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

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:


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!”




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).

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.


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.  -living building challenge website  -Buckminster-fuller institute website

Natural Pools

We at EcoBrooklyn engage in a number of exciting green building projects and experiments throughout the year, but with the hot months ahead at the top of our list is the natural pool for the show house and with its completion so close we can almost feel the cool, energetic, life infused water on our toes.

A “Natural pool” is more about incorporating nature into the design and functions of the pool, harnessing natural processes to maintain quality, swimable water and blurring the line between built and naturally occurring.

A healthy body of fresh water has a number of checks and balances that keep it in balance. A Natural Pool simply recreates these elements. Nature does the rest.

A Natural Pool has the swimming area and then another area called the regeneration zone. This zone contains plants and, most importantly, surface area usually in the form of gravel that microbes can live on.

The plants and microbes compete with algae for food and since you pack it with surface area the microbes beat out the algae. In essence you create an environment where food (leaves, soil, bugs, and other organic matter) is scarce, so what food there is becomes eaten by plants and microbes instead of algae.

The process is fairly flexible and can be as simple or complex as you like as long as you have a few basic elements:

-No chemical fertilizers/ pesticides used adjacent to the site

-Natural filtration system

-A variety of different plants, surface area and microbes to promote a balanced ecosystem

The beauty of natural pools

The primary appeal of a natural pool is the absence of the typical cocktail of harsh chemicals designed to kill pretty much everything in the water, except the swimmer more or less.

The second attraction is the positive ecological effect; this is something you can build with salvaged and recycled materials while helping to reinstate local/native ecosystems.

As with most things green there is a degree of time and thought investment not usually associated with the typical energy sapping, chlorinated eyesore.

there’s no competition really


Maintenance is still simpler and less expensive, but one needs to learn and follow a set of steps and rules, which as one grows with the pool these steps become second nature, or perhaps first nature…

Thankfully there are always pioneers braving new frontiers and providing the general populace with valuable resources and tools to implement in their own projects.  The Europeans especially have been at the forefront of the natural pools race for over a decade now. They have built massive public natural swimming pools that cater to thousands of people with great success.

beautiful design

wide range of options

Below is a list of websites and organizations specifically geared towards natural pool construction; they provide excellent technical suggestions for all types of designs and constraints as well as helpful trouble shooting for any problems that may arise.  Also they can provide you with competent local green contractors and builders in your area familiar with this sort of construction.

Eco Brooklyn hopes to become a leading natural pool installer in the New York area. We feel this is an excellent option since it adds so much to a garden, both for humans but for native wildlife.


-Michael DiCarlo

Occupy Wall Street

On 10/11/11 Eco Brooklyn, a green builder and supporter of a better America and world, went down to the Financial district to check out Occupy Wall Street. Nearly 30 days ago, a diverse group of citizens took to the street in NYC, and marched down to Zuccotti Park, formerly “Liberty Plaza Park”, placed in between Wall Street, the financial center of the U.S., and Ground Zero.

            Although formal demands will not be made, the message brought by Occupy Wall Street is clear.  They call for an end to corruption and greed, to bring about a better, cleaner, fairer world.  Cleaner, fairer, and better are all words that definitely relate to the idea of sustainability, which seems to be a theme for the protesters at OWS.  They hope to create a sustainable system of economics and government that’s not only sustainable for the people in charge and involved now, but also for the people of the future.  Similarly to OWS, Eco Brooklyn sees the need for an immediate change in the building and construction industry. For too long, a system has been used that leads to crumbling infrastructure and high energy costs, and now it’s time for an immediate change to use recycled and salvaged material to make zero energy homes.  This is a practical goal, that’s sustainable not only for the people living in the new homes, but also for the generations to come.

OWS also has areas for making and displaying art, garbage collection and recycling, a food buffet, a drum circle/music group, a webcast, an info center for volunteers, as well spaces to access the internet and charge cell phones and battery powered devices.  With mattresses and sleeping bags spread throughout these areas, one had to be careful navigating between the people protesting and things and people on the ground, but despite the difference in peoples body language and stature, the feeling of unity was unmistakable- everyone united as one, fighting for a better, fairer, cleaner world.  For more check out Thomas Friedman’s Op-Ed piece in the New York Times.

