The two best building systems I know of right now are the Earthship and Passive House methods. Right now Eco Brooklyn is lucky enough to be involved in two jobs that involve both systems, one a NY earthship and the other a NY Passive House.

Earthship building is best for non-urban parts of the world. The footprint of the Earthship makes it prohibitive for city buildings. And as the name implies, Earthships don’t work for buildings more than two stories high. An Earthship relies on the temperature of the earth and thus needs to be nestled in the earth to work.

An Earthship building Eco Brooklyn is currently involved in on the Lower East Side of Manhattan

Passive House building is a good choice for city buildings. Here in NY there are many Passive House jobs going on and I predict that Passive House will become the standard for city, multy level buildings.

The one flaw with Passive House is that even if the whole world built by Passive House standards we would still have wars over resources. This is because Passive House is all about energy efficiency but does not focus on reducing embodied energy in the construction phase. The reasoning is that over the life of the building a Passive House saves so much energy that the initial consumption of high embodied energy – insulation, windows etc – is justified.

I don’t think we have that luxury. That is why our Passive House house in Manhattan is built with almost 100% salvaged materials.

For me salvaged materials is the answer, especially in the city. In the countryside, a place conducive to Earthship building, there is very little salvaged materials available. Lucky for the Earthship, you basically only need vehicle tires as a salvaged material. The second most needed material for an Earthship is, duh, earth, which is plentiful on our planet. After that you need some wood, some cement, some glass and some plumbing and electric materials.

These are things you can salvage but they are not needed in abundance so even buying them new isn’t going to burden the planet hugely.

In the city you have a whole different story. The city is full of very valuable trash. Here in NY I know for a fact that you can build a luxury condo with the trash that is thrown away from the job sites of other, uh, luxury condos. I know because that is what we did for our Manhattan Passive House three family building.

NY may be the elite of valuable trash, but every city is full of good garbage. Right now it is legal to throw that garbage away and it shouldn’t be. The NY DOB should have a team of people inspecting peoples’ dumpsters. If it has old wood, insulation, bricks, cinder block, and windows the contractor should be fined a hefty sum.

Why are contractors paying good money to throw away good materials?

The reason is simple economics. It costs less to throw it away and buy it when you need it than store it until you need it. This is a capitalistic flaw not a moral one.

The solution for cities across the globe is a top down program that subsidizes the extraction and storage of valuable materials instead of throwing them out. It would work very much like current city recycling programs work. When a contractor needs materials they would have the choice to go to a storage area and buy salvaged materials. The material is there, the demand is there. The only thing lacking is a restructuring of how things are done.

Here at Eco Brooklyn, being a NY green contractor, we don’t do that many Earthships despite our deep respect for the system and for Jonah and Michael Reynolds the founders of Earthship building.

But we do Passive Houses. We solve the problem of Passive House high embodied energy by salvaging as much as physically possible. To do this we have a storage area where we put the wood, insulation and other items needed to build NY brownstone.


A Passive House job Eco Brooklyn is building in Manhattan

When the job comes we pull whatever we need from the storage area. The way we make it work financially, since storage is not cheap, is we get the stuff from dumpsters or at half price from other contractros looking to get rid of overstock.

When you factor in labor to collect and clean up the salvaged materials we may not be getting the stuff any cheaper than what you pay at the store, but for us that is good enough. Same price, zero embodied energy, zero mountains clear cut, zero rivers polluted. Sounds like a great deal to us.

That is the problem with current building. They all build on credit. The hidden costs of badly paid workers and ecological destruction across the globe is not factored in when you buy a 2×4 at the hardware store. Our future generations will pay for that dearly.

The goal of Eco Brooklyn is to build with cash, symbolically speaking. When we salvage a 2×4 from a dumpster no tree was cut down for us using it, no worker was badly paid, no ecology across the planet was destroyed. So what if it costs us a little more than a new piece of wood when you factor in labor and storage. Hell, if we factored in all the hidden costs that 2×4 should cost ten times what it does. If our labor to collect and repair the salvaged 2×4 costs the same as a new one we feel we have gotten the deal of a lifetime.

We ar Eco Brooklyn feel that for NY building a combination of 100% salvaged materials and Passive House techniques is by far the best way to build.

Unfortunately most contractors can not build this way because they do no have the infrastructure of salvage that Eco Brooklyn has. We have a team of guys devoted to dumpster diving and a network of contractors who know to call us if they have valuable garbage to give away.

But hopefully this will change as the city gets more hip to the importance of salvaging the valuable NY construction garbage. Contractors don’t feel good about throwing away 100 year old hard wood beams, but what can they do? They are not educated to the importance of saving it and they don’t have the storage.

This is where the city can help. With time hopefully they will.

For now Eco Brooklyn continues in what we call guerrilla construction – dumpster diving and contractor connection – a grass roots solution to a deep seated need.