Dumpster Diving Goldmine

Eco Brooklyn does a lot of dumpster diving. Most of the materials we use for jobs – floors, decks, pergolas, paving, stairs – comes from dumpsters in the New York area. One reporter called it “guerrilla green building.”

Salvaged Beams from Dumpster

Salvaged Beams from Dumpster

 

The very same wood from the image above was turned into a roof garden. The Pergola and Bulkhead are made from the wood.

The wood from the image above was turned into the Pergola and Bulkhead in this rooftop garden.

Our lucrative dumpster diving is a testament to the massive waste our society creates. We have literally rebuilt an entire brownstone using salvaged materials for everything but the mechanicals and windows (those things needed to be new because it was a Passive House renovation). And this is high end NY construction.

This is why we love Rob Greenfield. He does the exact same thing only with food. Check him out. Think about it next time you buy a bag of perfectly shaped shinny apples at the store. Don’t you wonder where all the other apples that aren’t 100% perfect go? But perfection won’t even keep food from being thrown out. Sometimes it’s just cheaper to throw it out than store it for the next day.

One Dumpster Diving Excursion

One Dumpster Diving Excursion

Best Urban Space Remodels: Our Instagram Claim to Fame

In the spirit of awards season, we’re pleased to announce that our green building Instagram account has been awarded an Instagrammy! Improvement Center evaluated the top ten home contractors to follow and we’ve been recognized for having the best urban space remodels.

Our feed features images from our Manhattan and Brooklyn ecological construction projects including gardens, green roofs, renovated shipping containers, passive brownstones, and more. In addition to project updates we include tips on green construction and sustainable design, a behind-the-scenes look at our salvaging techniques, and ways to save energy and reduce your carbon footprint.

Big thanks to Improvement Center and be sure to take a peek at our Instagram account under the handle @ecobrooklyn.

Red Hook container studio built from salvaged materials with a rooftop garden

Red Hook container studio built from salvaged materials with a rooftop garden

Upcycled Shipping Container: Windows

Sustainable architecture and passive building designs are swiftly increasing in popularity and as a NY green contractor we have been busy developing creative and sustainable structures in Brooklyn, NY. Our current project is a two story studio and office space built from 5 recycled shipping containers. A more comprehensive post will be added regarding the entire project, however we are first adding a short series of photographs displaying the process of installing a 9 foot circular window in the second story of the container.

Outline and frame for circular window in the second story

Outline and frame for circular window

 

Our welder cutting out the circular design from the container

Our welder cutting out the circular design from the container wall

 

Smoothing out the edges and showing off the beautiful view from the second story

Smoothing out the edges and showing off the beautiful view of the port from the second story

 

IMG_5832

Window installed

 

 

View from the street

View from the street

 

Salvaged Douglas Fir Deck

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Eco Brooklyn’s latest project was developed for our client in Williamsburg. The client was looking to renovate their distressed backyard and create a beautiful space to sit and relax. We first develop a design and render it for the clients approval. This deck is perfect for small gatherings, allows access to the yard, and the large stairs double as sitting space.

Prior to Eco Brooklyn

Williamsberg Deck Rendering

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The project began be removing the existing stairs and gathering our salvaged Douglas fir from the storage yard. Once all the materials are gathered on site we begin the work of building the deck from the foundation up.

Salvaged Wood

Salvaged Wood

Prior to Sanding and Eco-Oiling

 

After the deck is built we are able to sand and Eco-oil the wood with a milk protein finish. Blending recycled materials and utilizing techniques to prevent environmental degradation are the goals of our green-building project, so the end result is not only eco-friendly but aesthetically pleasing and functional.

Eco Friendly Finish

Eco Friendly Finish

Post and Rendering by Anthony Rivale

Klearwall Windows and Doors

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

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

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

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

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

A model of Klearwall triple paned window.

A model of Klearwall triple paned window.

Crown Heights Project – 100% Salvaged Material Fence

Eco Brooklyn has been working on an interesting sustainable project in the Crown Heights area. The challenge is to build a fence using only salvaged material.

How does this project work?

Our green building team collects extraneous wood from the local company, U.S. Fencing Systems, Inc. The staff there are extremely gracious and are happy to see the wood go to good use rather than having to see it lugged off by dump trucks every week. The wood is then transported to the work cite where interns and construction workers de-nail the wooden planks, cut them for sizing, and mount the planks onto the salvaged metal poles extracted from a dumpster near Prospect Park.

This job is a captivating snapshot of what we do as green builders. By reaching out to local businesses and the community, people get excited about sustainability and are more likely to build it forward.

Christopher Jeffrey

Crown Heights Fence

Green Building is not a product

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

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

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

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

Alternative solutions to lead contamination

Brooklyn prides itself in its historic buildings, but these same sites pose an often unknown toxicity risk to inhabitants. Although the use of lead products was outlawed decades ago – lead-based paints were taken off the market in 1978 and leaded gasoline was banned in 1989 – lead’s legacy continues to taint Brooklyn’ s soils. Lead does not break down or biodegrade but instead it sits there as a bioavailable chemical in the soil, meaning it can be assimilated by plants and animals. As water moves through soil, the lead leaches through soil profiles or lead laden dust is blown, resulting in the lead spreading to nearby lots.

The EPA advises remediation at lead levels of 400 ppm or higher, yet this is substantially higher than advised in many countries, where 100ppm is the average.

In terms of being exposed to lead, no minimum limit has been found at which lead ceases to be toxic. Small children may suffer brain damage, lowered I.Q., slow growth, and behavior problems, while adults may experience muscle pain, nerve disorders, reproductive problems, cognitive decline, and hypertension.

the Eco Brooklyn show house back garden had 2500ppm lead contamination. We remediated it by removing 6" of soil, then digging a hole to access the non-contaminated soil beneath, which we then spread over the rest of the garden. We turned the hole into a natural swimming pool, pictured here.

As a green builder in a lead-contaminated area, one of our primary concerns on a job site is lead containment. In our renovations we find lead everywhere – paint, posts, soil, pipes, railing ends, to name a few.

