InsideClimate News – Brooklyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Christopher Jeffrey

Klearwall Windows and Doors

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

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

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

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

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

A model of Klearwall triple paned window.
A model of Klearwall triple paned window.

Energy Efficient Buildings

The book “Energy Efficient Buildings: Architecture, Engineering, and Environment” by Hawkes and Forster is a little misleading in its title since it only covers large educational and commercial buildings for the most part. The residential buildings it covers are also large multifamily structures.

It does not address smaller buildings at all and the title should make some reference to this.

As a New York green contractor primarily interested in smaller buildings I did not get as much as I would have liked from the book for this reason.

Nonetheless it does showcase some beautiful structures that exemplify our societies best technological achievements. In this I am also pointing out that the book is almost void of structures that rely on more natural low tech materials and techniques.

I tend to be more of a low tech green builder, looking more to how things were built two thousand years ago for inspiration rather than building techniques that require a PhD in molecular chemistry to understand.

The buildings in this book have a lot of very advanced engineering and chemistry, and in many ways is a glimpse into the future of building. My one  concern is that these same buildings have a lot in them that can break.

I am a huge fan of Passive House construction, which is the height of modern technological building, so I fully support using modern science to increase the energy efficiency of buildings.

However I would have loved to see more examples of earth sheltered buildings with integrated biology. The buildings in this book continue in the tradition of beautiful structures standing in start contrast with their surroundings. The artist statement. The “creative genius” of the lone architect.

Mont Cenis Training Center, an example of the books’ buildings.

My preference is the opposite, where the builder attempts to remove their signature and simply highlights the genius of nature. A non-building hidden in a complex ecological network of natural and human bio-systems, very much along the line of Malcolm Wells‘ design.

A Building by Malcolm Wells

Lastly, how can you make a book about energy efficient buildings without mentioning Passive House? That is like writing about renewable energy and not mentioning solar panels.

 

 

We Love Motherplants

brooklyn landscape design

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

living roof

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

ny green contractor

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

ny green design build

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

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

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

Recap of Panel Discussion on Green Design as (Un)usual

NYC sustainable design

On June 7th, Van Alen Books hosted a panel discussion on architect David Bergman’s book Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide. Susan Szenasy, Editor-in-chief of Metropolitan Magazine, moderated the panel, which was made up of architect and professor David Bergman, Terreform ONE co-founder and Planetary ONE partner Mitchell Joachim, and NYC Department of Design and Construction Director of Creative Services Victoria Milne.

NYC sustainable design

The intent of Bergman’s book was to give perspective on what sustainable design is and where it is headed versus where we want it to go. He reminds us that before the Industrial Revolution people designed with what nature provided but after we started looking at nature as an obstacle, something to overcome. As Szenasy pointed out, people wanted to subdue nature and we always referred to nature as “her.”

Green design, in many ways, is an attempt to return to the pre-Industrial Revolution way of thinking in order to sustain our natural resources long into the future.  Bergman argues that it has evolved into several stages from “Design as Usual” to “Design as Unusual” to “Green Design as Unusual” to “Green Design as Usual”. In a nutshell, designers first started doing unusual things in response to the environmental movement– this got labeled as green design– which eventually became more commonplace in the design world, or “usual.”

Now Bergman asks if we should be heading toward a new stage called “Design as Usual” where the green element of design becomes transparent. “Transparent green” is the idea that green thinking should be integral to all design and not a separate category. It sounds good but Bergman poses this question: if green is implied in design, will consumers stay aware of sustainability issues? This is where the panel started.

It seemed to be unanimously agreed that sustainability must be achieved through redesigning systems, not just products. Milne stated that government has the ability to create sustainable, closed systems and that there is an opportunity there to change market demands and standards, unlike within the private sector, which seldom stays in a closed system and has different motivations.

Joachim asserted that there is a need to reform education so that systems-thinking is better incorporated. He was opposed to the idea of specified majors that restrict students to only thinking about the world in one sense. Bergman agreed and said that that is why he loves architecture so much, “It is one of the last generalist fields.”

There needs to be a shift in society’s mindset toward consumption. Product designers shouldn’t be working with perceived or planned obsolescence in mind. Architects shouldn’t be wasting tons of materials and energy on decorative features. The public should divorce itself from such things as the idea of shopping as recreation. How do we do this?

