighborhood community, Living Building Challenge provides a framework for design, construction and the symbiotic relationship between people and all aspects of the built environment.”

You can download a complete document that outlines the specific requirements and benchmarks that must be met to receive certification HERE.

With its radical and rigorous requirements, this is more than “green washing”.  This is an excerpt from a statement released by The Fuller Institute after the award ceremony;

“The Living Building Challenge (LBC) is setting the standard for how to build in the 21st century by establishing the highest bar yet for environmental performance and ecological responsibility within the built environment … by “building a new model” and establishing new benchmarks for non-­‐toxic, net-­‐zero structures… The Living Building Challenge goes far beyond current best practices, reframing the relationship between the built and natural environments. LBC seeks to lead the charge toward a holistic standard that could yield an entirely new level of integration between building systems, transportation, technology, natural resources, and community. If widely adopted, this approach would significantly enhance the level of broad-­‐based social collaboration throughout the design and building process and beyond, dramatically reducing the destructiveness of current construction, boost the livability, health, and resilience of communities … the International Future Living Institute is charting a new and critically needed course in an industry that arguably remains one of the most consumptive … The LBC’s model of regenerative design in the built environment could provide a critical leverage point in the roadmap to a sustainable future and is an exemplary trim tab in its potential to catalyze innovation in such a high impact, high consumption industry…”

This is a valuable new asset and tool for the green building and green contracting community in NYC nd abroad in the fight for a greener and livable tomorrow.


https://ilbi.org/lbc  -living building challenge website


http://bfi.org/  -Buckminster-fuller institute website

Handmade Houses, A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design

The book Handmade Houses, A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design, by Richard Olsen is inspiration for any green builder.

With a clear focus on Big Sur homes Olsen highlights homes that were built along the same style as the Slow Food Movement, where meaning, lifestyle and experience are just as important as the finished “product”, that is if it ever gets finished – which is rare since how can you finish an experience, it just melds into another.

The green building movement as embodied by modern forward thinking perceptions of society and the environment are very much founded in the 1960’s and 1970’s hippie and counter culture movements that founded so much of what we are today.

Call it 70s hippies’s can-do attitudes, where you Turn on, tune in, drop out, the homes in Olsen’s books are more about a lifestyle than about construction, and if it is about construction it is about building a lot more than just structures but rather the culture that needs those specific structures.

The homes are all “dropped out” in the wilderness, often with views of the Big Sur. They have the vibe of being built by somebody who smoked some really good grass, took a walk on the beach, found some driftwood and said, “Man this wood is beautiful, lets make something out of it.”

And thirty years later they are almost there, their homes an evolving work of art that are full of memories from raising children, hosting friends and living life.

An example of one person's creative home making

The book is an inspiration for me, a New York green contractor. My parents were hippies. We lived in homes like this during my childhood and I draw from that when we build.

My own house, the Eco Brooklyn show house for ecological building, could be in this book. An old hippie architect MISHA SARADOFF walked through it and exclaimed with glee, “I love it! You are doing everything WRONG!”

WRONG in terms of budget, formal architectural theory, schedule, and everything else that matters in mainstream capitalist construction. Misha once talked me out of becoming an architect for the same reason.

The Brooklyn green show house lower duplex with fire escape catwalk, cement floor and earthen walls

Stairs from old growth pine, clay wall and a boulder we found while digging out the cellar. We call her Lucy.

But the show house is RIGHT from the standpoint of Olsen’s book. More work of art for the living than house, the Eco Brooklyn show house, like the homes in Olsen’s book, is part experiment, part evolution of human need, part creative expression, part collection of found materials.

Olsen shows a cool list of books to create the historical context of green building and the culture the surrounds it.

My one critique of the book is that it portrays itself as an international look into handmade houses, but the truth is that the view is California white centric. Even the homes in other countries might as well be on the coast of Big Sur.

Certainly these homes are worth looking at but to the book as a history of “Handmade Houses” from the past century and not even mention the MILLIONS of hand made homes across the globe by poor dark people is myopic at best.

But the book still has value. With this kind of book you can see the home as an expression of the people who live in it. In this case it is not the home as a commodity that you buy off the shelf. All these homes are unique, just like people are unique. The homes are an expression of people seeking happiness in the world as themselves, something you can’t buy but have to discover for yourself.

The book is about design, history and aesthetics, the main aesthetic being Wabi Sabi. The book is not about building techniques. You don’t have any discussion about energy efficiency, construction ratings or any of the other things people are obsessed with today. The book takes a larger look at cultural trends, specifically the green building trends that can be traced to the 70’s.

NJ Contractor Builds Passive House and Creates an Educational Video

Ed from NJ Renewable Energy made a great video about the construction of his passive house that you can view below.  It discusses the many benefits of building a Passive House, the amazing energy savings that are possible and the details behind how they built this specific one in New Jersey.

As a NY Passive House contractor we appreciate his hard work and dedication to sharing the information with the public.