Molten lead was used to hold iron fences in blue stone like this iron fence at the Eco Brooklyn show house.

Our focus is to achieve our renovation goals while not exposing workers and clients to lead.

 We achieve this through an understanding of how lead spreads and how to contain it. We constantly test for lead, and even when we don’t find any we act as if there is lead and we simply have not found it. For example, we are very careful to contain dust that may seem harmless yet should it contain lead could be devastating to a family, and we never store construction debris in the back yard (a common practice) if we suspect it contains lead since it would leach into the garden soil.

When New York customers come to us with soil remediation projects for their gardens we see lead concentration numbers around 800-4000 ppm. According the Dr Chang at Brooklyn College, where we get our soil tested, this is a very common range in New York.

Our crew remediating a Brooklyn garden.

Traditionally, the primary objective of lead remediation is to remove the lead from the site and move it to an area where people will not come in contact with it. This is the method recommended by Brooklyn College since it removes the lead from the site and is relatively foolproof if correct measures are taken to isolate the house if we are moving soil from the back yard of the brownstone to the front.

Our current service is limited to this method. Although very effective at soil remediation, it is labor intensive and consumes energy due to the need for trucking the soil back and forth.

Because of the drawbacks of typical soil remediation we are researching alternative means of lead remediation in order to improve our services and find more ecological and cost- and labor-efficient solutions.

Another option is phytoremediation, where plants are grown in the lead-contaminated soil, allowed to absorb the lead in their tissue, and then removed from the site. Accumulator plants such as sunflowers and the Brassica family are especially efficient at pulling lead out of the soil. It is very important that these plants are not eaten or used as compost, as this would return lead to the system or contaminate the consumer.

Phytoremediation is good in that it removes the lead from the site, although it does take many seasons for any significant lead reduction to occur. In New York, where every minute is crucial, and where most homeowners are seeking lead remediation because they have young children, waiting several years before playing in their back yard is not a practical option.

A garden where we implemented phitoremediation as part of our soil remediation strategy. We waited until the weed plants had reached maximum height before removing them from the site with the intention that they absorbed some of the lead in the soil.

In the past 15 years scientists have begun to explore the concept of in situ stabilization, or binding the bio-available lead to other compounds in order to limit the concentration of lead in the soil that is actually digestible and therefore toxic to humans. The idea is to treat lead in place instead of simply moving the problem somewhere else. With these methods, lead will still show up on a simple soil test, but it is no longer free to contaminate plant tissue or humans. In essence it is no longer bioavailable or mobile.

Although some scientists are not keen on this approach since it does not remove the problem but merely renders it dormant, it does have some compelling ecological and cost benefits.

In situ stabilization has a couple elements. One is pH control, the other is binding the lead.

Lead is less bioavailable to plants and people in soils with a neutral pH. Soil pH can be controlled by bioremediation. Compost, or organic matter, balances pH levels in the soil while providing essential nutrients for your plants.

The synergistic benefit of adding organic matter like compost to lead tainted soil is that the lead also binds with the organic matter, limiting the amount of total bioavailable lead.

The most efficient form of in situ stabilization involves the use of chemical additions to the soil. Phosphates are a great option since as well as immobilizing lead they also bind with other heavy metals such as copper, zinc, cadmium, and uranium as well.

Eco Brooklyn using calcium phosphate to reduce lead toxicity on a job.

The EPA description for chemical in situ stabilization reads as follows:

Phosphate Immobilization – Using phosphate to bind with the lead, which will allow the metal to pass through the body if it is inadvertently ingested with significantly less harm; combined with

Green Capping – Using compost and green cover such as sod or planter boxes to create a protective layer above the treated soil

The most ideal phosphate source is fish bones. Judith Wright invented the process used to create apatite II, a phosphate mineral apatite particularly efficient at immobilizing lead (patent #6217775). It binds with lead to crystallize as pyromorphite.

She uses crushed Alaskan Pollock fish bones sourced from fisheries and found that when added to contaminated soil caused a 50% reduction in bioavailable lead within the span of a few weeks. Fish bones are free of contaminants and the use of a fishing industry by-product limits the overall contribution to environmental cost. Catfish bones have also been found to be appropriate for the process.

The product was applied in a large-scale project in the heavily contaminated South Prescott community of Oakland, California. Residents were asked to volunteer for remediation, which was handled by the EPA (the area is a superfund site). They were provided with one to two weeks of hotel accommodation for the duration of the work on their yards, as well as landscaping and design assistance post-remediation.

About 3 lbs of fish bones were tilled into each sq ft of contaminated yard, and then covered with 3-6 in of clean soil and plants. Landscapers would then arrive prepared with a series of conceptual yard designs from which to work from in order to restore the inhabitant’s gardens to the most ideal condition. The eco-friendly conceptual designs emphasized native plants, water efficiency, and maximized outdoor use.

Apatite II remediation site in the South Prescott community (Oakland, CA)

The community embraced this method, as it was more cost efficient and environmentally friendly than typical remove and replace soil remediation techniques, while also reducing the disturbance caused by the remediation efforts (removing and carting tones of contaminated soil is not easy).

The traditional dig-and-haul method is estimated to cost $32 per sq ft while remediation via phosphate addition is generally around $18 a sq ft. However, these numbers are EPA estimates, which tend to be less cost-effective.

EcoBrooklyn charges a lot less than EPA estimates for dig-and-haul remediation but it still isn‘t cheap for something that looks the same once the job is done (dirt with lead or without still looks like dirt). The greatest contributor to our cost is labor and the demands of safely bringing toxic soil through a brownstone.

The importance of doing this correctly cannot be understated and we make no apologies for charging more than contractors who see the job as simply removing dirt from a yard. If done incorrectly more harm than good is done because now you have the lead contaminated back yard dust all over the INSIDE of the house. It is no joke.

EcoBrooklyn is very interested in in situ remediation for this reason. Not having to worry about safely moving toxic soil through a home would reduce our costs, so phosphate addition is something we are looking into seriously.

