Exterior Shades – The Anti-Heat Wave of the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Jeffrey

InsideClimate News – Brooklyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Christopher Jeffrey

A World Without Life as We Know It – Which isn’t necessarily bad

This New York Times article (posted below) on the disappearing coral reefs voices my opinion on the planet’s direction, not only for corral but for most other major ecosystems too. The Anthropocene era, a time where human activity has significantly changed the planet’s ecosystems, has entered it’s full and irreversible swing.

All that I have seen and read of this world points to this drastic change and in most cases drastic ecological demise. At first this was scary and depressing to me but as I mature in my knowledge base I am starting to feel that certainly we are witnessing profound change, and with that comes discomfort, but change is simply that: change.

I have done a bunch of scuba diving and snorkeling over my life and honestly there isn’t much left down there and each year it gets bleaker so I stopped doing it. I remember when I was a kid watching two fishermen walk out of a bar near the beach, throw a net into the water, pull out an armful of fish, put it into the trunk of their car and return to the bar in less than five minutes. Now there is a billion dollar marina in that spot and no fish.

What to do? There are hundreds of books saying the ecological end is near BUT they all offer a solution. I think it is all wishful thinking, a pitch to sell books, or ignorance.

I don’t think we have the solution. Our self reflected thought obscures the fact that we are just as locked into this destiny as all other life forms. My solution? Find activities that make me happy and try to help other life forms as best I can. Works for me but it took me 40 years to find it. We all have our own path.

Here is the New York Times Article the inspired this post:

A World Without Coral Reefs
By ROGER BRADBURY
Canberra, Australia

IT’S past time to tell the truth about the state of the world’s coral reefs, the nurseries of tropical coastal fish stocks. They have become zombie ecosystems, neither dead nor truly alive in any functional sense, and on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation. There will be remnants here and there, but the global coral reef ecosystem — with its storehouse of biodiversity and fisheries supporting millions of the world’s poor — will cease to be.

Overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution are pushing coral reefs into oblivion. Each of those forces alone is fully capable of causing the global collapse of coral reefs; together, they assure it. The scientific evidence for this is compelling and unequivocal, but there seems to be a collective reluctance to accept the logical conclusion — that there is no hope of saving the global coral reef ecosystem.

What we hear instead is an airbrushed view of the crisis — a view endorsed by coral reef scientists, amplified by environmentalists and accepted by governments. Coral reefs, like rain forests, are a symbol of biodiversity. And, like rain forests, they are portrayed as existentially threatened — but salvageable. The message is: “There is yet hope.”

Indeed, this view is echoed in the “consensus statement” of the just-concluded International Coral Reef Symposium, which called “on all governments to ensure the future of coral reefs.” It was signed by more than 2,000 scientists, officials and conservationists.

This is less a conspiracy than a sort of institutional inertia. Governments don’t want to be blamed for disasters on their watch, conservationists apparently value hope over truth, and scientists often don’t see the reefs for the corals.

But by persisting in the false belief that coral reefs have a future, we grossly misallocate the funds needed to cope with the fallout from their collapse. Money isn’t spent to study what to do after the reefs are gone — on what sort of ecosystems will replace coral reefs and what opportunities there will be to nudge these into providing people with food and other useful ecosystem products and services. Nor is money spent to preserve some of the genetic resources of coral reefs by transferring them into systems that are not coral reefs. And money isn’t spent to make the economic structural adjustment that communities and industries that depend on coral reefs urgently need. We have focused too much on the state of the reefs rather than the rate of the processes killing them.

Overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution have two features in common. First, they are accelerating. They are growing broadly in line with global economic growth, so they can double in size every couple of decades. Second, they have extreme inertia — there is no real prospect of changing their trajectories in less than 20 to 50 years. In short, these forces are unstoppable and irreversible. And it is these two features — acceleration and inertia — that have blindsided us.

Overfishing can bring down reefs because fish are one of the key functional groups that hold reefs together. Detailed forensic studies of the global fish catch by Daniel Pauly’s lab at the University of British Columbia confirm that global fishing pressure is still accelerating even as the global fish catch is declining. Overfishing is already damaging reefs worldwide, and it is set to double and double again over the next few decades.

Ocean acidification can also bring down reefs because it affects the corals themselves. Corals can make their calcareous skeletons only within a special range of temperature and acidity of the surrounding seawater. But the oceans are acidifying as they absorb increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Research led by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland shows that corals will be pushed outside their temperature-acidity envelope in the next 20 to 30 years, absent effective international action on emissions.

We have less of a handle on pollution. We do know that nutrients, particularly nitrogenous ones, are increasing not only in coastal waters but also in the open ocean. This change is accelerating. And we know that coral reefs just can’t survive in nutrient-rich waters. These conditions only encourage the microbes and jellyfish that will replace coral reefs in coastal waters. We can say, though, with somewhat less certainty than for overfishing or ocean acidification that unstoppable pollution will force reefs beyond their survival envelope by midcentury.

This is not a story that gives me any pleasure to tell. But it needs to be told urgently and widely because it will be a disaster for the hundreds of millions of people in poor, tropical countries like Indonesia and the Philippines who depend on coral reefs for food. It will also threaten the tourism industry of rich countries with coral reefs, like the United States, Australia and Japan. Countries like Mexico and Thailand will have both their food security and tourism industries badly damaged. And, almost an afterthought, it will be a tragedy for global conservation as hot spots of biodiversity are destroyed.

What we will be left with is an algal-dominated hard ocean bottom, as the remains of the limestone reefs slowly break up, with lots of microbial life soaking up the sun’s energy by photosynthesis, few fish but lots of jellyfish grazing on the microbes. It will be slimy and look a lot like the ecosystems of the Precambrian era, which ended more than 500 million years ago and well before fish evolved.

Coral reefs will be the first, but certainly not the last, major ecosystem to succumb to the Anthropocene — the new geological epoch now emerging. That is why we need an enormous reallocation of research, government and environmental effort to understand what has happened so we can respond the next time we face a disaster of this magnitude. It will be no bad thing to learn how to do such ecological engineering now.

Roger Bradbury, an ecologist, does research in resource management at Australian National University.

Green Building is not a product

A reporter just interviewed me on green building. I thought I’d share it here since the reporter has a pretty common viewpoint, one I believe is not correct.

What aspects home remodeling/room design are the most popular “green” solutions?
Most clients know they want to renovate green but usually don’t know exactly what the details of that look like. In many ways they come to Eco Brooklyn for education rather than your typical contractor/client relationship. Normally people are not as involved in the materials and process as a client doing a green renovation is.
The “green solution” is not a product but a method of building that uses less energy and is less toxic. This can apply to anything from flooring to landscaping. In terms of imaginary, if your typical non-green renovation had the metaphor of boots on a concrete sidewalk, then an ecological renovation is about walking barefoot at the beach.
This imagery highlights the importance of nature and walking lightly.

What are the top 3-5 products that Eco-Brooklyn suggests to homeowners? Ex. tankless water heaters, solar panels, etc.
We don’t have any. The focus for us is not product oriented. It isn’t even about consuming anything. For that reason we encourage the client to accept as much salvaged materials as possible. The greenest product is the product that doesn’t get made. Even greener is a “product” that is taken from the garbage, thus lightening the planet’s garbage load.
There are places we do buy new, and these are the areas that require maximum energy efficiency – windows, doors, appliances, water heaters etc. Again we don’t care what brand as long as it is the most efficient on the market at the time. That changes constantly.

Many eco-friendly options today are much pricier than its “normal” comparables. What do you say to a homeowner who is looking to justify the price?
That is only true if you live in complete isolation unconnected from anything else in the world. If you look at the big picture building green is much cheaper. The analogy I use is green building is paid for in cash. Normal construction is put on a credit card. Saying normal construction is cheaper than green is like saying things you buy on a credit card are free. Normal construction may be cheaper at the point of purchase, but who is really paying for your consumption? Is it that person dying of cancer? The child labor? The polluted river? The dying wildlife? Unless you have your head in the sand you don’t have to look very far to see how expensive building is. Green building looks a hell of a lot cheaper in comparison.

How to become a green builder (aka aware human)

As a New York green builder I get a lot of interns eager to learn about building a better world. They are young, eager and often impatient. After six months on a job site they think they should become manager. This is a big mistake.

It is not that they are not capable of moving up. They are bright and talented and would make a pretty good manager. But by moving up you move away from the base, the foundation, the little daily tasks. And without a broad knowledge base you will not have the depth to keep moving up.

But that isn’t even the point. The point in life is not to be forever going bigger and better. The point is to explore and learn – to become more aware. And you can’t do that as easily if you are all grown up.