Szenasy wonders why these issues haven’t gotten better PR. Why, for example, isn’t New York City prouder of its green efforts? City planners across the country look to New York as a leader in green design. Milne applauded the city’s efforts toward “active design,” which is where city infrastructure is built to engage the public and force them to exercise. But how many people are even aware that the city is doing that? How many people would be upset that the city is doing that? Look at the High Line. Cities around the country are starting projects to mimic New York’s great park yet the panel wondered, how many New Yorkers are aware of the sustainable implications of the park, how it’s revitalized a neighborhood, how the use of native plants has reduced water and energy use while also increasing native biodiversity, and so forth?

Someone suggested one reason is because when people think of “green”, they think of the apocalypse. People don’t want to think of the possibility of humanity ending, especially if it is because of their own irresponsible behaviors. Joachim said many people see green standards as a loss of liberty. Living sustainably often means giving something up and no one wants to be forced to do that.

In the end, it seems like the solution lies somewhere between education and redesign. Society needs to better understand how and why to live green and the systems we live in need to be reorganized.

 

By: Malone Matson

Review: Anthony Archer-Wills, Water Garden Designer

NY Sustainable construction

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some examples of his work:

Backyard pond design NY

NY Green Contractor

NY Sustainable construction

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another job we completed was a pond and little stream.

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

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

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

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

Green water garden/green pond

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

Design Revolution Book and a New York Living Machine

I read the book Design Revolution, 100 Products That Empower People by Emily Pilloton to see if any of the designs could apply to a New York green contractor.

The book is organized into eight sections:

Education

Enterprise

Water

Energy

Mobility

Food

Well-being

Play

There were plenty of great ideas that could be applied to a New York city home – cool solar panels/wind harvesters in the form of leaves, composting toilets that normal people would use, all sorts of bike ideas, and a food composter that looks like an espresso machine.

The most interesting thing for me was the Eco-Machine, designed by Todd Ecological, a company founded by John Todd. An Eco Machine, also known as a living machine, uses plants and microbes to filter waste water. This has direct applications for New York ecological landscaping and green construction.

A Brooklyn brownstone, instead of passing its sewer to, say, the Gowanus Canal it would pass it to a series of water gardens in the yard. These gardens would be beautifully designed to fit into the an environment used by children, adults, pets and Williamsburg hipsters.

The key is in the design of combining function and aesthetic, something a good eco-landscaper could do. The end result of the Brooklyn Brownstone living machine is a lush yard full of healthy plants and a NY sewer system that is not overloaded.

This is not unrealistic. It is very practical and possible. It is also illegal. Great ideas move faster than massive bureaucracies like the Department of Buildings and Department of Environmental Protection….

A living machine system in Florida

As an ecological landscaper who uses gray water and rain water runoff to feed the garden the idea of a living machine takes it a step further. Very exciting stuff and something I plan on implementing at an undisclosed brownstone near you.

Japan Style and Green Building

The book Japan Style – architecture + interiors + design, by Geeta Mehta and Kimie Tada contains lush photographs by Noboru Murata and is an inspiring insight into how traditional Japanese buildings are deeply green.

Green building is a symbiosis of many levels that forms a harmonious whole, and architecture in older societies like Japan is filled with a complex structure that covers an astounding array of natural, social and spiritual perspectives.

The book does a great job at showing these levels.

I am especially drawn to the book because the homes are on small lots in urban environments, and as a New York green contractor I know very well what it means to build green on small urban lots.

Unlike your typical New York homes, the Japanese homes in this book are expansive and deeply connected to nature. They are not expansive in size, in fact the homes are minuscule compared to US standards, rather they are expansive in style.

And this is the genius of traditional Japanese architectural design. The photographs show rooms and vistas as broad as a mansion, yet the square footage is not. This real feeling of space and airiness is achieved through intelligent placement of openings onto the garden, the use of fine building materials and a sparseness of design that was modern many centuries before Modernism became popular.

So much of Japanese traditional building echoes today’s green building ethos. The materials are all natural. The floor plans are small. Rooms are used for multiple uses. There is a deep connection between the home and the natural surroundings around it, both in terms of design and materials. The buildings follow the credos of “Less is more” and “form follows function”.

But most importantly for me the design is based on the understanding that our home is, like our body, a temple full of spiritual power. This element turns a collection of building materials into something more than rooms and walls. By being built with an understanding of the spiritual element of design, these homes not only give protection to the body but give support to the soul.

Green building is about natural materials, low embodied energy and energy efficiency. But it is a sack of bricks without the meaning behind it, which has many levels, from political, ecological, social, cultural and yes, spiritual. This meaning is something the traditional Japanese builders, with the benefit of a deep and old culture, drew from and imbued into their work.