The active ingredient in fish bones is calcium phosphate. While apatite II is the optimal form of the compound for metal remediation, other forms of calcium phosphate have been tested and found to have significant effect on lead bioavailability. Tricalcium phosphate [Ca3(PO4)2]., dibasic calcium phosphate / dicalcium phosphate [CaHPO4], and hydroxy calcium phosphate [Ca10(PO4)6(OH)2] can also react with lead to form pyromorphite [Pb5(PO4)3Cl] and other insoluble lead compounds.

As mentioned before, a simple lead test will not show improvement post phosphate addition since the lead elements are still present. To evaluate the concentration of bioavailable lead, the EPA recommends obtaining an RBA value (relative bioavailability) via an IVBA assay (in vitro lead bioaccessibility). However, it has not yet officially approved the method for the assessment of phosphate amended soils.

A TCLP (toxic characteristic leaching procedure) test determines the mobility of both organic and inorganic analytes. This test would determine how much of the lead in the soil is mobile post phosphate-amendments, although its cost is prohibitive for a New York brownstone back yard soil remediation budget.

A study completed by the U.S. Military on a small arms firing range found that a 5% addition of hydroxyapatite or tricalcium phosphate lowered lead concentrations by 90-95%.

Dibasic calcium phosphate/dicalcium phosphate is a calcium nutritional supplement that can be obtained from some pharmacies and vitamin shops. EcoBrooklyn obtained pure dibasic calcium phosphate powder from Freeda Vitamins. We have been applying it on the recently salvaged lead-contaminated bluestone and soil in the Green Showroom yard.  Since the powder is designed to be ingested as a nutritional supplement, the particles are not toxic to residents.

After boring out the bluestone that contained the lead filled holes around the fence posts we scrub the bluestone with soap then coat it in calcium phosphate.

EcoBrooklyn is also in the process of obtaining apatite II. Although we will probably not stop removing the lead from the site since this undeniably removes the problem from the site, we do see the possibility of removing less soil and adding in situ remediation as part of the process. With these new tools such as phosphate amendments we hope to offer a wider range of lead contaminated soil remediation services to the New York area.

Phone Booth Aquarium

When was the last time you used a pay phone?  For me, I think it was when I was in High School in the early 90s when I was stranded downtown.  But since everyone, and I mean everyone, has a mobile phone now, pay phones are obsolete.   In a way, I am saddened by the fact that phone boxes are useless.  They are cinematic icons (Superman, Charade, and the Birds, just to name a few) and can be found in cities large and small around the world, in various shapes and sizes.

So what happens to all of those phone booths?

 

Sadly, many have already been sent to the landfill.  Others lay unused and neglected on the roadside.  Some, however, are being rescued and converted by very cleaver people into things such as loos and libraries, showers, and sofas.

 

Some of the most exciting phone box conversions have been into fish tanks.  One of my favorites is by designers Benoit Deseille and Benedetto Bufalino as part of the Lyon Light Festival in France.  It is a local curiosity and a big hit amongst visitors.  The Lyon Light Festival is an anual event celebrating the Mother Mary, who, legend has it, spared the town from the Plague in 1643.

Aquarium phone box Lyon france

 

Other examples of phone booth aquariums are this goldfish aquarium in Japan:

Telephone booth fish tank

This lovely red phone box aquarium in England:

phone booth aquarium

This aquarium, which was part of an entire exhibit featuring creative fish tank ideas:

fish tank telephone booth

And this New York-themed fish tank design is from Animal Plant’s “Tanked.”  In doing research for this post I came upon an ad saying that the owners of this aquarium did not like it and put it up for sale on Ebay.

phone booth fish tank

Seeing creative adaptive reuse ideas such as these phone booth aquariums makes me want to go out and adopt an abondoned phone booth.  I wonder if it would fit into a taxi?

If you want to see more creative phone box conversions, click here.

Fun Built with Salvaged Material

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

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

 

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

 

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

Made from recycled material

The Recycled Roadrunner.

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

 

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

One of Cyclecides attractions

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

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

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

 

Cyclecide

Cyclecide

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

Sustainable Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

The FSC has 10 general principles for responsible forest management:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

DIY Vertical Gardens

Vertical gardens or living walls are a beautiful and efficient way to maximize green space within an urban context. Aesthetically, vertical gardens can be used to improve the façade of buildings while providing other ecosystem services such as enhanced air quality.

Perhaps first employed by the Mesopotamians to create the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the principles of design have expanded past cascading plants to include plants rooted at different heights of a wall. Living walls vary in size, design, and complexity.

Two of the best-known living walls are on the Marché des Halles in Avignon and the Museé du Quai Branly, both designed by Patrick Blanc. However, man-made living walls are not constrained to grand public buildings.

Marche des Halles en Avignon, designed by Patrick Blanc

It is very feasible to create you own, and in fact personal vertical gardens beautifully complement the exterior of Brooklyn brownstones, although it is recommended a professional be consulted for walls higher than 7 feet.

The character of your vertical garden is determined by the framing material and plant selection. While plant selection may vary by individual taste, native species are generally hardier and better suited to the local climate and pest and disease conditions.

Green landscaping with native species is also a proactive way to support the area’s native ecosystems. You may decide to choose a theme to guide your plant selections, such as a foliage wall, mosquito-repellant wall, epicurean wall (pick your salad ingredients!), aromatic herb wall, or a perfumed wall.

Succulents are easy plants for beginners since they do not need substantial irrigation. For vertical gardens created sans soil, epiphytes and lithophytes are necessary plant selections. Epiphytes attach to other objects solely for physical support and are not parasitic. They obtain nutrients from rain, air, and debris. Common epiphytes in temperate zones such as New York are lichens and mosses.

We will list and describe framing methods with increasing complexity.

The Woolly Packet Garden Company offers a series of “woolly packets”, pouches made from recycled water bottles with an impermeable moisture barrier and felt to wick the water. These packets are easy to install and arrange as you please. Although the design is not constrained to vertical garden use, the pouches lend themselves well to such installations. Watch this video for further description:

Flora Grubb Gardens is featuring an example vertical garden installation in their store.