A volunteer building with straw bale at the Czech building center Permalot

A volunteer building with straw bale at the Czech building center Permalot

When you are jobless, homeless, without children, a mortgage and a career you are perfectly poised to loose yourself in the flow of experience, letting it carry you where it may.

Here is part of a letter from an intern who wants to join Eco Brooklyn. For the past six years they have drifted from one cool experience to another, creating a great base. This is what I did. It is what I suggest anyone does.

my boss worked out an arrangement with me that allowed me to take time off each year to explore my growing interest. I chose to be involved with the following projects:

– Found out that Paolo Soleri (of Arcosanti fame) is still alive, and signed up for the 5-week construction internship helping to build an arcology in the Arizona desert.
– Volunteered for Yoga Cusco (offshoot of  Yoga Inbound) in Peru for a month, helping to build their yoga studio in the Sacred Valley.
– 3-month natural building internship & PDC (the only one to “graduate”!) at Permalot in Czech Republic, including over a week with a client in Germany, and additional time in Czech helping my former roommate build his cob home on an empty field.
– Volunteered 1 month at  Totoco in Nicaragua, helping to build the farm/animal husbandry part of their project.
– Random volunteer gigs with Habitat-NYC, Cool Roofs, and the local neighborhood garden.
– Visited Gaviotas in Colombia and The Venus Project in Florida.
– Just started (literally, on Friday, after months of bugging them) helping Oko Farms build their aquaponics project in East Williamsburg.

This is a smart path. It is something I can’t do as easily now. Sure I am a green builder doing cool things and maybe Eco Brooklyn will be lucky enough to be listed on this person’s resume with all these other visionary projects. But although definitely possible it is harder for me to take off and sleep on a floor somewhere donating my time carrying mud all day, no matter how great the project is.

But when you know and have very little – like everyone who is fresh out of the nest, you can be the sponge. Just my two cents on this Monday morning as I got this intern’s resume. Now I must go back to bidding jobs, negotiating contracts and all the other things a “cool and alternative” New York green builder has to deal with.

The Overview Effect

Here is a short video discussing something called the “Overview Effect”, which is what happens when astronauts first see the planet earth from outer space – a deep sense of awe and connection with the planet. The Overview Effect is not only for astronauts, though. It is for anyone who travels beyond their immediate surroundings and realizes we are all connected with a very precious, beautiful and unique planet.

Whether you do this through actual travel, philosophy, science, religion or drugs, the Overview Effect is crucial to our survival as a race and planet. As a New York green builder and contractor this sense of planetary awe drives us both in our global philosophy and daily activity. It is really what people mean when they say think globally, act locally – the fact that the two are completely connected and the health of one depends on the health of the other.

Check it out:

The Overview Effect

Biomimicry and the Eden Project

The Eden Project

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

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

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

Looking to Nature for Answers

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

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

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

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

Cyclical vs Linear Consumption

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

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

The Eden Project

The eden project biomimicry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Michael Pawlyn’s TED talk: 

Fun Built with Salvaged Material

The growth in sustainable and green living has given rise to a movement of eco-tourism in a variety of forms across the country.  Specifically the use of salvaged materials is making a breakthrough in the realm of practical and/ or novel green construction.

Across the country salvaged building trends and communities are blossoming and their projects range from the awe-inspiring to the comical.  I recently came across this link to a list of 8 “roadside” attractions made primarily or entirely of salvaged materials:

 

http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/eco-tourism/photos/8-roadside-attractions-made-from-salvaged-materials/must-see-places

 

There’s a beer can house, a quilted-oil-protesting-gas station, and the largest tree house ever built (complete with sanctuary and basketball court).  Besides roadside attractions I’ve come to find through friends and my own travels a number of interesting things made by hand with salvaged materials.

Made from recycled material

The Recycled Roadrunner.

Once a year in Glover, Vermont there is a gathering of people, “The Human Powered Carnival”, that is the only (to my knowledge) 100% handmade and human powered carnival in existence.

 

Internationally there is a movement of “freeganism”, a life style based around obtaining all necessary materials to live well without using money, this means dumpster diving for food, squatting (sometimes clandestinely), bartering services, and general scavenging.  There is enough usable waste produced by most large companies and institutions to feed, clothe and shelter everyone who needs it.  This movement is intrinsically related to the Human Powered Carnival, there is no advertisement besides word of mouth and there is an air of communal co-operation in all aspects of the event, from cooking to cleaning and operating the rides.

One of Cyclecides attractions

In a similar spirit, in California, there is “cyclecide”.  Cyclecide is an organization based on finding expressive, interactive and alternate uses for bicycles and bike parts.  This idea sprang in 1996 and is rooted in a “freegan” ideology, their first pieces came from dumpstered bikes and some still do.  Their main event is a touring “bike rodeo” featuring varied attractions, from art installations to interactive bike or “pedal” powered rides, and valuable information.  This rodeo is not for the faint of heart, group events and contests such as tall bike jousting, while extremely fun and entertaining do pose some real danger, perhaps that’s what makes it so fun?

This is an excerpt from their website that clearly describes the group’s core beliefs;

“We remain passionately devoted to the idea of the bicycle as a piece of interactive kinetic sculpture that can make music, breathe fire, even save the world!”

 

Cyclecide

Cyclecide

What I find most exciting about this small grassroots movement is its power to subtly invoke great change in a person’s cognition, with the near comic novelty of some of these art pieces and attractions people will let their mental guards down and approach this concept with a more open and relaxed mind, which is sure to get the wheels turning in ones head (whether pedal powered or not).

Green Roof Professional certification

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

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

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

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

·  Advanced Green Roof Maintenance

·  Introduction to Rooftop Urban Agriculture

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

·  Integrated Water Management for Buildings and Sites

·  Ecological Green Roof Design

·  Green Infrastructure: Policies, Performance and Projects

·  Green Roof Policy Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am A Weed (part 2)

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

NY green build-design

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

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

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

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

 brooklyn contractor

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

urban landscaping

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

ny green roof builder

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

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

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

Ecological builder brooklyn

 

By: Malone Matson

Abundance, The Book and it’s myopic viewpoint

I recently heard about a book called “Abundance” by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, so I checked out Diamandis’ TED Talk available below. He has some good points, namely that technology will continue to create abundance for humans…..but his view is so incredibly human centered I am skeptical. It reminds me of when humans thought the earth was the center of the universe.

To make my point I counted the key words in his speech:

1. All words like “human”, “people” or references to people like “A lady…”, “All of you…”.
2. All words like “technology” or references to technology like “computer”, “phone”
3. All words like “oil”, “gas”, “fossil fuel”
4. The word “Abundance”
5. The words Nature, Plants, Animals or references like “Dog”, “Tree”

The numbers came out like this:
1. Human words: 85
2. Technology words: 65
3. Gas words: 1
4. The word “Abundance”: 3
5. Nature words: 0

His message? Humans are the only life forms that are important, and our intelligence will harness technology to stay great. Technology is what has driven us to our current success (not oil). Technology will give voices to the voiceless (all humans).

Plants, other animals and nature in general is not part of the equation, and if they are then they are simply raw materials to harness (sun, water etc).

He does mention nature three times and water fourteen times but they are purely human centric:
1. He uses the word “environment”: For survival reasons we are programmed to monitor how the “environment” can harm us. In this case the word is not really about nature but about the things surrounding humans (cars, muggers, falling pianos).
2. He mentions “climate crisis” and “species extinction”. It is used dismissively, though: Yes we have problems like climate crisis and species extinction but still humans are great.
3. His mentions of water are nothing to do with nature but merely about how humans can use technology to collect the raw material “water”.

I don’t disagree that technology and humans are great but I have a problem with his myopic view that excludes all other life forms. How different is his view to that of a white male a hundred years ago who’s decisions may have never considered women or blacks? I guess he is more open minded because he has broadened his view to include all humans?

