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


Christopher Jeffrey

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.



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

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:









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.



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



Tadelakt – An Old Moroccan Plaster Technique Newly Discovered – Book

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

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

From Wiki:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.

green building
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.

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.


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?


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

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.


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

Water Gardens Ponds and Fountains Book

The book “Complete Guide to Water Gardens Ponds and Fountains” gives you everything you need to know to build and run a small to medium sized water feature in your yard.

The book lays out every detail in clearly worded and well organized sections with plenty of supportive photographs and images.

It is focused on all garden water features but it is not a book on natural pools. The reason I read it was to increase my knowledge in natural pool building and upkeep because even though that is not the focus of the book, natural swimming pools share everything in common with a typical natural pond.

From that perspective I did learn a lot about how to build a natural swimming pool.

But if you are simply looking to build a pond then this book is more than adequate.

Eco Brooklyn offers as one of its eco garden design and construction services the construction of natural ponds, bogs and wetlands. A Manhattan or Brooklyn garden is not big but the NY ecosystem  lends itself wonderfully to water features.

Brooklyn gets 4 inches of rain per month regardless of whether it is August or January. If your average plot is 80’x20′ then that is a monthly deluge of 3700 gallons of water.

For your average brownstone that is not a local problem since all that water flows into the sewer system to become somebody elses very big problem. There is a reason our waterways are cesspools of sewer.

But when Eco Brooklyn does a green renovation of a brownstone we disconnect all drains from the sewer system.

This makes the water our problem and not somebody elses. It is a big resposibily, especially if you are thinking long term like we are. What if every brownstone disconnected from the sewer system. That is a hell of a lot of water to deal with on site.

The last thing you want is everyone’s back garden to become a flood zone every time it rains.

And this doesn’t take into account the extra brownstone average 2000 gallons per month of gray water produced that you are also now diverting from the sewer.

So what do you do?

Enter the water feature, part aesthetics part water management.


Depending on how visible you want the water feature to be you can go from one extreme where half your garden is a natural pond to the other extreme where you barely see the water in your yard because it all drains below the engineered ground.

A natural pond, or ideally swimming pond, needs areas for plants to grow since the water plants filter the water and keep it clean. It really comes down to how much of the yard you want to allot to the filter area.

This area is full of plants so like any planted area you don’t step on it. So it doesn’t effect you much if that area is a shallow pond, a marsh, a bog or a rain garden – all different options for water management.

Each option has its character in terms of how it looks and the plants it has. They are all beautiful in their own right. It really just comes down to the design of the garden.

Back to the book, the one thing they don’t stress enough is the importance of using only native plants in the water feature. They list the really dangerous invasive plants which is great. They do a good job at pointing out how these invasive plants can get into waterways through seeds and other means and clog them up with growth that is inedible to local wildlife, thus creating a monoculture dead zone that can continue unchecked forever unless people actually go in and physically remove the plant – an expensive and almost futile effort.

Many parts of the US are getting overgrown by invasive plants and it is a real problem.

I have a VERY liberal view when it comes to US immigration law but when it comes to imported plants and animals I am a downright isolationist.

The book has a great list of plant options but unfortunately a lot of them are not native so use the list with care and seek out only the plants native to your area. The plants you choose are very important because a natural water feature is nothing without the right collection of plants to aerate and filter the water.

Eco Brooklyn has expanded this year to offer Ecological Garden and Water Management Services to the Manhattan and Brooklyn home owners. This may be a natural swimming pool, a rain garden or an integrated system of managing all the house hold water. We look forward to growing this very important part of our business.

The Design of Everyday Things Book

Good design is probably the most effective green building technique there is, more than how much you salvage, what chemicals are not used or what technology you put into the house.

Good design is what makes a house green or not green.

With this green builders perspectivein mind, reading the classic book The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman  was very interesting.

Coffeepot for Masochists
Coffeepot for Masochists

His book is not about green building. It is about the mechanics, psychology and sociology of design. He gives lots of examples of both good and bad design as well as explores the science behind design.

It was very informative for me as a green builder and it really confirmed the absolute necessity of good design for any green building to work correctly.

The importance of design in green building is obvious to any builder but the details often get overlooked.

The classic example is the “green kitchen”. Here is a floor plan of a kitchen we designed:

eco brooklyn green kitchen

It has custom FSC, formaldahide free cabinets, custom salvaged wood counters, zero voc oils on the wood and floor, salvaged old plank flooring and super high efficient appliances.

These are all great green elements. They drastically reduce the ecological impact of building the kitchen.

However, what happens during the 20 years that the kitchen is used? This is where design really kicks in. I would say the single most important design element in the above floor plan is the dedicated recycling space.

If we had not included that then the homeowner would be forced to have a container in the corner somewhere. It would be ugly and inconvenient. There is a chance they don’t get the container. The impetus is on the user to be proactive about recycling and we all know that people are much less likely to do something if it takes extra effort. The easiest thing is to just throw that tin can in with the rest of the garbage.

However if the recycling compartment is built into the kitchen design then the homeowner, being human and looking for the easiest solution in their busy day, will do the easiest thing. And the easiest thing is to put their recycling out of sight into the handy little recycling compartment.

Over the twenty years of using the kitchen this is a massive amount of recycled material! All because of a simple design element.

What is missing from this kitchen design? A composting compartment! That was a massive oversight on our part. Big mistake.

Green design, like all good design, is seamless and makes the user’s life easier, in this case it makes their life easier to be green. Dedicated composting and recycling areas in the kitchen are classic examples.

Another example is good lighting controls and layout. Good green lighting design uses the least amount of lights to illuminate the maximum amount of space in the home. Gone are the lit walls that look very dramatic but consume lots of electricity and don’t light up the room.

Instead you use artful placement to create a beautiful space that is energy efficient. You put almost no lighting in passage areas like hallways and stairs. You don’t need much light to walk those areas. You focus the light on task areas like a kitchen counter or reading chair. But the rest of the room does not need to be lit up like a stadium. It is just uneeded wasted energy.

Bringing Nature Home Book

Eco Brooklyn is expanding into natural landscape design and ecological pools. In this process I have been reading a lot and hiring new employees knowledgeable in this field.

One book I have found very helpful is Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy. It is a must read for anyone with a garden as well as any Brooklyn landscaping company interested in creating ecological oases for Brooklyn back yards.

He makes several powerful points that can help everyone of us make an impact on improving our local and global ecosystem.

His main point is that we need to increase the amount of insects in our garden through the planting of native plants because an abundant and diverse insect life are the corner stone of a healthy world. He points out that native insects can only survive on native plants. Without insects our whole ecosystem in in jeopardy and he also points out the sobering facts behind what has already happened in that area.