Building With Awareness

Eco Brooklyn just came out of a renovation of a four story brownstone where the budget was very tight. We took the job full of idealism believing we could make green building affordable to somebody with a small budget.

It ended badly.

We had to hire workers willing to charge lower salaries which resulted in mistakes we had to redo.

Combine that with the inevitable surprises that arise in 100 year old buildings and the end result was we lost money. Had we worked quickly perhaps the client could have appreciated the good deal they got, but the project dragged on and in the end nobody was happy.

It has made me re-evaluate the wisdom of accepting jobs with tight budgets. I have come to the hard realization that despite my intense desire to make good building affordable to middle class budgets, good building is expensive and no amount of salvaging can change that.

The problem of offering affordable services is also compounded by tight profit margins that require taking on more jobs. This results in logistical mistakes and further loss of quality.

In true green fashion I realized that our business model was not sustainable. The bottom line is that we need to charge more to reflect the true cost of building green.

Our fear is that green building remains an option for the elite rather than the middle class worker.

But despite our raise in prices I don’t think green building is only for the rich.

I think there is something much deeper at stake here.

Unfortunately current building – green or not – is like everything else in the world – highly subsidized by suffering.
The only reason you can get a 2×4 for $1.50 is because they laid waste a mountain side. $1.50 is not the true cost of that wood. The hidden cost is a barren mountain which costs in other ways – loss of ecosystem, destruction of waters through silt run off, destruction of local culture…how much does that 2×4 really cost?

Each time we buy a subsidized 2×4 we are buying on our global credit card. And it maxed out a long time ago. We are already paying the price ten fold through global suffering.

So the solution is to start putting the real cost back into things.

Middle class people have come to expect a full gut renovation of their home. Just like they expect a supermarket full of a thousand cheap food products. Both are part of a consumer society that is not sustainable and is causing great problems.

More and more those problems are breaking through our artificial protective walls. For a long time we managed to keep it far from us – in remote vilages on the other side of the world where children work in sweat shops and companies pillage local resources for us.

But with global climates wreaking havoc from such human made disequilibrium and with global political and cultural sharing it is impossible to stay isolated any longer.

In terms of building, the harsh reality is that we need to drastically reduce it. Period. Instead of a renovation every 20 years it needs to be a renovation every 100. Going forward when you build you build for yourself, your children and your grandchildren because they won’t get the chance to renovate. You Build It Forward.

With this new attitude building becomes a very valuable process instead of the “I don’t like my kitchen, lets tear it out,” process it is now. The reason old buildings last is that they were built to last. Kitchens would stay the same for hundreds of years. They were built right in the first place and they served their purpose despite whatever their paint color was.

We build now like spoiled children without any appreciation for the great sacrifices that go into it. We build largely with borrowed or inherited money and without any understanding that the building materials are immensely valuable due to the blood and destruction needed to get them.

Like sanitized beef patties in a supermarket the building materials sit in neat little piles in Home Depot. But like the horrendous animal cruelty in the beef industry, those building materials were equally wrenched from the earth without consideration or intelligence.

Lets bring the humility back to building, the respect and gratitude, the awareness that we are causing great destruction by renovating our kitchen and that nothing comes without sacrifice.

Some Native American Indians when killing a deer would appologize to it and thank it for its life sacrifice so the Indian could eat and survive.

We must renovate, we must build. But we also must do it with more awareness of the cost. Only then will we build when absolutely necessary and we will build to last with gratitude for those who sacrificed – easpecially our Mother Earth.

And in that gratitude we are filled with the need to give something back so we build for our future generations of humans and ecology. We Build It Forward, a cycle of life where we take with awareness and give with gratitude.

Believe me, that kithen – whether the one you build for your grandchildren or the one your grandfather built for you – will have so much more meaning.

