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Green Building in Brooklyn

A couple blogs (123 , 4) have picked up the goings on at 22 2nd street, the Eco Brooklyn green show house and my home. What sparked the interest is a recent screw up by the DOB where they gave me a permit to build a storage room in my front yard and then revoked it.

Before we delve into that lets give this a little perspective. To buy the house the bank wanted 30% down, an amazingly high percentage for the time, but we had our mortgage broker line up refinance papers to pull money out again, and we closed on the house.

With plans to have the home equity line of credit we proceeded on our merry way to deconstruct the house which was in really bad shape. Some floors were completely rotted from termites.

And then the banks started to collapse. Our broker company went our of business and with it our hopes of refinancing. Nobody would give us a construction loan.

We were sitting on a very expensive monthly mortgage with a gutted house and little money to rebuild it. Despite being in construction since I was twelve I hadn’t planned on doing the renovation myself. I figured I could make more money as a real estate broker and pay another contractor to do the renovation.

But real estate was clearly on its way to more mellow territory. And besides I had no money to pay a contractor. But the main reason was I realized no contractor could do what I wanted.

So I scraped some money together with my girlfriend and started out with a tool belt.

At first I just wanted to build a green house for my family. I didn’t plan on having a company. But to do the renovation I needed insurance and a company to pull permits. So I formed a little company to deal with the legal requirements. I called it Eco Brooklyn.

For financial reasons but more for ecological reasons I built by strict green standards, most notably salvaging absolutely everything possible. As we progressed friends and visitors pointed out that the house was being built like no other they had seen.

I didn’t have anything to compare it to since my experience in building was not in NY. But it seemed that the job didn’t have the huge waste and ecological carelessness that some brownstone renovations have. To me it just seemed like a good way to build.

So I decided to share what I was doing. Thus was born the Eco Brooklyn Green Show House.

And people started to notice. They asked me to build their homes. Thus was born the contracting company Eco Brooklyn that actually did jobs for New York clients.

At first this was all very fun. And keep in mind things were happening really quickly. We weren’t a year into renovation and I was being asked to renovate other peoples’ brownstones.

Eco Brooklyn grew really quickly. After two years we had five brownstone gut renovations going at once.

I have a talent for alternative thinking and seeing things from a global ecological perspective. I inspired clients with a grant green brownstone vision that was connected to the ecological web of Brooklyn and beyond. And it was genuine. I wasn’t really looking for the work. I was simply super excited to turn Brooklyn green. Still am.

But the problem was that I didn’t have the company framework of a mature contracting company. I didn’t have the management in place, nor the skilled green builders to turn the vision into reality. So despite the grandeur Eco Brooklyn sometimes fell short on simple good business practices like meeting deadlines and quality control.

I learned the hard way that it sometimes doesn’t matter if you love the planet if you can’t balance your check book (Capitalists should never use that logic to justify their callous acts of ecological neglect though. Notice I said “sometimes”. A lot of times it is much more important that you love the planet regardless of your check book balancing). In this case though it was clear that if we can’t run the business we can’t turn Brooklyn green. So we had a problem.

Things got less fun. The company lost money on some jobs, we got some unhappy clients and my own house got less attention. It was the cobbler’s children going barefoot syndrome, only in this case the green contractor’s children slept in rooms where the clay walls were not done.

Things started to drag on and it took me almost a year to correct the bad jobs, get good management and get us back on track as the great green contracting company we aspire to be.

Meanwhile the neighbors on 2nd street are only barely tolerating the constant construction site and its “garbage”. One of the things about green building and salvaged materials is that the “materials” are well, salvaged, aka somebody else’s garbage. So Eco Brooklyn’s job sites often get accused of being full of garbage, which is true technically but not true practically since that garbage gets turned into beautiful and ecological brownstones while lightening the load on landfills and new material demand.

Despite all that my neighbors have been very tolerant given the condition and time it is taking. To my face at least.

Fast forward to a couple months ago. Things were going a lot better with our clients. Apart from some jobs we took on when we weren’t organized, our new jobs were running smoothly. We were finally able to run a tight ship and stay true to our strict ecological mission of turning Brooklyn green.