Wooly Pocket installation

For a more complex system, pre-made frames are available for sale from several manufacturers. Gro-Wall offers easy to stack frames.

VGM also offer green wall modules. Drip irrigation coupled with the effects of gravity water the plants in both systems, although this can also be adapted.

Our favorite option at Eco Brooklyn for small walls is using salvaged pallets as a frame for a living wall. We are currently creating a wooden pallet living wall installation in the Green Showroom. Simple and effective, this method limits the amount of new material needed for the project and decreases life cycle emissions and cost.

Pallet living wall

 

Pallets can often be found for free at local gardening stores. Pallets without significant back support may need to be augmented with scrap wood on the back. You can then staple landscaping paper to the back, bottom, and sides to create a secure void for the soil. Soil is poured through the slats and the selected plants are then planted in place and watered. Once planted, the pallet needs to remain horizontal for one to two weeks until the roots can take and stabilize the soil.

There are two easy ways to create your own frame.

The second method does not require the additions of any soil!

Succulent frames

Method 1: Cut 4 pieces of lumber to the desired length and nail them together at the corners to create a box frame. Staple or nail wire mash to the front face of the frame and a piece of plywood to the back face. Fill the void with soil and then poke the stems from plant cuttings through the mesh. Allow the installation to remain horizontal until the plants are securely rooted. Water lightly or use a drip irrigation system. For smaller frames, it may be easiest to lay it flat when watering and allow the soil to drain before hanging it back up.

Note that the above method works best for small frames, as it does not require a complex irrigation or fertilizer system.

 

Method 2: This last method is the most involved in terms of infrastructure but very rewarding. It isn’t that green either since it requires a pump. It is however the most popular system and many massive walls have been created this way.

Noémie Vialard’s book Gardening Vertically offers a more in-depth description of the process, which was initially developed by Patrick Blanc. While it is possible to make a portable system, it is most effective as a permanent display.

Wooden battens are first fixed to the selected wall space, and then a PVC panel and two layers of irrigation matting are added over the battens. The irrigation system consists of a perforated pipe connected to a pump, which activates a couple times a day for a few minutes.

Nutrients can be diluted into the water tank to fertilize the ecosystem. The plant roots are inserted through holes in the second layer of felt (such that the plant is secured between layers of irrigation matting).

Because the system has no soil substrate, there is no water retention. To mitigate the high water usage, you may want to plant perennials at the foot of the wall to consume surplus water or create a fish pond at the base. Use gray water to irrigate if possible.

Apart from the electric load, this system is not sustainable in another way: if you stop the pump the plants die quickly since there is no humid soil to keep them. In that sense it is a very artificial environment. The closest natural habitat is a rock wall in a tropical jungle.

For this reason we prefer the soil based living walls. We build our own structure instead of buying pre-made products because it allows us to save costs and customize to the space.

A vertical garden installation can beautifully augment the aesthetic value of your home. Living walls do not need to be grandiose or complex and the concept can easily be adapted to personal usage. Outdoor walls are easier because you don’t have to worry about flooring issues in the house. But indoor walls, provided they get sunlight, don’t get blasted by weather extremes. Indoor walls need special attention to avoid mold issues, but if that is under control they add a freshness to the air that is wonderful.

Eco Brooklyn is a living wall installer because we really love what a living wall does to a space. It fits perfectly with our mission to turn NY green!

Demolished Buildings Get a Second Life as Contemporary Furniture

12×12 is the maximum dimensions a shelter in North Carolina can be before it legally becomes a house, subject to property taxes. For this reason it is a hallowed number among the off-the-grid set, and the title of a popular book on one man’s foray into the world of tiny houses.

A stockbar

This stockbar by Fort Maker was made from 200 year old casks!

It is also the name of a new exhibit of contemporary furniture. New York designers were challenged with creating something beautiful out of the remains of demolished New York City buildings. 12×12 is the innovative result.

Trunks by Karl Zahn, one of the twelve designers whose works were displayed in the show

The exhibit aimed to draw attention to the potential of materials abandoned to the trash from the many buildings demolished daily in New York. Eco Brooklyn fully supports this goal, as New York’s demolition sites are our preferred resource to build new structures or renovate older ones without requiring any more trees to be felled. In fact, as a New York City green contractor, we have never bought new wood, including all our joists, studs, floors, subfloors, stairs, and doors, with the exception of FSC formaldehyde-free plywood for kitchen cabinets.

A bathtub Eco Brooklyn crafted from salvaged materials

An example of Eco Brooklyn's work, made with completely salvaged materials

By using wood from our very own Gotham Forest, we can help protect living forests by reducing the demand for deforestation, a major driver of climate change and habitat destruction.

A seesaw made from reclaimed wood

Sometimes green design is fun and games: a see-saw by Nikolai Moderbacher

The designers sourced their lumber from landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island, as well as buildings from another era and another New York, such as a warehouse from 1832, one of the last of the 19th century’s dry goods district. One of the most glorious aspects of buildings is their ability to serve as witness to countless events and histories, and so the transformations of these storied buildings into furniture allows the sleek, contemporary pieces a depth and richness in their mysteriously alluring backstories.

a sleek wooden chair made from salvaged materials

I used to be a Park Ave water tower: chair by BELLBOY

Some of these stories inform the new pieces, infusing them with a thoughtfulness and humor found in the continuation of a theme, such as a “Vice box” made from the floors of a Prohibition-era dance hall, or a liquor cabinet made with wood sourced from the East Village Mars Bar. You can discover the buildings that became the furniture here.

circular bench

This round bench doubles as a storage unit: bench by Louis Lim (photo credit: Inhabitat)

Perhaps best of all, the unique pieces were sold at silent auction to raise money for Brooklyn Woods, a woodworking training program for low income and high risk New Yorkers, helping to pass on the tools and inspiration to keep New York’s buildings flowing into reincarnations that pay homage to the city’s history while providing for some truly green design.