Passive House Video from NJ Renewable Energy

Two Rammed Earth Walls

Part of being a green contractor means studying emerging technologies offering more eco-benefits than conventional construction.  In this case we’re looking at old technologies: the rammed earth wall, one of humanity’s oldest building techniques.

When it comes to walls, a couple of rammed-earth techniques are available as alternatives to your standard insulation-filled 2×4 frames:

The Earthship model uses old tires as receptacles for rammed earth, and then uses them as building blocks for durable, energy-efficient walls.  They use waste and locally available raw materials, so the largest investment is labor.

New company Earthco Megablock has developed an automated mechanical system to generate compressed earth blocks.  Their materials leave a minimal carbon footprint (but still more than using manpower and recycled tires) and require less manpower to get the job done.

To clarify, I’m only talking about walls here: Both companies use rammed earth to make walls, but Earthco Megablock uses their technology to build “normal” 4-walls-door-and-windows houses while Earthship encompasses a whole sustainable lifestyle.  You could, for example, build an Earthship using Earthco’s blocks.

Earthship saves money by relying on networks of volunteers, while Earthco  reduces labor costs and building time by streamlining and automating the construction process.  Earthship is good for when you have time and people, but no money.  Earthco doesn’t require time or people, but you do need money…and somewhere to put their machine.

So if you’re building in, say, Haiti, you’d go with Earthship because it’s easier to truck in volunteers or laborers instead of shipping in a huge honking machine from the U.S…and that’s exactly what happened in the latest Earthship project, which you can see on their website.  Meanwhile, in America, there might well be a market for the professional service Earthco has put together.

One of Earthco’s goals is to change green construction from an idealistic collaboration into a commercial presence.  To quote from their web site: “While some people are not yet convinced about the need for “green” construction, everyone is into superior quality and saving money.”  They have a point: the best way to make green building methods mainstream is to  beat the mainstream in price and quality.

The trick is to do this without incurring the hidden costs that typical construction has (one example, the cost of new 2×4 lumber is so cheap because nobody is paying up front for the environmental costs of clear cutting a forest).

We’ve discussed Earthship before, but Earthco is a new find, so here’s a quick summary of their method, followed by some pros and cons:

Giant Compressed Earth Blocks are made by transporting proprietary machinery to your location, where local dirt is squeezed into compressed earth building blocks that are immediately built into walls.


Production is sustainable and affordable.  Using local materials and manufacturing on site means almost no carbon footprint.  Mechanized placement means less labor.  In general, walls can be built at twice the speed and half the cost of conventional lumber construction.

The walls are thick and offer thermal mass that retains heat while blocking wind.  Simply replacing lumber/insulation walls with block walls nets you 50% in energy savings.  Building to passive house standards (ensuring airtightness) boosts savings to 90%.  (But you can achieve similar results with conventional materials, which we’ve done.)

The blocks are virtually indestructible.  They’re built to withstand F5 tornadoes, wildfire, and gunfire.  In impact testing, a relatively shoddy block wall took a brick traveling at something like 1000 miles an hour.  The bullet, of course, disintegrated.  The wall hardly took a dent.


Simple earth block walls are not suited for areas with high humidity levels, as the blocks are water-resistant but not waterproof.  They need to be enveloped in some kind of waterproof outer layer, such as insulation, adobe, or stucco.

You can’t run electricity or plumbing through block walls.  You’d have to cut grooves to accommodate wires or pipes, or run them in through the ceiling or floor.

Personally, we wouldn’t be able to make use of this technology because we couldn’t get the machines into a Brooklyn backyard, and we’d run out of local dirt fast.  Trucking in the dirt or the blocks would defeat the purpose to some extent.  Tire-based rammed earth walls, on the other hand, are feasible because we could work at a smaller scale.


Eco Brooklyn has a rammed-earth wall in the cellar of our green show house.  What we did was more like this, because we have people in New York, but we don’t have space, so giant compressed earth block technology wouldn’t be a feasible choice for what we do.  We do a lot of retrofits on existing New York brownstones.  There isn’t a lot of room for rammed earth construction in our neighborhood, though rammed earth walls can be an aesthetic option.

That said, the most practical green construction method is always the one that makes the most efficient use of resources available to the builder.  Other than their use of rammed earth, Earthship and Earthco’s earth block technology are very different  innovative green building techniques with the potential to bring green building to different markets.

Eco Brooklyn is a big fan of the Earthship building technique and lifestyle.  The Earthco find is a nice addition to our resource list, and a company to keep an eye on.

True Green Building

Unable to sleep at 4am in New York I came accross this video of an abandoned town renovated by a small group of utopians. It is one of the most inspirational green building stories I have seen in a long time. So often green building is housed withing the capitalistic context where it is just another product to be consumed by and profited from financially.

But here we see a story of true green building. For me green building is almost not about the building but rather about the framework of the people involved. If the people have simply shifted to consuming green building just like you might shift from one brand to another then you really haven’t accomplished much.