The result is a home that nourishes on so many levels. My green contracting work in NY is a world apart from traditional Japan, but in this postmodern world where green building is both simultaneously drawing from cutting edge technology on one side and centuries old techniques on the other, there is a place for traditional Japanese building techniques on my tool belt.

A green builder, if anything, is somebody with a large tool belt.

A Little Book of Coincidence

A Little Book of Coincidence of the Solar System by John Martineau is one of those beauties of the universe that in one hour can make you realize how perfectly placed everything is, that everything is in perfect harmony with everything else and that there are wondrous mysteries to life that maybe we will never know.

But we can try.

And his book does a great job at showing some of those mysteries.

As a green builder I am especially interested in sacred spacial relationships, that is, spacial relationships that keep coming up again and again in the universe and in nature.

These spacial relationships resonate with us, and as a builder if I can implement them in the green renovations we do then I am creating a space that is in harmony with the universe.

This seems a grand ambition for a humble New York green contractor but if indeed we are all connected then the universal numbers are applicable anywhere, even in a Brooklyn brownstone.

Martineau’s book is an amazing insight into the solar system’s planets and their relationship together. He shows that their proportions, orbit sizes, distances to each other and relationship to the earth have astounding “coincidences”, which is another way of saying we have no idea why.

Check out this site for a detailed insight into some of the relationships. It points out countless relationships, for example:

 Of all the truly amazing relationships, perhaps the best are the proportions between Earth and Mercury, and the Earth and Saturn (j), where both the orbits and physical sizes of the planets are related (both to 99% accuracy) — in one case a Phi-ve (five) pointed star, and a 30 pointed star for the other. Multi-pointed stars might seem to be stretching the point, but 30 is the first number which can be divided by 2, 3, and 5, and is the number of the outer trilithon divisions at Stonehenge. Coincidentally, Mercury and Saturn are the innermost and outermost of the medieval planets (those which can be seen with the naked eye). But you can also do the latter with a fifteen pointed star (i.e. five times three). So there!

Furthermore, the diameter of a circle based on Mercury’s aphelion (closest point) to the Sun, also happens to be the distance between the mean orbits of Mercury and Earth.

An even more famous coincidental arrangement is that Saturn takes the same number of years to go around the Sun as there are days between full (Earth) Moons (to 99.8% accuracy). Score one for the Lunatics!

Or another quote from the same site:

Stonehenge, by the way, is the most visited place of any kind in Europe — every year more people visit the site than were present on the face of the Earth at the time it was constructed.  Small wonder that visitors are drawn to the geometric masterpiece.  If for no other reason than that if Mars is sized so as to define the thickness of the inner bluestone horseshoe, then the Earth and Moon are sized as shown in the upper left figure. In the below first figure, all of the inner planets are sized (with Venus being slightly smaller than Earth, equivalent to the width of the main trilithon circle).  Meanwhile the second figure gives the orbits of Jupiter (h) and Saturn.  Note:  The architect(s) of Stonehenge apparently knew the physical sizes of the inner four planets!

And the accompanying images from the book:

Or how about this image from page 27 of the Coincidence book. It speaks about the relationship between Venus and the Earth. The image below shows the paths that the two planets take (as seen from above in space) as they move around the sun over an 8 year period.

Such geometry is astoundingly beautiful on many levels, especially visually, numerically and musically.

In terms of distance from the Sun you have Mercury, Venus then Earth. Musically, one Venus day is exactly two thirds of an earth year, which translates to a musical fifth. On the other side of Venus is Mercury. Two Mercury years is equal to one Venus day, which translates into a musical octave.

Numerically you have the Fibonacci series of numbers, which has a close relation to the Golden Ratio and phi. The Fibonacci numbers are 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21….The Golden Rule is extensively seen in ancient architecture as well as in nature. The nautilus shell is a classic example.

The Taj Mahal is one of many architectural buildings that are built along this universal relationship.

So back to the Coincidence book, the author points out that over the eight Earth years or thirteen Venusian years the two planets “kiss” five times, meaning Venus passes between the Earth and the Sun. 5, 8, and 13 are all in the Fibonacci series.

These are just a couple examples from the book which goes into much greater detail, all the while giving you a sense that we are just scratching the surface of “coincidences”.

What does it mean? I think the answer lies in our own mythology. For the image above of the dance of Venus and Earth it may be worth looking into the Eastern meaning of the lotus flower.

The author gives no answers, but simply shows what is there based on astronomical calculations.

For me it is inspiring. A green builder is building in harmony with nature. The planets are a good reference point for that. To truly be a custodian of the Earth we need to look at it from beyond, from the Solar System at the very least.