-Jenna Steckel

Salvaged Floor Tung Oil Application

For the past several jobs we have used salvaged mahogany flooring. We salvaged 15,000 square feet of it a while back. It is very pretty stuff. Here we are applying the tung oil to it.

We are applying two types of oil, simply because that is what we have left over from the previous jobs. The first coat is a mix of citrus solvent and tung oil. The second coat is a premixed natural oil from Land Arc.

Mahogany is a very hard wood and absorbs very little. It is amazing how important it is to understand the wood you are applying oil to. If you put too much it creates a sticky film, if you put too little it looks dry and dusty.

We’ve really become natural oil flooring experts when it comes to finishing salvaged wood. We learned through our mistakes. Pine, maple, oak, fir, and mahogany all have different absorption rates. Their age and condition also make a difference. If they are old and stored in the sun then they absorb more than new wood salvaged from a lower floor brownstone.

It is an art. You’ll notice the applicator in the video above is using a fluid sweeping motion combined with small jerky motions. The fluid motions spread the thin layer of oil over the wood in a uniform way, the jerky motions push it into the wood pores.

Because it is mahogany we don’t use hardly any oil. If it were old pine we would literally splash it on and almost let it sit on the wood in puddles. Then after half an hour we’d soak up the excess. We’d do this to the pine up to four times over a week.

But with the mahogany we put two light coats one day after the other and that is all it needs.

Through our experiments with salvaged wood floors we are seeing that as New York green contractor we are developing a knowledge of the local woods. Compared to several years ago we have a deeper sense of the kinds of salvaged wood in NY, what neighborhoods or types of buildings have what species of wood, what different woods look like from different decades in the 20th century…

It is a little like being an investigative historian.

The old floor had of linoleum that we decided were better off where they were than in the dump. We simply applied our salvaged floor over it.

First we glue the wood down. It is our one sin and a pretty big compromise. Despite being hard as steel the wood is too brittle to attach any other way. We use the greenest glue we could find. It is zero VOC.

While one person lays the floor another cleans the salvaged wood. It is a very labor intensive process.

Sanded salvaged floor

Once the floor is down we sand the old varnish off it with an industrial sander. Here you see the floor sanded, clean and ready for natural oil.

Applying tung oil to salvaged wood

We apply natural oil, in this case tung oil.

Applying tung oil to salvaged wood

We rub the oil into the wood with many passes of the lambs wool sponge.

Tung Oil on salvaged wood

Notice how the wood lights up with the natural oil.

Oil on wood

The pale wood really pops once the oil is applied. It is literally like a dry plant being watered. They clearly go together.

Mahogany floor and tung oil

The interaction of natural oil and mahogany is magical, with a breathtaking variety of colors and tones. Unlike varnish, the oiled wood only gets richer with time.

Installed Salvaged Floor

Even for us who have installed this wood many times, it is hard to believe the cracked and old wood from our yard can end up looking this amazing.

CORK IS STILL GREEN

In the last year or so cork has attracted more media attention than in the last 2,500 years of use. Beginning with the Egyptians, cork has been used as a stopper for vessels containing perishables like wine,

water, and olive oil.  Since then the use of cork has expanded to use in flooring tiles, shoes, insulation, floatation devices, and even furniture.

Recently a misconception has been going around that cork producing oak trees are becoming endangered and the environmentally sound thing to do is to find alternate materials.  This is largely due to a mass miss interpretation by the public on the decision many wineries are making to move away from using cork in their bottles.

The real reason cork is being avoided by most wineries is simple: to reduce exposure to a fairly innocuous mold that grows on the bark from which cork is made.  This mold, if present on a bottles cork, will effectively spoil the contents of any bottle it is sealing, the term for this is “corking”.  Though not hugely common, wine makers find it safer to switch to alternative methods like plastic corks or metal twist-tops.

The underlying issue is that this misunderstanding may have adverse environmental effects.  If people continue to believe cork is endangered and that cork products should be avoided then obviously the demand goes down, which is already occurring in some areas of the market.

The process of obtaining cork is inherently sustainable and eco-friendly.  The tree is planted and allowed twenty years of uninterrupted growth and, when mature enough, the bark is stripped in the spring time, not harming the tree.  This process is repeated roughly every nine years when the bark has been sufficiently regenerated, and can continue for as long as 160 years.

A drop in demand would lead to diminishing cork forests and production as other crops become more profitable. It would also effect already fragile economies, especially in Portugal where the skilled process is a centuries old familial tradition and risks being being replaced by newer attempts to make money should the demand for cork not grow.

For the NY green contractor, using cork in projects, whether retrofitting an old brownstone or building a roof top addition, cork not only offers a great ecological option but contributes to maintaining an age old tradition.  With its varied uses and applications and beautiful natural aesthetic it is a favorite of Eco Brooklyn.

We always try to salvage local flooring first, but in some cases where local wood does not work we love cork. It is especially nice in areas like bedrooms or closets where bare feet can appreciate the soft and padded quality of cork.

 

A graphic of a cork trees biological structure.

 

What the process of obtaining cork has looked like for centuries.

An example of the potential cork has as a flooring material.

And now for something completely different….

Reverse Environmental Building Footprint Via Salvage

Here are some interesting numbers from the Binational Softwood Lumber Council (BSLC) on the environmental footprint of building three similar homes from three three different materials – wood, metal and concrete. I’m sure you can guess what their numbers show: that wood is the greenest option.

I don’t know whether their numbers are based in reality or simply green-washing by the timber industry (I suspect the later), but either way for a small New York green contractor like Eco Brooklyn these numbers mean very little.

The BSLC is calculating numbers based on new raw materials to build new homes – the most wasteful kind of construction. Arguing whether new wood is better than new metal or new concrete is like arguing whether it is greener to fly via private jet or private helicopter.

They are stuck in an era that no longer exists:

Ah yes the good old days of abundant resources and stupidity. Now we are left with only stupidity.

True green building does not use new materials or build new buildings in the first place. If you are Eco Brooklyn you build with reused old materials to renovate existing homes – the most ecological kind of reconstruction.

