Living Wall vs. Green Wall

We install Living Walls. But the lay person might call them green walls. That’s fine. Most people don’t sweat the difference and use the two interchangeably. Technically a living wall and green wall are different though. A living wall has the plants rooted on the wall whereas a green wall has the plants rooted on the ground and growing up the wall.

green wall

A green wall can be as simple as a vine climbing up the wall.

In terms of how the wall is build, the difference is huge. It takes a lot of technical know-how to build a living wall but not so much for a green wall. For a living wall you have to know how to attach the plants to the wall and once they are up you have to know how to keep them alive. As many a failed living wall has shown, this is no easy feat.

A green wall on the other hand is much easier. Anyone who has put a vine in a pot and let it grow up the wall has created a green wall. Over time the vine will cover the wall and create a wall of greenery. As long as you water the roots. Green walls are much hardier for many reasons.

The main reason is that the roots can sit in your traditional soil. And watering it is easy. When it gets cold the soil helps insulate the roots from cold damage. When it gets hot the soil retains water so the roots don’t dry out. Every good gardener knows that the secret to healthy plants starts with healthy roots.

livingwall2

A living wall, because the plants are on the wall, provides many more opportunities for designs.

Living walls offer one big challenge: lack soil depth, if there is soil at all, which there usually isn’t. The trick on a living wall is to create a vertical environment that may not be soil but the plants like it nonetheless. The variations on this are many. Some companies use little pockets where you plug the plant into. These pockets could be molded plastic, felt, stainless steel, even terra cotta. Other companies use trays where you pre-install the plants.

Although a green wall is great, we only install living walls. The opportunities for creative designs are far greater. You can use plants that don’t climb. You can have hanging plants as well. You can control the textures and colors much more. With a green wall you are limited to vines and you can’t really control how they grow.

But like I said, most people don’t sweat the difference between a green wall and a living wall. If you asked us to install a green wall we would gladly do it, but just remember we would really be installing a living wall :). And now you know the difference.

Greenbelt Native Plant Center

Native plants are equipped to live under a specific set of conditions including but not limited to climate, soil types, amount of sunlight, and surrounding species of flora and fauna. Plants and animals that have evolved together depend upon one another for survival. Native plants do a better job of providing food and shelter for native wild animals. Sometimes, only a single species or sub species can fill a niche role in an ecosystem. For example the iconic monarch butterfly relies on a single species of milkweed in order to survive. It lays its eggs on the fleshy, sap-filled leaves. Larvae feed on the plants sap, absorbing the toxins which remain in the insect throughout adulthood, making them resistant to predation. Milkweed plants are often destroyed in agriculture in landscaping. Many do not realize the plants serve a significant function in the lifecycle of an iconic species.

Problems often arise when homeowners or professional landscapers plant. In my experience as a landscaper in central Connecticut, aesthetic value often overrules the use of native plant species in decorative landscapes. Clients often have a very specific idea of what they want to achieve, and many falsely assume that planting natives will result in a look far from the immaculate images in their minds.

At Eco Brooklyn, almost all of the plants used in landscapes are native. In rare cases, the species that aren’t are not harmful to the surrounding ecosystem, have a low probability of environmental contamination, and require low levels of maintenance. The aesthetic created captures the natural beauty of the New York City area. Planting native landscapes in gardens, rooftops, and natural swimming pools is not only for aesthetic reasons however. A changing attitude about the plants we interact with is the most valuable result of planting native. Changing the common opinion on natural plants from a method that, although environmentally sound, will lead to lackluster results, is paramount to creating a healthier urban ecosystem.
Greenbelt2

 

To carry out our projects, plants are sourced from the Greenbelt Native Plants Center. Greenbelt is a nonprofit nursery and seed bank located in Coney Island serving all 5 NYC boroughs. It specializes in providing native plants, grown on its 14 beautiful acres, to the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation as well as professional landscapers in order to restore degraded land and enhance the city’s green spaces. There are over 2000 plants native to the New York area, 336 of which are cultivated using seeds collected from wild, local populations. Species also include submersibles, plants that thrive underwater some or all of the year, often a rarity for growers.

For Eco Brooklyn’s most recent natural pool project on Fire Island, over 800 native submersibles from grasses such as sedge to brightly flowered irises were used. Due to Greenbelt’s status as a nonprofit organization, the plants are extremely affordable, and the staff is extremely knowledgeable about their products, providing consultations and advice on the plants they care so much for. We simply could not do what we do without the easy access, and I would like to encourage anyone interested in taking a thoughtful approach to landscaping.

 

NYC Updated Flood Zone Maps

FEMA reveiled updated flood zone maps two weeks ago, which doubles the previous estimated number of at risk New Yorkers to 400,000 residents and 70,000 buildings. These numbers are still proposed, and will take up to two years of reviews to become official, after which building regulations will be affected.

 

flood zone map

 Proposed updated flood zone map, courtesy of http://maps.nyc.gov/hurricane/

At the city level, Mayor Bloomberg addressed the escalating risk of rising sea levels and powerful storm surge by proposing a $20 billion storm protection plan following the announcement of the newly proposed maps. The recommendations include building seawalls and a protective “Seaport City” south of the Brooklyn Bridge. The full report can be found here.