Upcoming Speaking Announcement

Green Home NYC is featuring Gennaro Brooks-Church as a guest speaker. He will be speaking on two key concepts he coined: Build It Forward and the Zero Brownstone. More info below on the event next week.

greenhomenyc logo

August forum: Working with contractors (AIA credit)August’s forum will discuss working with contractors in both residential and commercial projects. Along with teams of architects, designers, and specifiers, the future of green construction is in the contractors’ hands. Please join GreenHomeNYC on August 18th to hear how these innovative people are greening our skyline, one building at a time.

When: Wednesday – August 18, 2010. 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm
Where: Trespa, 62 Greene Street, Manhattan
Please RSVP . Space is limited.

We are providing AIA credit for this forum ($15), click here if you are interested.

Our speakers are:
Gennaro Brooks-Church, NY Licensed Real Estate Broker, Certified EcoBroker®, National Sustainable Advisor Program, LEED AP and Passive House Consultant Trainee, directs Eco Brooklyn. He coined two important building concepts: Build It Forward and the Zero Brownstone. Build It Forward is where all building must be made to last at least one hundred years, be a desirable gift to future generations and not drain existing resources. The Zero Brownstone is when a brownstone is renovated using no new materials, creating no waste and the end result is a home that uses no energy.

Green Building Perspective

There is this great Zen saying: “Before Enlightenment, fetch water, chop wood. After Enlightenment, fetch water, chop wood.”

From the Zen perspective it is an acknowledgment of the “isness” of being, meaning that with enlightenment you see life as it is, free of expectation or judgment. You and life are simply “being” perfectly and the mundane daily tasks like chopping wood become part of the perfect rotation of the cosmos.

Trying to describe the one handed clap in words of course comes across as clunky but my point is that a person’s inner being might totally transform yet their outer actions appear the same.

And that is a lot of what green building is about.

Take the awareness of conservation, for example. Let’s say two builders in Brooklyn are each renovating a Brownstone. They both use salvaged old beams from a dumpster and cover them up with drywall so the inspector does not see them.

One of those builders is dishonest and cheap, cutting corners by using “junk” wood and hiding it behind drywall before anyone catches him. He does it to put extra money in his pocket and doesn’t care about his client or anything else. Pretty simple. Most of us have come across this kind of builder.

The other builder is an honest green builder and yet it appears does the exact same thing. Why? This is an example of similar external actions but different internal motivation.

The green builder salvaged the beams to lessen the impact on the landfill and so new trees would not be cut. He knows that old wood if picked correctly is much stronger. He also knows the Department of Buildings does not allow this kind of wood because in his opinion it is behind the times as well as trying to deal with dishonest builders.

So the green builder hides the wood from the inspector in order to have less of an environmental impact and a stronger house.

Outwardly there is no difference between a corrupt builder trying to save money by using old beams and a green builder trying to save the environment and build better.

This goes on so much in green building and is why green building can be misleading. For example it is hard sometimes explaining how one house built green is radically different from another that wasn’t. On the surface they might not seem so different.

After all every smart business tries to reduce waste and re-use materials because it saves money. Who doesn’t want to reduce the impact on the land fills: less dumpsters sent to the dump means less money spent. All businesses want to have happy employees and if that means using less chemicals on the job then so be it. You can pretty much explain the logic of all green building practices from current building perspectives.

But that is the huge difference: the green building perspective is vastly different. The angle is different. Instead of looking from the view of profit for that individual business you are looking from the viewpoint of “profit” for the whole planet, the whole community, the whole ecosystem, the whole house……it is a vastly more holistic view.

Even though the external actions may sometimes align and seem similar, they are not because of the “reason” behind the actions.

So why are you building green? Is it because you are a contractor and that is where the money is? Is it because you own a home and have allergies? Is it because you want your local river to be cleaner? We all have reasons for building green. All these reasons might make the exact same house. But the reason behind that house is so important.

The holistic reason is the most powerful because it looks at all the reasons and creates a holistic synergy of them all: not only does the contractor make money but you get rid of your allergies AND the river becomes cleaner.

That is true green building.

It takes more time, more honesty, more knowledge and more maturity. It is not the easiest in the short term but it is the only path to a healthy world.

Built It Forward or Don’t Build At All.

Sustainable Building

Ever wondered who coined the definition of sustainable building? Many people had a good idea what it was but it really became official with the publication of the Brundtland Report.