If you ever wondered why it is so important to only have native plants in your garden (and it is vitally important) then you need to read this book.

He shows in clear language how non native plants are usually imported by stores because they are hardy, grow quickly and are insect resistant: these combinations are a great money maker for the suburban plant store.

But it is also a tragedy for the natural landscape. These hardy, insect resistant plants quickly overtake the local habitat, creating a mono-culture environment. This new environment offers no place for the diverse world of insects and small animals require a varied plant world that match their evolutionary history.

If the insects don’t have this they die out and so do the animals who feed off them. The consequences are far reaching, effecting our water, air and overall global health.

Native plants are the key to this formula and our introduction of alien decorative plants is the tragedy.

The NY Times review put it another way: To Feed the Birds, First Feed the Bugs.

Your typical US garden, although appearing green, is an ecological void. Like the image below it is a mono culture with one or two decorative trees or plants, none of which offer meaningful food or shelter to bugs and animals. The lawn is a vast area of chemicals and violent lawn mowers. The trees are imported and inedible to local insects and uninhabitable to local animals. You might as well pour concrete over the whole thing and make money using the space as a parking lot.


A native garden on the other hand has plants that the bugs have interacted with for millennium. Unlike imported plants, the insects and native plants have evolved over time to create a harmonious relationship where both feed each other. Together they grow and flourish, each one a check and balance to the other. Not one overtakes the other.

In a non native world you don’t have these checks and balances and things get extreme. Without balance there is no life.

Either the plants and animals die out because they don’t have the support system. For example the plant may not have the right insect to help aerate the soil. Thus without chemical fertilizer the plant can not survive.

On the other end of the extreme spectrum the plant or insect may not have the counter balance to keep it in check. The plant may not have the right insect to eat it and the plant takes over the whole countryside, killing other plants and insects in its way.

Or a plant may bring with it an insect from overseas that lands in a world where it has no predators. The insect devours the local plants and grows out of control.

One point that comes to mind for me in Brooklyn is the mosquito problem. Brooklyn is infested by mosquitoes. You can’t sit on your stoop in the evening without being eaten alive. And it isn’t just any mosquito. It is a certain strain of mosquito that came from Asia as a stowaway in the big tankers. They trace it back to a shipment that arrived in Texas in 1985. Since then it has spread across the country, especially in the North East.

Asian Tiger Mosquito

Without local predators the mosquito has grown out of control. As a Brooklyn based eco landscaper I think building gardens that are full of insects can help the problem. Praying Mantis, birds, frogs, bats, dragon flies, guppy fish are all abundant in an ecological Brooklyn garden. And they all feast on mosquitoes.

That is the irony that Tallany points out in his book: that creating more insects in your garden REDUCES your insect problems. Because an insect problem is caused when there is no diversity and one species gets out of hand. If you have diversity you have checks and balances and not one gets too big before it becomes a feast for another.

Your local lawn store is full of toxic chemicals to help you keep these rogue plants and insects at bay but the chemicals cause their own set of disasters. An ecological garden has no need for any fertilizer or chemicals.

Unfortunately most Brooklyn gardens are not ecological. They may not be a toxic suburban lawn. New Yorkers don’t have the time to keep lawns.

Your typical Brooklyn back yard has a couple sorry looking imported decorative plants, an alien weed that has grown so big it looks like a tree, a patch of concrete, and threadbare soil that spends most of the year as brackish mud for mosquitoes to breed in. Despite being called a garden it fosters no life beyond one or two passing squirrels and the neighbors cat.

It is the perfect world for the Asian Tiger mosquito and the other alien destroyer, the Asian Longhorn beetle that is quickly destroying native trees.

The asian longhorn beetle kills native trees

The solution, and what Eco Brooklyn aims to do with the ecological landscaping service,  is to be the wise keeper of your garden. Like the wisdom of making communities self sufficient by “teaching them to fish instead of giving them fish” you create a garden that has all the internal checks and balances needed for it to flourish without human manipulation.

In fact if you do it right you create a garden that grows beyond anything you could ever design. You create an oasis for migrating butterflies and birds. The garden has homes for local animals and a diverse insect life that keeps the plants healthy and the environment beautiful.

For example instead of a lawn that is completely unsustainable you could plant a meadow like the one below. It requires no chemicals, no watering and hardly any maintenance. Yet it is arguably more beautiful, just as accessible and full of wildlife that feeds the world. Unlike your typical Brooklyn yard, the plans allow the water to drain. The garden comes back year after year without barely any input from the gardener. For the harried New Yorker who barely has time to feed their cat, this kind of lawn is pure magic.

brooklyn ecological garden

native gardening in brooklyn

Despite the myriad of great points Tallamy writes about, the most powerful point for me was actually not his main point. He mentions almost in passion. He writes:

For the first time in its history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener. Like it or not, gardeners have become important players in the management of our nations wildlife. It is now withing the power of the individual gardeners to do something that we all dream of doing: to make a difference. In this case, the “difference” will be to the future of biodiversity, to the native plants and animals of North America and the ecosystems that sustain them.

The reason this resonates so powerfully for me is that I see the same awareness happening in green building. A green builder does not simply build a house. We understand that we are important players in the management of our nations resources. And it is not just gardeners and green builders. No matter who you are or what you do, there is a growing awareness that our actions transcend our immediate needs.

We are realizing what has always been true and in our ignorance we did not see it: our actions are bigger than ourselves. Through a lack of self worth or through self centeredness, like children we focused on our immediate wants without realizing it’s effects on the entire world.

But as Tallany points out, we all make a difference whether we want to or not. We are all political, social activists regardless of our intentions. The mere act of living effects the world in so many ways we have no idea.

And with this awareness we are increasingly approaching our careers, our relationships and our neighborhood. Green builders and eco gardeners are leading the way in this new awareness.

As Eco Brooklyn expands into building ecological gardens for local New York home owners we see our service as vitally important because we understand the power of a plant. It is not just a green thing in a pot. It is a future ecosystem that will keep on growing and effecting our lives long after we collect our check and move on to the next garden.

An ecological garden positively impacts the whole block. Less mosquitoes for you means less for the neighbor. More oxygen from your garden means less pollution for the whole street. No chemicals on your plants means no chemicals for the houses down stream.

This awareness is powerful stuff. It is also very empowering.

Good Cheap House Book

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

But it ends up showing good green building as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hybrid House Book

Broadly speaking there are two kinds of green building books: one looks to the latest scientific innovations for solutions and the other looks to revive ancient techniques. Lets call them the futurists and the traditionalists.

In the futurists camp you have high tech, in the traditionalists you have low tech.