In the meantime, residents are already affected financially by increased insurance premium rates, and faced with the costly dilemma of raising their houses above the base flood elevation. As a green builder, Eco Brooklyn is involved in several projects focused on the effects of  rising flood waters and nearby contamination. Residences in flood prone areas are constructed with the expectation of flooding to the first floor. We therefore choose to build through processes that reduce water damage, such as waterproof installation and minimizing the use of sheetrock. We encourage the cellar to be used largely for storage only and elevate all mechanical items such as the boiler to above the ground level. Total protection is not ensured, but the reduction of damage risk is the best that can be done for smaller residences where moving out is not an option, and elevating an entire house is too costly a measure.

In light of these proposed flood zone maps, Eco Brooklyn highly recommends that residents assess their new risk level and what preventative measures can be undertaken to ensure the future safety of their families.

-Liza Chiu

Subterranean Living

Inhabitat recently posted an article exemplifying innovative underground houses around the globe.  As a green contractor Eco Brooklyn is continually using cutting-edge ideas to improve upon Passive House designs. Underground housing can provide New York State with low energy housing at reasonable prices without sacrificing the aesthetic appeal of living above ground.

Living Passively

Living Passively

Structures built underground are protected from large temperature swings and extreme weather. At depths below 3 feet the ground maintains an average temperature of the yearly climate. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the benefit of home protection is priceless. The greatest benefit to homeowners is one that benefits their wallet. These buildings utilize the earth’s natural insulation and thus require less energy to heat and cool. Besides saving energy, subterranean buildings provide security though access limitation. They exist within nature instead of disrupting the environment. Under-grounding takes up less space and is less environmentally invasive. Unlike standard housing, driveway and backyard space are unnecessary as those amenities are provided directly above the structure.

One of the novel designers of earth-sheltered housing was Malcolm Wells. His underground designs merged iconoclastic principles with modern architecture. The New York Times stated it best:

“…his designs incorporated the land. He designed some homes (and other buildings) that seemingly burrowed into hillsides, and others whose main living space was subterranean, perhaps with above-ground lean-to roofs or atria and skylights to let in the sun. In general, his roofs were covered with layers of earth, suitable for gardens or other green growth.”

Wells Art Gallery

Much of Malcolm Wells’ design incorporated concrete and Eco Brooklyn suggests using rammed earth or tires to add structural support to underground buildings. Gennaro has also developed a design to alleviate the stress of the barrier walls by engineering a bowl-shaped structure with a one-to-one slope.

EcoBrooklyn Undergound House

Eco Brooklyn is currently working with Michael Reynolds to develop an earth-sheltered home just north of New York City, so check back for updates on our Underground Housing

-Anthony Rivale

Earthship Project in New York

We are earthship enthusiasts here at Eco Brooklyn, and are currently speaking with a client who wants to build an earthship in New York State. Here are some ideas being thrown around between Michael Reynolds, Eco Brooklyn, and the client, that we may be able to help turn into reality. The schematic of this global model earthship shows an additional greenhouse that will provide greater temperature stabilization, which would be better suited to New York’s climate, and will provide additional grow space as well. The earthship will of course be capable of functioning independently from the grid. As a Brooklyn Green Contractor, this is a great project that we are excited to be involved with.

 

earthship schematic 1

earthship 1

earthship 2

earthship 3

earthship 4 All images are property of Earthship Biotecture.

– Liza Chiu

Chemical vs. Natural Swimming Pools

Natural swimming pools or living spas are much more common throughout Europe, but are increasingly becoming more popular in the United States. Now that the spring weather is beginning to surface, it’s time for Eco Brooklyn to open up our Natural Pool for the swimming season. We use it as a showcase pool for clients considering installing a Natural Swimming pool in New York. And we also use it to cool off and enjoy during the summer!

So how does this compare to tradition swimming pool maintenance? Like our design philosophy, Eco Brooklyn’s swimming hole should blend low energy costs with little to no waste or hazardous chemicals.

Here is a simple diagram from Inspiration Green that depicts exactly how natural swimming pools function.

Self Sustaining Pool

Natural Filtration

 

The first step in opening our natural spa is to turn on the tiny 100 watt water pump that feeds the soiled plants, bacteria, and critters that filter the pool’s water.

Next we turn on a very small aeration pump which enriches the water with oxygen, to encourage more plant growth and aerobic bacteria function.

Lastly Eco Brooklyn interns get to spend the morning scooping up algae that has accumulated over the winter. Adding some barley straw is also helpful in controlling algae by producing lignin, which is then converted to hydrogen peroxide in the presence of sunlight.

Natural Swimming Pond

So how does opening a chemically intensive pool compare?

Step one is controlling the pH by keeping it at 7.0 or slightly below. If the pH is above 7.5 the chlorine is only about 10% effective. In most cases this involves the addition muriatic acid.

Step two is to check the alkalinity, which should be between 80-140 ppm. Alkalinity is a measure of the water’s resistance to a change in pH. An improper balance of pH and alkalinity can reduce the effect of sanitation, cause cloudiness, and/ or deteriorate the concrete or siding.