 

Handmade Houses, A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

An example of one person's creative home making

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

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

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

The Brooklyn green show house lower duplex with fire escape catwalk, cement floor and earthen walls
Stairs from old growth pine, clay wall and a boulder we found while digging out the cellar. We call her Lucy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humble Homes, Simple Shacks, Cozy Cottages, Ramshackle Retreats, Funky Forts: And Whatever the Heck Else We Could Squeeze in Here

The book Humble Homes, Simple Shacks, Cozy Cottages, Ramshackle Retreats, Funky Forts: And Whatever the Heck Else We Could Squeeze in Here is a cross between Malcolm Wells and redneck literature.

The author, Derek “Deek” Diedricksen, is a scrappy young guy who took his love for kid forts and turned it into a deep study of how to build tiny shelters on a budget.

The book is full of scribbles and rambles (very much along the humor and style of Malcolm Wells) on how to build your own back yard or forest hideaway.

As a New York green contractor I appreciate his creativity among all else. At Eco Brooklyn sure we eco-renovate New Yorkers’ homes and commercial spaces but what we really do is find creative ways to re-purpose garbage.

We come across a dumpster and we’re like, “Here is a cool piece of garbage, how can we turn it into something useful? I know! Lets make a counter out of it!”

And the next thing you know we are putting it into a two million dollar brownstone and making it look like a million bucks. You can’t buy that at a store.

 

 

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.

Bringing Passivhaus to Harlem

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

http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/green-building-news/bringing-passivhaus-harlem

Who Can Afford to Build Green?

Eco Brooklyn recently obtained a copy of McGraw Hill’s Green Building: Square Foot Costbook 2012. Construction cost data books are intended for use by planners and builders who would like to get a quick, rough idea of how much a job might cost.

I think it’s pretty cool that green building is at a point where resources like this are being published, making it easier for conventional builders to consider getting into more sustainable practices. The book only offers a few dozen individual case studies, but this is still valuable information – when you consider that not knowing what costs to expect scares many builders away from switching to green. Or what also happens is the contractor overbids on the job to cover the unknowns, thus making it too expensive.

To some, green building is still some mysterious high technology developed by experts that people would purchase if only it wasn’t so darned expensive. On the other hand, as a New York green contractor, we feel green building is a common sense, affordable approach toward radical efficiency, developed side-by-side with an informed client. In short, it isn’t complicated or expensive.

McGraw Hill’s Green Building: Square Foot Costbook 2012 helps people understand this by putting numbers to the jobs, lifting the veil of mystery over what something should cost.

We want to see the green building industry grow not only in demand but also in supply. Our goal is to turn NY green, which is part of our thinking globally and acting locally strategy. So more green building companies may mean more competition but it also means a greener NY, which is what we really care about.

The demand is there so we don’t worry about there being enough business.

Hopefully this book will help non-green contractors be more confident on bidding on green jobs. The more of us there are working towards a greener world only helps Eco Brooklyn further our goals of sound ecology and social justice.

courtesy of Nausicaa Aquarium, France

 

 

New Green City: A key element to Green design and construction.

On a beautiful fall day in early October, Eco Brooklyn, a New York City green contractor, took to the South Plaza of Union Square in downtown Manhattan to check out New Green City, an event hosted by GrowNYC.  The event hosted many contributors, ranging from non-profits and schools to entrepreneurs, government agencies, and corporate sponsors.  All sharing programs, services, products, and insights as to how to make New York City, New Green City through solar, wind, and agricultural terms. The tents were wide spread over the south side of Union Square, with a large crowd through most of the afternoon. 

Two really great tents were Ethikus, a online community of ethical and sustainable shoppers, that also offers deals and discounts to these great local shops in downtown Manhattan, and The New School’s Eco-Lectures focusing on sustainable foods, Eco-Farms and solar energy, giving out great information these subjects. With a ton of other great tents thanks to GrowNYC,  everyone in New York should take advantage of these great green companies.

Aside from the goal of a New Green City, at Eco Brooklyn we believe that the ultimate goal should be a total green city, built from the ground up with recycled and reused materials, and making zero energy homes.  Although the companies at New Green City don’t specialize in building, they do make great strides in lowering energy use and continuing the discussion of green policy, which are things that can not wait but happen immediately. Not only did New Green City bring together lots of outsiders to the green movement, but also created the opportunity for great minds in the green industry to collaborate, furthering our knowledge and reach as a green community. Eco Brooklyn will definitely have a tent next time, or next year, but until then, these are great ideas and options for making NYC a greener place.

