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.

The Overview Effect

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

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

Check it out:

The Overview Effect

Building for Children

Eco Brooklyn recently completed a number of jobs in a building where there were children living. We renovated  three children’s bedrooms, two bathrooms where they bathe, and two play areas. Doing this increased our focus on using non-toxic materials and building in a manner that created no dust.

A toxin free green building process should be done in all homes, but because children’s bodies  are so much more absorptive of chemicals than adults, the harmful effect on children can be much greater if precautions are not taken.

Eco Brooklyn has a zero toxin policy in our home renovations. But that is a lot harder to accomplish than people think and we don’t always meet our goals.

The reason is that even the most harmless building material has toxins. Take sheet rock compound for example,  used to plaster the seams of sheet rock. With the exception of a very few buildings (adobe, for example), sheet rock compound is in every single building in america.

Sheet rock compound contains Formaldehyde, a known cancer causing chemical. To the trained nose, Formaldehyde is easily detected in a newly built home. True, it off-gasses very quickly and although I don’t have numbers to back it up, I feel that the Formaldehyde levels in dry compound are very small.

But what if you are building in an apartment where children are currently living, like we recently did. The apartment had a six week old baby and we were posed with the challenge of repairing some sheet rock. The family was not able to move during the renovation. This is not an ideal situation.

Our solution was to seal off the area with taped plastic walls and to make sure we had a window in the plastic enclosure.

We then created a negative vacuum in the work area by blowing a fan out the window. That way air was constantly being sucked into the enclosure and out the window. Due to this constant pressure minimal dust or toxins entered the rest of the apartment.

Likewise the workers took great pains to clean themselves before leaving the enclosure. We left the enclosure up for two days while the bulk of the Formaldehyde off-gassed out the window.

We then painted with zero voc paint, which again for a green builder like us is pushing the boundary of what we consider safe. Even though the paint may be zero voc, if it is a mainstream company (Benjamin Moore, for example) then the paint contains hundreds of chemicals, most of which have only been around for a couple generations.

Like the millions of chemicals humans have created over the past several decades, we don’t really know the long term effects of there high tech paints. You just have to smell a zero voc mainstream paint to know it isn’t harmless. It smells like toxins.

It would be great for our health if we all lived in adobe buildings, surrounded by natural materials like wood, earth and stones. I am convinced cancer rates would plummet  But most houses are not adobe. As New York green contractors our strategy is to educate ourselves as much as possible in non-toxic hypoallergenic building techniques and apply those strategies to existing conditions, which often are not ideal.

When possible we eliminate the toxins. We never use wood with Formaldehyde (often found in cabinets, flooring, counters…). All our floor finishes are natural oil based. We build a lot of clay walls. We have built a lot with non-Formaldehyde sheet rock compound, although it is more expensive and not as easy to work with.

When it is not possible we do our best to understand the risks and to reduce exposure as much as possible. Simple plastic (yuk!) walls and negative pressure techniques do wonders to reduce any dust or toxins in the living space. An educated work force takes care of the other exposure issues (simple things like removing shoes, blowing off our clothes, washing our hands….).

After considering the immediate effects of toxins like airborne gasses and dust on adults and children, we as a green building company are interested in finding and understanding environmental stressors that may contribute to more subtle and long term childhood issues like OCD, ADD and Autism.

This is part of our Build It Forward process where we are not only thinking of the current client but are also considering future generations. That is our gift that we build forward into the renovation. Likewise the client is paying a little extra to benefit people they many never even meet. This process is very different to the slash and burn building technique that dominates the industry and has caused so much harm to our world.

That extra up front building cost that we as a green building company and the client share is pennies on the dollar compared to the massive hidden costs we all end up paying later when we build with no consideration for anything but maximum up front profit.

It is the difference between paying cash for something that you then pass on for free to your children vs. paying with a credit card that has outlandish interest and that you give to your children as a death present.

With this attitude it is easy to understand our obsession with uncovering hidden costs (financial, social and ethical) and paying for them up front. If you want to be perfectly callous, you could say this for us is simply smart long term business planning. aka it is sustainable in the long run.

As we research what is smart and not smart building we never forget the myriad of  political, economic and social interests behind many of these chemicals it is hard to know the truth. For example, for decades “studies” came out saying there is no connection between cancer and tobacco…

So most of the time when we are building we have nothing but common sense to back up a lot of what we do. And we use historical reference. This means we not only look towards the newest science for guidance but we also look into the history of building in different cultures. The Eco Brooklyn office has a whole wall of books on traditional building techniques and cutting edge science techniques.