Step three involves determining your Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) and Calcium Hardness. Both of these measurements will affect how corrosive the water is and often requires draining the pool.

Step four is backwashing the filter for cleaning when the gauge moves from 8-10 psi away from clean.

Step five comprises of cleaning the skimmer basket and scrubbing the walls of the pool weekly to prevent plaque build-up.

Lastly, running the filter and vacuum skimmer, often for a couple hours a day, for proper water sanitation is essential.

Considering the immense construction costs, the harsh chemicals additives, high energy pumps, and the endless hours of labor to produce and maintain a traditional swimming pool, it’s no wonder the Natural Pool phenomenon is catching on in America. The aquatic ecosystems are almost completely self-sustaining, and after the initial cost of construction you are basically done with the expenditure.

Eco Brooklyn is very excited to be a Natural Swimming Pool installer for the New York area. We feel the benefits to building a natural swimming pool, or even better to converting a chlorine pool to a natural one, are massive. Because of it’s natural features and fresh water t is such a joy to swim in and look at. It also adds so much to the local ecosystem.

-Anthony Rivale

Permaculture Tour this Sunday 03/10/13 @ 11:30 am

Eco Brooklyn will be hosting a Permaculture tour of at least 30 people this Sunday. It is open to all who are interested in touring the Eco Brooklyn Show House and learning about permaculture.

Location: 22 2nd Street Brooklyn, NY 11231

Time: 03/10/2013 @ 11:30

No RSVP required, just show up.

Permawhat?

Permaculture is a synergy between land use, agriculture, and human development. Coined by the environmentalist-authors Bill Mollison and David Holmgren from the phrase “Permanent Agriculture.” Permaculture evolved into a social awareness philosophy that focuses on a healthy planet in which to sustain a human population. It thrives on understanding the natural processes of biology to sustainably integrate farming, aquaculture, and land development. Permaculture advances the organic efficiency of pre-industrial farming  and places more value on renewable resources and limiting waste production.

Major concepts of this philosophy include: Food Forests and Guilds, Poultry and Backyard Animals, Rainwater Harvesting, Polyculture and Multipurposing, Watershed Restoration, Natural Building, and Waste Management.


For more information visit the NM Permaculture Institute’s website.

For classes in New York visit homebiome.

How Can We Clean Up the Gowanus?

Before New York City as we know it today existed, the Gowanus was a tidal wetlands and stream ecosystem. In the 1860s, the area was dredged to become the Gowanus Canal, a major route for oil refineries, tanneries, chemical plants, manufactured-gas plants and other heavy industries who settled along the canal’s banks. These factories dumped wastes and leached pollutants like PCB’s and heavy metals into the water, putrefying it into a lifeless sludge.

NY green builders

By the 1960s much of these industries had left the area. Now the Gowanus’ is surrounded by residential neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens, Red Hook, and Park Slope. Despite industry’s absence, the water has remained so toxic that the US Environmental Protection Agency has declared it a Superfund site.

Though there have been efforts to clean the canal, we have not progressed far enough. In 1911, The Gowanus Flushing Tunnel was installed. This tunnel, in an attempt to get rid of the canal’s powerful stench, flushed its dirty water into the Buttermilk Channel. Alas this effort made little to no difference. In 1999, the water flow was reversed so that clean water from the Buttermilk Channel would be pumped into the Gowanus. The idea was to add oxygenated water to the canal to eliminate the anaerobic bacterias which cause the bad odor.

ny green roof

Today the odor has waned; though you can still get an unpleasant stench after a rainfall. Still the water remains contaminated. It is reported that the air around the canal is “acceptable” in terms of contamination standards. People have the right to use the canal for canoeing and such, but the EPA strongly warns against swimming in it or eating fish from the canal. Of course, “acceptable” is not good enough for those of us living near the canal.

The canal continues to be polluted today by toxins that are still leaching from the former industrial sites, street surface runoff, and combined sewage outflows (CSOs). CSOs are the city’s solution to flooding. When a rain is so heavy that a water treatment center cannot support the inflow of water, it will release a combination of raw sewage and rainwater into the ocean. (Watch a video)

brooklyn landscaping

Landscape architects and designers have proposed numerous ideas for how we can creatively rehabilitate the Gowanus Canal. “CSO-to-Go,” developed by Local Office Landscape Architecture, is one such design. The architects recognized that New York City’s waterfront property is too expensive to purchase for a city-funded project and worked their design around that reality. Their solution was a portable barge that would house a series of phytoremediation tanks. Each tank would hold plants that absorb specific contaminants like heavy metals, petrochemicals, and excess nutrients out of the water. The barge could be parked directly at the outflow point of the CSO; that way the dirty water is caught and treated before entering the ocean.

soil remediation

The barge could be moved to various other outflow points around the city. Residents and tourists could visit the site to learn more about the problem and the process of cleaning it up. They would even be able to monitor the pollution levels at each tank to see how well the  phytoremediating plants are working.

eco-landscaping

“CSO-to-Go” and related projects have yet to be implemented as they lack the funding needed. We hope the city of New York and the EPA continue to make strides in cleaning up the Gowanus Canal, but until then there are a few things that those of us  living in the Gowanus’ watershed (the area of land that eventually drains its water into the Gowanus– see image below) can do.

ny pond designer

By reducing our water consumption across the board, we can mitigate how much water we are putting into the sewer system. We can do this by installing low-flow faucets and shower heads, using native plants that require less intensive watering, and by making a conscious effort to reduce the amount of water we use on a daily basis. Also by creating more green spaces in our city, we can provide storm water with a place to infiltrate instead of washing over pavement and into the sewer system (see “Bioswale Basics“). This could be done by installing more garden space in your backyard or a green roof.