The Majestic Plastic Bag: A Mockumentary

Here is a great clip pretending to be a nature show following the “life” cycle of the plastic bag from strip malls in California to the great garbage island in the Pacific. Narrated by Jeremy Irons, it is really great.

What I love about the clip is how it not only shows the tragedy of our consumer society, but almost more deeply it shows the joke of nature shows and in turn the way most people regard nature. Meant to get us closer to nature, nature shows allow us to stay at a safe distance and watch nature conveniently in an “improved” version, with slow motion, close ups and with the days, weeks, even months where nothing much happens edited out.

Only in this case it is a plastic bag we are watching as it “majestically migrates” thousands of miles in under four minutes thanks to the film maker’s skillful editing.

I’m reading Timothy Morton‘s book Ecology Without Nature and he talks about this romaticization and distancing of nature, a tradition deeply rooted in our culture thanks to the Romantic movement and even earlier… coinciding exactly with when we started really reeving up our destruction of the planet…a coincidence? Not at all.

Definitely worth looking into further, if anything worth looking into your own perception of and interaction with nature. Does your romanticization and abstraction of “nature” effect how you interact (or lack of) with “real” nature in your life?

This separation is very dangerous on many levels. There is a general belief that because we hold nature on a pedestal we are doing it a service, even helping to save it….but any feminist will tell you that the pedestal is the first sign of dis equality, because if there is the pedestal then the dualistic law of the universe requires there also be a stool – the pendulum must never stop swinging.

So as we elevate nature above (and away from) us in reverence one day, we inevitably will lower it below us is contempt another day. In both cases nature is “the other” something not connected to us.

You see this so often in dominant culture’s views towards minorities. Take the Spanish Gyspy, “so beautiful” in their flamenco dress, so “soulful”, so “full of life” in their singing and dancing. What is inferred but not said is that they are all these things UNLIKE the non-gypsy Spaniards, again the distancing by putting this exotic animal called Gypsy on a pedestal apart from the rest of the population.

And what happens next? You guessed it. The pendulum swings and this exotic animal that is so not like the rest of us becomes dangerous, dirty, thieving, drug dealing, the worst of society….

And all the while the “real” gypsy stands by scratching their head, dis-empowered, unseen, unheard and misunderstood. This is why it is so important to them to be called Roma. It is an attempt to define their own identity instead of the mainstream imposing a completely random one onto them.

Unfortunately the real animals in this world can’t tell us their real names. They stand there as we impose our definitions onto them through literature, movies, and yes documentaries.

The first step is to stop judging. Nature is not good, not bad. It is. Until is isn’t. And hopefully our mind’s ability to objectify will be overtaken by our equally powerful ability to understand through compassion before all of nature isn’t…and this has to happen NOW because things are really getting catastrophic.

Here is the video.

Salvaged Crystal Stone

Eco Brooklyn’s business model is to salvage as much as possible. We believe this is the true definition of a NY green contractor in a city with such abundant and high quality trash. We recently salvaged what we thought was marble. We cut it down to make all the bathroom and kitchen counters for the Brooklyn Green Show House.

But it turns out it is not marble but Crystal Stone, a human made product from waste glass, marble and other rocks. For us this is a double win: salvaged material that is recycled.

We discovered that it was Crystal Stone the hard way: after breaking several masonry bits. This stuff is HARD!

We should have suspected it wasn’t marble after leaving it outside in the rain and sun for a year. It didn’t stain or fade at all.

It is good stuff. Check it out here.

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Here is the stone after a year of sitting in the mud, sun and rain
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We cut it to shape and sanded it down
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And then sanded it some more...
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And here is the salvaged Crystal Stone in the kitchen. We made matching bathroom counters too.

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.

Tadelakt – An Old Moroccan Plaster Technique Newly Discovered – Book

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

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

From Wiki:

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

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

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

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

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An image from the book showing how they buff the lime
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This sink is entirely covered in Tadelakt

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

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

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

salledebain_tadelakt

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

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

Ultimate Air Energy Recovery Ventilator

We just made a last minute switch from Zehnder’s Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) to Ultimate Air’s ERV for our Manhattan Passive House project.

There were two main factors in this decision: price and USA made.

Zehnder is a great unit and Barry the sales rep is a great guy. You’ve got top grade quality and service. And I almost went with them.

But Ultimate Air is almost half the price as Zehnder and is thus much more affordable to a middle class home.

For a small 1400 square foot brownstone duplex the Zehnder will run you at about $6,000 in materials, including duct work etc.

For the same space and to do the same ventilation Ultimate Air will run you about $3,000. That’s a big difference.

Installation is about the same, with Zehnder being the faster and easier by a little but not enough to offset the savings by much.

