What is the best wall construction for Passive House?

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

They compared the following wall structures

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

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

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

Here is the double studd wall with cellulose:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passive House Conference

Passive House Architecture and Building Conference in New York Will Present Critical Blueprints for Mitigating Climate Change by Increasing Building Efficiency

Passive House, an international building standard, is the only proven architectural and building method that can enable the dramatic carbon reductions called for by the international scientific community.

New York City (PRWEB) May 19, 2014

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment released in April and the third U.S. National Climate Assessment released this month, both state clearly the need to radically reduce our carbon emissions by 2050 or face disastrous runaway climate change. Scientists also report that we have just reached one irreversible tipping point, the melting of the West Antarctic ice shelf.

In the last month, political leaders from President Obama to New York Governor Cuomo have called for increased building efficiency as a way to address climate change. On May 5th, New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio called for the construction of 200,000 units of affordable housing, and specified that they be environmentally sustainable.

The NY14 Passive House Conference and Expo on June 17th will benefit stakeholders working in climate change mitigation, community and power supply resiliency, environmental sustainability, energy efficiency and affordable housing. The presentations will detail current design and building strategies that have succeeded in dramatically reducing energy consumption of apartment buildings, schools, shops and office buildings, for both new construction and in retrofitting existing buildings.

Buildings are responsible for approximately forty percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In New York City, buildings account for approximately seventy-five percent of carbon emissions, according to former Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC Greater Greener Buildings Plan report. A Passive House building uses ninety percent less heating and cooling energy than a typical building, while offering comfort and resiliency. Ken Levenson, President of New York Passive House, expects NY14 Passive House to be “the most in-depth conference program to address building efficiency and climate change mitigation ever held in the U.S.”

The keynote speaker will be Dr. Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, the coordinating lead author for the IPCC report that led to the group receiving the 2007 Nobel Prize. She will provide a critical look at the recent IPCC Fifth Assessment, the 2050 carbon reduction goals and the pivotal role of building efficiency.

“When thinking about climate change mitigation many are focused on renewable energy production,” says Richard Leigh, Director of Research at Urban Green Council. “But to make a decarbonized power grid achievable, it’s critical that we also lock dramatic energy reductions into the fabric of what we build and renovate. The more energy savings we lock in, the easier and more economical the decarbonization task becomes. And Passive House offers a proven and practical way to achieve the savings we need.”

In a panel entitled “The Energy Puzzle,” Mr. Leigh will be joined by Tomás O’Leary, Passive House Academy founder, Jeffrey Perlman, founder of Bright Power, and others from the renewable energy and power distribution sectors. They will discuss the essential interplay between building efficiency and a decarbonized grid, the emergence of Nearly Zero Energy Buildings (NZEBs) and Passive House certifications that encourage energy positive buildings.

A series of presentations will feature specific Passive House building projects by leading practitioners from around the world, including:

  •     A multi-family apartment building by Chris Benedict, Chris Benedict Architect (New York)
  •     Primary school and university buildings by Jonathan Hines, Architype (London)
  •     Dormitory housing by Brian Kavanagh, Kavanagh Tuite Architects (Dublin)
  •     Brussels Greenbizz city district by Sabine Laribaux, Architectes Associés (Brussels)


One session will demonstrate retrofit strategies across New York City from Borough Park and Brownstone Brooklyn, to a condominium conversion in Tribeca. The majority of buildings that will be standing in the coming decades already exist today. Therefore, retrofitting building stock to the highest levels of efficiency during the normal course of component replacement and renovation is essential in the implementation of an effective citywide energy strategy.

Projects to be presented from the New York area that meet Passive House retrofit, or “EnerPHit,” standards, include:


  •     Tribeca Condo EnerPHit by Stas Zakrzewski, Zakrzewski + Hyde Architects (Manhattan)
  •     Borough Park Ambulance Dispatch Center EnerPHit by Gregory Duncan, Gregory Duncan Architect (Brooklyn)
  •     Brownstone Brooklyn EnerPHit by Cramer Silkworth, Baukraft Engineering (Brooklyn)
  •     Red Hook Sound Studio EnerPHit by Ryan Enschede, Ryan Enschede Studio (Brooklyn)
  •     Bedford-Stuyvesant Wood Frame EnerPHit by David White, Right Environments (Brooklyn)


New York’s iconic skyscrapers can also achieve Passive House performance. Lois Arena of Steven Winter Associates (New York) will present on the unique challenges of low-energy, high-rise construction.