The environmental footprint of using new materials to build new houses is like buying with your credit card. You are using up natural resources to create something that won’t last. But if you take a piece of wood out of the dump and use it to make an existing house last longer you are doing something different: you clean up the world on both ends of the production chain – both at the dump and in the home.

With this green building you actually create a negative environmental footprint in that you help reverse the impact of building on the planet. Instead of spending with credit you put cash into the bank as future savings.

Nonetheless here is their justification of using soft wood over metal or concrete with their sources below. Maybe somebody wants to look into it and see how valid the numbers are.

Environmental Footprint

The chart below illustrates how each of the designs performed against five key indicators of environmental impact. With two exceptions, the wood-framed homes performed substantially better than their non-wood counterparts. The steel design produced slightly less solid waste and there was no significant difference in emissions to water in Atlanta.

MINNEAPOLIS DESIGN Wood Steel Difference (% Change)
Embodied Energy (GJ) 651 764 113 17%
Global Warming Potential (CO2 kg) 37,047 46,826 9,779 26%
Air Emission Index (index scale) 8,566 9,729 1,163 14%
Water Emission Index (index scale) 17 70 53 312%
Solid Waste (total kg) 13,766 13,641 -125 -0.9%

 

ATLANTA DESIGN Wood Concrete Difference (% Change)
Embodied Energy (GJ) 398 461 63 16%
Global Warming Potential (CO2 kg) 21,367 28,004 6,637 31%
Air Emission Index (index scale) 4,893 6,006 1,114 23%
Water Emission Index (index scale) 7 7 0 0%
Solid Waste (total kg) 7,442 11,269 3,827 51%

Another study conducted by the Canadian Wood Council compared the life cycle impacts of three 2,400 square foot homes designed primarily in wood, steel and concrete over the first 20 years of their lives. Relative to wood, the steel and concrete homes were predicted to:

  • Release 24 percent and 47 percent more air pollution
  • Produce 8 percent and 23 percent more solid waste
  • Use 11 percent and 81 percent more resources
  • Require 26 percent and 57 percent more energy (from extraction through maintenance)
  • Emit 34 percent and 81 percent more greenhouse gases
  • Discharge 4 and 3.5 times more water pollution

These differences may seem small until one realizes that only a small portion of the materials in a house (by weight) are involved in framing. One can expect the impacts to be many times greater when components made from different materials are compared directly.

Sources
More Information

New York Contractor Builds Passive House out of Salvaged Materials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Core Values

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

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

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

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

I get that. I am a family man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have I learned from this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the video that prompted this post.

Material Reuse with the NYCMEDP

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

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

Check out our member page on their site!

Salvaging Materials at EcoBrooklyn

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

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

Bringing Passivhaus to Harlem

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

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

Zero Brownstone Technique and Salvaged Materials

EcoBrooklyn Director Gennaro Brooks-Church, talks about the importance of salvaged materials which are crucial in helping achieve the company’s goal of zero or negative waste created and zero or negative new materials used. This is one of the main things that separates Eco Brooklyn from an ordinary NY contractor – finding floor joists, wood flooring, insulation, sheetrock and many variations of plywood, just to name a few of the many salvaged products used. The triple bottom line (people, profit and planet) is kept in mind as the spectrum of values in measuring the company’s success.

Here is a video explaining some of what goes into this sometimes laborious but very important job.

Salvaged Crystal Stone

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

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

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

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

It is good stuff. Check it out here.

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Here is the stone after a year of sitting in the mud, sun and rain

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We cut it to shape and sanded it down

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And then sanded it some more...

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And here is the salvaged Crystal Stone in the kitchen. We made matching bathroom counters too.

It Should Be a Crime!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York Salvaged Flooring

Here is a photo essay of how we salvaged some flooring and reused it. We bought 15,000 square feet of herring bone style mahogany flooring from an office building.

Mahogany salvaged flooring

herring bone flooring salvaged

The flooring didn’t look too fancy laying in a big pile:

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They had glued it down previously.

We then cut it to make length wise flooring. We stapled it down with a sound proofing layer under it. We chose staples instead of glue because it is less toxic.

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Then we sanded the old toxic varnish off:

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Then we applied layers of tung oil and citrus solvent:

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It got richer and richer with each application of tung oil:

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The sanded down staples added a nice old fashioned look to the wood:

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We have lots more if you want to buy some for your home. As a New York green contractor we feel the biggest impact we can have is through salvage. It reduces our consumption, which is the largest cause of our ecological problems.

New York Green Roof Installation

We just wrapped up a green roof job in East New York. Here is a photo essay from start to finish. We planted late in the year and the nights were already freezing. But we trusted the hardiness of sedum and so far they have shown to be very happy on the new roof.

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The roof was your typical lifeless petrochemical slab with about six layers of tar.

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The first thing we had to do was remove the tar roof. It was at the end of its life and starting to become too heavy for the house. We then built a little one foot wall around the perimer to hold the future green roof.

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We had our share of nightmare weather and leaks.

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We then put five layers of salvaged polyiso for a R60 roof. The materials we use is very important. We salvage as much as possible. We also didn’t want to use the conventional method of gluing the boards, which is really toxic. Below you can see a great alternative we did where we tied the insulation down with string – a very low embodied energy low toxic solution that is strong enough against the powerful winds in that area.

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We then put a layer of rubber epdm, which isn’t exactly a green product but it lasts about four times longer than tar so it is pretty amazing.

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The key to a green roof is that you recreate the qualities of the ground but with much less depth and much lighter.  You accentuate the drainage and water retention qualities by using drainage layers and retention layers. You keep it light by using high nutrient growing medium with a lot of light filler.

Next we put a water drainage layer. It has a mesh that makes a space for the water to drain.

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We salvaged the drainage layer from Build It Green but didn’t have enough so we bought another kind from the store. This one instead of a plastic mesh it has little dimples that create space for the water to drain.

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Next we put the water retention layer. We got that from our friend Atom who had some left over from her jobs. The water retention layers are like big soft blankets.