As an NY green contractor and landscape designer, Eco Brooklyn can help you find ways to reduce your water consumption in your home and increase your permeable surfaces/green spaces in your yard. Please contact us to learn more about how you can help protect the Gowanus!

 

By: Malone Matson

Natural Fungus Gnat treatments

As a green builder, EcoBrooklyn is a green wall installer. Recently we designed and installed two green walls in the Area Yoga studio on Montague St. in Brooklyn, one in the entry office and one in the studio itself. The luscious plants beautifully enhance the serene and calming vibe of the space and allow for an escape from the stressors of urban life. The cascading vines and tropical hues transform the studio into a peaceful haven.

Intern Malone Matson tending to the yoga studio's living wall

The system we created uses soil with high organic matter content to nourish the plants. Many of them are of tropical origin and therefore have high nutritional needs. In addition, the studio is hot and humid, a requirement for both the plants and the activity type it was designed for. Our building philosophy embraces low-impact building, and as such we do not use pesticides to keep the plants flourishing. Additionally we allow organic matter to compost on site. The wall is irrigated by a gray water system that keeps the soil generally moist.

While the conditions in the studio are ideal for both the yoga participants and the plants on the green wall, they also provide a welcoming environment for fungus gnats. The gnats feed on organic debris, fungi, algae, and nibble on the small roots of plants.

We have developed a multi-layered plan to keep the gnat population at bay. Much like our plant-based mosquito repellent service, we rely on natural sources of gnat control to diminish the population.

Like our mosquito treatments, we attack all stages of the gnat’s life cycle. Fungus gnats have larval, pupae, and adult stages.

Anti-larval treatments

1) The primary treatment involves the use of cinnamon. We are using a cinnamon spray (cinnamon bark, cinnamon oil, water, and baby shampoo to reduce surface tension) applied twice a day to deter the gnats and create an uninviting environment for them. Cinnamon is a fungicide, reducing the larvae’s food supply.

There are two types of cinnamon: ceylon (cinnamomum verum), and cassia (cinnamomum burmannii). Most cinnamon found in conventional North American stores is cassia, but this form is not a fungicide.

cinnamomum verum on the left and cinnamomum burmannii on the right

2) We are also using Summit mosquito/gnat bits, with the active ingredient bacillus thuringiensis subspecies israelensis. These bacteria are a biological control for larval Dipterans such as mosquitoes and fungus gnats due to the presence of cry toxins. When fungus gnat larvae eat bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) crystals, the cry toxins bind to receptors in the gut and the larvae cease to eat. The gut wall breaks down and the toxin spores and other gut bacteria enter the larvae’s body, which results in death.

The bits are scattered throughout the soil and replenished every two weeks.

Bt does not affect beneficial insects or plants and is a naturally occurring soil bacterium.

According to the EPA, thirty years of widespread Bt use has produced no confirmed reports of immediate or delayed allergic reactions despite significant oral, dermal, and inhalation exposure to the product. Bt has not been found to affect the endocrine or immune systems. Although it does not proliferate in aquatic habitats, it should not be applied to drinking water.

Studies have shown no toxicity or pathogenicity to birds, non-target insects, honeybees, freshwater fish, and estuarine and marine mammals. However, it has been found to be moderately toxic to Daphnia freshwater invertebrates and is under further study. Since our affected site is an indoor planting site, in this particular case we are not concerned about the affect on Daphnia species.

Anti-adult treatments

1) We have applied yellow sticky pads on wire stems hidden within the foliage. The gnats are attracted to the color. We change these out when the surface area of the pad is covered.

2) We have filled jars with apple cider vinegar with a couple drops of baby shampoo or dish soap to break the surface tension. We poke a couple holes in the lids to allow the fungus gnats in but not out. The jars are better for office spaces and bathrooms, and seem to be quite effective.

Additional treatments:

1) ‘Damping off’ is a condition cause by fungi such as Phtophtora and Pythium. The gnats help the fungi proliferate. The fungi infect seedlings and result in a constricted stem and eventual death. The condition can be prevented by the application of chamomile tea. Although this does not attack the gnats themselves, it treats a related condition.

A plant that has experienced 'damping off'

2) Adult fungus gnats like to lay eggs in moist soil. We recommend applying a sand topsoil, which drains quickly and thus prevents the laying of eggs.

3) Sliced raw potatoes placed throughout the affected area attract larva. These can be deposed of and replaced as often as is deemed necessary (they can get pretty infested).

 

We have been treating the green walls for about two weeks now, and have noticed a huge decrease in the fungus gnat population. The workers and customers at the studio have also had positive reports. Not only is the cinnamon spray affective, the aroma of cinnamon pervades the space and complements the character of the studio. EcoBrooklyn will continue to test natural methods of insect control at its job sites.