So when we build, if it makes sense to do something and we have evidence that a certain society utilized the same technique with success then for lack of any other authority we will use our best judgement to decide.

For example, historically clay walls have been used safely since the beginning of time in construction. Recently there is also mounting evidence that the negative ions in clay cause people to feel good. These are the same negative ions found after a rain storm when the air is fresh and the light is crisp.

At the same time there is evidence that one of the ingredients in clay walls contributes to cancer – silica. It is added either pure or in it’s most common form – sand. Of course people have worked with sand since the beginning of time as well.

As builders we look at all this information, determine the benefits and risks and then decide how or whether to use the green building technique. In the case of clay walls we feel that there benefits are great. The ongoing exposure to silica from the wall dusting is minor and we feel does not contribute as an environmental stressor that may contribute in aggregate to cancer.

So in the case of clay we wholeheartedly use it. Other applications, such as zero voc paint or sheet rock compound, we use but with less enthusiasm and with a lot more care in order to reduce the risk to an acceptable level.

We understand we can’t eliminate all environmental stressors. Sunshine after all can become an environmental stressor that when combined with other elements (genetics, formaldahyde etc) can contribute to cancer. But we feel the benefits of sunshine far outweigh the risks and we enthusiastically encourage windows in buildings :).

The point here is that as New York green contractors we feel our role is more than to build kitchens for people. We need to educate ourselves not only in how to professionally install kitchen cabinets so they look great and work perfectly but also we need to understand our role is one of amateur doctor, educator and social activist.

Along with the normal questions like, what color are the cabinet doors, how do the hinges work and what handles does the client want, we try to ask ourselves other questions as well, questions that definitely will impact the client much more in the long run.

These questions are different for each situation but they always focus on the triple bottom line of planet, people and profit. What is the health impact on the client and the environment (is the wood free of chemicals and salvaged)? Who wins and who loses financially (are workers paid fairly)?

The questions are endless and the answers many. It is more an ongoing process than a final goal. As long as we keep at it I feel we will continue to be effective New York green contractors.

This blog was inspired by a recent article I read about chemicals and autism. Here are a list of chemicals you can be pretty sure contribute to autism (and cancer, headaches, mood swings, tiredness and just simply a shitty day). If you have time you can google the chemicals to see what products contain them.

If you don’t have time, then use your common sense. A popcorn bag made out of some sort of plastic that you put in a microwave? Duh! Save yourself some time and go smoke a cigarette instead. Not sure if a liquid is toxic? What does it smell like – a new car or a walk in the forest – hint: that new car smell gives rats tumors the size of grapefruit.

Really a better term for this than common sense is being aware of your surroundings. Most people are aware enough to notice a fire in their house. But how many are aware of the smell in their new pillow and whether it will give them cancer in 20 years? Studies show it very well might (although there are plenty of others that show it won’t….but again it is worth looking at who is pushing what study….).

The first step in becoming aware is to pay more attention to your body and to use available information both current and historic to see what works. Available info and history show that certain activities and foods work while others don’t. You don’t need to be a genius to know the basics of exercise and died to live a good life.

And yes, exercise is a great way to reduce the harm of that new paint since an increased metabolism passes the toxins our of your body faster.

Here is the list for chemicals connected to autism..

Lead
Found in paint, dust, drinking water, some canned imported food, older toys, some imported toys, lead-glazed or lead-painted pottery, and some inks.

Methylmercury
Methylmercury is not the same as ethylmercury, the form found in Thimerosal, the controversial preservative formerly used in vaccines and which some believe is linked to autism. Methylmercury is released into air and water mostly from industrial emissions. It is the form of mercury that is found in high concentrations in some fish.

PCBs
The U.S. government banned production of PCBs in 1977, but they continue to be released into the environment from hazardous waste sites and from illegal or improper dumping. PCBs are also found in some types of caulk used in building materials, including in some schools.

Organophosphate Pesticides
These make up the majority of pesticides used on fruits and vegetables ingested by pregnant women and kids in the United States.

Organochlorine Pesticides
Less common, organochlorines are still used. The most infamous organochlorine is DDT, which was fully banned in the United States in 1972.