His web site lists people who endorse his view:

  • Jeff Skoll Co-founder of eBay
  • Arianna Huffington CEO, Huffington post
  • Richard Branson Chairman, the Virgin Group
  • Ray Kurzweil Inventor & Author, The Singularity is Near
  • Matt Ridley Author, The Rational Optimist
  • Elon Musk CEO, Tesla Motors, Co-founder, PayPal
  • Stewart Brand Author, Whole Earth Discipline
  • Timothy Ferriss #1 NY Times bestselling author
These people are all pillars of what I call new capitalism, which is a slight variation on old capitalism. They love technology, they still love growth, and they exalt the power of humans to overcome all obstacles. Yea, they are pretty similar to old capitalists, the ones who trashed the planet in the first place.
Only this time they are way cooler. Capitalism Lite; still the great consumerist taste but with less guilt ridden calories.
They are in denial that all our progress so far has not been technology but an abundance of cheap energy in the form of oil. When a barrel of oil provides more energy than ten years of one person’s labor you have a society moving so fast they make a coke addict look sloth-like.
Could fuel have been the jumping stone to get us to our next technology driven stage? Maybe.
But that is not my point. When your global plan completely ignores the opinions of 99.99% of the planet’s life forms, as Diamandis’ human centered viewpoint does, you are being extremely narrow minded.
His presumption is that humans and technology can do it alone. We are that great. My answer to that is, first why would you want to? and, second, I don’t think so.
Diamandis and his cronies need to wake up and smell the flowers. They need to calm down from their oil induced speed binge and realize that the last hundred years were a blip in the planets overall trajectory. And we may very well look back at these hundred years as a momentary time of “irrational exuberance” and unrealistic bubbles.
Over the past several thousand years humans have moved from infancy to youth to middle age. I think it is time to start acting like adults and not teenagers with our father’s car, regardless of what fuel that car uses.
How a grown up would act is for another blog post, or more accurately it is all the blog posts on this site. The answers are not single bullets. They are a web of connected awareness that go far beyond humans and their meager little technological playthings.

The Earth Art Movement

The Earth Art, or Land Art, Movement was born in the late 1960’s in the United States in response to the over-commercialization of art and the rising trend towards environmentalism. Founders of the movement were disgruntled by the plasticity and artificiality of art. They wanted to get people out of museums and back into nature. They were intrigued by both the fragility and strength of nature, and the challenge of manipulating it.

As green builders we relate to this deeply. Our construction and design work is very earth based and in some ways a reaction to the mainstream construction which often lacks any form of life or connection to the earth.

Robert Smithson is often credited as one of the founders of the Land Art movement. His earthworks tended to be large-scale and were meant to put art into the land as opposed to on the land. He said, “A work of art when placed in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world.”

Land Art Movementearth art movement

Spiral Jetty, 1970

One of his most famous works is Spiral Jetty which was constructed in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The sculpture was inspired by the Great Serpent Mound built by pre-Columbian Indians. Smithson chose the location for its anti-pastoral beauty. The water has a red-tint to it from bacteria which have thrived in the salt waters ever since the lake’s fresh water sources were cut off by a causeway in 1959.

Smithson’s wife, Nancy Holt, was another pioneer of the Earth Art Movement. Her most famous work is Sun Tunnels, which consists of four nine ft diameter, 18 ft long tubes placed in an x formation in a desert in Utah. The tunnels line up with the sun during the summer and winter solstices while each tunnel has a set of small holes drilled into the tops that align with certain constellations. “It’s an inversion of the sky/ground relationship-bringing the sky down to the earth,” said Holt.

ny green landscaperNY Green construction
Sun Tunnels, 1976

The purpose of the installation is to attract viewers out of museums and the city and into the wilderness. When viewers arrive, the tunnels provide shelter from the sun. Once lured in, the visitors witness a fantastical light display, piquing their interest in the celestial world.

Michael Heizer, who sometimes collaborated with Smithson, is another founder of the Earth Art movement. He too focused on large-scale manipulation of the earth. One of his best known pieces is Double Negative. The work consists of two massive trenches excavated from the sides of a mesa in Nevada.

ny green landscape designbrooklyn earth art

Double Negative, 1969-70

Double Negative provokes the viewer to question what is and isn’t art. Can the earth be considered a medium the way paint or marble is? The “sculpture” itself was made entirely from subtraction. There was nothing added or shaped, only taken away. What Heizer created was simply negative space, hence “Double Negative“. Is that art? The piece can also make one contemplate the relation of art to the earth and the potential scale of art. Can something that doesn’t fit in a museum be considered art?

Walter de Maria, who coincidentally also collaborated with Heizer, created the famous Earth Art installation The Lightning Field in New Mexico. It is comprised of 400 stainless steel poles placed in a grid formation covering an area of one mile by one kilometer. The work is meant to be viewed from a distance and walked around in. During thunderstorms, the metal rods attract lightning creating a breathtaking spectacle. This piece is unique from the previously mentioned works in that it not only uses the earth to create art but also natural events.

ny green design

brooklyn green building

The Lightning Field, 1977

Richard Long had a distinctive style in creating Earth Art in which he blurred the line between performance and sculpture. Long’s sculptures were made by or during long walks. His walks usually centered on a concept or theme but all were inspired by his love for nature and the formal structure of basic shapes.

brooklyn green gardening

A Line Made By Walking, 1967

One of Long’s first pieces was created by simply walking back and forth in a field and then capturing the result in a black and white photograph. Lines are common shapes in Long’s work and are meant to guide or lead viewers, thus inspiring them to walk through nature as well. The simplicity of Long’s shapes also points to his desire to alter and effect nature as little as possible.  A Line in the Himalayas is a good example of this.

environmental art

A Line in the Himalayas, 1975

Andy Goldsworthy is a contemporary artist who was greatly influenced by Long’s art. Goldsworthy uses a myriad of natural objects, such as stones, leaves, ice, water, sand, twigs, flowers, and pinecones, to create sculptures with and in nature which he then photographs. Goldsworthy only uses natural materials and tools. To fuse icicles, he will use water or spit. To break a twig or a stone, he we will use a rock. To add color, he will use berries or fallen leaves.

ecological contracting

A rock "painted" gold with fall leaves

“Movement, change, light growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. I want to get under the surface. When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave it, these processes continue,” said Goldsworthy.

ecological builder

Stick sculpture in water with reflection

green builders

Sculpture made from sheets of ice

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A ball made from shards of ice

Eco Brooklyn is profoundly inspired by these innovative artists, especially those whose works have little to no impact on the ecosystem they are built in. Like these artists, in all our work we hope to create beautiful structures and spaces that connect people to nature and encourage more outdoor activity. The Earth Art Movement has two underlying questions: Can the earth be a vessel for art? And can art bring people back to nature? To both these questions we say, “Yes!”

Our most recent “work of art” is a natural swimming pool built out of salvaged natural materials and designed to replicate natures cleansing process so it does not need any chemicals.

Natural Pool Installers

Our showcase natural swimming pool uses organic materials and no chemicals to increase the connection with nature as you swim.

As a builder we can effect how people live, and it is something we consider deeply when designing a garden or home. Our goal is to design so that the people in the space feel more connected to nature.

By: Malone Matson

Biophilia in Brooklyn

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

ny green builder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

By Malone Matson

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.

-a VISIONARY PATH TO A RESTORATIVE FUTURE

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://challenge.bfi.org/Winners/Challenge_Winners

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

Can Buying Stuff Help Make a Green America?

If you believe in voting with your dollar, then Green America wants to be your ballot box. The organization is like Consumer Reports’ older brother that joined the Peace Corps and goes to protests on the weekends. It evaluates businesses that aspire to sustainable and
ethical perfection with their Green Certification system, posting those they deem exemplary on their National Green Pages website, offering a directory of consciously minded businesses for the concerned customer.

Green America: Come Together

Right now, over me

Green America also engages in activist work in causes that affect consumers. As this includes the vast majority of everyone, their range of campaigns is as broad, spanning from sweatshops to the banking system. In addition, they put on events, including Green Festivals across the country in conjunction with the fair trade certifier Equal Exchange, offering a bazaar of Green Certified businesses along with speakers and workshops, and The Green Business Conference to allow business owners to learn and network.

The company was founded in the 1982 as “Co-op America,” a name jettisoned for its hippie connotations in favor of the trendily ubiquitous yet amorphous “green.” Back in the day, it produced a physical catalog of approved businesses. It was founded on the principle that if people are going to spend money, they should be using it to fight for a vision of a world they believe in.

This is definitely a step in the right direction from blind consumerism, but it should be noted that our major ecological crises are caused by consumption and overuse of resources, and thus a logical solution to the problem should be a massive reduction in our consumption habits.

This would require a change from our current “consumer society” to a “custodian” one- looking after and mending what we already have, repurposing older objects into new forms, and actively caring for our environment. Apart from simply consuming less in the first place it would involve a lot more Cradle to Cradle design where products are designed from the get go to have multiple incarnations.

The core issue with Green America is that despite all the great green companies it showcases, the core message encourages continued consumption. Redirected consumption to “ethical” companies rather than any old corporation is still a push to consume the planet’s resources no matter how green.

Further, the ethics at the heart of “voting with your dollar” are inherently off. It implies you need a dollar to be part of the game. The unequal distribution of wealth leads to an unequal distribution of votes. Who is doing the voting and what interests do they represent? The answers are easy to guess. It isn’t that family in Bangladesh.

Because of this core flaw Green America is not a solution, but a stepping stone, transitional approach, easing our current whacked out economic systems into versions that take into account people and the environment over mere profit. It’s a little like the patch for cigarette smokers – if you didn’t smoke you wouldn’t ever buy the patch but it sure beats cigarettes if you are trying to quit.