 

 

Sustainable Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

The FSC has 10 general principles for responsible forest management:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I Am A Weed

How does the nature we find in and around our city reflect who we are?

There are two approaches, generally speaking, one can take when dealing with habitat conservation in urban areas. The first and most common is an attempt to return to the historical habitats that were found in the city long before it had been built. In this approach, native plants are protected and natural systems, like streams and fields, that have been disrupted by city infrastructure are attempted to be restored. This is undoubtedly a noble effort.

Another approach, however, is to accept that cities are new and unique environments, therefor nothing can be native to a city. Of course life is resilient and these new environments have been successfully colonized by a mix of historically native and non-native plants that have been able to survive despite the harsh, polluted conditions that cities provide. These plants are characterized by their abilities to be both flood and drought resistant. These traits make them well-suited to life in the shallow cracks of a sidewalk or building, which get flooded during a rain and, with no soil to retain the water, quickly become dry until the next shower. The collective term for this kind of flora is “spontaneous plants.”

ny green garden

Spontaneous plants offer a plethora of services for the urban environment. They, like all other plants, filter the air to provide us with oxygen while reducing the carbon imbalance of cities. Spontaneous plants supply green cover which in turn reduces the heat island effect and increases storm water retention. They create habitat for insects who become food for birds. Some even have the ability to remediate contaminated soils by absorbing heavy metals. And they provide greenery in otherwise gray and barren urbanscapes.

The Biophilia Hypothesis, introduced by Edward O. Wilson, asserts that humans hold an inherent bond with living systems. “Biophilia” literally means love for life. Our love of plants and animals, it is suggested, evolved from our dependence upon them for survival. Simply being around plants brings us pleasure so we protect them, and in doing so, we are also protecting food sources, shelter, and habitat for animals we might eat. This love can have a substantial impact on humans when they are exposed to nature. Studies have shown that people who live close to green spaces tend to be happier than those who don’t. Hospitals that look out onto greenery or that have images of nature in their rooms have faster rates of healing. Unsurprisingly, properties that have trees or are located near parks are worth more money. So it would seem that spontaneous plants are beneficial for urban areas because they fill in the cracks, literally and figuratively, with greenery. Yet many people do not see them this way.

Spontaneous plants can go by another name: “weeds.” Their presence is often seen as a sign of decay, poverty, or neglect. They are actively sought out for removal, even when their absence means an empty patch of gray.

During an informal interview with David Seiter, a visiting professor at Pratt Institute’s program for Sustainable Planning and Development and the principal of Future Green Studio, Seiter described the value of spontaneous plants in this way (I’m paraphrasing): Remember when you were a child. You would search for dandelions and make a wish while blowing away their fluffy white seeds? Or look at some of the fanciest restaurants in Brooklyn; you can see dandelion leaf salads on their menus. But when a dandelion sprouts up in a backyard, people are quick to pull them out or douse them in herbicides. How can something with so much value– a food source, a plaything, a bright yellow flower– be looked upon with so much disdain?

ny green contractor

Seiter explained that society seems to find worth in things that are difficult. A garden of roses takes time to grow, requires careful attention, and must be watched with an anxious eye as its fragility makes it ever so prone to destruction. When we grow a rose successfully, we are proud. Meanwhile, the real hero here is the dandelion who has adapted to the harshest conditions, who can grow in seemingly impossible places with no help. Dandelions and other spontaneous plants don’t just survive, they thrive. It’s incredible really. But they are dismissed, despised even, for their independence and tenacity.

As Seiter recounted these thoughts, I felt a twinge of emotion stir inside me. I kept thinking, he is describing me. 

I would not be the first to make this connection. Look at Betty Smith’s novel, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. The author likens the struggle of an immigrant family in Brooklyn to the Tree of Heaven, a common non-native and invasive weed in New York City. The plant struggles to find its place. It is neglected and trampled upon. But once it takes root, it puts up an inspiring fight, and despite the odds, eventually flourishes into a beautiful and imposing tree.

NY green construction

ny green landscaper

For those of us who are living and thriving in New York City, we can all look back on our struggle to take root. In the most obvious sense, think about apartment searching and how difficult it is to find your space in the city. Then there is the search for resources: money, food, air. We had to adapt to the harsh conditions of the city: pollution, noise, suffocating crowds, the heat, the cold. I’ve watched as friends have come and gone from the city, unable to “hack it,” and I’ve known many others simply too scared to try. We are the non-natives who have invaded and thrived.

And isn’t that what New York City has always been about? When I hear a native New Yorker claim ownership of the city, I admit I scoff at them. Were their parents or grandparents not immigrants? Aren’t immigrants the ones who built this city? Indeed the urban environment, especially that of New York’s, is a unique one that is constantly changing and growing and adapting. Nothing is static in the city and that is the way it should be; that’s progress. A dandelion is to a sidewalk crack as a hipster is to Williamsburg. It’s theirs now.