Endocrine Disruptors
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can potentially interfere with prenatal development. There are literally hundreds of endocrine disruptors, the most well-known of which is bisphenol-A, or BPA.

Automotive Exhaust 
Toxins of concern in motor vehicle exhaust include carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
These chemicals are found in an array of sources — from cigarette smoke and burning coal to industrial waste incineration and hazardous waste sites.

Brominated Flame Retardants
These fireproofing chemicals are added to pillows, vehicle seats, fabrics, and some electronics — including computers.

Perfluorinated Compounds
PFCs are found in sources as varied as water-resistant clothing, some non-stick cookware, and microwave popcorn bags.

The Living Building Challenge- Winner of the 2012 Buckminster-Fuller Challenge

Green building and eco-sensitive design is currently at the forefront of our modern ethos.   What this means for the green builders, contractors and architects of NY, and the world, is a period of dramatic change and challenge is ahead if not already begun. A change in the way we think about new buildings and construction, in how we consider “used” materials and how we use and interact with space.

As Scholar David Orr stated-

“We are coming to an era the likes of which we’ve never seen before, we’re in the white waters of human history. We don’t know what lies ahead. Bucky Fuller’s ideas on design are at the core of any set of solutions that will take us to calmer waters.”

 

One of the most prominent voices in sustainability and responsible design since the 1960’s is R. Buckminster Fuller.  Fuller pioneered in fields from architecture, and mathematics, to engineering and automobile design and only patented 12 designs allowing the vast majority of his work to be open-sourced and free to the public.

His life’s mission and philosophy was simple, “to make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.”

Even today, years after Fuller’s death his name is still the vanguard of the sustainable design community. The largest testament to his legacy is the R. Buckminster Fuller Institute and their annual international competition the Buckminster Fuller Design Challenge.

According to the institution’s website $100,000 is given “…to support the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems. Named “Socially-Responsible Design’s Highest Award” by Metropolis Magazine, it attracts bold, visionary, tangible initiatives focused on a well-defined need of critical importance. Winning solutions are regionally specific yet globally applicable and present a truly comprehensive, anticipatory, integrated approach to solving the world’s complex problems.”

In 2012 at an awards ceremony held here in NYC at Cooper Union The International Living Future Institute was awarded first prize for their “Living Building Challenge” initiative.  According to the institute’s website the Living building Challenge is:

-a PHILOSOPHY, ADVOCACY PLATFORM AND CERTIFICATION PROGRAM. Because it defines priorities on both a technical level and as a set of core values, it is engaging the broader building industry in the deep conversations required to truly understand how to solve problems rather than shift them.

-an EVOCATIVE GUIDE. By identifying an ideal and positioning that ideal as the indicator of success, the Challenge inspires project teams to reach decisions based on restorative principles instead of searching for ‘least common denominator’ solutions. This approach brings project teams closer to the objectives we are collectively working to achieve.

-a BEACON. With a goal to increase awareness, it is tackling critical environmental, social and economic problems, such as: the rise of persistent toxic chemicals; climate change; habitat loss; the collapse of domestic manufacturing; global trade imbalances; urban sprawl; and the lack of community distinctiveness.

-a ‘UNIFIED TOOL’. Addressing development at all scales, it can be equally applied to landscape and infrastructure projects; partial renovations and complete building renewals; new building construction; and neighborhood, campus and community design.

-a PERFORMANCE-BASED STANDARD. Decidedly not a checklist of best practices, the Challenge leads teams to embrace regional solutions and respond to a number of variables, including climate factors and cultural characteristics.

-a VISIONARY PATH TO A RESTORATIVE FUTURE

The challenge seeks to encourage designers to bridge the gap between the built environment and the surrounding ecosystems thus reinventing the typical developers’ business model and transforming the role of the building occupant from passive to more of an involved partnership with the earth and her resources.

For all manner of development the Living Building Principles are applicable, whether, “… a single building, a park, a college campus or even a complete neighborhood community, Living Building Challenge provides a framework for design, construction and the symbiotic relationship between people and all aspects of the built environment.”

You can download a complete document that outlines the specific requirements and benchmarks that must be met to receive certification HERE.