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Next we laid the soil all over at 3″ depth. We used Gaia Soil. It is cool because it uses recycled Styrofoam. I have my reservations about surrounding ourselves with yet more plastic….but it is salvaging huge amounts of garbage from the dump.

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Here is the staging area.

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Gaia soil is so light that it easily blows away so once the soil was down we covered it with jute. Over time the jute decomposes but by then the roots are holding the soil down.

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Over the jute we put an inch of organic locally made compost. This holds the jute down as well as keeps the plants healthy.

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On top of all this we put mulch. The mulch holds the layers down as well as gives some protection for the plants from the harsh climate up there on the roof. It also looks very dramatic! We salvaged our mulch from a garden center that was throwing it away. A rat had made its home in the pallet of mulch and they couldn’t sell it. I saw the rat as I was carting the bags away. I apologized for taking his home. Notice the gnaw holes in the bags.

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Finally we bring the plants. We got our plants from two places. The first is a garden center that was throwing plants away because they had become too ugly for customers to buy. We don’t mind ugly. We love all plants even the ugly ones. We let the plants sit over the summer in a very hot and dry environment because we had no other place to put them. Because they were not your typical green roof sedum it was a great test to see which ones can handle a hot and dry green roof. Here they are when we got them.

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The other plants are your typical sedum. We buy them from a local psychiatric center whose patients grow plants as part of their therapy. An employee approached Eco Brooklyn asking if we would be willing to buy the plants. Management is trying to cut funding for the gardening program but if it makes money they agreed not to cut it. It is very warped. These poor mental patients have to prove their therapy is making a profit in order to get funding. We gladly buy the plants.

We lay the plants out on the roof and then insert the plugs into the growing medium. Around the border of the roof we put stones we salvaged from a cellar excavation. They hold the roof layers down against strong winds.

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We placed some salvaged tiles as stepping stones.

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And here is the finished product one day after planting.

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Some of the green roof plants we installed. They are just little plugs now but will eventually cover the whole roof with a lush green cover:

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Here is the green roof drain, again all salvaged materials:

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As New York green roof installers with a passion for pushing green building to higher level the ingredients of a green roof are just as important to us as the end result. It is great that it is a green roof. It is also great that the soil, the mats, the plants and various other things are salvaged and recycled content, thus reversing the landfill waste and reducing consumption of new resources.

It is great that the workers were there for more than a paycheck. They loved and enjoyed the process and were proud of their accomplishment. Also great is that it is for a very modest income client. It is important to us that green building be accessible to middle income people. That is how we will make the most significant positive impact.

This is the magic of holistic building. All the parts are equally important and supportive of the whole.

Green From The Ground Up – Book

The book Green from the Ground Up, Sustainable, Healthy, and Energy-Efficient Home Construction, offers everything its title promises, and yet that very same title shows how wrong the authors are. It is 330 pages full of intelligent “green” building techniques covering everything from efficient insulation techniques to natural ventilation.

The book is a fantastic overview of pretty much every good green technique being practiced by green builders, in New York and elsewhere in North America.

And yet as I read the book, getting closer and closer to the end I realized how far their definition of green is to mine. It was discouraging.

Completely missing from the entire book was any mention of salvaging materials. The word salvage doesn’t even appear in all 330 glossy pages.

Once in a short picture caption they mention the reuse of wood as a kitchen counter. And another picture caption mentions reused flooring. But both times it was all about aesthetics and not ecology.

How can you write an all inclusive green building book without once mentioning salvage? The authors don’t think salvage is part of green building. The authors are wrong. Salvage is the most green building technique there is.

It does not matter how many green counters you buy, you are still stuck in the old paradigm of material depletion, consumption and waste.

Until salvage becomes the CENTER of green building we will continue to destroy this planet.

Do the authors, who are clearly knowledgeable and experts in many green techniques, really believe that if the whole world all of a sudden started building by their techniques we would be ok?

The answer is a loud NO. We would still consume too many resources and create too much waste.

New green products have their place. For example new energy efficient fridges save massive amounts of energy compared to older ones. And waste also has its place. There are some things that deserve to be thrown away, like synthetic linoleum flooring.

But they are the exception to the main green building tenet: that cradle to cradle thinking is key to our success in returning to earth what we have taken.

Nature is a cycle and nothing is ever wasted. The rain forest does not have toxic garbage dumps. One animal’s waste is another’s food.

And likewise, one builder’s waste can be another builder’s materials. I know this. Eco Brooklyn buys very little materials and yet we do beautiful gut renovations of brownstones because there is so much good material that gets thrown out.

Ever since the start of the industrial revolution society has been on the fast track to collecting natural resources and producing things. Our world is full of stuff and increasingly short on natural resources.

Lets slow it down a little. Lets stop being so damn productive so we can consume more. We have many years before we need to make more stuff. Lets sit back and enjoy the stuff we have. Lets spend more time organizing and maintaining our stuff and less time trying to get newer versions of it. Lets be more Wabi Sabi.

As a green builder our problem is not a lack of stuff. We have access to lots of good salvaged materials. Our job sites are bursting at the seems with excellent quality salvaged materials. New York City is the Gotham Forest. NY has enough old growth wood in the bowels of its buildings to rebuild for years and never have to cut down a new tree.

Our problem as a green building company interested in ecology is to get other builders to waste less. Almost daily I meet with other builders to see if they would be willing to throw less materials in the dumpster. But habits are hard to break. Money is not stopping them since they would save money. If they throw less away they spend less on dumpster fees. Ethics is not stopping them since they want to be greener. Simple bad habits are the only thing stopping them from being greener.

The book Green from the Ground Up is a good in depth primer on isolated green building techniques. It is like the follow up to the book Green Building for Idiots. A quick reference guide if you want to know the definition of a ground source heat pump for example. For many people it will be an enlightening book.

But Green from the Ground Up lacks the holistic universal view that will really save this planet. And that starts with salvage.

Brooklyn Wood Floor Revival

We did two jobs over the past week on wood floors. They started out really ugly. And they ended up amazing. We finished them with 100% pure tung oil so they are really natural.