In the end, Green America’s message boils down to “keep buying stuff,” not quite a revolutionary concept. If you truly want to make a difference, decreasing, rather than shifting, your consumption patterns is the way to go. But for what you do find necessary to purchase, check out Green America, it may connect you to someone trying to make a difference as they make a living.

Helping you live green, buy green, and invest green

-Jenna Steckel

New York Contractor builds to create nature

Check out this dude. A real druid. A magical builder. Sunray Kelly

[Building] is all about the human consciousness to me. Its about our evolution more than the buildings themselves.

Sitting in NY city watching this fellow green builder in the woods of Washington, I can’t help but long for those sounds of birds and water in the stillness of the trees. I think a green builder carries that longing in their heart no matter where they build. I know I do. I may be a New York green contractor but I often build with the woods in mind.

You can take a green builder out of nature but you can’t take nature out of the green builder.

Inspired By… SunRay Kelley from Shwood Eyewear on Vimeo.

Material Reuse with the NYCMEDP

Eco Brooklyn has partnered up with the NYC Materials Exchange Development Program, a great non-profit that keeps reusable materials out of the trash by connecting people with unwanted materials to others who can reuse them.

The NYCMEDP runs a number of ongoing service, outreach, and research programs.  The NYC Waste Match, for example, is a free service that can help green builders salvage materials efficiently by connecting us directly with businesses and individuals doing demolition and construction.  Waste Match also helps these people save money on disposal costs while building an environmentally friendly image.  Salvage is a win-win situation, and we hope that more people will choose to reuse materials now that the NYCMEDP is providing an easy way to do it.

Check out our member page on their site!

The Weather Underground Movie

Since the Occupy Wall Street events this fall I have immersed myself in information that questions existing paradigms and searches for solutions to current problems. I’ve always done this, and as a green builder I do it on a daily basis, but the recent Occupy Wall Street events has given my ongoing education a focus and timely reference point.

This evening I watched a poignant documentary “The Weather Underground“, which chronicles the efforts of a small group of white students in the late ’60’s and early 70’s who planted bombs around the US to raise awareness of the atrocities of the Vietnam war.

The movie is powerful because these people are smart, conscientious individuals who did not take their acts of violence lightly. The movie explores their insights into the successes and failures of using violence to combat violence.

The conclusion? Well, there is no easy response to the Vietnam genocide and how we should have stopped it. Are some acts so horrible that violence to stop it is justified? Most police and military forces would say yes. And yes. And yes many times over until the threat has been obliterated.

Whether that threat is a black man in the ghetto or an Arab half way across the globe we, “we” being those who are not in the police or military view finder, find it acceptable that  the “threat” be killed regardless of whether they deserve it.

Or maybe it isn’t acceptable but we let it happen every day without so much as a pause in our lives. We accept the party line that the military is looking out for our interests even if we know it is a lie. Such a convenient lie it is.

And maybe these people are threats, if our interests happen to be cheap oil, cheap sneakers and large amounts of easy to digest entertainment.

But when it is a civilian who does something violent to try to stop violence such actions of counter brutality are not allowed nor socially acceptable. Civilians are expected to meet violence with non-violence. A civilian who meets oppression and violence with counter violence is called a terrorist time and time again.

Why is this? Is it just the people in power trying to keep it so?

This strikes a chord with my life. My father was not part of the Weather Underground but he did belong to a similar group during that time. He was accused by the government of setting off pipe bombs, one in front of the Berkeley court house that was sending draft resisters to high security prison and another in front of the Bank of America that was the main financier of Napalm.

Idealistic hippie or dangerous terrorist? Interpol and the FBI felt the later and I spent my first 17 years traveling the world under my parents’ wing as political refugees.

Did my father make a difference? He made a difference to me. I wouldn’t be a passionate green builder dead set on making the world a more ecological place if it weren’t for him.

The hippies dropped out and opened their minds to new ways of being, some good, some not. Either way they learned a lot, if anything how to learn itself, and passed that learning on to their children, most of whom dropped back into society with that knowledge.

So what do we do now. We don’t have a Vietnam to rage against. We have the less visible but more dangerous ongoing destruction of the planet. Us humans are destroying the planet with such violence and heartlessness that any informed green builder knows they are almost symbolic in their effectiveness against the machine of destruction.

Yet like the Weather Underground, an isolated small group that did little to stop Vietnam’s war machine on the surface, green builders must see that symbolism is powerful. Green builders are archetypes where success is not measured in trees saved but in torches carried.

And as long as the torch is being carried, no matter by how small a group and no matter how large the darkness, we will have hope. It is in carrying the environmental torch that we stay alive, regardless of how much ecological destruction is around us.

I don’t see much use in meeting violence with violence. Trying to kill the corporate machine is like trying to kill a monster with endless heads. The success and downfall of capitalism is that it has no moral judgement. You can’t kill something if it is heartless.

But meeting violence with passion, now that is a winning strategy.

I have looked deeply into the soul of our society and have concluded that we are fucked. We are on a crash course with ecological destruction for the sake of greed, power and the blind genetic imperative to spread the human seed as far as humanly possible.

And so I have thrown up my hands and decided I have two options. One, build a pipe bomb and, like the Monkey Wrench Gang, try to wreak as much havoc as possible against the machine of ecological doom. Or two, create a reality where my existence is not part of that machine.

Not a reality like the mind numbing lala land of mass media and material consumption, which is the current solution to numbing the pain we feel as we destroy our own global body.

But a reality that looks at reality with brutal honesty and takes one step, no mater how difficult and painful, yet so amazingly liberating, to a greener personal life. That existence may be lonely. It may be difficult. In fact it may not work at all.

But you just get back up. And before you know it a day has gone by where you didn’t take part in anything too destructive. You may have even helped grow something green, as simple and small as that may seem.

But then a strange thing happens. I have seen it happen in my life and I have seen it happen in every successful revolution in the history or humanity:

You meet somebody else who is holding the same torch as you.

A friend. A person who speaks your language in the babel of destructive insanity. Even if it is a passing in the darkness it is enough to keep the flame alive and even brighten it.

And all of a sudden you aren’t as freaky and alone as you thought you were, not that it matters because by then you are pretty used to your way of life. It takes balls and stubbornness and  a deep passion to stick to what you know is right. And sometimes what you thought was right is wrong and you have to continue seeking.

But you learn it is the seeking that is important so you aren’t too worried when you fuck up. Well, worried maybe a little, but you get used to making mistakes and learning from them.

Then you meet somebody else. Over time you have a little group of people who experience life like you. You may be in the belly of the beast but together you have your own parallel universe. This is not a universe in reaction to something bad. This is a universe in creation of something good. You aren’t there in opposition anything but rather in search of the very best way you can be.

And in the end, who cares if what you discover is right or wrong. Or right again. Because over time you live what is true to you and what you do today becomes yesterdays history, your history, like a stick to lean on as you walk into the future.

So yea the Weather Underground may have been stupid kids in a stupid society or visionaries in a stupid society…..but at what point does that torch become society and back again?

We are society and society is us. We are the machine that kills nature to grow and we are the nature that is killed. It ain’t easy sorting it all out but god knows we try. And so did the Weather Underground. And for that I salute them with pride and honor to be part of their tribe, no matter how confused we are.

Occupy Wall Street

On 10/11/11 Eco Brooklyn, a green builder and supporter of a better America and world, went down to the Financial district to check out Occupy Wall Street. Nearly 30 days ago, a diverse group of citizens took to the street in NYC, and marched down to Zuccotti Park, formerly “Liberty Plaza Park”, placed in between Wall Street, the financial center of the U.S., and Ground Zero.

            Although formal demands will not be made, the message brought by Occupy Wall Street is clear.  They call for an end to corruption and greed, to bring about a better, cleaner, fairer world.  Cleaner, fairer, and better are all words that definitely relate to the idea of sustainability, which seems to be a theme for the protesters at OWS.  They hope to create a sustainable system of economics and government that’s not only sustainable for the people in charge and involved now, but also for the people of the future.  Similarly to OWS, Eco Brooklyn sees the need for an immediate change in the building and construction industry. For too long, a system has been used that leads to crumbling infrastructure and high energy costs, and now it’s time for an immediate change to use recycled and salvaged material to make zero energy homes.  This is a practical goal, that’s sustainable not only for the people living in the new homes, but also for the generations to come.

OWS also has areas for making and displaying art, garbage collection and recycling, a food buffet, a drum circle/music group, a webcast, an info center for volunteers, as well spaces to access the internet and charge cell phones and battery powered devices.  With mattresses and sleeping bags spread throughout these areas, one had to be careful navigating between the people protesting and things and people on the ground, but despite the difference in peoples body language and stature, the feeling of unity was unmistakable- everyone united as one, fighting for a better, fairer, cleaner world.  For more check out Thomas Friedman’s Op-Ed piece in the New York Times.