NY green design build firm

 So how do we better incorporate spontaneous plants and all their benefits into our city? Peter Del Tredici, senior research scientist at Arnold Arboretum and author of Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, said, “I consider ‘weed’ to be a politically incorrect term. There is no biological definition of the term weed. It’s really a value judgment.” Certainly a change in perception is needed. As I was walking through Carroll Gardens this afternoon, I overheard a four year-old boy admonish his father for casually trampling a weed that had sprouted in the sidewalk, “Daddy, you’re stepping on the plant! Look out!” This child was seeing the plant as equal with all other plants, which he knows not to stomp on. He had not yet been taught by society that some plants have lesser value.

Why do we spend so much time and energy trying to green our cities with supposedly native or cosmopolitan plants who can’t hack it when there are so many plants that will willingly take their place? Why do we overly invest ourselves in removing spontaneous plants when they provide us with so much? Why do we devalue any object of nature?

More importantly, if these attitudes can be overcome, how do we prudently incorporate spontaneous plants into our cities? I do not believe by any means that these plants should have free reign. Surely a place like a graveyard or a government building overrun with weeds would send the wrong message. Still it is something we should consider.

landscape urbanism

Red Hook is my favorite Brooklyn neighborhood and is an excellent example of how spontaneous plants can bring life to an industrial wasteland. Take the above photo, for example. Without those plants, the dilapidated building would have a more foreboding and, quite frankly, ugly appearance. Their presence stirs a biophilic response in us. The success of life juxtaposes the death of a building. It reflects the burgeoning aesthetic of the 21 century which is characterized by an attraction to things that are vintage or down-to-earth (i.e. the wealthy hipster who dresses like a hobo.) I urge you to take a walk to Fairway or the Valentino Pier in Red Hook. Look out for walls of Queen Anne’s Lace lining chain-linked fences, then try to tell me that that is not beautiful.

NY urban gardener

urban plants

NY sustainable design

urban renewal

By Malone Matson

Photo Credits:

  • http://urbanplants.wordpress.com/2009/06/07/a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn-in-the-unlikeliest-places/
  • http://www.peterdeltredici.com/index.php?/contact/gallery/
  • http://www.flickriver.com/photos/cavanimages/4460203563/

The Earth Art Movement

The Earth Art, or Land Art, Movement was born in the late 1960’s in the United States in response to the over-commercialization of art and the rising trend towards environmentalism. Founders of the movement were disgruntled by the plasticity and artificiality of art. They wanted to get people out of museums and back into nature. They were intrigued by both the fragility and strength of nature, and the challenge of manipulating it.

As green builders we relate to this deeply. Our construction and design work is very earth based and in some ways a reaction to the mainstream construction which often lacks any form of life or connection to the earth.

Robert Smithson is often credited as one of the founders of the Land Art movement. His earthworks tended to be large-scale and were meant to put art into the land as opposed to on the land. He said, “A work of art when placed in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world.”

Land Art Movementearth art movement

Spiral Jetty, 1970

One of his most famous works is Spiral Jetty which was constructed in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The sculpture was inspired by the Great Serpent Mound built by pre-Columbian Indians. Smithson chose the location for its anti-pastoral beauty. The water has a red-tint to it from bacteria which have thrived in the salt waters ever since the lake’s fresh water sources were cut off by a causeway in 1959.

Smithson’s wife, Nancy Holt, was another pioneer of the Earth Art Movement. Her most famous work is Sun Tunnels, which consists of four nine ft diameter, 18 ft long tubes placed in an x formation in a desert in Utah. The tunnels line up with the sun during the summer and winter solstices while each tunnel has a set of small holes drilled into the tops that align with certain constellations. “It’s an inversion of the sky/ground relationship-bringing the sky down to the earth,” said Holt.

ny green landscaperNY Green construction
Sun Tunnels, 1976

The purpose of the installation is to attract viewers out of museums and the city and into the wilderness. When viewers arrive, the tunnels provide shelter from the sun. Once lured in, the visitors witness a fantastical light display, piquing their interest in the celestial world.

Michael Heizer, who sometimes collaborated with Smithson, is another founder of the Earth Art movement. He too focused on large-scale manipulation of the earth. One of his best known pieces is Double Negative. The work consists of two massive trenches excavated from the sides of a mesa in Nevada.

ny green landscape designbrooklyn earth art

Double Negative, 1969-70

Double Negative provokes the viewer to question what is and isn’t art. Can the earth be considered a medium the way paint or marble is? The “sculpture” itself was made entirely from subtraction. There was nothing added or shaped, only taken away. What Heizer created was simply negative space, hence “Double Negative“. Is that art? The piece can also make one contemplate the relation of art to the earth and the potential scale of art. Can something that doesn’t fit in a museum be considered art?

Walter de Maria, who coincidentally also collaborated with Heizer, created the famous Earth Art installation The Lightning Field in New Mexico. It is comprised of 400 stainless steel poles placed in a grid formation covering an area of one mile by one kilometer. The work is meant to be viewed from a distance and walked around in. During thunderstorms, the metal rods attract lightning creating a breathtaking spectacle. This piece is unique from the previously mentioned works in that it not only uses the earth to create art but also natural events.