But as you see in this video the people have shifted their whole context. Green building is no longer a consumer product. Green building is a lifestyle that required a complete change in consumptive habits, a complete change in how people interact with each other and a complete change in how they interact with their surroundings.

I think this change is good. Do we all need to move to an abandoned village on a mountainside to be truly green? Obviously that might help but no. Your baggage always catches up to you no mater where you go.

It is the mentality of these people that is most important, not their place. Very simply put, they have found that a simple, wholesome lifestyle is better than any consumer product. That is the key to true green building. Waki Sabi, man.

I see the irony of consuming this on my computer in the middle of the night in the city that never sleeps. That is the nature of today’s constantly ON planet. It is not sustainable. Time to go to sleep, or at least try to. Some cycles happen by themselves, others you have to help along.

The cycle of finding a greener way of life on this planet will not happen without us helping it. Like the people in this video who worked very hard to achieve what they have.

Your Walls Could Be Filled With Mushrooms

As New York green contractors, we’re always interested in emerging innovations, but take special interest in locally-developed technologies because we believe that green solutions should have a local focus.  An effective way to build green is to ensure that each building make the best use of the environment in which it’s located.

In New York state, for example, we have hot summers and cool to cold winters.  Insulation is important for keeping homes at a comfortable temperature while minimizing energy costs.  We also have farmland and woodland…which means mushrooms.

Ecovative Design started out as two RPI students’ mutual fascination with mushrooms. A class project resulted in growing a mushroom-based composite that could replace synthetic materials like Styrofoam.  Rather than lessening the impact of traditional synthetics, Ecovative is introducing radical materials in un-heard of ways.  The innovative start-up is currently growing into one of the most promising manufacturers of green building and packing materials.

We’re mostly interested in their mushroom insulation.

It’s not quite the same as the mushrooms we buy at the supermarket: Ecovative makes their materials out of a mycelium composite.  Mycelium is the thready part underground; fruiting bodies are the parts we see and eat.

Filling your walls with fungus might not sound like such a great idea, but let me tell you why it’s amazing.

Mushroom materials are as safe and sturdy as traditional insulation.  They won’t melt in the rain.  They achieve a class 1 fire rating without needing toxic fire retardants and have very few volatile organic compounds or none at all.  There is no need for toxic adhesives like formaldehyde.  They can be touched and handled with no special protective gear.   There are no spore or allergen concerns, since materials are heat-treated after growing.

That’s right, growing.  Ecovative grows their materials out of farm junk and mushrooms, an upcycling process that reduces waste.  They start with agricultural byproducts, which are then inoculated with mycelium and grown to the exact shape needed by the client.  They’re basically made from an unappreciated waste product (seed hulls, husks, etc) and a renewable resource (live mushrooms).  When you’re done, they can be composted like any other organic material, leaving behind neither chemicals nor waste.

The humble mushroom is a powerhouse.  In Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Save the World, Paul Stamets describes the potential for “mushroom ecoremediation,” in which we take advantage of mushrooms’ natural digestive abilities to clean up organic pollution.  Mushrooms can eat through all kinds of trees and houses like nobody’s business, but they can also digest complex organic particles found in petroleum and other messy contaminants.  Stamets describes an experiment where he watched oyster mushroom mycelia absorb brown gunk, slowly return to its original white, and send up robust fruiting bodies.  In other words, the mycelium ate our garbage, and made extra big mushrooms–more food for us!

But back to mushroom as a building material.  Mushroom materials can benefit builders, clients, and the environment.  They’re efficient by building and safety standards.  They become increasingly cost-effective as petroleum and plastic prices rise with oil prices.  Their production, use, and recycling leave no mark on the environment.

The major downside to mushroom insulation is that you can’t have it yet.  Ecovative’s building materials are currently under development and are not yet for sale.  As green builders, we eagerly anticipate the debut of a locally-developed material that offers homeowners an affordable, safe, and eco-friendly alternative to current methods.

New Lives for Old Wood

Most green contractors advertise their use of “sustainably sourced” wood, meaning the trees are harvested in a less destructive way.  What “sustainably sourced” really means, though, can be a slippery slope.  Maybe they cut down old-growth forest and plant a monoculture tree farm instead.  Maybe they cut down a tree and donate a dollar to someone else’s tree planting fund.  It all happens somewhere else, and is easy for clients to ignore, ethical or not.  Our wood is sustainable and local, because we salvage it from New York’s dumpsters and demolition sites.

Using salvaged wood has many benefits, the obvious one being that it doesn’t cut down new trees. It lessens the burden on landfills since most of the wood we salvage was headed to the dump. Also important: our process is not based on consumption models that use new materials and leave no sustainable methods for disposing of old ones. By sourcing wood through dumpster diving or salvaging from demolition sites, we change our pattern from one of consumption to one of regeneration.

Salvaged wood

We got a big haul of great old wood last week.  Look for it in future projects!

The wood floors in our Brooklyn show house were picked out of a dumpster.  Now they look great next to our exposed brick accent wall.