Earth Video and NY consumption

As a New York green contractor the truth is that our work is very much about things not in NY. Each time we salvage wood from a dumpster we aren’t saving a NY tree. We are saving a Canadian of Brazilian tree. As a company we may be acting locally but our vision is very global.

New York is the most altered place on earth by humans. It is a lost cause in terms of finding a more equal balance between humans and the other animals and plants of the world. It is not possible for the rest of the world, or even the rest of the world cities for that mater, to live like NY.

New York feeds off and depends on the vast areas of uninhabited land in the world for its survival. Everything from our exotic face creams to our millions of feet of electric cable is a drain on some part of the world, in some cases a very tragic one.

And as other cities grow New York becomes more and more an example of our salvation or our destruction. If we can find a sustainable way of living in NY, which means understanding and managing our impact on the rest of the world, then that is a great step forward.

So far our New York life style comes with a price, a price that a lot of people pay with their lives. These people either die trying to support our life style, as with the millions of people working long hours for little pay to provide us with cheap products, or they die trying to stop the destruction our lifestyle imposes on other places, as in the case of the countless human rights, environmental and political activists who are murdered because they got in the way of our endless demand for more products.

So far the overwhelming decision by New Yorkers is that the price these people paid is worth it for us. Lets be honest. We decided this by not deciding anything. Right now New York city is where thousands of trucks bring valuables into the city each day and thousands of trucks leave the city carrying our garbage. We are a massive consuming machine with huge amounts of waste.

The value we create is mostly intellectual and abstract, in the form of the finance, intellectual property and other such esoteric activities. Maybe that value balances our the tonnes of raw materials we consume, both in food, supplies and building materials.

I am not sure. I am focused on reducing our consumption in the building industry to nothing or near nothing levels. As far as I’m concerned you pick a topic and do your best to make that part of the world a better place. Anything more and you get overwhelmed and either give up or get angry, the ultimate giving up being suicide and the ultimate anger being murder, neither of which are very productive in the long term.

All this is in introduction to the following movie that is moving, beautiful and poignant. Enjoy.

It Should Be a Crime!

A typical thing happened today in the life of Eco Brooklyn. One of our workers noticed a dumpster full of wood and called it in to the office. I dispatched our “Rescue Truck”, Eco Brooklyn’s veggie oil pickup, to go salvage the wood before it was carted off to the dump.

This wood has sat in a brownstone for over 80 years. It is beautiful douglass fir, in the form of studs or joists. Nice thick wood with another hundred years of life left to it, at least. It is beautiful wood. You can sand it down and put oil on it for a kitchen counter or island. You can cut it down and use as siding. Or cut it into planks for flooring. Or put it back into a house simply as joists or studs. It is like art. Art direct from nature.

You can’t get this wood today. It comes from old trees and has had a hundred years to cure. It is part of a long ago history when wood was as abundant and healthy as the bison.

When the driver and helper got to the dumpster the workers on the site had started putting soil on top of the wood. We asked if the contractor would stop for a few minutes to give my guys time to take out the wood. We don’t push the ecological logic in this situation. We point out the financial logic that the dumpster will cost about $800 and if we take half the wood we save the contractor maybe $400.

But the contractor refused. So my guys worked frantically to save the wood as the other workers poured soil on top of it. We got only six beams before the soil became too much to move. We watched as they covered up the other sixty beams.

Today we didn’t succeed. Some days we do but it is a constant fight.

Throwing away this wood should be a crime. The waste is so saddening. Such ignorance, such arrogance.

It is so frustrating that this is legally and morally acceptable. Thousands of dumpsters a year, millions of board feet a year thrown into the trash heap.

Sometimes I think I am surrounded by insanity. Or maybe I am insane.

One client I met with today just came back from the Amazon forest recording sounds. He has been going for ten years. He says it is getting hard to go because the forest is disappearing so fast before his eyes he can’t bear the pain. He said on the plane he overheard some forest company workers joking about how they had lied to government officials about the origin of a certain tree in order to log it. They thought it was funny.

We live in a spiraling time where we have the power to destroy or save the planet in an astoundingly short time. Never in the history of humanity have we had this power. There is a crisis in the world. Wake up. Become humble. Do good.

Green Building Perspective

I was speaking with a green building intern today about how green building has a different set of priorities than say a normal corporation.

In fact from a green building perspective the priorities of a normal corporation are criminal, suicidal and simply bad business in the long run.

I see it as a perspective thing. A person could just be looking out for themselves. Or they could look out for themselves, their family and their friends. Each time their perspective broadens to include a larger set of criteria.

I drew together a quick layering of perspectives here:

Priority

Different groups have different arrangements of priorities. For example in the list above I have family as more important than friends. But a very religious person may put religion above their family. It just depends on each person’s set of priorities.

For the point I’m making lets say the list above is the arrangement of priorities. As you move out in perspective from the middle ring your perspective broadens to include more criteria in your decision making process.

For example, somebody who sees their National identity as the broadest aspect of their perspective will consider all the priorities within the national circle (Cultural, Political, Religious and so on…) to make a decision. But they will ignore the Global, Universal and God in their decision making process since it is outside of what they consider important.

Typically a corporation has a very narrow perspective. They definitely will consider their own share holder profit. If they are a “good”  corporation they will also consider the well being of their workers. But if you look at the graph above you will see a typical corporation does not consider the well being of nations, tribes, religions, and the global planet. That is outside the scope of what they care for when making decisions. And yet they can still be completely legal!

A green builder on the other hand has a much broader perspective that encompasses a much larger set of priorities. Your typical green builder usually looks at things from the Global perspective. We are very planet earth centered. We don’t particularly care about things beyond our own blue orb like other planets or esoteric things. True earthlings, so to speak.

As individuals we may be Universally or Cosmically focused. But for me a green builder is one who trully understands the mantra, “Before enlightenment, fetch water, chop wood. After enlightenment, fetch water, chop wood.”

Our path in life is to work with the earth on a physical level, not to philosophize it intellectually. We are here to improve the ecosphere physically.

And in all our decisions that is the broadest perspective. Yes we look out for self, family, friends, corporations, countries, religions and so on because that is within the scope of Global. But most importantly if it does not also benefit the global planet then it is a no go. Find another way. The planet well being is the point from where we look at everything.

Likewise, what’s going on in the rest of the universe….well it doesn’t really effect our focus.

A green builder has a lot more considerations than your typical corporation. Things are more complex and more things need to be balanced. But we are also much broader in vision. In the long run typical corporations will kill themselves because they can’t see the bigger picture.

Green builders, in their higher wisdom, ultimately have a much easier time of things since they can see more options.

Embrace the Trash?

The concept that us humans screwed up the world is pretty well accepted and most ecologists are hell bent on undoing the damage and restoring nature. However I came across an interesting idea today that throws this on its head: there is no such thing as a pure nature and we need to redefine nature so that it INCLUDES the state it is now.

Basically, embrace the trash.

It was a comment by philosopher Slavoj Žižek in the documentary “Examing Life, Philosophy in the Streets” by film maker Astra Taylor.

Here is what he says:

From what I can gather he is drawing heavily from Timothy Morton‘s work, especially his book, “Ecology Without Nature“, which I have not read but just ordered.

The reason this is so interesting to me is that I was profoundly moved by the Romantic’s view of nature and in many ways it is the main way society views nature today: this pristine ecology that despite the grubby little humans would be in perfect balance with the universe.

But the idea that nature is a chaotic and imperfect thing and that our trash is just as much part of it as the bark of redwoods is a very different idea. Whether that idea is the solution or that we may not even need a solution I don’t know yet. I will have to read Morton’s book. I will let you know.

Here is Timothy Morton on what he calls the “Beautiful Soul Syndrome”:
Part I

Part II

Here is a talk that Slavoj Žižek did on the idea of Ecology Without Nature. I’m not putting it up here because the audio is so bad. But worth it if you can sit through the audio.

Natural System House Design Book

I just read the book “A Natural System of House Design, An Architect’s Way” by Charles Woods. I was interested in it from Wood’s involvement with Malcolm Wells, a great natural architect and the pioneer of earth covered building.

Before I start my review I need to make clear that I see Woods as a fellow green builder and any critique I have is as one colleague to another. He is clearly an ally in my path of making the world a greener and healthier place.

In his book Woods sees himself more practical architect than Wells who has very strong but sometimes impractical views about ecology and how natural homes should be built. Woods says that Wells is, “stricter on this than I am. But I think I have come up with a reasonable compromise.”