A session on the finance and economics of Passive House construction will begin with a detailed examination of a dental clinic by Adam Cohen of Passiv Science (Virginia). The panel discussion will be moderated by Jeremy Smerd, Managing Editor of Crain’s New York Business and include Rob Conboy of Better (US), Larry Sprague of Sustainable Energy Funding Program (US), Melissa Ruttner of BuildForward Capital (New York), and Andrew Padian of The Community Preservation Corporation (New York).

The day will conclude with a survey of the latest international Passive House developments, presented by leading consultant Günter Lang (Vienna). A panel discussion will follow, moderated by William Menking, Editor-In-Chief of The Architect’s Newspaper, covering the potential impact of Passive House in New York and featuring former Mayor Bloomberg’s Deputy Director for Green Building and Energy Efficiency Laurie Kerr, and Urban Green Council Executive Director Russell Unger.

Over 30 of the leading Passive House component and service providers will also be exhibiting, including Platinum Sponsor, IT Windows and Doors; and Gold Sponsors, Zehnder America ventilation systems, European Architectural Supply windows and doors, and Passive House training provider Association for Energy Affordability.

AIA HSW continuing education credits will be available to qualified attending professionals.

Event Information:


  •     Name: NY14 Passive House Conference and Expo
  •     Date: June 17, 2014
  •     Time: Registration begins 8am, Expo open until 6:30pm
  •     Location: Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th Street, New York, NY


For more information and to register for the event see the NY14PH Conference registration page.


About New York Passive House:

New York Passive House (NYPH) is a New York State tax exempt trade organization which promotes the Passive House building energy standard in New York State and the New York City metropolitan area. NYPH provides public outreach, education, support of industry professionals and advocacy to support the success and vitality of the Passive House community. See nypassivehouse.org.

About the Passive House standard:

Passive House is an international building standard developed by the Passive House Institute in Darmstadt Germany, which represents a roughly ninety percent reduction in heating and cooling energy usage and up to a seventy-five percent reduction in primary energy usage from existing building stock – meant to aggressively meet the climate crisis carbon reduction imperative while making a comfortable, healthy and affordable built environment. Passive House is the most cost effective pathway toward the growing demand for net-zero or nearly-net-zero construction. Passive House is also a methodology that requires designers to consider orientation, massing, insulation, heat recovery, passive use of solar energy, solar shading, elimination of thermal bridges, and internal heat sources. The term Passive House may also be used to refer to a building that has been tested and certified to meet the Passive House standard. Passive House buildings are extremely energy efficient, healthy, and comfortable for occupants; predictable to manage, and resilient by design. See passivehouse.com.