The Report by the Brundtland Commission, titled “Our Common Future”, was published by Oxford University Press in 1987 and laid the definition for sustainable development and the change of politics needed for achieving that.

The sustainable movement uses this definition as the common reference. One sentence in the Brundtland Report is most commonly cited:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

And thus most green builders define green building as building that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

If your current motto is, “Use what you need without any consideration for the future.” then the Brundtland definition is a great improvement. It is saying, “Build what you gotta build but make sure it doesn’t screw people in the future.”

But truth be told it is a transitional solution. It is a little like saying, “I try to keep the house clean.” It is a weak statement at best. It is based on the concept of doing LESS damage. But if you have ever seen a graph with a line that become less and less you know you can never reach zero.

You can half the damage you do. Then you can half it again. And again and again. But you will never be able to completely reduce the damage to zero because your basis is flawed. You are trying to do LESS damage. Until you remove the concept of damage from the equation you are fighting a loosing battle.

The next step in our building evolution is to Built It Forward. This is where you aren’t trying to lessen the damage but actively increasing the benefit of future generations. It is not about being less bad. Bad is not part of the equation. It is about being more good.

You are essentially going beyond just “putting money in the bank for your own savings without depleting other peoples’ savings” (which is the current definition of sustainability).

When you Build It Forward you actively plan on putting money in your own account AND IN OTHER PEOPLES’ ACCOUNTS. You become the Robin Hood of building.

In a land lacking abundance this may seem impossible. But with smart design, pro-active planning, future thinking and skill it can be done.

Truth be told nature does it all the time. Look at the cherry tree. It gives off many more blossoms than it needs for its own survival. It creates an abundance of food and housing for the ecosystem around it without any personal sacrifice.

We can build that way too. We can build houses that deplete the landfills, produce clean water, energy and nutrients, and provide an abundance of food and housing for the ecosystem around it without any sacrifice.

Build It Forward or don’t build at all.

So what does this mean if you are a green builder in Brooklyn? When doing a green renovation on a Brooklyn brownstone you want to embody the concept of Building It Forward:

Salvage materials – dumpsters and other jobs

Gray water system

Solar PV and Thermal

Rain Water Collection

Green Roof

Build so that it can be disassembled and reused


Edible Garden

Solar Heating

Efficient Boiler

Design for Cooling and Heating

The list goes on but it is possible. We are doing a lot of it on the Brooklyn Green Show House. If all brownstones were built this way we would save money and live in a thriving natural habitat.

Build It Forward or don’t build at all

Here is a great collection of words organized in a powerful way. If you are doing something green then you need to realize you are part of the largest single movement the world has ever seen. This is BIG.

The quote that caught my attention the most was:
“We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future.”

I see the whole world in terms of Build It Forward and so this struck a chord.

Bottom line ladies and gents, you either Build It Forward or don’t build at all because any other way is taking milk from your child.

The Unforgettable Commencement Address to the Class of 2009, University of Portland, May 3rd, 2009 By Paul Hawken:

When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a simple short talk that was “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful”. Boy, no pressure there. But let’s begin with the startling part. Hey, Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation – but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement.

Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades. This planet came with a set of operating instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, and don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken.

Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food – but all that is changing.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING. The earth couldn’t afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint.

And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.

The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world. ” There could be no better description.

Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums. You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more.

This is the largest movement the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.

There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true. Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice,” is Mary Oliver’s description of moving away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world.

Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on behalf of itself.

The founders of this movement were largely unknown – Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood – and their goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They were told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty.

But for the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit. . And today tens of millions of people do this every day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, and non-governmental organizations, of companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history. The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart.

What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. Think about this: we are the only species on this planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time than to renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product.

We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.

The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable.

We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe – exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven. ” So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end.

Second question: who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature.

What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past. Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television.

This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation.

You are graduating to the most amazing, challenging, stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence.

Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss.

The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful.

This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.

Paul Hawken is a renowned entrepreneur, visionary environmental activist, and author of many books, most recently Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. He was presented with an honorary doctorate of humane letters by University president Father Bill Beauchamp, C. S.C., in May, when he delivered this superb speech.