With its radical and rigorous requirements, this is more than “green washing”.  This is an excerpt from a statement released by The Fuller Institute after the award ceremony;

“The Living Building Challenge (LBC) is setting the standard for how to build in the 21st century by establishing the highest bar yet for environmental performance and ecological responsibility within the built environment … by “building a new model” and establishing new benchmarks for non-­‐toxic, net-­‐zero structures… The Living Building Challenge goes far beyond current best practices, reframing the relationship between the built and natural environments. LBC seeks to lead the charge toward a holistic standard that could yield an entirely new level of integration between building systems, transportation, technology, natural resources, and community. If widely adopted, this approach would significantly enhance the level of broad-­‐based social collaboration throughout the design and building process and beyond, dramatically reducing the destructiveness of current construction, boost the livability, health, and resilience of communities … the International Future Living Institute is charting a new and critically needed course in an industry that arguably remains one of the most consumptive … The LBC’s model of regenerative design in the built environment could provide a critical leverage point in the roadmap to a sustainable future and is an exemplary trim tab in its potential to catalyze innovation in such a high impact, high consumption industry…”

This is a valuable new asset and tool for the green building and green contracting community in NYC nd abroad in the fight for a greener and livable tomorrow.

 

https://ilbi.org/lbc  -living building challenge website

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

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

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.

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.

Fracking Joke – Stop Your Gas Consumption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eco Brooklyn Green Building Terms

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

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

Build It Forward

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

Zero Brownstone

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

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

The City Provides

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

Harvest the City

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

Gotham Forest

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

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

Guerrilla Green Building

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

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

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

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

Turn Brooklyn Green

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

Triple Bottom Line

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

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.

A green builder is a reluctant builder

A green builder should be treated the same as a coroner or dentist. You don’t call them if you don’t have to.

The greenest building is to not build at all. At the industry’s current evolutionary state in building it is best to avoid building if possible because building inevitably consumes resources and destroys things.

So as green contractors in Brooklyn whenever we are asked to do a renovation (we don’t do new construction) in a Brooklyn brownstone the first question we ask is: “Do we need to renovate!?”

We are reluctant builders!

Why build when it will just reduce the planets’ natural beauty even more. After having seen the destruction around the globe that a Brooklyn brownstone renovation creates (forests, metal mines, oil…the list is long) I am convinced that no matter how beautiful your renovation is it will never make up for the beauty destroyed.

Being a reluctant builder is part of the Built It Forward mentality. If our building is meant to give to the future generations then the best gift is to not use up their resources in the first place.

So we resist the renovation if at all possible. Do you really need that new kitchen? What is wrong with a simple face lift? And so on.

After seriously pondering if a renovation is really needed and the answer is a resounding yes then we proceed to the next step and ask the exact same question: “If we are renovating then do we need to renovate this part? Or this part? Can we not renovate this area?”

In this process we ask our client to really consider the motive for building. We don’t become their shrink (“Are you renovating because you hate your father?”) but we do try to gauge their reasons.

Is it a real need? New child. Toxic environment. Something is broken. Terrible air or solar design. Need more nature. It is important to maximize the positive elements of your environment and green building does it better than any other.

Or is it something else? Self esteem. Need to change ones’ life. Relationship problems. A raise in income. Bored. Frustrated.

I used to travel a lot and I know that you can change you environment but your baggage always comes with you. So if your motives are baggage driven then no amount of green building will help until you deal with the underlying issues.

We ask these questions because it has direct impact on our business model of the triple bottom line: people, planet, profit. All three need to profit in order for us to do the job, or at the very least two need to strongly outweigh some minor issues of the third.

Profit is pretty easy. Does the renovation make us money? Yes.

But the people and planet needs to be clarified before going forward.

In terms of people, does the renovation benefit the client? If they are doing it for the wrong reason then no! and we have not satisfied one of three bottom lines. We would not be able to justify doing the job since it wouldn’t further the success of our company.

However, if we feel the renovation would benefit the client then great.

And the planet? Ideally our building reverses ecological damage by removing material from dumps etc. So if the client insists on Brazilian Cherry flooring (Amazon clear cutting etc) instead of our Eco Brooklyn Flooring Special from a dumpster then it does not matter how much money we get or what great benefit the client is attaining, it simply does not enrich the planet and the job should not be done.

But if the client understands the importance of Build It Forward and appreciates the beauty of salvaged materials etc then great! In that case the triple bottom line is satisfied and we can proceed with the job because it will further the success of the company and the world.

And as a side note, what we like about being reluctant builders is that we plant ourselves firmly on the side of the client. Although for different reasons we both want to spend as little of the clients money as possible. And that is a very powerful building block for trust and doing a great job.