Salvaged wood flooring

The brownstone we just finished up in Harlem has a staircase that we built using wood salvaged from a New York City bar.

Salvaged wood stairs in the Harlem Passive House

The floors are made of maple planks salvaged from a 100-year-old Catholic church.  Here’s what they look like after being finished, vacuumed, and mopped–all ready to move in!

100-year-old maple floorboards in Harlem

We don’t buy new materials, but we don’t compromise in the quality of our construction.  We turn recycled materials into warm, livable pieces that benefit the homeowners and the planet. A green builder is always looking for synergy: many layers of benefits in one material. This maple wood floor for example has several layers of synergy:

1. The church didn’t have to pay to send the debris to the dump.

2. Since much of NY garbage is trucked out of state, no fossil fuels were burned to remove it.

3. The dump didn’t have to process it, reducing the ecological burden of processing garbage and reducing use of taxpayer money.

4. The clients got antique maple floors for the price of cheap new floors.

5. Not one tree was cut down to provide 4,000sq.ft. of flooring.

6. The materials were sourced in the city and thus no fossil fuels were burned to truck the wood from out of state or country.

7. The wood spent 100 years in the church ballroom where countless weddings, funerals, christenings and other parties were held. To say the wood has history is an understatement.  It has Mojo!

Composting Toilets Demystified

When you flush a toilet in America you have every expectation that whatever just went in there is going away forever, no questions asked.

So why would anyone want a toilet that takes your dirty business, stores it right where you put it, and hands it back to you again after a few months??

But that is what a composting toilet does. A composting toilet is exactly what it sounds like.  It takes your waste and stores it in a tank, where a combination of bacteria, heat, and time slowly turn it into “delicious” compost for your landscaping projects.

Walk through the objections with me.

That sounds inconvenient.

To help the waste break down you need to add small amounts of carbonlicious material: sawdust, dirt, popcorn, etc. and crank a handle to mix everything up nicely.  You have to do this weekly.  It’s not as much work as having a cat and cleaning out its litter box.

Wouldn’t installation be a hassle?

Nope, individual units are completely self-contained.  Put one in a closet and you’ve got a bathroom.  If you want several units that lead to a central tank, you’d have to put in some pipes, but it’s simpler than dealing with wet plumbing, sewage, and/or a septic tank.  Space considerations are minimal because waste loses most of its volume when water is removed.

They’re probably expensive.

The initial investment is more expensive, but you can save in the long run.  For current models they can range about $1,200 for a single unit SunMar unit to $6,000 for a large house Clevus Moltrum system. Overall you save money on water (composting toilets either use very small amounts of water or are dry flush) and plumbers…not to mention gardening stuff.

What if you poop more than they can handle?

Composting toilets come in many sizes.  A small stand-alone unit would be better for a vacation home, or  a couple of people.  A system with a central tank can handle constant use by multiple people.  Pick a tank capacity that meets your anticipated need. Clevus Moltrum systems handle thousands of people a day at the Bronx Zoo.

Most importantly…What do they smell like?

Nothing.  They’re vented like normal toilets.

And finally, aren’t there sanitation codes against this kind of thing?

Yes, unfortunately.  They vary widely depending on what state you live in.  Florida, for example, encourages the use of composting toilets while Nevada doesn’t approve them at all.  Most states have vague regulations somewhere in between.  New York building code currently stipulates that new construction must include a plumbing system, and we weren’t allowed to install them in our Harlem passive house.

The objection the DOB gave us when we applied to install a composting system legally was fraught with  misconceptions. Basically, they didn’t know enough, so they gave us some random excuse and rejected it outright. Hopefully as the NY DOB continues to learn about green building techniques they will become less scared of them. So for now a composting system in NYC has to be installed illegally.

In NY state composting toilets are permitted in remote or arid areas, but the processed compost must be either professionally hauled away or buried a safe distance from food crops and water sources.  Having to destroy the compost defeats the convenience and purpose of having a composting toilet  in the first place. This is another example of a lawmaker not understanding the system and imposing incorrect restrictions on it.

Who uses composting toilets, you might wonder?  These days, mostly people in remote or very dry places, where the lack of wet plumbing is beneficial.  They also show up in public spaces like roadside rest stops and national parks. And was we mentioned, the Bronx Zoo uses them. As ecological awareness continues to rise, though, they’re appearing in more urban and personal settings.

Sun-Mar composting toilet in an average bathroom

Composting toilets, gray water, storm water management, low flow toilets and sinks all play an important role in NY ecology. New York City has a single plumbing system, meaning when you flush the toilet and when it rains it all goes into the same pipes. The sewer system is woefully under sized for New York so a lot of the sewer is dumped into the waterways.

This is a real problem. Eco Brooklyn is increasingly becoming a water management expert in this area. Through the use of living walls, green roofs, dry wells in the gardens and rain garden we make sure that not one drop of rain leaves a parcel of land, thus greatly reducing the burden on the sewer system each time it rains.