This more approachable price very important to me. It is not just about saving money. It is about making the green technology available to the largest amount of people. If Eco Brooklyn is going to make a big impact in turning New York green through ecological renovations then we have to cater to the middle class price point.

It is hard to do that with a Zehnder.

The reason Zehnder is more expensive is that it comes from Europe so you have more middle men in the pot and more transport costs. Barry would argue that it simply is a better machine and thus worth more but Ultimate Air would disagree. I know, I talked to both of them.

Zehnder compares their units to the Prius car – more expensive but great and ecological. My answer to that is that the Prius is great at changing the way people see cars and trailblazing the way to the future. But until they come out with a Prius that is a hell of a lot cheaper it won’t change the world.

Early adopters and very idealistic people will always buy the Prius of the market place, but most people in this world can’t afford to buy with their morals. Most people are simply focused on staying above water and until green building can help them do that it isn’t going to change the world.

And here at Eco Brooklyn we are interested in products that help the middle class go green because if we achieve that we get the majority of NY. And if your goal is to turn NY green then you go for the majority.

This isn’t to say we won’t buy Zehnder. There is a place for it in the NY market. We’ll use it when the budget permits and the client prefers it over the Ultimate Air. Some of our clients buy Prius and we love them for it. Ecological idealism and the ability to back it up with money is a powerful and good thing.

One of the things that Zehnder has over Ultimate Air is that it is a much quieter machine. This is a problem with Ultimate Air. But with the extra money we saved with the units we can afford to buy insulated duct work that will eat up the sound issues.

For this job, where the budget is tight, Ultimate Air was a good choice. At Ultimate Air you have Jason, who knows his stuff. He can talk tech like anybody’s business. And Ultimate Air sells a good product. AND, and this is important, it is made in the USA.

I’m not nationalist. I am an internationalist through and through. I couldn’t care less if something was made my dudes with US passports or any other passport.

BUT, I am also very local minded and it is important to me that my local geographic region becomes strong in green building technologies. If we continue to buy Passive House products from Europe, who is way ahead of the US, then we won’t grow our own Passive House technology as quickly.

So supporting our very young Passive House friendly companies in the USA is a very important thing.

For this project Ultimate Air is a great fit.

Passive House Web Site

Here is a cool web site about all things Passive House, aptly called, International Passive House Magazine, or IPHM. It is run by Tamas Banki. Based in Hungary he is doing a great job pulling together all the PH info from around the world.

As a Passive House builder in New York I found the site interesting because it gave me a global perspective I hadn’t seen before. I’m familiar with the Irish PH community as well as the very large German and Austrian PH community.

What is cool about the IPHM is that it offers an “outsiders” perspective of the global PH movement. From my very insular NY Passive House perspective I find that perspective refreshing and informative.

I discovered the site when our very own NY PH dude Gregory Duncan was featured in an article on the site. Go Greg!

Green From the Ground Up Book

The book Green from the Ground Up – Sustainable, healthy, and energy-efficient home construction byDavid Johnston and Scott Gibson is one of my suggested books for Eco Brooklyn’s rookie workers and interns.

The book is very similar to Your Green Home – A Guide to Planning a Healthy, Environmentally Friendly, New Home by Alex Wilson, another excellent primer book I also recommend.

I like Green from the Ground Up a little more than Your Green Home in terms of glossy pictures and clarity. They have lots of great images and nice graphics that stimulate the eye. But that comes with a cost I would prefer to forego since the paper they used to print is not recycled. A lot of trees were cut down to make the book.

Your Green Home is more traditional with black and white images, and thus not so glam. But it says very humbly in small print (you have to look for it) that the book is “Ancient Forest Friendly: Printed on 100% Post-Consumer Recycled Paper.” Could a green building book be printed on anything BUT recycled paper? Of course not.

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A snapshot from the book Green from the Ground Up

Still, Green from the Ground Up, is a great book for anyone, master builder to novice. I like to flip through it and see how they describe things. It helps me when I’m explaining to say a client or a visiting class to our show house. It is also great to have the whole green building spectrum clearly organized into one book.

It is like a mini crash course in everything green building related.

As a New York green contractor part of our role is education and outreach, especially within our own team of builders. We are constantly learning and educating. And often we are discussing things with people who know nothing about green building but want to know more.

Green from the Ground Up and Your Green Home are easy to point to for something meaty. We also point them to our web site which has a lot of info. But the books are much more tangible and something they can read while commuting.