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


At the Das Haus Net-Zero House Symposium in White Plains on July 17th, 2012, Guy Slicker, Director for Renewable Energy Resources and Technology of the New York Power Authority gave the keynote address. The speech focused on energy efficiency measures that the New York Power Authority was taking to retrofit tax payer support facilities such as municipal buildings, hospitals, schools, libraries. The address also put a particular emphasis on the importance of providing cheap ubiquitous power to all of the New York Power Authority’s customers through various energy sources, highlighting the new use of renewable energy.
Mr. Slicker did a good job in promoting and talking and talking about the efforts that the NYPA has been taking in order to mitigate their carbon emissions. He seemed to be pretty set on track as to where the programs were going, and did not seem to open to change recommended by the audience.
Throughout the whole entire speech I could not help but think how inefficient the programs were that the NYPA were putting into place. I believe that more financial instruments can be implemented to make their energy efficiency programs more effective, such as a “green revolving fund”, which will be discussed more in depth later.
The New York Power Authority is America’s largest state power organization, providing the lowest cost electricity all throughout New York State with 17 generating facilities and more than 1,400 circuit-miles of transmission lines. The Authority derives most of its power from hydroelectric sources, mainly from the Robert Moses Niagara Hydroelectric Power Station on the Niagara River, the St. Lawrence-FDR Power Project on the St. Lawrence River, and the Blenheim-Gilboa Hydroelectric Power Station in the Catskill Mountains, producing a total of 4.2 million kilowatts of electricity. In addition, the NYPA makes use of six other small scale hydroelectric plants all throughout New York State.
Besides for hydroelectric power, the NYPA derives its power from high efficient natural gas power plants on Long Island and Manhattan. With the use of these energy resources they are able to provide the cheapest power in New York State at two cents a kilowatt-hour. Much to our enjoyment at Eco-Brooklyn, we are happy that the NYPA is doing a good job to provide non-carbon intensive power to their customers.
Guy Slicker did not come to the Das Haus Net-Zero House Symposium to discuss the power sources that were already in place. One of the main points that he wanted to make was to discuss the energy efficiency tactics that the Authority was using to retrofit public facilities.
Just in fiscal year 2011, the NYPA invested $186 million invested in energy efficiency projects, completing work at 799 public facilities during the year. Currently the NYPA is financing another 267 projects at more than 1,700 locations statewide, and has invested close to $1.5 billion in these efforts to date. Governor Cuomo has plans to spend an additional $450 million over the next five years.
These actions have reduced the environmental impact of the NYPA’s electricity generation by a substantial amount. By cutting energy costs for close to 3,900 schools and government offices, the Authority is now saving New York taxpayers more than $134 million each year; avoiding emissions of more than 820,000 tons of greenhouse gases each year, so far; and cutting back their demand for foreign oil by more than 2.5 million barrels a year.
I believe that these are all definitively worthy causes, but there is something essentially flawed in all of this work. Currently, the state is spending millions of dollars to reduce energy consumption in public facilities that cut buildings energy consumption “up to 25 percent”, according to the NYPA’s website.
Eco-Brooklyn specializes in the demand side of energy, focusing on building high quality and energy efficient structures that are durable and low cost. Attention is put on using salvaged, sustainable and local materials. But the scope of our work only focuses on the occupants of the building who demand the energy. We have no control over the supply side, which are public utility companies.
At Eco-Brooklyn, we earnestly want to see the utility companies do the right thing in terms of supplying energy. As of right now I think they are on the right track, but they are missing out on a large opportunity to expand and provide a further decrease in supplied energy through their energy efficiency program.
Throughout Mr. Slicker’s speech it seemed to me that the NYPA was consistently funding projects that grabbed at the “low hanging fruit” of energy efficiency, or the projects that seemed easily to complete and were relatively cheap. My predictions turned out to be true: the NYPA only finance the projects that have a payback period of 10 years or less.
Fundamentally, they are shooting themselves in the foot right now because more money will have to be spent in a few years to further reduce the buildings energy intake. A 25 percent reduction in buildings energy consumption will prove to be diminutive as global climate change continues to become even more of a problem. In the future, more money will have to be spent on larger projects that cost more and have longer payback periods.
But if the NYPA and other utility companies can implement financial instruments called “green revolving funds”, it would make it easier to pursue energy efficiency projects beyond the low hanging fruit. This could lead to more prolific energy efficiency measures and renewable energy implementation all across the board.
Started on college campuses across the United States, the details of a green revolving fund are quite simple. The best way a green revolving fund can be explained is through an example. The most effective example we can use is one between a utility company and a customer.
For example, say a utility company such as NYPA implements a renewable energy, energy efficiency, or an energy conservation project on a building. This project would have a quantifiable monetary savings or return; for the sake of our example lets say the total energy savings amount to $50. The utility company would then sign a contract with the customer, stating that they will charge them a flat rate for their electricity. If the occupant of the building was initially paying $200 per year for their electricity consumption, they would continue to pay the $200. In reality, their electricity bill is only $150. This is where the green revolving fund comes in.
The difference between the settled flat rate and the actual rate of electricity are reinvested into the green revolving fund until the project is paid off. After the initial capital invested into the project is recovered, the money saved is added into the green revolving fund to finance more projects.
The choice seems obvious. If the utility companies can set a fund like this up then they will be able to continue to invest in sustainable projects without the use of any new capital. This tool can be a robust instrument that fundamentally changes the way utility companies work.
Currently, green revolving funds are exclusively found on college campuses. If there were to be utilized by utility companies such as the NYPA, then they will be able to move beyond their ‘low-hanging fruit’ stage and into a phase where they can implement more robust projects that will lower energy costs, mitigate environmental impact, and reduce carbon emissions.

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.