Futurists design houses with complex energy calculations. They don’t mind using products with high embodied energy if the result is high energy savings. The finished house has a lot of complex mechanics. The walls are sealed with caulks, tapes and barriers that contain complex polymers and can only be made by chemists in large corporations. The furnace room looks like an airplane cockpit full of cables, tubes and magic boxes. In the house you can monitor air flow, energy flow and light usage. These houses tend to cost more and rely heavily on the fruits of the industrial revolution.

On the other end of the spectrum you have the traditionalist house. Energy efficiency is important but more important is embodied energy. Materials with the lowest embodied energy win – mud, straw bale, salvaged wood. Inspiration comes from traditional building in low tech pre industrial cultures. Techniques that require manual labor and little skill are prized. A traditionalist house is built to take advantage of nature’s cycles passively.

Then you have the Hybrid House. The book by the same name exemplifies this synthesis well. The book is called The Hybrid House, Designing with Sun, Wind, Water, and Earth, by Catherine Wanek. The author has done a great job at finding hybrid house examples that use the best of Futurist and Traditionalist synthesis.

For example she highlights a straw bale house with clay walls and passive solar design that has a highly efficient Energy Recovery Ventilators- a great synthesis of old building techniques and new science. And yes, even though she does not dwell on it, there are a lot of Passive Houses in the book since they currently are the best example of this synthesis (when done right, which isn’t always the case. PH can sometimes dwell to heavily on futurist design).

Her other houses are equally well chosen. The book is a great read full of pictures. I highly recommend it as a guide to building right.

Gentle Architecture Book

The book Gentle Architecture by Malcolm Wells is one of those cult books. Published in 1981 it is out of print. The author died in 2009. But the book lives on amongst those of us searching for alternatives to our current building crisis.

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Malcolm Wells and one of his underground buildings.

Most people don’t even know we have a building crisis. Most architects don’t even know! How would they since they created the crisis in the first place. Like little foot soldiers in an unfair war they carried out their orders without question, brutalizing the landscape without moral reflection.

At the time of writing Wells had concluded that the destruction was already done. Little did he know that we as a society would continue our destructive path well into the next century. His call to change went unheeded for the most part.

And yet thirty years later I still resonate with his cry.

The book is written crudely with many non related ramblings. And Wells inability to present his thoughts in a palatable mainstream style is probably why his genius did not have a greater impact.

Despite the style, or perhaps in spite of it, his unique voice shines through like a beacon of individual conscientious humanity. It is the voice of a person speaking from their soul, as themselves, intelligently and morally. I call him the the John Muir of Architecture.

His main message is that we need to stop the way we build currently. It is destroying the world. The buildings take up too much materials to build, they destroy the land they are built on, and they consume too much energy.

His solution was a more gentle architecture of integrating the building into the surrounding landscape, usually through having all or part of the structure under ground with windows to the outside. From inside you may not even notice you are under ground but looking at the building it is substantially hidden.

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The above example of underground architecture, in this case a gas station (irony?), shows how amazing Wells vision is. The gas station is a pit stop for animals too!

This has more than visual impact. It effects the ecology of the site, the water runoff, the energy efficiency of the building, and the global impact of building.

He says that the best way to build like this is by using strong concrete, which he concedes has high embodied energy. But his view is that the tradeoff in saved energy over time is more than worth it.

As a Brooklyn green roof installer I found the book particularly interesting; it was fodder for our ongoing research and implementation of putting vegetation on Brooklyn brownstone roofs and walls.

How can we, for example, as Brooklyn green builders build an extension on a Brooklyn brownstone using Wells ideas? Instead of building the extension on the existing ground maybe we should dig down and cover the top of the extension with earth so that it looks more like a slanted garden with some windows than a square box plugged onto the back of a brownstone.

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Maybe a Brooklyn brownstone extension could look more like this?
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Or maybe the extension could be a mix of under ground and above ground like this one where the garden slopes downward to meet the windows while sloping upwards to cover the roof?

But despite the few practical discussions in the book, it is mostly a personal manifesto that he has decided to share with others. It contains his inner struggles to become a better person on this planet.

His insights are not merely of an architect seeking to do good in life but of a human seeking to do good in the universe. He writes, “I can’t begin to prove it, but I know that the more conscious we become of ourselves as riders on a lonely planet, the more quickly we’ll move toward living sanely together.”

This book is his diary of continuing consciousness and it allows us to go out and write our own diary for ourselves.

Earth in Mind

earth in mind

The book Earth in Mind, on Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect by David Orr is dense. It took me a couple months to get through it. I could only read a couple pages at a time.

It didn’t even have any pictures! I’m a picture book kind of guy.

It was both deeply rewarding and painful to slog through it. It was painful because it required me to use my brain and it was rewarding because it stimulated my brain more than any book I have read in a long time.

But it is one of the most influential books I have read. It is a serious book about the serious topic of how education forms our perception of nature and how so far education has failed.

The book makes no attempt to dumb down the topic and expects the reader to be a mature thinking human.

Written by an academic, the book is largely written for academics. But anyone interested in ecology and its future should read this book. We are all teachers at some level and we can all influence the world either positively or negatively by the way we teach.

It make me look at my green renovation business in New York not as a company that renovates brownstones into green homes but as a company that educates people through building. Certainly we can build green brownstones and make the world a greener place but we can only do so many green renovations.

But as an educator we can influence people. People are viral. Buildings in comparison are piles of earth. It made me realize that being a Brooklyn green contractor that renovates buildings was just the conduit to get to the people – the clients, the employees, the people passing by the building and living in it.

These people are the real focus of the company because they are who can be educated and who will in turn educate. They are the key to turning our ecological devastation into ecological rejuvenation. People have the energy to become exponential. No matter how many buildings we turn green it will always be linear growth. People on the other hand can cause exponential growth.

I know this in part because I have seen how humans create exponential destruction.

David Orr,  the author, lays out in great detail the tremendous failure of education up until now. He shows in painful clarity how the way education is carried out alienates us from our surroundings and increase the destruction of the planet.

But unlike many people he does not stop there.

He goes on in similar detail on what the solution is. He provides clear steps for reworking education so that it supports Biophilia, or the love of life. He explains how education can be used to foster a love of our immediate surroundings, how it can help students discover their roots in the nature around them and use that as a reference point when they reach adulthood.

He discusses the importance of helping students learn with their heart and not just their mind. How do you learn math with your heart? We better figure out a way unless we want mathematicians to grow up to design better bombs instead of better bread.

Make no mistake: we are fucked. We have destroyed too much of the world to not suffer soon in the future. And education continues onwards like a bulldozer in the rain forest. We have a long way to go before we stop that machine of destruction.