And it shows in his architecture, which tends to be a lot more conventional from a systems point of view. I’m not talking visually but in terms of the materials specified (or more often not specified), the discussion of (or lack of) green systems like solar panels, gray water, composting, material recycling etc. and how they integrate into his designs.

Earthship

At one point he calls one of his house designs an Earthship and makes mention of another “environmental architect” who also calls his work an Earthship.

charles woods earthship

Woods writes,

“my houses have been looking more and more like ships of sorts. Why? Well…our houses really are like ships if you think about it. They do travel – not through sea or air, but through time and space.” But this shows Woods complete lack of understanding of an earthship.

The other architect is Michael Reynolds, a true natural builder and revolutionary thinker. To compare Reynold’s Earthships to his own work shows how ignorant Woods is of what defines an Earthship or a natural home. As an architect, and in my opinion like most architects, Woods is primarilly concerned with the visual aspect.

Throughout the book Woods is concerned with his “signature style” of design. For me this lacks the vision of what true green building is about. Yes green building can have a signature look. But green building is an acknowledgement of systems, the interconection of them and the impact they have on the planet.

If you look at Reynolds’ work it definitely has a very powerful style that is unmistakably “Reynolds” or “Earthship” but that is not what makes an Earthship.

A earthship according to Reynolds' vision

An earthship can look however you want. The true definition of an Earthship is that it is made from local natural materials that have the lowest embodied energy possible and that it is off the grid in terms of gas, electricity, water and sewer. And in terms of food production to a large part too.

earthship systems

It is entirely defined by its systems and how they impact the environment. It has nothing to do with how it looks. In fact I wish the Earthships did have more great designers involved since they usually all look the same – they have a DIY weekender look. Which is of course because most of them are DIY buildings by the owners. And that is the genius of an Earthship. But that is another topic.

Woods Design

In terms of Woods book I enjoyed looking at the pretty drawings of houses. They are mostly rendered by the extremely talented Malcolm Wells. And when you combine Woods immaculate aesthetic you get some trully striking designs.

charles woods design

Frank Loyd Wright Influence

Woods is completely overwhelmed by Frank Loyd Wright’s style which isn’t a bad thing. The houses look beautiful. They are works of art even if they aren’t original. We would all benefit from a house designed by Woods.

But despite him saying that students of Wright “became little clones” and that Woods is “still overwhelmed, awed, and humbled” by Wright’s designs, Woods sees himself as having his own style unique from Wright. I see small differences in Woods’ work but overall they look like Wright designs to my untrained eye.

For example a design by Woods;

charles woods falling water

And the famous one by Wright:

wright falling water

Note: I am about to go on a long rant. And it may possibly be hard to follow – not because I am dealing with things above your head but because I don’t think I articulated it very well. Hopefully you can hang in there and not get too bored because it really is important stuff!

Architect as God

I had a hard time getting through Woods self importance. He constantly threw himself next to the great architects like Corbusier and Wright. As a teenager he says he was a “little prodigy.” Towards the end of the book he wraps up his perspective by quoting Ayn Rand’s fictional Architect and epitome of arrogance, Howard Roark from her book the Fountainhead, “I don’t build in order to have clients – I have clients in order to build.”

Green Builder Defined

I am a green builder. And as such have thought long and hard what my reason for building is. I have concluded that green building puts nature first. Period.

So anyone, including fellow green builders like Woods, who has an agenda other than putting the wellbeing of the planet first is not benefiting the planet (and thus humans as part of it) to their full potential and not technically fully a green builder in my eyes.

They may be a great builder and a wonderful human being. But I think it is important to own the definition of green builder. Hell, Woods doesn’t even call himself a green builder. He says he is a natural builder. But I think he would call himself a green builder too.

Woods’ attitude as an “Artist/Architect” with a capital “A” hampers his ability to be a true green builder. As long as his vision is more important than anything else the vision of the planet will always come second to him.

The Howard Roarks of this world with their purity of self expression and their laser sharp personal vision are isolated from the wholeness of the universe, in fact that may be their genius. Or you could argue they are taping into the greater universal energy.

Either way they are separating themselves from their earthly environment. As long as an Architect or Artist insists that “everything filter through my mind” first (as Woods puts it) before it becomes reality then they are claiming that they are the only and ultimate authority.

But no person is an island, regardless of your divine talent.

Although I suppose to us lesser mortals it is inspirational that these Artist/Architects have this talent, and I suppose like the pre-Martin Luther priests we know who to turn to if we want a conduit of Godly creation.

Me as Artiste

But as a person who was one of these Artists for over a decade, who lived and breathed the Roark inside me (I read the Fountainhead like a bible twice), who created great works of art that only my soul could create, I understand what it means to be driven by an inner truth.

It is an intoxicating state of mind. Your soul’s voice is the only voice you hear. You guard it like a precious jewel from the vulgar baseness of the world that is constantly trying to pull you into mediocrity.

And in so doing you separate yourself further and further from the world. You are a single shining light who gets it power from its own solitary divine source. And there is nothing wrong with this. Some of the greatest accomplishments in the world by humans came from this attitude.

But then things changed for me. I realized that the world needed me and that my actions, no matter how pure and honorable, were not helping the planet. I heard the planet’s SOS call and it pulled me to look outwards instead of always inwards.

Note: You are about half way through the rant. Congratulations and keep going!

Sebastian Bach Inspired

This is when I flipped from aspiring to be Mozart and started aspiring to be Bach.

Mozart was a Roark who like Woods could only create from their inner voice. As Woods says (arrogantly?), “I don’t think it is a matter of arrogance – it’s the only way I know how to work.”

But Bach was a lowly draftsman with a large family to feed. He was on meager salary by the church to churn out show tunes each week for the sermon, no more glorious or divinely inspired than the underpaid mason who built the beautiful cathedrals. Bach was a humble employee with a boss and a weekly deadline.

In his time nobody proclaimed him a genius. He was just the guy who helped put the weekly sermon together. Now I don’t know what Bach’s reason for being was. It is not important since it is speculation for me. I know little about the man. I’m just using him as a metaphor. To make my point I am going to make up his purpose and say that he wrote for others – for his boss, to feed his family.

And I think that is what a green builder does. They are servants to the planet. Their creative genius comes second to their devotion to improving the planet. I would actually say that is their creative genius but it is a selfless one.

I’m not saying the Artiste isn’t selfless. I would have died for my art. Nothing was more important than creation. My friends, myself, my family, the world, it all came second to my creative purpose. I sacrificed it all for the art. My point here is that the health of the planet was very low on my list of priorities.

Also, some people who don’t have the holistic vision of  the universe – that we are all connected – would see this servant attitude of putting other things before personal creativity as failure.

For example you see it portrayed in the film Barton Fink, where a writer strugles with these very issues of inner vision vs. worldly corruption of that vision.

There is a scene in the movie when Fink the idealistic writer is explaining to the life hardened producer about wanting to write “something beautiful” with the screenplay. The producer, Lipnik, lays him out with the “hard truth”:

“You think the whole world revolves around whatever rattles inside that little kike head of yours? You think you’re the only writer that can give me that ‘Barton Fink’ feeling? I’ve got a HUNDRED writers that can give me that ‘Barton Fink’ feeling!”

But if you understand that we are all connected, that the flap of a butterfly does create storms on the other side of the planet, then you know that the most self preserving, self satisfying thing to do is to serve the whole with an understanding that you are not separate from it.

And even more importantly you can see that serving the whole and following your inner soul is one and the same.

There is no choice between one or the other. We are always doing both. The important thing, though, and this in my mind is really, really, important, is to understand you can’t do one without the other. To truly know it – and this can be a life long realization. It is the basis of most religions and how many enlightened people do you know? For most people becoming one with the universe is an elusive experience we may never have.

But just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

This was the source of Fink’s struggle and the producers hardness. They could not see the wholeness of the universe. They thought that self creation was separate from universal unity. And likewise does Woods and Roark.

Perhaps that view is their contribution to the world – their inability to see the whole? “It’s the only way I know how to work” as Woods says.

But I don’t think so. Regardless of our talents, we all have something to contribute in the grand scheme of things. From a universal point of view the mail carrier and the Mozart are all crucial. And to know that is to know we are all connected.

Focus On Our Connections

So the trick for me is not to worry about my talents but to focus on my connections – to the planet, my family, my neighbors, the air I breathe and the food I eat.

And to serve. It almost doesn’t matter what – Serve my family, my clients, my workers. Ultimately I hope it all goes to serving the planet and the universe. Ultimately I hope, in my limited understanding of how things work, that through serving I am served. Because an interconnected web always comes back to itself.

But as a green builder I serve first and foremost nature, with the understanding that both the oceans and my tap water, the Savannah of Africa and my close family are all part of the nature I serve.

I set out each day with this intention and over the course of a million decisions each day the question is always – which choice serves nature best?