Klearwall PH Windows


As New York passive house builders, Eco Brooklyn gets approached by many distributors offering Passive House   products. Recently Klearwall, a PH window company located in Ireland, informed us of their intended expansion in New York City. Klearwater offers thermal bridging calculations, which shows how much energy will be conserved by the instillation of their triple pane windows. The windows are PH certified and manufactured in a plant powered by renewable energy.  The plant is carbon neutral and harnesses its energy from two on site wind turbines and a co-gen plant.

Check them out!




Subterranean Living

Inhabitat recently posted an article exemplifying innovative underground houses around the globe.  As a green contractor Eco Brooklyn is continually using cutting-edge ideas to improve upon Passive House designs. Underground housing can provide New York State with low energy housing at reasonable prices without sacrificing the aesthetic appeal of living above ground.

Living Passively

Living Passively

Structures built underground are protected from large temperature swings and extreme weather. At depths below 3 feet the ground maintains an average temperature of the yearly climate. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the benefit of home protection is priceless. The greatest benefit to homeowners is one that benefits their wallet. These buildings utilize the earth’s natural insulation and thus require less energy to heat and cool. Besides saving energy, subterranean buildings provide security though access limitation. They exist within nature instead of disrupting the environment. Under-grounding takes up less space and is less environmentally invasive. Unlike standard housing, driveway and backyard space are unnecessary as those amenities are provided directly above the structure.

One of the novel designers of earth-sheltered housing was Malcolm Wells. His underground designs merged iconoclastic principles with modern architecture. The New York Times stated it best:

“…his designs incorporated the land. He designed some homes (and other buildings) that seemingly burrowed into hillsides, and others whose main living space was subterranean, perhaps with above-ground lean-to roofs or atria and skylights to let in the sun. In general, his roofs were covered with layers of earth, suitable for gardens or other green growth.”

Wells Art Gallery

Much of Malcolm Wells’ design incorporated concrete and Eco Brooklyn suggests using rammed earth or tires to add structural support to underground buildings. Gennaro has also developed a design to alleviate the stress of the barrier walls by engineering a bowl-shaped structure with a one-to-one slope.

EcoBrooklyn Undergound House

Eco Brooklyn is currently working with Michael Reynolds to develop an earth-sheltered home just north of New York City, so check back for updates on our Underground Housing

-Anthony Rivale

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

Earthship Project in New York

We are earthship enthusiasts here at Eco Brooklyn, and are currently speaking with a client who wants to build an earthship in New York State. Here are some ideas being thrown around between Michael Reynolds, Eco Brooklyn, and the client, that we may be able to help turn into reality. The schematic of this global model earthship shows an additional greenhouse that will provide greater temperature stabilization, which would be better suited to New York’s climate, and will provide additional grow space as well. The earthship will of course be capable of functioning independently from the grid. As a Brooklyn Green Contractor, this is a great project that we are excited to be involved with.


earthship schematic 1

earthship 1

earthship 2

earthship 3

earthship 4 All images are property of Earthship Biotecture.

– Liza Chiu

DIY Indoor Vermiculture Composting

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

Black Gold

Black Gold

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

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


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

Keep the Flies Away

Felt on Aeration Holes


Use to Prevent Pests and Odors

Use to Prevent Pests and Odors



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


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


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

DIY Composting Bin

“I’m Red, but I produce Black Gold”

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

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

-Anthony Rivale

Das Haus: First NYC Passive House in BK

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

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

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

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

The Passive House standard focuses on 5 main strategies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that’s a paradigm!

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

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.


Eco Brooklyn has a Certified Passive House Tradesperson

Certified New York Passive House Tradesperson

I took the Passive House Consultant course a couple years ago because Eco Brooklyn was becoming a Passive House builder in NYC and I wanted to know the information. I didn’t take the exam to get certified since being a Passive House Consultant wasn’t the kind of work I enjoyed. I like building Passive Houses but the super technical calculations are tedious to me.

That is why I was very excited to take the Passive House Tradesperson course offered last month in the Bronx. We studied the practical things involved in building a Passive House – air sealing techniques, insulation strategies etc. This is great stuff for me so I did take the exam to become certified.

A nice spreadsheet with numbers is very necessary but if you don’t have a Passive House contractor to implement the numbers you don’t have a Passive House. And with so many of our New York green renovations, it may be impossible to actually reach Passive House standards due to budget, Landmarks restrictions or a million other reasons.