From an early age we train children to maximize production, to be smarter, faster and more agile. If they succeed they go to better schools and then colleges. If they continue to thrive in this environment they move into dominant positions in the work force, eventually becoming the main decision makers for the world.

By then they are killer machines, completely devoid of any awareness that the very productivity that propelled them above the rest has in fact been an ongoing act of self isolation from everyone and everything around them, and no amount of corporate lip sink to teamwork will change that . Somebody who does not realize their connection to the universe is a loose cannon, an out of sync cell ready to wreak cancer. They are the most dangerous creature in the world.

And the educational system spits them out by the millions every year.

The education of our children is the largest cause of global devastation we have created. You don’t think so? Read the book and then get back to me.

When I started reading the book I earmarked pages I thought were worth rereading and writing about. By the end of the book almost every page has been earmarked.

So I’ll leave this post vague. There is too much to write about. I’ll do future posts on the topics. For now buy the book, read it at your pace and allow it to seep in slowly. It changed the way I see the world and my role in it.


The book Mannahatta, a Natural History of NYC by Eric Sanderson was the best book I read in 2009, and I must have read 40 green building books.

For weeks after reading it I walked around New York in a daze, spellbound by the historical tapestry the book had woven of my surroundings.

If you haven’t yet heard of this book, it describes the island of Manhattan in the year 1600 as a lush garden of Eden teeming with abundant wildlife. Using advanced topographical scanning of the existing island the author overlays old maps, historical landscape descriptions of specific spots and computer algorithms to recreate what seems like a perfectly accurate model of how it was.

It is pure genius.


And the Manhattan of 1600, aka Mannahatta to the locals Indians, was so full of life that it is mind blowing. I wandered the streets as if in two realities. In one I would see a building or a street, in the other I knew there once was a pond there, or a hill with a certain kind of forest.

But the most impactful element of the book was how it literally blasted my awareness open to a new possibility. To see Manhattan, arguably the most humanly altered plot of land on the earth, as a verdant ecosystem more dense with nature than the most alive rainforests changed me in ways I can’t describe.


As a green builder and green contractor who strives each day to make New York a more natural place through gardens, green roofs and living walls, I connected to the Manhattan of the past in a way that was very powerful. It was like by seeing the past I could also see a possible future.

It fueled my vision with new imagery, not fanciful imagery from make believe, but real imagery that existed in the very same place I was striving. It was once like my dream and it gave me hope that it can be again.


And also I felt like that guy in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind when he keeps getting an image in his head of a mountain. It consumes him. He draws the mountain, he shapes it out of his mashed potatoes during dinner, he creates a model out of it in his house.


And then one day he sees the very same mountain on television. And it clicks. He knows then that he isn’t crazy. He knows then that he needs to go to that mountain. And of course it turns out that is where the aliens land.

I had that same experience minus the aliens 🙂

fantasy island

Here I am passionately working as a green contractor and builder because I have this vision of a green New York. It was an image in my head. I could see it in my minds eye. I didn’t have any examples. It was just in there driving me.

And then I get this book and see exactly the same imagery. In exactly the same place.

It totally blew me away.

Your Rubber Duckie is Killing You

One aspect of green building is about reducing the toxins we use in the building process. For example our green renovations of Brooklyn brownstones use no toxic glues (Liquid Nails, for example). Our meter is that if a child can’t be in the room while we are doing it then we aren’t interested in doing it. Period.

But this does nothing for the people who move into the home and continue to consume product without knowledge of their ingredients. The world is full of toxic products. Legal, widely used, and often from companies with great reputations.

For example BPA (Bisphenol A) is a chemical present in massive amounts of products, from your bathtub rubber duckie to all the tin cans that hold your food. It is estimated that 95% of people in the US have elevated levels of BPA and it has been linked to many disorders from obesity, Neurological issues and cancer.

A good book to buy is called “Slow Death By Rubber Duck“. They will wake you and give you easy advice on how to lessen the amount of chemicals you bring into your house.

Five easy steps they outline are:

don’t use plastic containers
no tuna for pregnant women
avoid all bath products with triclosan and phthalates (read ingredients)
no purfumed body products
no non stick food products or no stain products (no stain rug spray for example)

How To Grow Fresh Air

Did you know that in addition to carbon dioxide, humans release as much as 150 volatile substances from our bodies, including carbon monoxide, methane, ammonia, phenol, and hydrogen sulphide?!

I got this from the book “How To Grow Fresh Air – 50 House Plants that Purify Your Home or Office” by Dr. Wolverton.

Since we have put people into space, and thus had to live in airtight small spaces, a lot of study has been done on the effect of humans on air quality.

The conclusion is obvious: if you seal humans in an airtight space the toxic levels will quickly increase and eventually kill the inhabitants. This is why it is so important to monitor oxygen and chemical levels when in a space station.

But what about here on earth. Ever since green builders have started building energy efficient buildings they have had to address the same issues astronaughts have to deal with.

Why? Because an energy efficient home is a very tightly sealed space. It does not breathe through the normal cracks that a “normal” house has. There is no ambient ventilation.

This is why it is even more important to avoid chemicals when building an energy efficient home. If you put formaldehyde laden  cabinets in a normal home the VOC will partially escape through the housing cracks. If you put chemical laden cabinets in an airtight home the chemical is staying in the house until the inhabitants absorb it all.

And this is why I bought the book “How to Grow Fresh Air.”

As a green contractor in Brooklyn I am always looking for ways to do green brownstone renovations simply. And what can be simpler than using plants to cleanse the air!

What the book points out is that yes plants do remove toxins from the air. But not all. Like all green building there is no magic bullet. It is about percentages. Adding certain plants to the home will increase the percentage of toxins from the air and that is a great thing.

It means the mechanical ventilation (run on electricity) can run a certain percentage less. It means the air will be a certain amount cleaner. It is all good.

The book does a great job at listing the plants and their effectiveness at removing chemicals. If you have any interest in what types of plants work for reducing the toxins in your house I highly recommend this book.

Being a green builder in Brooklyn I was especially interested if there were any indigenous house plants on their list. Unfortunately not.

It turns out that all the common house plants aresuited for warm, partly damp environments such as a home and so they pretty much all come from Asia, Africa and South America.

Like dogs and cats these plants have become part of the human world, bred over generations to the point that they are very much part of the human-plant relationship that other species like corn, soy and rice have with us.

As such, the term indigenous is a little moot.

Anyway, the main reason I got the book was to improve our green wall installation services. Eco Brooklyn installs indoor and outdoor living walls. The indoor walls can consist of these kinds of plants. The idea is to create a living wall that consumes little water (or gray water, or rainwater), is beautiful, and helps purify the Brownstone air.