In the building we implement gray water systems where all the water from sinks and showers are collected instead of passed to the sewer. The gray water can then be used to flush the toilets, which is currently illegal in NYC, or to water the outside plants.

A composting toilet greatly adds to this equation by diverting water and waste from the sewer and turning waste into a valuable food for gardens.

We strongly believe that these water management techniques are the key to having NY waterways that you can swim in and eat from. As NY buildings have their plumbing upgraded it costs relatively small amounts to implement these water diversion techniques. They can be done in stages as well.

Eco Brooklyn is always on the lookout for new and innovative ways to turn New York buildings green, but actually a composting toilet is neither new nor innovative.  Composting toilets have been around for thousands of years. Unfortunately building codes and social acceptance have yet to catch up.  We hope to one day legally offer composting toilets as an environment-friendly option for our ecologically minded clients. We offer composting toilet installation now but unfortunately it falls into the real of what we call civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience is non-violent refusal to follow laws that you believe do not benefit the common good. We strongly feel composting  toilets in NYC would benefit us on many levels.

Breaking news: NY City Council enacts proposals from Urban Green Task Force

As New York green contractors we follow the latest developments in NY building codes very closely.  Yesterday, the New York City Council enacted three proposals from the Urban Green Task Force.  The new codes, effective July 1, 2012, mandate more stringent regulation of waste, recycling, and pollutant filtration, representing a step forward for green building.


Introduction 0576-2011: Treat Corrosive Concrete Wastewater

Wastewater from concrete trucks or containers  must either be treated on site or returned to the manufacturing plant for treatment.  Rinsing and wastewater containers must be located at least 30 feet from sewers.  Corrosive wastewater from construction sites may no longer be discharged into rivers or public streets.

Introduction 0578-2011: Use Recycled Asphalt

At least 10% recycled asphalt must be used in heavy duty construction applications, and at least 30% in constructing new streets and buildings.  Allowing asphalt diverted from the construction waste stream to be reintegrated into new asphalt reduces construction waste and consumption of new materials.

Introduction 0592-2011: Filter Soot from Incoming Air

Heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems will be required to filter out soot and other pollutants at a rating of MERV 11 or greater, increasing the quality of indoor air by restricting the concentration of outside pollutants.

The Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) measures performance of air purifiers treating air for entire houses or buildings.  Scores range from 1-16, and up to 20 in special applications.  Filters are rated based on the efficiency with which they remove particles of varying sizes from the air.  Purifiers rated at MERV 11 are capable of trapping auto emissions and smog, among other urban pollutants.


We’re excited to see New York moving forward with more green considerations in city-wide construction.  We pride ourselves on being the most innovative green contractor in the city, but we’re looking forward to a day when green construction practices are no longer innovative, but commonplace.


Click through for more detailed summaries of the new codes on the Urban Green website.  Search by proposal number or topic to find them.

Dual flush toilets in American homes

New York green contractors and homeowners are applying a modern innovation to an age-old technology.

The body creates two types of waste, so the logical approach is a toilet capable of two types of flush: a gentle gurgle for liquid waste and a more generous gush for solid waste, resulting in water conservation through more efficient performance.

Dual flush toilets originated in Australia and have gained popularity through government rebates for homeowners converting from old single flush toilets.  In America, dual flush toilets are also catching on among conservation-conscious green contractors and policy-makers.

The Energy Policy Act of 1992 mandates that toilets must use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush.  Dual flush toilets push this limit further by using only a half flush, less than a gallon, for liquid waste and reserving the full flush for solid wastes.

Dual flush toilets are also widely available for the homeowner: leading brands like Kohler and American standard offer many models, and while dual flush toilets tend to be more expensive and complex than their single flush cousins, Amazon now sells retrofitting kits that allow homeowners to convert their own toilets for as little as $22.95.

As a practical downside dual flush toilets generally need more frequent cleaning, but homeowners can also refer to a toilet’s Maximum Performance (MaP) score to purchase a toilet that meets their needs.  Scores range from 250-1000: the higher the number, the more powerful the flush.  A high efficiency toilet, which can use as little as 1 gallon per flush, is required by the EPA to operate at a minimum MaP score of 350, sufficient for daily household use.

Let’s calculate each toilet’s daily water consumption, assuming the average person defecates once and urinates six times during the course of the day.

Single flush: 7 flushes x 1.6 gal/flush = 11.2 gal

Dual flush: (1 flush x 1.6 gal/flush) + (6 flushes x 0.8 gal/flush) = 6.4 gal

High efficiency: 7 flushes x 1 gal/flush = 7 gal

The dual flush toilet still wins out in overall efficiency (0.91 gal/flush), but only when used properly.   High efficiency toilets are another great option that simplify the process and can potentially be cheaper to purchase.  Either way, as green-conscious builders and homeowners in America struggle to catch up to Australian and European counterparts, expect to see many more of these innovative toilets replacing standard ones in both public buildings and private homes.