But a good Passive House builder can still get damn close nonetheless. Passive House building techniques are simply smart building that can be applied to any renovation.

Also, New York brownstones are all very similar. Once you get the formula it is something you can just repeat with each new job and you are 90% there, giving you a lot more time to focus on the 10% that is different from job to job.

I am happy to be a Certified Passive House Tradesperson because that is where my passion and skill lies.

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

Radical Sustainability and Passive House

Eco Brooklyn’s director, Gennaro Brooks-Church will be giving a presentation at New York’s 2012 Passive House Symposium. The topic of his presentation is “Radical Sustainability and Passive House.” The all day event is filled with interesting speakers and is a must for anyone interested in the worlds most cutting edge energy efficient building technique.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – June 8 – The 2012 Passive House Symposium is a one day exploration of the many Passive House projects underway in the New York area.  With over forty Passive House buildings currently in the process of being designed and built, New York is a leader in the US for Passive House construction.  The symposium will demonstrate how architects, builders and owners are meeting the demanding Passive House standard, making a substantive contribution to New York’s climate change mitigation efforts.
Presentations will include 6 retrofit projects and 9 new building projects that span every phase of the process.  Rowhouses, multifamily, commerical and institutional buildings will be presented – located from eastern Long Island to New York City to Upstate New York.  Attendees will be eligible to earn 5.5 hours of Professional Education Credits for NY State.


Passive House Project, NYC

Tomas O’Leary, Director of the Passive House Academy, will provide an international context for New York’s efforts.   Tomas will describe how this global standard is evolving while growing exponentially.  He will show examples that include Brussels Belgium where Passive House will be required for all new and retrofit construction in 2015.


Certified Passive Houses:  Orient Point by Ryall Porter Sheridan Architects with Right Environments, and Omega Institute by North River Architecture + Planning will be presented.


Passive Passion, a 20 minute documentary on Passive House in the US, featuring New York practitioners and Dr. Wolfgag Feist, by Charlie Hoxie, will be viewed during the day.

Round Table Presentations: A variety of practitioners, each focusing on a different essential aspect of Passive House design and construction, will provide observations about the complexities and possibilities of this exciting new building standard for the New York area.

Saturday June 23, 2012 from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM EDT

Sciame Auditorium
141 Convent Avenue
Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture
The City College of New York
New York, NY 10031


Passive House Institute LogoPassive House is an international building standard that affordably achieves the very highest levels of comfort and indoor air quality while reducing heating and cooling energy costs by up to 90%.  Passive House was formalized in Germany in the early 1990s by Dr. Wolfgang Feist and the Passive House Institute.   Passive House, with a proven track record of accurately predicting and delivering building performance, offers a clear, sustainable and affordable path for combating climate change.
NYPH logo

NY Passive House (NYPH) is an independent non-for-profit trade organization working to promote a healthy, comfortable and energy-efficient built environment through the promotion of the Passive House building standard.   Formed in 2010,  NYPH is supported by member dues and industry sponsors. NYPH facilitates the exchange of information and experiences, among practitioners of the Passive House building standard.
Affiliate of:
International Passive House Association

New York Passive House Windows

New York Passive House builders are all scrambling to find high quality windows that meed the strict PH air tightness and insulation standards. With the exception of a few Canadian windows there just aren’t any US windows that meet these standards.

Almost all good windows come from Europe and the challenge for New York green builders is to first find these companies and second figure out how to get the windows over the water.

Here is a great list of European High Performance Windows that a New York Passive House builder could consider. The list comes from BuidingGreen.com.

Eco Brooklyn’s last Passive House job used Austrian Reider windows, purchased from Thomas at Cembra.us. We were happy with them. They were very solid with a nice clean look.

Harlem Passive House

A Reider Door for the Manhattan Passive House we built


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

New York Contractor Builds Passive House out of Salvaged Materials

Here is a short video we threw together of the Passive House renovation in Harlem. The video mostly discusses the budgeting of the project.

Now that the construction is for the most part done I think that our initial budget of $175/sq.ft is not sustainable. Of course it is great for the client in the long run. But as a company that practices the triple bottom line  – people, planet, profit – our budget did not  satisfy all three items.

Out of the three I can say without a doubt the planet was benefited by this job. We built a Passive House. We salvaged almost everything to build the house, creating a negative impact on the dump, meaning the house removed more garbage from the dump than it created.