Another screen shot from the book
Another screen shot from the book

One of my criticisms of Green from the Ground Up (I have many. See this post) is that the book lacks info on the various rating systems and building techniques currently available. They only mention LEED and NAHB, both pretty tame rating systems. They also say that LEED is the only program that puts the exact requirements for earning green building status in writing and also the only program that requires third party verification.

This is incorrect. A much more effective green building rating system is the Passive House Standard, which also has very clear written guidelines and a rigorous approval process. In terms of stringent guidelines and energy efficiency of the finished home, Passive House makes LEED look like amateur fluff.

I am a LEED AP and also took the training for Passive House. Eco Brooklyn decided long ago that Passive House building is a key ingredient in green building and that LEED was a waste of money.  So for the book to not list Passive House was a major oversight.

But despite that the book is a good general reference for seasoned builders and a good primer for newbies.

Film Biz Recycling

I checked out Film Biz Recycling‘s warehouse today in Brooklyn on President and 3rd Ave. Eva Radke, founder and visionary, gave me a tour of the place. Film Biz Recycling collects all the  props and materials from film sets and offers it up for sale. You’ve got a great selection of cool stuff, from tables to lamps, carpets to antique signs.

The defining thing about the place is how well it is organized and presented. It isn’t depressing like a thrift shop. Things are displayed in an organized and pleasing way, obviously a result of Eva’s former production experience.

These things are also not ragged hand me downs, unwanted items from a consumer society. These things were bought to make a dream – a movie – and as such were never used. They are brand new. Even the ones that look old are simply playing their movie role. There is a feeling of glamour in each item and the overall feel is a hip boutique of odd ball items.

Unlike Build It Green, another place for finding salvaged stuff and which has more building type things (toilets, beams, appliances), Film Biz Recycling is more interior design related. But that is only a broad generalization, since what they have really depends on what films are wrapping up at the moment. If there’s a film out there about a carpenter you can bet Film Biz Recycling has a lot of wood shop stuff in it’s future. A film about baby’s, expect to find some great deals on baby strollers.

It is definitely worth checking out. The reason Eco Brooklyn is interested is that we build our New York brownstones exclusively with salvaged materials. So we are constantly on the look out for salvage streams. Film Biz Recycling is definitely another go to place in our daily harvest of salvaged materials.

As a New York green contractor, salvaging is a full time job for us. We have a guy who spends pretty much the whole week driving around sourcing salvaged materials. So allies like Film Biz Recycling are valuable to us in helping us streamline our salvage sourcing work.

I also like their web site. It is very much a web site of our time and really just a place page that links to the various social media platforms – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flikr….the site reflects a cutting edge way of looking at the world: that we are all connected, and this is really what Film Biz Recycling is about.

There is no such thing as trash in a world where we are all connected, just things that need to be passed on. The moment you forget that, you break the web and the results can really screw with the ecosystem.

Living City Block

The folks at Living City Block are coming to tour the Brooklyn Green Show House this wednesday. This is exciting because they share a lot of the same focus as Eco Brooklyn.

Their work sees the city as a bio-organism, where each block, each company, each house, each person are functioning aspects of the organism as a whole. That is my take on them at least.

If you look at it this way you can transform a city one block at a time by improving the ecology and strenthening community of that block.

Here at Eco Brooklyn we do the exact same thing but with more of a focus on the mechanics of ecology: how water flows from the houses, where the energy comes to feed the house, where building materials are sourced to build the businesses and homes. The back end if you will. The engine under the hood.

This will be an exciting meet since together we are working with the same entity – the city as a living creature.

We’ll keep you posted.

Clean Air Day

The web site CleanAirNY.org has an email list worth subscribing to. Sponsored by the NY Dept of Transportation, the alerts tell you whenever NY is at risk of smog. You’ll get an email the day before saying, “Hey tomorrow is a clean air day!” with advice on what to do: drive less etc.

It is common sense advice but what is cool is that they are keeping you updated on the air quality of NY, which changes daily.

It is nice to know when the city is especially smoggy since you may be able to plan around it, or AWAY from it….

As a NY green contractor we try to reduce our footprint by bicycling as much as possible. We have a diesel pick up that has been converted to run on vegetable oil from a local doughnut shop but whenever we can we use our bikes and foot scooters for small runs to the hardware store.

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

Fracking Joke – Stop Your Gas Consumption

Fracking, the toxic method of squeezing gas out of the ground is yet another coffin nail in the long line of destructive activities that the oil and gas industries have wreaked on our planet.

Check out this cool video below. Get active against Fracking.  New York and New Jersey have more Fracking going on than any other place in the country. What does that mean? Toxic water, cancer, dead fish. The nasty list goes on. All so we can heat our homes to high temperatures while not bothering to weather seal them.