Does this mean I piss my girlfriend off? My neighbors? Myself? Yes. Unfortunately. Regrettably. Embarrassingly.

My acts don’t always harmoniously balance the universal whole with loading the dishwasher in time. I tend to err in favor of some universal planetary savior thing, which ironically is due to me being self centered and forgetting that loading the dishwasher is just as much a part of the whole.

But my life is not over and I hope that as I mature I will improve the balance between immediately local needs like mortgages and more esoteric needs like saving rain forests I have never visited. Both are important.

Note: Congratulations you managed to wade through the entire rant. Now if you could comment below and tell me what I was trying to say that would be great because I lost myself about half way through. But I know it is important and would love for somebody to explain it to me.

Module System

Back to the book. Woods’ main point in the book is the connection between geometry and earth, and that nature is inherently geometric. He thus presents the Module System.

The module system is very simple: always design in measurements of 4 feet.

A room should be 12’x20′ and never 9’x23′. Always use increments of 4′. You can go smaller. A closet can be 2’x6′. But never 2.5’x5′. Like wise a house can be 32′ high but not 33′.

charles woods thinking modular

The reason for this, and I agree entirely, is that the module system forces the home to be inwardly symmetrical. Like our body, a seashell, a leaf, the house retains an inner harmony where all the parts resonate on the same linear language.

charles woods modular geometry

I think his choice of 4′ as the module foundation is a little random. I don’t know enough about nature’s measurements or sacred geometry to know if 4′ is any better than say 3′. Maybe we should be building along the Golden Triangle?

golden_triangle_log_spiral

But either way if you stick to a modular foundation, and 4′ makes a lot of sense in today’s building since things are often in segments of 4′ – the 4’x8′ plywood for example – then you create an inner harmony. The 4′ foundation is also a hell of a lot easier than some of the more complex sacred geometry ratios.

charles woods design based on modular harmony

Like a dew drop that holds itself together, the house will also hold itself together. There is an inner tension that holds all parts tegother. Without it the dew drop falls apart and becomes chaos. Without an innner harmony in a house it starts to look like a bunch of sticks and stones randomnly thrown together and it is painful to live in.

This modular system is both simple and genius and everything in the world should be built using a foundation grid.

charles woods design 2

charles woods design 3

charles woods design 4

Green Contractor Defined

A couple years ago I was looking into the cold blue eyes of a lying, money grubbing man. He also happened to be a neighborhood contractor. And he said to my face in all seriousness, “I am a green contractor.”

Having seen the future of contracting he had started to use low VOC paints and he had hired a construction manager with LEED AP credentials. I saw right through it. He was simply a smart business man with good marketing skills. Yet maybe he did see himself as a green contractor. Maybe he just had a different definition. To some people he probably did look like a green contractor.

I walked away with an acute awareness that the bandwagon called “green” was immense.

How many times has a middle aged burly man stood up in the aisles of Lowes and miraculously become a “Green Contractor.” These days it happens all the time.

But then I started thinking:

What if this despicable human who couldn’t care less about the planet and only cared about his selfish gain actually acted like a good green builder, meaning he recycled, used non toxic materials, built lots of green roofs and helped people live a healthy life?

Sure he was doing it for all the wrong reasons but does the outcome render the intention immaterial?

What if you expand this person to all people so that the entire world population were obsessed with being ecological, some out of love and others out of self serving interests?

Would we not turn the planet green nonetheless?

I don’t know.

What I did realize from that man was that I needed to own the definition of green, not types like him. I had to define it to the world. I do this both though my actions and my self imposed Life Label as a “Green Contractor and Builder”, combining name and act to create a definition people can gauge other people by.

Ever since that contractor put on the same team jersey as me despite not being on the team I have been obsessed with what it means to be a “Green Builder.” I am constantly searching, like a soul is explored, into what it really means to be a green builder, fully knowing that my definition will immediately become outdated.

How can you define a living entity? Have you ever stared at a cloud, how the only way you know it is changing shape  is because the shape looks different than a second ago. But you never saw it change! It is too subtle.

And again, does it matter if in the end they build green?

But last week it hit me like a ray of sun shining though FSC sawdust in the air. This time I really think I got it.

Here it is, the definition of “Green Builder”:

Somebody who puts the welfare of the planet before anything else.

Period.

It is not how many VOC’s your paint has. It is who you are looking out for.

Who is number one on the list? The health of the planet.

As a builder, does every single decision you make hover over how you can make the planet healthier?

If you answer yes then you can call yourself a “Green Builder.”

Before you accuse me of being impractical and fanatically idealistic, remind yourself that the client and the contractor belong to the planet, so their health on all levels is part of the “Green Builder” equation. The contractor needs to make money and the client needs a home to be “healthy”.

For they are part of the whole we seek to keep full of health.

But a Green Builder does not dwell too long on the health of the client and his own self. After a breif pause on those needs, the Green Builders pans out wide again, very wide to see the whole picture, relegating the needs of client and contractor in context to the whole world.

We are not narrow sighted in our outlook but far reaching and broad. We see global. Take it a step further: universal. Forget Earth, how about:

A Green Builder wants to make the Universe healthier.

They do it with every stroke of that paint brush.

With this definition everything is so easy. The next time I look into those cold blue eyes and the man tells me he is  a Green Contractor I simply need to ask myself, “Does this man put the health of the planet above all else?”

The answer is no. So it does not matter how well he walks the walk of green building because with this definition the attention is shifted away from action and results and put on PRIORITIES.

It is all about priorities. Two babies drowning in a pool. The one you save first is your priority. Where do this person’s priorities lie? With himself, with me, with the world? The two first options are atomistic, meaning singular and exclusive. The third option, the world, is holistic and include the other two options.

Ever heard of the “Win Win” concept in business where instead of only you win or only I win we both win. Not yin, not yang but the circle of both. Holistic.

So this brings us to the grand finales of Green Contractor Defined!

A green contractor is one who always thinks holistically

Sure they put the world first, sure they also help the client and themselves but more important than those atomistic details, the Green Contractor is constantly looking for the entire picture. They are endlessly trying to see the always changing whole.

Like cloud watchers they strive to define the undefinable, to peek ever so quickly into the meaning of life that ties all these parts into a unified mass. In the end a green builder doesn’t build houses. A green builder builds meaning that makes sense when looked at close as a paint stroke and far as a nebula.

Right now that meaning is green, tomorrow it may be something else. Only the green builder will know.

Peeking through universe

Brooklyn Farmers’ Market and Twinkies

I see the Brooklyn Farmers’ Market as the antithesis of a Twinkie.

The Twinkie is always the same. It lasts forever, is full of chemicals and is made on some distant planet. And never does it create a healthy sense of community.

The Brooklyn Farmers’ Market on the other hand is possibly the most powerful community force since Indians sat around camp fires on the banks of the East River.

The Farmers’ Market is never the same, bursting with a variety of heirloom vegetables, intelligent people and seasonal fare. It does not last forever but rather only happens during a certain window of time at a certain place, thus pulling you into the immediate world around you. It is devoid of chemicals and unites local people and food together. And it creates such a powerful sense of community.

As a Brooklyn green builder I am passionate about things that build community – not only for people but for the diverse species of plants and animals in the world. The Farmers’ Market encourages farming a diversity of small ecosystems where humans and nature interact in a more balanced way.

You can feel this at the Farmers’ Market. The people selling their food are passionate about health and holistic thinking. Everyone has found themselves in a supermarket asking a question of the supermarket employee to realize not only do they know nothing about the food they are stocking but couldn’t care less.

Not so at the Farmers’ Market. I educate myself on food and the environment but I look to these people for advice. The guy who sells cheese not only knows the scientific names of the cheese cultures but what temperatures they work best at and what foods bring them to live. The mushroom vendor knows all the medicinal attributes of their food. Never will you look at a shitaki mushroom the same after hearing about their psychological and physiological impact on your body.

Today I went to the Farmers’ Market, like I do every Sunday and like always it was an enlightening joy. I ran into neighbors, I discovered new fruits and vegetables, and it was pointed out by the bread guy how the organic flower that is sprinkled on the freshly baked bread had a “cool zen garden pattern”:

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I saw exotic colors and unusual shapes. Life had come back to food. Food had come back to life.

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The market was buzzing with smells, music and invigorated people. There was a bioculture. There was life. Healthy life. Despite the sweltering heat people were being part of and actively making community.

Just for fun, for a dose of contrast, I popped into the local box store across the street. Its super air conditioned halls were so cool and refreshing compared to the heat outside. And yet the halls were empty. The place was lifeless. The worker didn’t know if they sold Twinkies but he did point me to the food isle, if you can call it that, just beyond the candy isle and before the footcare  isle. It had an variety packaging, all containing dead food, all a variation of corn syrup and salt.