Build It Forward Further Defined

When I coined the concept of Built It Forward I knew what it meant but that didn’t mean I knew how to accurately describe it to others. Today I was describing it and came across a good way:

When you build it forward you are giving more to the world than what you are taking from it.

This would mean that it creates more resources than depletes resources from the world. It creates more community. It facilitates more nature. It gives a better living space for people.

A normal builder might be able to do one or two of these things. For example they might be able to build a great home but at the expense of what resources? The builder almost always depletes more in terms of materials, nature etc than what they give back with the building.

A green builder can build it forward and add to the world on all levels. This is not a small feat but it can be done. The holistic vision of a green builder can see the house from many levels and make sure that the building is giving back on all of them.

The green builder manages resources so that “old” and “wasted” materials are reused. This does two things: it means no new resources are used AND it means the world is a cleaner place since less goes to the landfill. This is a classic example of building it forward.

Another key point of Built It Forward is that the building is built with the future tenants in mind, no mater how many hundreds of years that is in the future. This means a green builder is investing more (on many levels) than what a normal builder would deem necessary.

The green builder can justify this because they understand that this investment will benefit them too. A normal builder does not have that kind of vision.

Build It Forward

I’ve thought up a concept called Building Forwards where you create equity for people in the future. It comes down to using time as a bank.

The perspective of time makes all the difference with how we live our lives. I had an interview with the execs at Lightolier lighting company here in Manhattan this morning and they were telling me how the government put out mandates over 15 years ago that they wanted LED to become a dominant player in lighting. Only now is that becoming a reality. For some LED is a new phenomenon. For others it is a 20 year project. It is all about perspective.

And here is an astounding perspective on time: every single highway in the entire world is less than a hundred years old. That is a astronomically small drop in the bucket of time but it has changed the world tremendously. That is a great example of Building Backwards because it is going to take future generations a lot of time and money to undo that (yes they need to be undone).

I’m renovating the Green Show House in Brooklyn that was built a hundred years ago and I’m building it so it won’t need another renovation for another hundred years.

For me as a green builder and contractor it is IMPERATIVE that I build not for this generation but for the generations at least a hundred years from now. It is called Build it Forward (I just invented that phrase!). If we all did this the cost of EVERYTHING would be greatly reduced over time. Not necessarily our living time because we are paying dearly for the stupidity of our past.

But the concept of Building Forward is in my eyes the only way we can achieve that utopia of forever bathing by the pool that the past 50 years of technological improvements promised but never delivered on. We were barking up the wrong tree. The trick isn’t to make things more efficient. The trick is to make things more durable (at least that is one of the tricks). Each time we build something that will outlive us we are creating a nest egg for our children.

The past fifty years of course had a lot of great things. One of them was the amazing efficiency we achieved in almost everything. But there is one issue with this. Making things more efficient has proven to speed things up. Nothing more.

A more efficient razor means you can shave quicker. Period. It has increasingly shown that it doesn’t change much in your life beyond that. If anything it is simply puts pressure on the rest of your life to speed up, until you are running frantically trying to keep up.

For example we now know that adding another freeway lane to a congested freeway does not solve the problem. In a couple years that lane will be congested as well. What does work is SLOWING IT DOWN! by adding other paradigms like public transport and bike lanes.

So yes we have to deal with the present problems and tackle them but I’m not concerned weather I see the results of the big improvements. I’m just focused on making those dayly deposits into the bank of time so that my children and their children can live off it’s interest. The irony is that with this attitude I get great joy in the small results. Time is funny that way.

Here is another way of saying it:

Build It Forward Discussed

“Building Forward” is a concept I coined to define Eco Brooklyn’s building philosophy. Eco Brooklyn is a green building company. That is a given. But as I renovate these hundred year old Brownstones in Brooklyn I communicate with the artisans who labored over them a hundred years ago and I realize how much they have given me.

Like voices from the past the workmanship in the houses speaks to us. The old joists with a hundred years of dust and hammer marks from somebody long dead, the stair stringers with hand made nails holding them together, the plaster lath that was applied with hands now a century old.