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brooklyn green building

The Lightning Field, 1977

Richard Long had a distinctive style in creating Earth Art in which he blurred the line between performance and sculpture. Long’s sculptures were made by or during long walks. His walks usually centered on a concept or theme but all were inspired by his love for nature and the formal structure of basic shapes.

brooklyn green gardening

A Line Made By Walking, 1967

One of Long’s first pieces was created by simply walking back and forth in a field and then capturing the result in a black and white photograph. Lines are common shapes in Long’s work and are meant to guide or lead viewers, thus inspiring them to walk through nature as well. The simplicity of Long’s shapes also points to his desire to alter and effect nature as little as possible.  A Line in the Himalayas is a good example of this.

environmental art

A Line in the Himalayas, 1975

Andy Goldsworthy is a contemporary artist who was greatly influenced by Long’s art. Goldsworthy uses a myriad of natural objects, such as stones, leaves, ice, water, sand, twigs, flowers, and pinecones, to create sculptures with and in nature which he then photographs. Goldsworthy only uses natural materials and tools. To fuse icicles, he will use water or spit. To break a twig or a stone, he we will use a rock. To add color, he will use berries or fallen leaves.

ecological contracting

A rock "painted" gold with fall leaves

“Movement, change, light growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. I want to get under the surface. When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave it, these processes continue,” said Goldsworthy.

ecological builder

Stick sculpture in water with reflection

green builders

Sculpture made from sheets of ice

brooklyn green

A ball made from shards of ice

Eco Brooklyn is profoundly inspired by these innovative artists, especially those whose works have little to no impact on the ecosystem they are built in. Like these artists, in all our work we hope to create beautiful structures and spaces that connect people to nature and encourage more outdoor activity. The Earth Art Movement has two underlying questions: Can the earth be a vessel for art? And can art bring people back to nature? To both these questions we say, “Yes!”

Our most recent “work of art” is a natural swimming pool built out of salvaged natural materials and designed to replicate natures cleansing process so it does not need any chemicals.

Natural Pool Installers

Our showcase natural swimming pool uses organic materials and no chemicals to increase the connection with nature as you swim.

As a builder we can effect how people live, and it is something we consider deeply when designing a garden or home. Our goal is to design so that the people in the space feel more connected to nature.

By: Malone Matson

Biophilia in Brooklyn

As I was walking to the subway after work today, I passed a man who was leaving a few belongings on the sidewalk in front of his house. He is moving to DC tomorrow and, instead of just throwing the stuff away he couldn’t bring with him, he was leaving it out for passerbys to take. There were a few books, some old records, half broken appliances, but the prize giveaway was this massive pot of aloe vera plants.

ny green builder

I quickly grabbed the plant and continued to the subway. As I was riding the J train out to Bushwick, everyone in my car was eying my plant. People were pointing and whispering. When I got off the train and commenced the two block walk to my apartment, I kid you not, everyone on the street stopped to tell me how beautiful my plant was.

A young latino man who was working outside an appliance repair shop stopped me to talk about my plant and asked if he could take one of the baby aloe vera shoots extending from the mother plant. I happily gifted him a young sprout.

I continued walking and was again stopped by a group of Jamaican men who were barbecuing outside their newly opened thrift and clothing store next to my building. They too asked for a shoot, which I gladly relinquished.

Just outside my apartment I was stopped yet again by a young woman. She saw that I had given the two men a sprout and she asked if she could have one too. She didn’t know what kind of plant it was or how to care for it so I taught her a bit about both. She walked away thrilled.

Now the plant, which is still quite sizable, is sitting on my balcony overlooking the J train where commuters can easily look out and see it.

I felt compelled to write about this because I was so impressed by how a green action like donating items instead of throwing them away led to a whole chain reaction of community engagement. It’s incredible that a mere plant can stir up so much intrigue among city dwellers! This especially struck me because earlier in the day I was reading about E. O. Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis. Biophilia is a love for living things. The Biophilia Hypothesis suggests that there is an instinctive bond between humans and living systems (i.e. plants and animals). Wilson suggests that as humans were evolving we developed a love for nature because it sustained us and because our love for nature sustained it.

After my experience today, I have no doubt that Wilson was on to something.

 

By Malone Matson

Bioswale Basics

Do you ever think about where all that water goes when it rains?

In a natural system, most rainwater gets absorbed in the ground where it falls. It gradually flows, or percolates, through the soil until it reaches the water table (the point in which an underground area is saturated with water.) As the water percolates through the soil, it gets filtered of contaminants like pathogens, pollutants, and silt. Gravity slowly pushes the groundwater to a retention area, a place that holds the water like a river, lake, or the ocean.

Managing stormwater

In an urban environment where rainwater falls on impermeable surfaces, surfaces that water cannot pass through like parking lots, the rain becomes runoff which flows over the impermeable surfaces picking up pollutants like lead and then directly into a manmade drain. This water flows through a city’s sewer system where it is eventually treated, which takes a lot of energy and money, and is then released (usually not entirely clean and with harmful chemicals like chlorine that are used to treat the water) into local waterways. During times of flooding, which are becoming more frequent in the Northeast, sewer systems become overwhelmed and cities are forced to release untreated, raw sewage into nearby rivers and oceans.

urban runoff

 

To reduce the damaging effects of flooding and wastewater overflow, urban dwellers should create more permeable surfaces like gardens, specifically ones with bioswales. A bioswale is a low-lying area designed to remove silt and pollution from runoff and to manage flooding.