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It is a sad fact that people actually consider this a place to buy food. The Farmers’ Market, despite its wonder, is VERY expensive. The people from the projects two blocks away do not and can not shop at the Farmers’ Market. They shop at the box store, where you get what you pay for.

You see, the Farmers’ Market charges up front. When you buy an heirloom tomato you are paying for the real cost of food. You are paying for a living wage, for healthy crop yields, for small scale economy, and for health. It is like paying in cash. You leave the market not owing anyone anything.

When you buy the tin of processed food you are not paying up front. Despite the sub par quality of the food, you don’t pay for the soil erosion, the chemical contamination, the diversity extinction, the poor wages or the many other costs associated with selling a product under cost. It is put on a credit card you that you pay later. In fact we may well be paying for many generations to come.

And yet “poor” people can’t afford anything other than buying on credit. The Farmers’ Market is out of their economic reach. They are stuck in a system they not only keep alive by consuming it’s output but are the slaves that run it. They produce the garbage in the big box stores and that garbage is all they can afford.

How do we break that cycle. How do they get access to the Farmers’ Market?

I don’t know. I am a green builder. I know about other things. I however do appreciate the Farmers’ Market and am grateful I am part of its cycle.

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Eco Brooklyn Green Building Terms

On the Eco Brooklyn job sites we have certain green building concepts that we use. They are mostly coined by me to help the crew and clients understand what Eco Brooklyn’s core goals are. They are easy rallying points to help us all stay on track.

These terms can be searched on this site for more details. Here they are in short:

Build It Forward

We have been given a gift by the builders who originally built brownstones. They are wonderful structures. Our job as green builders is to be custodians of those brownstones and build them forward, meaning we build so that our work is a gift to future generations. This means we build with value, longevity and integrity – all sustainable concepts. We don’t build crap that saps the resources for future generations rather we add value and store that value in the brownstone.

Zero Brownstone

A zero brownstone has been renovated along certain low waste, low consumption and energy efficient principles. During the deconstruction phase (aka demo phase) zero waste is created. All “waste” is salvaged and organized so that it can be reused onsite or on another job. During the rebuilding phase no new materials are bought. Everything we put back into the brownstone is salvaged or recycled. The final brownstone is built using energy efficient techniques so that it consumes no energy off site.

Firstly it consumes very little energy due to good design – insulation, solar design, energy efficient appliances – and the energy it does consume is generated onsite via PV, Solar Thermal or geothermal. The brownstone is also designed to create zero waste via gray water, composting food scraps and toilet waste. These are lofty goals but with each renovation we perfect the process further.

The City Provides

This concept plays on the idea of abundance. The city has everything we need via dumpsters, other job sites, craigslist, and throwaways. We treat the city as our big momma who provides us with everything we need to turn it green. When we need something instead of presuming our only resource is a store we presume the resources are just around the corner.

Harvest the City

Along the same lines as The City Provides, Harvest the City revives the idea of old fashioned harvesting of nature. It helps us see the city as a biological entity rather than a dead layer of concrete and steel. The city is our field from which we harvest resources – again from other dismantled buildings, dumpsters etc. The city is also under our custodianship so that it continues to provide a bountiful harvest – we manage the resources intelligently and share then with others so they are maximized.

Gotham Forest

This is not my term. The Gotham Forest is the millions of board feet of timber sequestered away in our buildings. About a hundred years ago forests of old growth trees were cut down to build New York. This ancient wood sits in our buildings protected and ready for reuse. Each time we dismantle a building for another use or for an upgrade we get access to this amazing wood. It should provide us with wood for a long time to come.

Eco Brooklyn has yet to buy new wood. We have not bought any new flooring, studs, joists or molding. Yet we build mostly with wood since it is harder to salvage metal. We do this thanks to the abundance of wood it old New York and Brooklyn brownstones.

Guerrilla Green Building

I mentioned this during an interview once and it was published. Only then did I realize how key this is to Eco Brooklyn’s model. Guerrilla Green Building is what allows Eco Brooklyn to build green while keeping our costs low and making a large impact. Basically we turn green building into a political ethical enterprise and not merely another consumer market.

Eco Brooklyn has shattered the connection between high costs and green building because we source our materials differently than other wanna be green builders. Their idea of building green is buying green. There are countless companies who have met the demand for green stuff. And they charge a premium because there is limited competition and the volume is still low. But that is still stuck in the old model of consumerism, which is the root of our ecological crisis.

Eco Brooklyn practices Guerrilla Green Building by not only changing how we build but also “why” we build and how we source. We build not only because it is a great business opportunity but because it transforms how business is done for the better. We are Turning Brooklyn Green and by connection the world. That is the why.

The sourcing – dumpsters, salvage etc – is more than a practical way to save money. It is a direct snub of consumer practices, something we believe needs to be drastically reduced if we are going to save the planet. The director of corporate sales at Lowes is a business friend of mine. But he jokes that Eco Brooklyn is his worst client. And we are. We are determined to minimize what we buy new.

Turn Brooklyn Green

This is the daily ongoing goal of Eco Brooklyn. It is our mantra, the meter with which we keep ourselves on track. It is a simple localized focus that is very easy to gauge. Do our decisions help turn Brooklyn green? Will building this wall help turn Brooklyn green? Will this job help turn Brooklyn green? With this guide we stay focused on a mission that is easy to rally around and easy to feel you are making progress on a daily basis. It makes it easy for us to feel we have a purpose in life, easy to feel good about what we are doing.

Triple Bottom Line

This is not my term. The triple bottom line is another easy metric. Do our actions benefit People, Planet and Profit? Again we ask ourselves this on an ongoing basis. You can expand and contract the scale depending on the situation and make the focus global or very localized to one job situation. Basically does it help the people involved, the planet and does it make profit (or savings) for the people involved (workers, clients, neighbors, people in China etc).

Building Integrated Prayer Wheels

You’ve got the efficiencies of building mounted wind turbines and then you’ve got the efficiencies of karma.

In response to a recent Environmental Building News feature story about the inefficiencies of building-integrated wind turbines comes this subtly hilarious examination of the efficiencies of building-integrated prayer wheels.

Now of course if you are a Tibetan Buddhist, and there are many, increasing the efficiency of good karma through making prayer wheels more effective is a very serious matter. I’m all for anything that makes more good vibes.

A building integrated wind turbine is mounted on the roof and turns with wind. A building integrated prayer wheel is mounted at street level and is turned by people’s hands. With each turn of either wind turbine or prayer wheel you generate energy. Whether it is electricity or good karma, its all just energy.

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Turning Work Down

I had an interesting call just now. A developer called me wanting me to go check out a brownstone he had just bought and wanted to renovate. He buys a lot of properties, renovates and sells. He didn’t know about Eco Brooklyn but somebody had given him my number and said we did good work.

I pointed out that before we meet he should probably check out our web site. I explained we weren’t your typical contractor. We were a green contractor and that meant a different way of doing things.

He said, “Green is good these days, it is a good selling point. I’m open to that.”

I pointed out that we also like making money but that wasn’t the only thing. We were doing it to make the world a better place.

He said, “I too want to help the world but I need to sell these things. This green stuff costs more right?”

I said it didn’t necessarily cost more but it might take more time to build.

I finally told him that I didn’t think Eco Brooklyn would be a good match for him.

I have mixed feelings about this. Some would say that I should have taken the opportunity. He does volume and it would be a good chance to influence him and make more of an impact on turning Brooklyn green. I would have to work hard to show the benefits of green and I know there would be times where I would have to compromise. The hope is that I make enough of a difference for it to be worth while.

But it is not easy being a green contractor in Brooklyn. There is a lot of resistance. People have a lot of reasons not to build green. I could spend my life trying to convince people of the benefits of green building.

I have decided not to try and convince anyone. I have too much green building to do to spend energy on that. I am very lucky that the green minded clients find us. We have plenty of work with very progressive clients who want exactly what we do. In fact they look to us for guidance on how to me more green.

I have found that if you are idealistic you can use it in two ways. You can try to convince others of your views or you can live out your views for yourself. Trying to change others is a loosing game. It is a road to frustration and bitterness.  But living out your idealism is a very satisfying path. You essentially create alternate realities. Yours and other peoples’.

With time people with the same views will find you and with more time your group becomes big. If your views are sustainable (i.e. are able to last) then it will become the dominant view. Unsustainable views (i.e. are not able to last)  will naturally go to the wayside.

This is the natural flow of life. It takes no effort. There is no moral judgment. It is just about doing what makes you happy.

So with this guy I don’t think his actions are sustainable. He is welcome to check out our web site and see how we do things. But over time I think he will not be able to continue doing what he does. I do think the way Eco Brooklyn does things is sustainable and over time I think it will grow, both the company and the movement.