I found this book to be very helpful in this. Here is an example of a living wall:

Here is a great example of how you could do a living wall installation in a Brooklyn brownstone
Here is a great example of how you could do a living wall installation in a Brooklyn brownstone

Lives of the Trees

Diana Wells’ book “Lives of the Trees” is a veritable folkloric historical encyclopedia for the common folk about trees. If you ever wondered what the Apple tree had in common with Shakespeare, where the tree originated, what political impact it has had on Europe, and why the Golden Delicious is just a marketing name after the Red Delicious became so popular then this book is for you.

Armed with some facts from this book you will be the sexiest person at your next tree pruning cocktail party.

I bought the book because I wanted to get a deeper knowledge on trees for the Eco Brooklyn natural landscaping business. And it did that.

Not because it gave me lots of trivia, but because it did what the author intended: it gave life to the trees. It wove them into my cultural and historical awareness. She spoke of the Apricot tree not as a plant with a Latin name but as an old friend who lives next door.

He main point in writing the book was to bring trees, and nature in general, back into our lives, both physically and culturally/socially.

lives of trees

New Green Homes Book

The book “New Green Homes” by Sergi Costa Duran, Liliana Bollini and Ethel Pohl is a focused book. It is an architects visual study of modern homes around the world. They claim the homes are green but I didn’t really see that.

What I did see was a study of a very specific architectural style, and a beautiful one at that.

The green movement in my eyes has two distinct styles: The Hobbit aesthetic and the glass box aesthetic.

This book falls squarely in the glass box look. In fact, the book is a manifesto for that style.

new green homes

The glass box aesthetic is of course very minimalist and modern. It looks like the future. It has lots of concrete, glass and steel. Wood is purely decorative, if present at all.

The pros of such a design from a green perspective is that you get wonderful solar gain. The sun shines in through the windows and heats up the concrete slab. And you get great cross breeze in the summer. Just slide open the glass walls and your home becomes a shaded area in nature.

And probably most importantly the homes are beautiful. They are sleek and unobtrusive, letting the surrounding nature be the star.

The cons is that they have a lot of windows and concrete floors. In the winter they can be a bitch to heat. A glass wall is R6 at best, and that would be one EXPENSIVE wall to build. Combine that with concrete and you have cold floors and cold walls.

Radiant flooring is deffinitely one green element you need in these structures if in a cold climate. These homes work best in temperate climates where the sun is neither too weak nor too strong.

As far as being green, I have one major issue with these homes: they are not cheap to make and they have a lot of embodied energy. They also tend to be large, mostly because it is wealthier people who can afford to build them.

For this reason, even if you want to call them green, I don’t think they are sustainable in their current state of evolvement. And I think to call the book “New Green Homes” is a little incorrect.

Also as the title suggests, these are new construction. As long as we have old buildings in need of green renovations, new construction is not green.

The book is however a great visual journey around the world. Like five star hotels that look identical no matter where you are on the globe, these “New Green Homes” also look like they were all designed by the same architect for the same rich client.

That is not to say the architect and client didn’t have great taste, if a little tunnel visioned.

Building Green Book

This book has a long title: Building Green: A Complete How-To Guide to Alternative Building Methods Earth Plaster * Straw Bale * Cordwood * Cob * Living Roofs. But then again it is a big book.

building green book - example for Brooklyn green contractors

Written by Tim Callahan and Clarke Snell this book overflows with 600 pages and 1500 images. The book aims to be a pretty definitive guide to green building.

In my studies I’ve come across more definitions of green building than there are contractors in Brooklyn. Some contractors buy low VOC paint (and charge accordingly) and they walk around telling anyone who will listen that they are a green contractor. On the other end of the technical spectrum, some Architects, uh, correction, MOST architects I’ve met in Brooklyn become LEED AP’s and call themselves green architects.

Truth be told most definitions I come across for green builder, green contractor and green architect isn’t. It’s not always greenwashing but it certainly is misinformed wishful thinking.

I hold the title of green building with a lot of respect. It is not something you earn overnight or through a simple 40 hour certificate course. It is something you develop with years of study and practice.

Whatever the title- green architect, green contractor, green consultant, green plumber, and ultimately green builder – it is a lot more than tagging on some ecological elements to your practice. It is about totally redefining the reason for what you do.

An architect builds buildings. A green architect reduces or even reverses the negative ecological impact of buildings.

A Brooklyn contractor does home improvement. A Brooklyn green contractor uses home improvement as a tool to turn Brooklyn green.

The reason for being is totally different. The actions may seem the same but the WHY is not. One is a creative way to make a living and build. The other is a cause to save the world. Uh, a tad different.

So back to the Building Green Book. My point is that their definition of green building and mine is very similar. And that is rare. If everyone built like they do then the world would be a drastically better place. I really take my hat off to them for hitting the nail on the head in terms of what green building is about.

The books format is framed around a house that they built with anecdotes and sidelines of other similar houses around the world. It is on one hand an intimate look at how to build a green home from start to finish and on the other a broad look at world green building techniques (as I and the authors would define them).

Their definition of a green building is in the category of what I call the Hobbit house style of green building. This is different from the modern hyper stylized school of green building that you might see in Dwell magazine that is full of straight lines, glass, concrete and designer counters. Needless to say I think that if everyone built that way we wouldn’t be much better off.

Why? Mostly because of the large embodied energy of glass, steel and concrete. We are already sagging under the demand for such resources, all the while spewing out more carbon dioxide and tearing up the earths skin. And that is with most of the world not able to afford these houses. What if they could? Not sustainable.

The houses are still amazing. Take for example the house below. That is a beautiful home. It has a green roof, living walls, amazing solar design, solar panels – both solar PV and solar thermal – and clearly uses very little energy to run.

It is a great house.

dwell green home - another example for brooklyn green contractors

But the Hobbit style of green building would benefit the would more. It is very similar to the way most people have been building since the beginning of time: small house made from the immediate earth.

Here is the house that the authors of Building Green built and documents in their book.

cordwood_greenroof - more inspiration for Brooklyn green contractor

I call this style a Hobbit house in reference to the Tolkien book of the same name where the imaginary people called Hobbits built small homes nestled into the earth, often submerged into the hillside. The home is more part of the earth than something plunked down by man from afar.

Because of this the embodied energy is minimal. Very little energy, apart from human sweat, was put into the making of this house. Things didn’t have to be heated to high temperatures, trucks didn’t have to drive thousands of miles, quarries didn’t have to be mined, and chemicals weren’t needed.

The process was a lot of human sweat and very little materials. Needless to say the house is small – Like most houses in the world. Large houses are purely a Western thing, the roots of this doomed tradition being a 1950’s American home building mentality that believed the marvels of science would provide us with palaces.