Harvard installed dual-flush toilets as part of their commitment to moving toward sustainable facilities and maintenance.  Click through for more examples of energy-efficient and green technology in Harvard’s buildings.

Hi-Performance Tape

At Eco Brooklyn, we do energy-efficiency retrofits that involve huge amounts of air sealing, air barriers, vapor barriers and insulation. We aim for the super stringent Passive House building envelope standard and net-zero energy consumption. This is as radical it gets in energy conservation.
Sealing the home in an airtight shell requires a bit of patience and a lot of tape. You wouldn’t believe the number of tiny pinpricks that managed to perforate our plastic membrane, and their aggregate effect on air leakage is equally surprising.
Currently, there are both European and American companies that specialize in several unique kinds of tape for different stages of the envelope sealing process. Onetape, for example, has a soft fabric edge that allows the builder to plaster it airtight against masonry surfaces like brick walls. Another is made for simple, airtight patching over those small pinprick holes.
At the Harlem Passive House we used products from Siga andPro Clima. We’ve purchased custom tapes through Four Seven Five, a new distributor based in NY. 3M has some special tapes but the European products above are still much better; we hope the US companies will catch up.

Green Contracting and Universal Design – What’s the connection?

Green design is a broad term. In an attempt to narrow it down, we are looking at how green design and “universal design” or lifespan design are linked. First of all, you’re probably wondering what universal design means. Here are the seven principles that define universal design, according to North Carolina State University (check out the link here http://www.ncsu.edu/project/design-projects/udi/):

1. Equitable use
2. Flexibility use
3. Simple and intuitive use
4. Compatible and perceptible information
5. Minimal hazards
6. Minimal physical effort required
7. Size and space appropriate for use

But how are these related to green design? Focusing on numbers 1, 2, and 7 will show how green design and universal design are similar. Being sustainable and “green” are all about sharing, being resourceful, and generally creating a solution that can be sustained through changes that may come in the future. According to adaptiveenvironments.org “Green design focuses on environmental sustainability, Universal Design on social sustainability”. However, I think that both environmental and social sustainability are two sides of the same thing – sustainability overall. Sustainability calls for fair outcomes, both for people and the environment. Universal design calls for a sustainable space that can be continually and easily used by people for changing purposes. At the heart of green design is sustainability – using recycled materials, and installing green roofs are all steps towards an overarching goal of conserving resources for the future.

Universal design is about using your existing space for different things. For example, a couple moves into a small house. Then they have two children, but instead of moving into a larger house, they adapt their space to accommodate their children – building an extra room within a larger room, or adding one on. They can also child proof their house with simple amenities such as adjustable counters, or by adding carpets. Basically, both green design and universal design are about using what you have and working with it.

If you would like more information about the concepts of green building and universal design, check out Yes! Magazine at yesmagazine.org, and specifically http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/sustainable-happiness/how-to-build-a-tiny-house, for an article on green houses and universal design.

Is Citrus Solvent Natural?

We use Citrus Solvent mixed into Tung oil to make a really great wood sealer. It works great on wood floors.

Citrus solvent is a “natural” substitute for the more toxic turpentine. Citrus solvent dilutes the Tung oil and allows it to seep deeper into the wood. The solvent also acts as a drying agent because it evaporates quickly, thus helping the tung oil to harden faster.

And yes Citrus solvent is derived from the citrus fruit.

However in many ways Citrus Solvent (d-Limonene) is similar in toxicity to turpentine because they are in the same family of chemicals.

This is one of those cases that just because they are natural doesn’t mean they are harmless. Try rubbing a lemon in your eye! Or rub orange all over your hands. You’ll see how it will dry them up in no time.

So even though it can be a nasty skin, eyes and respiratory irritant, once it evaporates, it’s gone.

During the application process, like all products containing mineral spirits – they should be applied with good ventilation until dry.

And as with other wood finishing solvents, avoid direct contact with the skin and don’t use it where the fumes are concentrated. Good ventilation, plastic gloves and maybe a carbon filtered mask with eye protection couldn’t hurt.

Not that we use this stuff. We find that the occasional tung oil application isn’t enough to cause chronic exposure and we apply the citrus solvent/ tung oil mix without any protection. If we get citrus solvent on our skin we wipe it off because it feels uncomfortable (oily and a little hot) but it doesn’t cause any damage to our well worn workers hands.

This isn’t to say some people can’t have severe reactions, but that applies to many things, like peanut butter or shell fish for example and is a rare exception.

The bottom line is that citrus solvent is MUCH healthier than turpentine for example, both in the use and in the production. And besides, it leaves a nice citrus smell! The citrus solvent/tung oil combo is definitely a key material in this New York green contractor’s bag.


Salvaged Mahogany wood with a tung oil finish

Tadelakt – An Old Moroccan Plaster Technique Newly Discovered – Book

For me the green builder’s tedium is the boring non-VOC paint and I’m forever looking for more natural and interesting wall applications. The book Tadelakt – An Old Moroccan Plaster Technique Newly Discovered, by Michael Johannes Ochs and published by Norton, is one such source for alternatives to the bla of big company non-VOC paint.