The first job was to remove some paint that a previous owner, in their infinite and unfathomable intelligence, had painted over the floors. Why they did this we have no idea. But they did such a good job that we also had no idea what was below the paint.

We suspected something great though.

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First we sanded off the paint after determining it had no lead in it. We used a large belt sander. Then we got on our hands and knees and carefully sanded with a hand sander. Below you can see already that the floor was once amazing. it was white oak with mahogany inlay.

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Once we had gotten all the paint off and sanded the old floor to a smooth finish we seeped it in pure tung oil mixed with citrus solvent so that the oil really soaked in. Tung oil needs to be applied in the right amounts so it doesn’t create an oily film on the wood. If done right it seeps in nicely and hardens the wood from within. It creates a long lasting finish that actually beautifies the actual wood.

This is different from varnish you apply on top of the wood. Varnish, the most common being polyurethane from petrochemicals, creates a hard surface on top of the wood but does not actually seep into the wood. It is basically clear paint. Over time the varnish wears off and the wood looks sad. Tung oil on the other hand can’t wear off since it is part of the wood.

Over time the tung oil cured wood only gets richer. And unlike varnish that needs to be sanded off if you want to refinish it, tung oil doesn’t need sanding. You simply add more tung oil to the wood to refresh it or heal a wound in the wood.

The client had wanted a natural floor installer and finisher because she had gotten cancer in the past and wanted to stay away from the toxic fumes of conventional wood applications. We were happy to oblige.

The end result was a previously beautiful wood floor brought back naturally.

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The other job we did was in a gut renovation we are doing of a brownstone. The existing floors were unusable. First was a layer of linoleum:

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Under the linoleum were sad planks of flooring.  They were too badly rotted so we had to rip them out. Below that were some weary subfloors. As you can see from the picture below the subfloor didn’t look like much. It just looked like tired old wood not worth saving.

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Most contractors would never use it and would cover it with new flooring. But we knew better. The house was built in 1903 and had the original subfloors – soft white pine. Adding tung oil to soft white pine is a magic mix since you get the beauty of the pine plus the subtle hardening effect of tung oil.

We also refuse to buy new wood for anything. Not one tree has been cut down from Eco Brooklyn’s building.

First we sanded it and then we applied several coats of tung oil. This is what it looked like after the first coat, taken from the same place as the picture above:

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In another part of the house the subfloor had been taken out and replaced with plywood so we had to put a new floor over it. We installed some wood we had salvaged from another house that was being gutted. The contractor let us go in and remove the flooring. He was happy to get free labor and less dumpster fees since his plan was to rip it out and throw it away.

Here is one of interns (from an inner city youth organization) helping organize and stack the wood:

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An interior design student intern who flew out from California during spring break is helping clean the wood:

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Stacked and cleaned:

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Here we are installing it:

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We then sanded it and applied tung oil. Here it is after the first coat:

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As one of my employees who migrated from high end renovations in Manhattan to work for Eco Brooklyn said, “These floors look like expensive Manhattan floors.” Even without the great help from interns we turned garbage into beauty at a fraction of the cost of those Manhattan floors. Our client is a first time owner getting a government loan who has a very humble salary.

With intelligent sourcing and salvage we can almost eliminate material costs, allowing me to employ more workers while offering affordable high quality floors to the client. Meanwhile we turn the process into an educational opportunity for aspiring green builders. It is so good to be true it almost seems like magic. How garbage can be turned into beauty while everyone benefits is really amazing to me. And extremely fulfilling. It is what Eco Brooklyn is about.

Salvaged Wood Synergy

Here is a cool example of creative salvaging. They have taken planks from an old brownstone roof and flipped them upside down as a ceiling.

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The one consideration is fire. This was done in a restaurant, which means it shares the ceiling with an apartment upstairs, which means the ceiling has to be 2 hour fire rated, which the wood planks clearly are not. So to be code you need 2 hours of fire rated sheet rock above the planks.

At that point the planks are purely aesthetic. From a green point of view they are an unnecessary use of extra resources.

As a green builder we are always looking to create at least two synergies with every step of construction. For example a counter not only has to look great but it also should be recycled. Or the plumbing not only needs to perform to code but also must save water. By leveraging synergies you conserve materials, space, money and ultimately build a more streamlined green brownstone.

A Brooklyn green contractor is constantly looking where these synergies come together during the brownstone renovation and is part of the holistic view instead of the more conventional category view of a non-green renovation where each segments is isolated from the next – the plumber does his thing, electrician his thing etc.

In a green brownstone renovation the plumber is asking the electrician how to best calibrate the water pumps so they use the least amount of electricity. The electrician is talking with the carpenter to see where the light shelves are going to be built since that will effect the increased efficiency of electric usage.

In a sense instead of each person having their specialized interests, they share a broader interest along green building lines such as efficiency, conservation and ecology. These are things that are not immediately relevant to their job and most plumbers for example don’t see a connection between world ecology and putting food on their table.

But a green builder sees a direct connection. Maybe the biggest difference between a green builder and a non-green builder is the amount of connections between all the elements. A green builder sees a lot more.

So with the ceiling planks shown above where most people would be “wow, cool salvaged wood ceiling, that is really green,” a green builder would say that too but would go a step further and ask if it would have been more synergistic on a floor for example where they are not just a nice to look at but also serve another purpose.

But hey, the ceiling looks great nonetheless.

Rebuildersource.coop

I just go a call from Joel Frank, one of the three members of the Rebuilder Source cooperative in the Bronx. They accept donations of building materials and resell them at good prices. The drive behind them is mostly idealistic: one of making the world a greener place by reusing materials.

He was just reaching out to Eco Brooklyn to let us know they were there if we needed any reused materials for our green renovations of brownstones here in Brooklyn.

I’ve known about them for quite some time but it appears we’ve taken the green building ethos of local sourcing to an extreme and we haven’t even left Brooklyn!

But he’s invited me to come by and visit so this week I will grab my passport, a change of clothes, and I will venture out of Brooklyn northward to the land of the Bronx. He has enticed me with some plywood he just got in stock.