The truth is that the marvels of science never improved on natures marvels and caused more harm than good, leaving many toxic, overbuilt, wasteful and inefficient buildings in its wake.

But green builders like Snell and Callahan are reviving an older tradition, and soon our 20th century building insanity will be a bad hiccup on our path to finding peace with the world.

Here in Brooklyn things are easier. The brownstone is in my opinion a naturally green structure, having been built well before the arrogance of the 1950’s to 1990’s building boom.

The Brooklyn brownstone, and increasingly with Eco Brooklyn’s Inc.’s help the Brooklyn GREEN brownstone, is a wonderful dwelling.

But back to their book. The one criticism I would have is that they built a NEW house. A “new green building” is one of those oxymoron like “military intelligence” or “friendly fire.” All three of these oxymoron try to paint something violent and destructive in a kinder light.

The act of tearing up the earth to lay a foundation is the first violent step in many of a new “green” building. And even if you fill the house with straw bale walls and solar panels, you have still wrenched yet another plot of land from nature.

As long as we have existing houses that have not been green renovated, and there are billions, we have no right building a new structure. Period. It is as simple as that.

And those that see this as extreme should take a look at how many species went extinct today. Google “how many species go extinct every day”. It is about 35 to 150 PER DAY. Most of them are tropical forest species destroyed by human activity. And don’t kid yourself, you may be living in Brooklyn and feel that has nothing to do with you.

The truth is that most tropical rain forest destruction has EVERYTHING to do with the activities of North American urban dwellers. Our green green building efforts here in Brooklyn – Eco Brooklyn’s call to “Turn Brooklyn Green” – actually has just as much to do with Amazonian tree frogs as with getting more green roofs onto brownstones because we are painfully aware that every green renovation of a Brooklyn brownstone effects how many species will go extinct in a tropical rain forest across the globe.

We are that connected, both spiritually and on a more visible level economically. Our consumption and building in Brooklyn influences what will happen to the Amazonian rain forest.

Back to the book. It is a big book and tackles a big topic. They did a good job. They earned the right to call themselves green builders in my eyes.

the wabi-sabi house

The book “The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty” by Robyn Griggs Lawrence attempts to bring the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi to the American homeowner.

Firstly Wabi-Sabi, like the Zen culture it comes from, is hard to describe even in Japanese. How do you describe the sound of one hand clapping? But trying to translate Wabi-Sabi into English and put it in terms understood by North Americans is even harder.

I have a fondness for Robyn Lawrence the author. She is the editor of one of my favorite mainstream green building magazines, Natural Home.  I reviewed the mag here. Her style is light. Her audience is your middle class white folk who like to keep a nice house and do good in the world (at least on the weekends). They like to shop but not too much, aren’t overly tormented by the state of the world but want to “be green” as long as it isn’t too much of a sacrifice. They also probably live in California. Or Sedona.

A lot of presumptions there but I’m just sharing my personal impression. These people live a nice life. Reading the magazine gives you a break from the hard edges of the world and lets you float in the good feeling of natural paints and soapstone stoves.

So the author’s presentation of wabi-sabi isn’t exactly how I would have done it, I still appreciate her approach and the mere fact that she wrote a book on such a useful concept.

As a Brooklyn green contractor I think a lot about the “green aesthetic”. Our green renovations of brownstones have a different feel than normal renovations. I’ve tried hard to describe it to clients before the job and once the job is done, they just nod and day, “Now I see.”

It’s hard to put into words.

Wabi-Sabi comes damn close to what I see as the green aesthetic.

  • Wabi-sabi| represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience. The phrase comes from the two words wabi and sabi. …
  • a basic concept of Japanese aesthetics, stressing unpretentiousness, plainness, earthiness, and satisfaction with imperfection.

Another way of describing it:

“the tiny dark lines in a much loved tea cup that has been used for generations,  made visible by warm tea repeatedly seeping into the minute cracks.”

The image of this tea cup is a great way of describing Wabi-Sabi.

On one hand it is about keeping the same tea cup for years. Why throw it out for a new one if it works just fine? The green aesthetic is the same. Why replace the floors if the subfloor will work fine with a little sanding and oil? Why replace the stairs if the existing one, albeit a little slanted and creaky, still work?

The tea cup has lasted generations. That is a very well made tea cup! Green building likewise is built to last. It is made with care, good materials and a long life in mind.

These are concrete things. But wabi-sabi is more than inteligent frugality. The tea cup also lasted for years because it was carefully, even lovingly, cared for. This is not a disposable tea cup. This is a tea cup you wash with gentle hands and dry carefully. The green aesthetic is no different. A green home is cared for by the residents. It is not a crash pad but an honored protection over your head.

The tea cup became more than a tea cup as time went by. It became the tea cup Grandma gave me, the tea cup my lover drank from, the tea cup that was smuggled across the border or the tea cup that mother refused to sell. It has history, emotional meaning, shared memories. It is an old friend in a world that changes too quickly. Again, green building is ripe with this same meaning. Those beat up floors, they are more than planks of wood. They supported the feet of Italian immigrants  a hundred years ago, they were where your child first learned to crawl, they were where you lay and laughed with your husband. They are part of your life.

The tea cup is not perfect. It is more like an old lady than a perfect beauty queen. Also, green building is not so concerned with perfection. Life is not about being perfect. Life is about being true to yourself, it is about loving, living, laughing and dying. Who cares if the tea cup has some cracks. Who cares if the floor has wear. So what if your wife isn’t out of a fashion magazine. As long there is love, meaning, a connection, support, then a few imperfections are more than fine.

Wabi-Sabi weaves between concrete ornaments – the stone hearth, the weathered broom – and metaphor – the weathered floor as an example of life.

Like Zen, on the one hand brutally real on the other intangibly ephemeral, Wabi-Sabi is about a lifestyle more than the object that represent it.

Wabi-Sabi came out of the Japanese culture. It is partly real and partly an aesthetic that exists only in the mind. The reality is the agrarian history of Japan. It was a poor life connected to nature and the land. It was the cracked tea cup that was passed down from generation to generation because a family could only afford that and besides it was all that was needed.

But at the same time Wabi-Sabi is the wealthy or the city bound people romanticizing that agrarian simplicity. Here they reproduce the aesthetic. They turn Wabi-Sabi into a self imposed practice rather than the imposed practice that it originally was, meaning they can choose Wabi-Sabi whereas the poor farmer can not.

And ultimately Wabi-Sabi is both real and intellectual. After all Wabi-Sabi would not exist as a concept if it had not been cultivated by the wealthy or city bound people. And it would not exist in concrete form if there weren’t thousands of years of agrarian examples to draw from.