I got some money and decided to do the final push on the green show house. I needed some space and decided to apply for a permit to build a storage room in my front yard.

As a green builder  I do things like gray water, composting toilets, green roofs etc, and this means we are constantly pushing the limits of existing construction comfort zones with the DOB. To say the DOB inspectors raise their eyebrows when they visit our sites is understating it. And because of this we need to be squeaky clean. We need to do everything above board with permits and to code. This is especially true if it is to be a green show house for everyone to see.

All this on top of the fact that a green building company by its very existence strives to do good in the world.

So when I applied for a permit to do the front storage room and got it I presumed I was ok (I wasn’t a veteran of DOB illogic yet). So I proceeded to dig. I didn’t hide anything from the neighbors. I invited them to come take a look at what was a pretty interesting project. Using my green roof techniques I had visions of people with beautiful front yards and lots of storage space underneath. It seemed like a very good idea.

Looking back the biggest mistake I made was trusting people to be as good willed as I was. One day an inspector showed up. At first he was apologetic. He said he only had to do it because somebody on the block called 311 and filed a complaint. He didn’t go into details, just that somebody had called. Strange, I said, nobody has raised objections to me. He looked at our plans and our work quality and saw everything was ok. He admired our salvaged stone walls and left.

We continued on our merry way.

I was excited to use the excavation to explore greener ways of building. The earth was removed and used on another job site to make an earthen floor. The stones were used to make beautiful and strong supporting walls. Everything was aesthetically beautiful, salvaged and strong. The hole was to be covered up with a green roof of ecological plants. The only difference from other gardens was that the landscaping would be full of native plants that attract butterflies, hummingbirds and other wildlife.

Unfortunately whoever called on the block kept calling though. And a week later we were shut down for building on city property. The letter stated the DOB made a mistake and that my front yard was not mine.

One thing I have learned, if you make a mistake with the DOB you pay for it. If the DOB makes a mistake, you pay for it. So I was not happy to hear the news, especially since I was almost done!

What irks me the most is that whoever kept calling really had it in for me. They even said I was building an illegal green roof, which is completely false – it is legal and I built it a year and a half ago. Why somebody would spend so much time snitching on me and not speak to me directly is beyond me. They called five times and had an agenda beyond correcting the front yard. Why else would they try to slander the green roof?

It is very unsettling since everyone on the block is on good terms with me to my face. My neighbors to one side are vocally unhappy with my construction site but we say hello at least. They understand the situation and simply look forward to the work being done.

Is it them who called? Is it the guy across the street who sits on his stoop all the time and waves? Not it isn’t him. But it sure is frustrating to know it is somebody who smiles at me as I walk by.

I’m embarrassed enough by the ugliness and long standing construction site. Now every time I walk by a neighbor I wonder if it is them who sneakily is calling 311 and bad mouthing the job site behind my back. They had full legal right. It is not about that. It is about something that is more important to me.

The true irony of this is that I would have been done with the front yard in a week. I would have been able to clear the yard and plant it with beautiful native plants and trees. The storage room would not have been visible or a bother to anyone.

But now the front yard is stalled with blue tarps and piles of stone for possibly months. The DOB has asked me to put up an ugly fence which is going to annoy neighbors even more.

If I were to do it again I would not do a storage room. It is a stupid use of money. I would have dug out the lower duplex in the back yard. That way the dig out would be livable space instead of space for bicycles. I would be able to rent the lower duplex out for more and arguably the space would be better served.

I did the front dig thinking it would be quick, painless and relatively inexpensive. The storage for bikes and stuff would have been great. It was my little extravagance. My man cave (not that I know what a man cave is!). Now of course my girlfriend who is not pleased has suggested not so nicely that I go live in that @$#!! man cave.

I point out to her that it probably needs to be closed up never to be enjoyed again, which is a sick irony that just puts salt on a very expensive wound.

We await a hearing with the DOB. They have suggested I can approach the Department of Transportation and negotiate buying the land back. Maybe the DOT would allow me to build stairs to the cellar at the very least. But these are huge maybes and would take a long time, be costly and probably not work.

As for you dear 311 caller, whoever you are, have the courage to come see me and introduce yourself. At least we can have things in the open.

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