Tadelakt is a Morrocan word loosely translated as “rubbed clay” and is a natural wall finish that is waterproof and highly durable.

From Wiki:

Tadelakt or Tadellakt is a bright, nearly waterproof lime plaster which can be used on the inside of buildings and on the outside. It is the traditional coating of the palaces, hammams and bathrooms of the riads in Morocco. Its traditional application includes being polished with a river stone and treated with a soft soap to acquire its final appearance and water resistance.

Tadelakt has a luxurious, soft aspect with undulations due to the work of the artisans who finish it; in certain installations, it is suitable for making bathtubs, showers, and washbasins and confers great decorative capacities. Traditionally, tadelakt is produced with the lime of the area of Marrakech. Tadelakt is a Berber word meaning to rub.

The key ingredient of Tadelakt is 95% burnt limestone, with the other 5% being the sand and ash resulting from the burning process. It is a light gray color but mixed well with natural colors to create a bright wall finish that is very striking.

The plaster is applied to a wall and then rubbed with a hard polished stone until the surface literally shines.


An image from the book showing how they buff the lime


This sink is entirely covered in Tadelakt

The process is time consuming but the results can last for generations and is a great green process.

As a New York green contractor we suggest this application for all those exposed brick walls in a brownstone. For example in a space starved bathroom simply expose the brick wall and put a Tadelakt finish over it for a beautiful water repellent surface that takes up no extra space.

We experiment with the traditional mix but are also looking into more  locally sourced ingredients. The beauty of this process is that even the imperfections are special.


The book Tadelakt is an excellent resource for discovering this old art. Filled with great pictures and laid out in an orderly way, the book walks you through the process. The book also has a great introduction to the Moroccan culture that surrounds the wall plaster, showing they are deeply connected.

Transforming this art to a NY environment is all part of what makes NY so special. Building green in NY means respecting our local customs, and for us that means respecting the huge diversity of cultures, Moroccan being one of them.

DIY Milk Paint

Here is a great recipe for making milk paint from locally bought materials (as in your local supermarket and hardware store).

Milk Paint is an amazing alternative to store bought paint. It is much lower in energy since the ingredients require much less processing. It is also pretty much free of any harmful toxins. We painted most of the Brooklyn Green Show House with milk paint.

We got ours from MilkPaint.com. It costs about the same as a high quality store bought paint, which is on the high side. The good thing is that it goes on thick so you don’t need primer. One coat will do. The bad news is that it is matte and so can dirty easily if you have grubby little kids’ hands. We remedied that by putting a sealer over it, which forgoes the convenience of a single coat of paint.

If we were to do it again we would try to mix our own milk paint and add some more shine to it so it is more resistant to kids paws.

Below is an email I got from a fellow green builder from Canada, John Salmen, who offers some good insights into milk paint and gives a great recipe.

The thing with paint is that it is like bread – you can buy it from the store or you can make it.

The problem we have had is that once you make your own paint and have that on your walls it is hard to simply go to the store and buy paint. I am only saying that as we are having to repaint some rooms and I am loathing the work involved in making and brushing on the paint and I kind of wish I could simply accept the looks, smell and toxicity of regular paint.

If you do get inspired to make your own here is a basic home recipe that can work on bare drywall for a simple milk paint that works with better coverage than most commercial milk paint recipes. I first developed it when my son wanted to help paint (at about 2) so I wanted something that was friendly and that my dog could eat. He is now 15 and the basic paint (or a variant) has been used in numerous homes since by demand (I’m not in the paint business and it has been a pain).

It has to be applied by brush and has a relatively coarse texture very similar to earthen clay finishes. I have a more sophisticated recipe at this point that uses casein but this amounts to the same thing with ingredients that are readily available.

Skim milk powder -12 cups
calcium carbonate (basic chalk) -6 cups
lime -6 cups
kaolin (clay) -5 cups
* detergent (dry – non additive laundry type) -1 cup
colourant (davis concrete pigments or stucco pigment – try not to exceed ¼ cup)

7 cups water.

Mix the ingredients dry as accurately as possible and mix well (important) and then add about ¾ of the liquid mixing with a paint mixer on a drill or even a hand blender. Will be quite thick but you then have to let it sit (hour or so) for the clay to slake a little (absorb liquid) and then mix some more and add the remaining liquid (add more liquid if needed).

It needs to be a relatively thick mix (pea soup- gelatinous type of thing) to brush effectively. The liquid mix can be kept for a few days (refrigerated) if it smells sour discard. This is time consuming to paint as the brushing needs to be done in a very ‘craftspersonlike’ manner to get good results. Use a cheap bristle (stain) brush.

Can get the basic clay from potters supply. Lime and calcium carbonate from agricultural supply. Large bags but inexpensive – works out to a few dollars per gallon.