Again, I am using too many words to describe Wabi-Sabi, a fault Robyn Lawrence also had in her book, which in my opinion could have been half as long.

But it is hard talking about something so simple yet so deep.

One great insight is by Elizabeth Gordon who writes, “When a thing is self-consciously made to be beautiful (as though beauty was the total aim) it never seems to work, and it becomes futile and knicknacky. There has to be some purpose and usefulness about the creating.”

Faux wood paneling anyone? Fake fireplaces? Laminate counters that look like stone? We all know this.

Green building takes it a step further. It looks at the whole world and then narrows down to the specifics.

Take these two examples:

1. If we rip out these old floors and replace them with new wood we will be cutting down trees. What if we sand them and oil them. They will look beautiful and we have not hurt the forests.

2. I want rustic looking floors.

Option one approaches the floors with a greater world view. It weighs the options and benefits of each desision and tries to find a solution that is good for everyone and everything. That is green building: beautiful floors that improve the world.

Option two, instead of looking at the world and going in, is purely inward facing. Me, me, me. The end result is exactly the same – sand and oil the existing floors. But we don’t live in a vacuum. The end PROCESS is NOT the same! Yes the floors are the same but the people living on the floors are very different. The reason for doing it was very different. The awareness behind it was different. Ultimately the world is different. It is subtle but so important.

Sometimes people come onto one of our green brownstone renovations and see the dust, the paint, the workers sweating, and they remark that it doesn’t look any different than a normal construction site….how wrong they are!

Sometimes the concrete elements – materials, design, technology – is drastically different, but sometimes if there is nothing exotic going on it appears to be exactly the same as a normal construction site. But the REASON for doing what we do – whether it is building a wall or laying a floor – is very different.

As green builders we make our desisions for different REASONS.

These reasons deserve their own blog post but simply put they are the triple bottom line – people, planet, profit – as opposed to the single bottom line of profit.

Wabi-Sabi is a great embodiment of these reasons.

Wabi roughly translated means to be ok with our simple lot. It is a humble acceptance of our place in this imense universe. A wabi object is a humble object that is in harmony with its surroundings. It is at peace with its place.

Sabi roughly speaking is the acknowledgment that time will unfold perfectly. The image is a flower opening its petals. Likewise, only time moves us towards perfection. The two are intertwined and there is nothing anything or anyone can do to slow it down or speed it up. You can’t control how fast the petals open without tampering in the gears of the universe.

Combine the two and Wabi-Sabi is being at peace with our place in the world and the way it is unfolding.It is being part of the past and part of the future.

A battered old tea cup.

An old house that still have many years to go. An old house that is part of the community. An old house that is cared for and gives care in return. You can’t buy this. You can’t build this. You can be part of its unfolding, though. That is what a green builder understands.

A beat up floor that has been rubbed lovingly for years and that has seen many a family pass over it. Only a green builder would even care about such fleeting acts of humanity.

These are green building principles. These are Wabi-Sabi.

Less Is More – Wabi Sabi

The book of short essays “Less is More” collected by Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska, tackles a subject dear to my heart: Voluntary Simplicity, the act of voluntarily making your life simpler, less cluttered, more frugal and quite simply… simpler.

I don’t think the book does a very good job at it though. Firstly, a book packed full of words and ideas is far from simple. It is the big difference you learn in creative writing between writing about something boring in an interesting way and writing about something boring by writing boring. The first works, the second doesn’t.

Likewise, I don’t think you can write about simplicity by using complicated ideas.

To make maters worse the authors collected as many smart and well credentialed people as possible to write the essays. Each essay starts with the grand life achievements of the author: tediously long and complicated resumes about their PhDs, published works, organizations they belong to and all sorts of evidence that these people lead far from simple lives.

And who the F*%ck cares?? I bought the book to learn about simplicity not to be impressed by how many degrees the author has.

The book reeks of academic back slapping pomposity, full of overly cerebral people who clearly have a long way to go in simplicity.

When I read the essays I did not feel connected to the authors. Their writing was cold and stilted. They spoke of community and being connected to others with the same distance as if they were analyzing abstract ideas on the weather.

Pretty much every author (without knowing what others were writing) quoted Thoreau, which for me was another indication of the shallow middle class western bias they all had. I’ve read more original essays in college.

Having said this, I approached the book as a green builder in Brooklyn with the intention of learning something I could apply to our green contracting company.

As a green builder we are very into simplicity – simplicity of buying products, simplicity of materials, simplicity of not overbuilding – what ever we can do to make the green brownstone renovation a simpler more natural process.

I did come away with the Japanese concept of “Wabi-Sabi.” It was discussed in an essay by Robyn Griggs Lawrence, who coincidentally is the editor-in-chief of Natural Home (I read that in her bio!), which is a magazine I subscribe to.

Wabi-Sabi is the “ancient Japanese art of finding beauty in things imperfect, impermanent, rustic and primitive.”

THIS I can relate to!

The amount of times I have explained to clients that a beat up old floor is more beautiful than brand new planks from the store! And it not just the aesthetics of the floor or the wisdom of saving money – it is the spirit of the floor!

Wabi-Sabi is about loving the simple value of a home for its spiritual practicality. In fact, it’s grandeur very well could get in the way of it’s beauty and practicality.

Wabi-Sabi appreciates the value of imperfection – the natural shapes of nature for example – a broken stone hearth, an old beam cracking at the end, a floor bowing from time, the creak of stairs….these are things to be appreciated like two old lovers learn to adore each others’ wrinkles.

I get this feeling every time I walk into an old Brooklyn brownstone. I don’t see a gut to be torn out and replaced with luxury condo style finishes. I see an old lady in need of some hemming. Why in the world would you want to get rid of any of it??

Of course my clients have many answers why. And some I agree with – lead paint, toxic carpets, cracking walls, bad design (Feng Shui or lack of light and ventilation), inefficient insulation or windows….the list is long.

But the spirit of the house should be kept. Now I have a word for that: Wabi Sabi.

The author writes that Wabi-Sabi is making a comeback in the US as “a logical reaction to a society disgusted with its own excesses.” And this couldn’t be more true than in the building field.

All my employees came to Eco Brooklyn as refugees from other building companies that wasted building materials without regard. I get resumes weekly from construction workers begging for a job so they can stop feeling guilty about how much they are wasting at their current job.

The book “Less is More” may not be great but that one essay makes it completely worth it. It is a gem of wisdom that I will look further into.

Brooklyn Modern Book

The book “Brooklyn Modern” by Diana Lind, published by Rizzoli, is a real inspiration to any green builder or contractor in Brooklyn because it shows great examples of creative, green renovations of Brooklyn buildings.