The connection I’m making is that the gas and oil companies who, granted, are capitalism at its worst are simply meeting a demand – our demand. Like spoiled children we want what we want and don’t care what it takes to get it.

The bottom line is that if we want to stop fracking in the long run we need to seal up our homes, use high efficiency heating and drastically reduce our demand for gas. In the short run a lot is already too late and desperate measures of gathering petitions, calling politicians, and any other act of attention getting are needed.

We can’t trust the greed of corporate shareholders who are safely removed from the means by which their profits are gotten to become better people. They are alienated from the reality of how their money is made. By “they” I mean anyone who owns stocks, which is A LOT of us.

We need to worry about our end. Stop the demand, stop the flow of money to the oil and gas companies. As long as ourmoney is flowing towards these companies there will be evil acts of corporate destruction.

As a New York green contractor we focus a lot on this in our green brownstone renovations. Before we look at green technologies like solar power and high efficiency boilers we focus on REDUCING the need for these things in the first place through lots of insulation, weathersealing and other load reducing techniques.

Check out the map and info at EarthJustice.org, a really great organization.

Designing Your Natural Home

Reading the book “Designing Your Natural Home, Over 200 Rules of Good Architecture You Can Apply to New or Renovated Work by Award-Winning Designers, Charles G. Woods and Old Malcolm Wells” (long tittle!) is like sitting with two friends on a quiet evening.

wells 2

Each night after a long day in the field I would come home to read a few pages of the book and it would calm me, bringing me back to what is important in life: Reading the book reminded me of the great poem by Max Ehrmann, Desiterata, that ends:

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

And that is what the book does. It is a cheerful banter between two friendly people who discuss architecture and design through the lens of what is good and beautiful in the world. It is a down to earth search for a wholesome and just world through architecture. And it is an added bonus that these two people coincidentally happen to know a lot about good wholesome design and architecture.

wells

Written in the singular Wells style of hand written text instead of a printed text it is very informal. He has little scribbles in the corner of the pages, comments in the sidelines and the text reads almost like a transcription of the two architects conversation while lounging in their living room. Or like they wrote the book on tabs of napkins, passing the napkins back and forth to comment on what the other wrote.

The book is brimming with goofiness and humor that has a very serious messages. For example one page has a nicely sketched home with the title and text,

Managing Energy

Big considerations: energy efficiency, south-facing glass with properly sized overhangs, high efficiency glazing, heat-holding windows, earth berms, super-insulation, photovoltaics, composting toilets, tiny lawns, porous paving, organic gardens, convenient recycling bins, and above all, responsible occupants.

And then at the bottom of the page in the footer they scribble, “This page is so good environmentally that the authors have awarded themselves medals,” and they have two hand drawn medals.

wells book

It is this combination of hard hitting information and self deprecating humor that makes the book and in turn the authors amazing.

Granted I think it is Malcolm Wells who is the real genius here. His humor is constant and his ecological vision powerful.  Charles Woods nonetheless brings structure and consistency to the book. Without him you get the feeling Wells would have wandered off half way through the book to plant in the garden and watch the bees buzz around his wild flowers.

Wells has that zen child like presense where on one hand he is just goofing off and on the other he is pointing out the most profound reality of where humanity is and where it should be going. Woods brings it all back to a more practical framework. The two create a wonderful book.

Clearly the two authors are hugely influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright but they definitely have their own voices, voices I think have powerful messages.

It may not be for everyone but if you are into design and how it impacts the world morally and ecologically then this book is a must have.

The book is not about city architecture so as a New York green builder a lot of the building discussions don’t apply to our work. But many of the details do. In our green contractor renovations we encounter a lot of the design challenges they discuss.

I found it imensely helpful to understand the value of keeping clean lines and minimal styles throughout the house, for example. From kitchen to bath they point out the importance of using the same materials. If your bathroom counter harmonizes with your kithcen counter it helps tie the home together into a cohesive unit.

Since Eco Brooklyn is a New York green contractor the modern style is popular and a lot of their suggestions are stylistically very appropriate for our green brownstone renovations. We can’t necessarily use the books info on detached houses since most of the work we do are on row houses. But the discussion of context, form and perspective is very useful when doing a green brownstone renovation.

Despite all that good stuff it is the spirit of the book that really moved me. It expanded on the great poem I mention earlier.

Here is that great poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann in full. If I ever had a bible it would be this poem. It is my guiding light, my inspiration and has saved me on many a dark hour. Read the poem, buy the book and your soul will be better for it.

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.

Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann c.1920