Unfortunately the other two items – people and profit – did not get a fair deal. The workers were not paid enough, the client is not happy and the company did not make enough of a profit. Workers and company need to be taken care of in order for us to continue to make a meaningful impact on the world. Happy clients means more opportunities to build green.

The clients came to us with a very tight budget, $800,000, which is not enough for the scope of the complete gut rehab Passive House. $1,200,000 would have been more realistic.

But being realistic in not what got Eco Brooklyn to where it is now. You don’t start a cutting edge green building company because you are realistic. You start it because you are deeply idealistic and willing to sacrifice everything in the hope that it will make a difference to the world. There are huge risks to this.

So in that spirit we took on the job, our main goal to find a way to build a cutting edge green home on an affordable budget. We accomplished this, so from that point of view it was a great success.

But the clients are not happy and the company was hit hard financially. It may seem odd that the clients are not happy given they gained a $1 million plus house for $800K. We literally saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars all the while helping the environment.

But to achieve that we all had to make sacrifices. The main sacrifice was that as a company we could not afford to hire enough management. The job process was rocky. A green company needs to be even better organized than other companies because we are dealing with new cutting edge technologies with steep learning curves and we salvage materials thus we can’t tightly control the delivery time of materials.

This lack of management meant details were missed and client/contractor interaction was not as common. So even though behind the scenes we felt we were performing miracles to save the client money and add value to their home, the client did not see this.

The client simply felt they were paying what to them felt like a lot of money and we were not delivering as smoothly as they wanted. Because they don’t have a good grasp of what things cost it did not matter how many times we told them they would never be able to get this value elsewhere on their budget.

And when they did look elsewhere for comparison they saw crappy building with nice fixtures – the so called luxury condo that looks like a million dollars for the first couple years and costs a fortune to run. When you compare that to our building that does not look as fancy they felt shortchanged.

Never mind ours costs nothing to run and is built to last a hundred years. Those things are not as sexy as sparkling appliances and brand new moldings.

So we felt we were loosing our battle with the clients. It was very frustrating because we believe deeply that the building we made is decades ahead of any building built in the city today.

Core Values

In hindsight the main conflict was between the company’s and the client’s core values.

The company’s core value is clearly to put the benefit of the planet before anything else, with the understanding that by doing this we are benefiting ourselves as well. And in this case we did it to a fault (we should have done less for the planet and more for ourselves in order to continue strong in the long run).

But going balls out for the environment is both our strength and weakness.

The clients core value was to put their own benefit before anything else. This is not to say they did not care about Eco Brooklyn or the environment. But like most people, at the top of list is their own financial security, their family and their home, and when possible, but only when possible they consider the rest of the world.

I get that. I am a family man.

But I am also a green builder and sometimes things get complicated.

The problem was that we feel looking out for the environment is the best thing we can do for the client in the long run, even if it means less of a perfect construction process in the short run. The client however just wants a home for their family. Getting that done is challenge enough, never mind some idealistic and abstract global thinking.

Because of this we found ourselves at odds. For us if we could help the environment more we would. Even at the expense of short term discomforts and stress imposed by our main mistake – not budgeting for enough management and budgeting too much for the green building items – which arose from our over ambitious attempt to build a home for hundreds of thousands less than normally it would cost.

The client however found this inexcusable. If it is a choice to go some time without water in order to get gray water plumbing installed or skip the gray water and have water for their kids to take a bath they pick the later.

Unfortunately we were doing the building and not them. And we are very hard headed.

We picked to do the gray water, which delayed the job and meant the clients went without water for longer. Inexcusable in their eyes. Simply bad management. In our eyes it was a small sacrifice for something that will benefit the planet for many years to come…..which in turn benefits them.

It wasn’t like we expected the client to sacrifice alone. Eco Brooklyn always sacrificed first. If we found a way to satisfy the client and the environment at the cost of our profit then we made sure we did that first. Our priorities were planet, client then us.

Maybe we are wrong. Maybe that priority serves nobody. But I have this idea that we are connected and the ecology is in a lot worse shape than we are. Since we are ecology that needs to be dealt with first……?

But when the client is spending their hard earned money and the feel like the second fiddle, good will goes out the window fast and they stopped caring for us.

Towards the end of the job when we realized our ecological zeal had put our finances in tight stretches we got no mercy from the clients. In their memory was the lack of water and they made sure to withhold money accordingly. Water is just an example our of many conflicts of core values that arose.