Most of the renovations are not intentionally green, although some are, but the home owners are part of a Brooklyn breed of young creative types that are naturally green minded and careful about where they put their money.

What is intentional is the creative reuse of space without being constrained by what is considered cool or fashionable. These home makers are confident enough to trust their own creative taste and while the results are not always “Country Home and Garden” they are always in my oppinion much more interesting and beautiful because they are real and personal.

brooklyn modern

The homes portrayed are a great reflection of Brooklyn spirit and as a green contractor that is really important to me. We called our company Eco Brooklyn for that reason. The great combination of Brooklyn energy and ecologically minded people is what makes Brooklyn so great.

This book shows that. The homes are so unpretentious. Without effort they are interesting and beautiful. They have a natural grace about them that so many homes featured in publications lack.

And despite the unique Brooklyn character of the homes, or maybe in spite of them, if you took away the word “Brooklyn” you are hard pressed to know where these homes are. Not USA. Maybe Copenhagen in the summer? Or Melbourne? Toronto?

It shows how clearly there is a cultural wave in these “second tier” cities that is eclipsing the “first tier” cities like Paris, London or Manhattan which have become caricatures of themselves. These lesser known cities are small enough and out of the limelight enough to retain a sense of integrity and organic growth that the larger cities have lost, becoming spectacles (although grand) of their own image.

The same goes for each home in the Brooklyn Modern book. They are small enough and humble enough to retain real character. Other home books show off amazing and dazzling homes that awe, but those homes lack the individual spirit of the homes in this book.

This is a great book and needs to be on every Brooklyn green builder’s shelf as inspiration on how to build green naturally so that it fits seamlessly into the life of whoever they are building for, so instead of building a Frankenstein house with a mishmash of green features you are able to merge them together into a holistic green home that doesn’t actually scream “green” at all.

It is simply a well thought out home that is nice to live in and easy on the environment. Now that is real green building. And this book can help in finding that process.

Simple Shelters

There is a little book called “Simple Shelters: Tents, Tipis, Yurts, Domes and other Ancient Homes” by Jonathan Horning. It is part of a group of books called Wooden Books that the NY publisher Walker & Company puts out.

From the web site, Wooden Books are Small Books with Big Ideas:
“Historically, in all known cultures on Earth, wise men and women studied the four great unchanging liberal arts —numbers, music, geometry and cosmology—and used them to inform the practical and decorative arts like medicine, pottery, agriculture and building. At one time, the metaphysical fields of the liberal arts were considered utterly universal, even placed above physics and religion. Today no one knows them.”

Along with Simple Shelters, their other books are the likes of:
“Sacred Number: The Secret Qualities of Quantities”
“Symmetry: The Ordering Principle”
“The Golden Section: Nature’s Greatest Secret”
“Sacred Geometry”

I think a green builder embodies these virtues. A green builder in Brooklyn views the Brooklyn brownstone as more than bricks structurally assembled to make a shape. It is a dwelling for emotionally complex and sentient beings. I’m sure most Brooklyn builders don’t see themselves as remotely spiritual in their work, but I think the good ones are. We create the vessel for beings to live in.

simple shelters

So, back to the book ‘Simple Shelters”. The author gives factual info on “Tents, Tipis, Yurts, Domes and other Ancient Homes”. A page is devoted to each home with a drawing of it and how to assemble it. If you are at all handy you could basically build the structures from this little book.

My interest however was in how building has been done since the beginning of time. Consider this: Tents, Tipis, Yurts, Domes and other Ancient Homes have been the basis of building for the past several thousand years. It is only over the past couple centuries that we have started to build differently.

For me that is a very insightful perspective. Coincidentally the change in building styles coincides with the accelerated destruction of our planet. So… logic tells me that maybe these Tents, Tipis, Yurts, Domes and other Ancient Homes have something to teach us.

Maybe we should be looking to them for ideas on how to do less harm to the world….

From his book, which looks at ancient building across the globe from igloos to bamboo huts, several universal themes emerge. The homes are:

– completely built from local materials (local as in within walking distance)
– all the same size; SMALL – less than a couple hundred square feet
– not built to last – they all eventually decompose naturally into the ground
– entirely utilitarian – i.e. every inch of the home is used
– modular – they can be replicated and added to each other to form small communities
– conform to universally harmonious shapes – squares, circles, triangles…- that are best at conserving energy

Hmmmm…..they are basically diametrically opposed to current buildings that are:

– never built exclusively from local materials
– at least ten times the size of the ancient homes
– not built to last – but they don’t decompose naturally into the ground
– not utilitarian – a lot of wasted space
– not modular – they tend to be isolationist and don’t fit well with neighboring homes
– don’t conform to universally harmonious shapes – they tend to be complex shapes with little harmony

Bottom line, we have things to learn from old building stiles. Or relearn better said.

This is not to say that old homes were all good. Most were mud floors. Or ice floors in the case of igloos! They were dark. The air quality could get pretty bad – lots of people in a small closed room mixed with smoke and cooking.

But this also is a reflection of the lifestyle. People didn’t spend that much time indoors. Most of their time was spent outside in the natural surroundings. This is a huge point.

Today people spend 90% of their time in buildings! Time with nature? Forget about it. What nature anyway? What IS nature? Most people have spent so little of their lives in nature that they wouldn’t know what it was if it bit them.

If you lived in a simple shelter believe me you would spend more time outdoors. And you would want the outdoors to be pleasant, which would probably mean more demand for nature….notice the impact of a simple shelter? It alters peoples’ behavior and this the environment.

Have you ever wondered why places like Paris are so lively in the streets? Because people live in shitty little apartments.

Now what does this mean for a green contractor? Obviously it does not mean we need to build shitty homes that nobody wants to be in. But it does mean we should understand that the green buildings we build not only effect the environment through the structure itself but also through the way the structure alters peoples’ behavior.

As a green contractor in Brooklyn I have it easier than most. The Brooklyn brownstone is actually pretty close to a simple shelter as far as new construction goes but without the more uncomfortable elements. Using the above list the Brooklyn brownstone is:

– completely built from local materials
– all the same size; comparatively small in relation to US homes
– built to last – but if they did eventually decompose they would naturally into the ground (bricks and wood)
– entirely utilitarian – i.e. pretty close to every inch of the home is used
– modular – they can be replicated and added to each other to form small communities: blocks
– conform to universally harmonious shapes – rectangles placed side by side each other and usually facing north-south – the most energy efficient configuration you could have.

At the same time a green Brooklyn brownstone is bright. It has great indoor air quality. Overall it is a very comfortable home with all the green qualities of a simple shelter.

Yes the Brooklyn brownstone is a green builders dream. They are relevant to today’s society like say a yurt isn’t yet they still have many of the age old sustainable qualities.