Their hard work is still here supporting my building and making my job easier. They built it forward.

Their extra care, their use of extra fine materials, their long lasting techniques, all these things created a house that did not need any real work for over a hundred years. For an entire century people living in that house did not have to rebuild and could spend their time and money on other things.

The workers not only built for their generation but they put in an extra bit of money, time and effort to build for several generations ahead of them. That is building forward.

In essence they said, “Relax, we’ll take care of your house for the next hundred years.” And they embodied the house with enough strength to do that. They infused the house with good work and longevity to the point where I can still feel their embodied energy a hundred years later as I open up the walls and see silent acts of building that held the house together behind the seams.

This is building it forward. And now I am rebuilding the house.

I am building for the tenants who will move in and enjoy the new coats of paint and shinny floors. I am building for the next generation who has forgotten me but still will appreciate the good design and strong house bones. I am building for the generation after that who may not even realize the age of the house because it does not ask for any repairs. And the next generation who admires the old house’s strength and appreciates not having to spend a lot of money to update it. And the generation after that…

Eco Brooklyn is building for all of these generations who I will never meet but will speak to them through the house. We are building forward. We are depositing money into the bank account of time for future generations to draw from. With each nail we give a little to the future so that they don’t have to buy a nail. With each strong beam we save them expense 90 years from now when they don’t have to replace it.

This is building it forward. Does it cost me more? That depends how you look at it. I have been given so much from the artisans of a hundred years ago. They gave me a beautiful Brownstone with strong walls and solid beams.

They built a hundred such Brownstones all around my building so I would have beauty as I walk along the block. They built so much more than brick structures. They built a community. This is building forward.

I have been given so much by them. Now it is my turn to give back. It does not cost me in money and time because I am a smart builder and I don’t waste money or time on things that don’t further my philosophy. Name brands, short term fads, decadent ego boosters, all the things that waste money but don’t build forward are not used.

That money and time is invested like a person invests money into a bank, only my bank is the Brownstone. And the account isn’t for me. It is for my children and their children and others in the community.

Building Forward is an act of giving to the future out of appreciation for what has been given from the past.


For many years people have built backwards. They have depleted the existing resources and built badly. The houses do not last and the resources are sapped. This leaves a burden on future generations. Not only do they have to rebuild but they have fewer resources to draw from.

People who build backwards are not holistic, not able to see that they are connected to the world and that their actions will effect it.

Building backwards is an act of ignorance from people who do not see their connection with the past and the future. They have become disconnected from the path of time. They no longer feel a connection with the people in the past who worked for their well being. Nor do they realize that they can be very helpful to the people in the future.

Backwards building depletes the resources that were accumulated by the hard work of people in the past and leaves a deficit for people in the future. This means that people in the future not only have to fend for themselves but they have to make up for the damage of their previous builders.

Instead of maintaining a nice strong home that was built by a future builder they have to rebuild the home. Not only that but they have to clean the river and replant the fields. All of this is extra work that depletes from their lives.


Building forward is the way to increase our strength. As each generation deposits more into the bank of time our collective power increases. With each generational contribution the next generation gains in good buildings, clean rivers, strong forests and a more diverse wildlife.

The are no heroic deeds, no great sacrifices. Like I said, it takes very little effort to make a future house. I simply build and ask myself, will this last 100 years? 200 years? Is this depleting what builders before me have created? Is it depleting my world now? They are actually simple questions with simple answers. It makes the work day interesting and gives it meaning.

We all make our humble contribution. But the cumulative contribution is phenomenal. I honestly believe that if we started now seven generations from now we would have a paradise on earth. Eden would be earth.

The energy needed to survive would be minimal because of the generations of embodied energy put into everything from our homes to our food. Time would be spent maintaining houses that need virtually no maintenance and that last forever. Time would be spent harvesting food that gave back more to the environment that it took.

And a lot of time would be spent exploring the beauty of ourselves and our world. People would be more relaxed, healthier, happier and in a better world.

Those of us living today will not see this. But that is ok. We will start it. There is something special about visionaries who can start things knowing they will never see the fulfillment. I can’t think of a more honorary and noble act. Will you join me in Building Forward?