I usually substitute a sodium silicate solution for the liquid (waterglass). It is usually sold as a concrete hardener in 5gal pails. Increases the hardness of the surface and can provide a little better water resistance.

Paint can be temperamental i.e. if the wall temperature is too high (around light bulbs and heaters) the reaction can result in flaking. Other than that it results in a very hard finish. Will water spot if sprayed but generally can be wiped for most marks).

* Note regarding the detergent:
Actually borax works in the solution instead – it is usually an ingredient in a ‘pure laundry detergent’. The detergent is added as a generic surfactant which helps the ingredients mix and keeps them in suspension. Typically anything that is classified as a pure laundry detergent will work.

Good Cheap House Book

The book Good House Cheap House: Adventures in Creating an Extraordinary Home at an Everyday Price doesn’t set out to be about green building. It aims to show nicely designed and affordable homes.

But it ends up showing good green building as well.

The many case studies in the book show a pattern. Firstly all the homes are small and maximize the space so that they don’t feel small. If you want to build affordable, build less and more intelligently. Obvious enough. This is also a green building must. All things being equal, a smaller house will always be greener than a larger one.

A smaller house creates less of a footprint on the earth in all ways – physically, in materials, and in energy consumption.

All the homes were built with lots of salvaged material. Something salvaged is usually cheaper than something new. But something salvaged is always greener than something new in terms of environmental impact (of course you don’t want to salvage asbestos or lead pipes).

All the homes were renovations of old buildings. No new construction. It is cheaper to renovate than build new if you are willing to work with what you have. It is also a lot greener.

Two works in the book struck out to me as great guideposts for building: Creativity and constraint. To build affordable you need to be creative. There are lots of examples in the book where the owners used materials creatively. One owner put some lights in a salvaged beam and hung it from the ceiling, turning it into a beautiful chandelier. It cost maybe $20 and would hold its own in the fanciest penthouse apartment.

There are also countless examples of restraint. Knowing when enough is enough is the epitome of good design and good financial management. None of the homes feel constrained but they all have excellent constraint.

Creativity and constraint are key to any good green building too, for the same reasons. We are aiming to reduce our impact on the environment, reduce the materials used, and maximize what we have on hand. To do this you need to be careful how you build and use constraint. You also need to be really creative so that you can find new ways to use the materials you have on hand.

I like seeing the relationship between affordable building and green building. We have everything to gain by making the two synonymous. When green building is affordable it is done more often. And that is good for the owners because they save money, good for the contractor because they get more business and good for the environment because more homes are built in harmony with it.

Eco Brooklyn really forged the way in this connection between affordable and green. As of this post we are the only green building contractor in Brooklyn and NY building high quality green homes for middle class people. We have it down at this point. We can renovate several brownstones at a time and have the sourcing set up to provide all the salvaged materials and green building techniques needed to make real green renovations.

It is really a satisfying stage in Eco Brooklyn’s development. We struggled finding the line between affordable and underbidding. There is nothing more disgusting than paying out of pocket to get a job done that you underbid on. But we have it down now. We have streamlined our salvage process to a point where we have very little material costs yet our materials are of very high quality.

Combine that with high quality artisans who understand old school crafts and you get great building for an affordable price. It took us a while to perfect the process but we have a couple big jobs under our belt where we paid our dues and have now really found a pattern that works.

We can renovate a Brooklyn brownstone to the highest green standards – Passive House, all salvaged etc – coming very close to our Zero Brownstone goal. Hooray!

DIY Laundry Detergent

Eco Brooklyn’s clients usually get a gray water system. And our clients tend to be natural minded anyway, with a healthy dose of liking to save money. Thus comes the interest in making your own laundry detergent.

Store bought laundry detergents are full of chemicals. In fact they are packed with fertilizer! Plants love laundry water that has store bought detergent. And so do plants in the sea. All our super strong laundry detergent is helping the algal blooms that increasingly are cause for concern since they kill off all other marine life through suffocation.

Stopping the water from getting to the sea in the first place. Thus doing gray water systems is a great start to stop unwanted toxic runoff to the waterways. The second is to make sure that what does get into the water is as natural as possible. Thus the interest in natural soaps.

algal bloom

Above is an algal bloom that occurred off the SW tip of England.

Check out this great one minute video on how to make natural detergent. It is SO easy to make! You only need a couple easy to get ingredients. And they are cheap. Forget about the ecology, the money you save is huge!

These are the ingredients for laundry detergent:
Baking powder
Soap flakes

Other ingredients you may want to try:
Hydrogen peroxide (great for blood/wine stains)
Few drops organic essential oil (Lavender, mandarin, pine, peppermint, whatever you like)
Organic flower powder (Lavender or rose or whatever)
Scented castile soap
Eucalyptus essential oil or soap flakes (in winter/for colds)
Tea tree oil (antibacterial)

By the way, with simple modifications you can use these basic ingredients to make most of your cleaning products including shampoo, scouring powder, mopping solution, deodorant, and more!