What have I learned from this?

I can’t expect others to sacrifice for my cause. Next time I will only take on clients who can afford $1,200,000 and be done with it. They will get the job they were promised and I will be able to build houses that harm the environment a lot less.

This means that many people will be priced out and not benefit from Eco Brooklyn’s amazing green building.

But I have learned the hard way that when things get tight people hunker down and look out for themselves. It is about survival and humans can be the most brutal creatures on earth when they feel their own is being threatened.

I can’t put myself in that position of dealing with clients like that. Nor can I put the clients in that position. The clients of this house are scared. They feel we managed the job recklessly and this puts them at risk.

When they came to us they entrusted us as professionals to guide them in the building of a green home. They had no idea how much emphasis we put on green and at some point they wondered if we even cared about their home.

So in the future we won’t try the affordable green building thing because we can’t trust the client will be as willing as we are to build green. Instead we will charge. That way it won’t be a choice between having water on time or having a gray water system. We will have a budget to do both on time.

The clients of our current house had a tough time of it. I think with time they will forget the discomforts of the building process. As that fades they will see the value of the house. They might even be grateful towards us. But I doubt it.

Would I do it again? Yes. I think the struggle was worth the gain. It is an amazing house.

It is the first time in the history of building that a Passive House was built with such a high percentage of salvaged materials. It is revolutionary. And we did it not on some plot of land in Oregon but in one of the most expensive places to build on earth. For the price of a crap “luxury condo”!

But like all revolutions it was painful. And I am hurting more than anyone. I made sure I put my money where my mouth was. The clients probably will never understand that. But that is ok. I care about the house that we brought into existence.

When we are all dead that house will still be a wonderful home for families. That is a great gift. It is the least I can do for the planet and my fellow humans.

Here is the video that prompted this post.

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.

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.

Salvaging Materials at EcoBrooklyn

Gennaro Brooks-Church, Director of EcoBrooklyn Inc, discusses the significant element of salvaging materials for use in the company’s green renovations. Currently we are wrapping up a full-renovation of a brownstone in Manhattan where we’ve been working hard to attain its stringent Passive House requirements.

Check out our video below, and feel free to leave us some feedback!

New York Passive House Window Installation

In our Manhattan  green brownstone renovation in we used Rieder windows because they allow us to meet the stringent Passive House standard. They came from Austria so it took about two months lead time to get them. All said it cost about $30,000 just in window expenses to supply the brownstone with your basic front and back configuration, including front and back doors.


That price was just to get the windows onto the site. The cost of making window boxes, air sealing and the many other steps of installing the windows was on top of that. So they are not cheap. And we got their most affordable model.

But they are gorgeous. The quality can’t be beat. The triple pane requires an extra beefy frame so they feel solid. Like really solid. And they have such good air sealing that it feels like a bank vault door when you open them. Whooosh.


Another window company we would like to install is the Intus Eforte Window brand from Lithuania. Another Passive House contractor used them and had good things to say.


Bringing Passivhaus to Harlem

Check out this great article about our Eco Brooklyn’s Passive House in Harlem.  GreenBuildingAdvisor.com, a great online source for building, designing, and remolding green homes, sent Richard Defendorf to our Harlem site to check out our work. Read his write-up of all the techniques we used to seal our passive house!


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.

Passive House Tour

Come check out our Open House and Blowerdoor test at our Harlem Passive House renovation.

When: Friday, November 11, 2011, 4:30 PM
Where: 156 West 130th Street, Manhattan.

The New York Passive House community is kicking off the weekend of International Open Passive House days at Ecobrooklyn’s project in Harlem. The house is well underway and the Triple pane Rieder windows are in, the walls are insulated and sealed. This 3 family brownstone renovation is primarily using reclaimed building materials and only buys new when needed or crucial to make the house as efficient as possible (windows, mechanicals, airtight tapes and membranes). Everything else – studs, floors, walls – is salvaged.

Gennaro Brooks-Church, Director of Eco Brooklyn, and his team have been going strong and are ready for the blowerdoor test, last time we were able to find some mayor leaks so please join us and help us find the last few leaks.

Note that this is still a construction site, so dress appropriately and be ready to sign a liability waiver.

A detail of the air sealed ceiling of the Manhattan passive house renovation