Many considerations need to be taken when designing a bioswale:

  • Location: must be in a low-lying area where water tends to collect.
  • Gradient: flat areas or areas with a slope greater than 5% are not practical for bioswales.
  • Drainage: use highly permeable mediums like gravel or coarse sands. Do not build a bioswale in an area with a high water table.
  • Plants: choose plants that are both flood and drought resistant. Native plants are better because they do not need fertilizer, will handle the climate more heartily, and will increase biodiversity.
  • Purpose: design your bioswale to solve a specific problem like flooding, high levels of nitrogen/phosphorus, pollution mitigation, or lack of biodiversity.

As an NY green contracting company with landscape design services, Eco Brooklyn can help you design and install a bioswale that will effectively resolve flooding problems, reduce the amount of contaminants entering local waterways, increase groundwater volume, and aid local biodiversity all while adding beauty to your backyard.

backyard flooding brooklyn

This is an example of a bioswale designed specifically to reduce the effects of flooding. It is placed at the lowest point in the yard and is sloped downward to move water to either a drain or retention area. The gravel allows water to enter the ground quickly to stop flooding. We would add more plants to this one if it were ours.

NY green builder

Rain Gardens are a type of bioswale. They tend to have a more aesthetic focus while still redirecting stormwater back into the ground and away from sewer systems.

As part of the city’s plan to retrofit New York, a number of 5 x 20 ft bioswales will be built along city streets.  Read more here.

Eco Brooklyn is planning on building a 5 x 13 ft tree planter that will act partly as a bioswale in the sidewalk outside the Green Show House. We are getting our applications in and revising our design so we hope the project will be underway shortly! More on that as we progress…

 

ADDENDUM: WATER CONTAMINANTS 101

  • Silt: Silt is made up of fine particles of soil, sand, and dust. It is easily transported by runoff because it is so light. When silt enters a waterbody it tends to linger at the surface of the water and eventually settles at the bottom. Not only is the cloudy effect of silt unattractive, but it also blocks sunlight from reaching the aquatic plants inhabiting the water body. Without sunlight those plants will die, diminishing habitat and food sources for aquatic animal life. Aquatic plants also play a major role in adding oxygen to the water. Without them, water bodies can become anaerobic, devoid of oxygen, which makes them inhospitable to plant and animal life and undrinkable for humans.
  • Phosphorus and nitrogen: These are the two elements that drive plant growth. Excess nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) enter groundwater mainly from fertilizer that gets washed away as runoff. Large amounts of N and P in waterbodies tend to support large algal blooms. Algae is microscopic and lives at the surface of the water. With enough sunlight, N, and P, blooms can become so large that, like silt, they can block sunlight from entering the water, starving the aquatic plants. When the algae eventually dies, it sinks to the bottom of the water where it will be decomposed, a process that uses up oxygen, thus subtracting further from the water’s oxygen levels. Further, some algal blooms can be toxic, harming the animal life around it, or can be ingested by fish then making them toxic for humans to eat. If you use fertilizer in your yard, consider using plants that have high-phosphorus absorption.
  • Pathogens: A pathogen is a virus, bacteria, or other microorganism that can cause disease. Pathogens are most commonly introduced to water through agricultural runoff of manure and animal wastes.
  • Pharmaceuticals: When we ingest drugs, traces of them are excreted in our urine. These chemicals make their way through the sewer system and into local water bodies. Scientists are not entirely sure how much of an impact pharmaceuticals really have in water systems. It has been suggested that increased levels of estrogen, which come from birth control pills, may be effecting sexual development of some aquatic animals.
  • Heavy metals: Heavy metals enter the hydrosphere mainly through industrial practices like mining and smelting. Heavy metals are dangerous because in large quantities they can be poisonous to humans and animals. If your backyard has a lead problem, for example, use plants that absorb metals. Eco Brooklyn also offers soil remediation services.
By Malone Matson

 

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.

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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.
http://www.motherearthnews.com/Do-It-Yourself/2002-08-01/Natural-Swimming-Pool.aspx
http://www.biotop-gmbh.at/

http://www.ibnature.com/

http://www.totalhabitat.com/p&p.html

http://www.clear-water-revival.com/

 

-Michael DiCarlo

Recap of Panel Discussion on Green Design as (Un)usual

On June 7th, Van Alen Books hosted a panel discussion on architect David Bergman’s book Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide. Susan Szenasy, Editor-in-chief of Metropolitan Magazine, moderated the panel, which was made up of architect and professor David Bergman, Terreform ONE co-founder and Planetary ONE partner Mitchell Joachim, and NYC Department of Design and Construction Director of Creative Services Victoria Milne.

NYC sustainable design

The intent of Bergman’s book was to give perspective on what sustainable design is and where it is headed versus where we want it to go. He reminds us that before the Industrial Revolution people designed with what nature provided but after we started looking at nature as an obstacle, something to overcome. As Szenasy pointed out, people wanted to subdue nature and we always referred to nature as “her.”

Green design, in many ways, is an attempt to return to the pre-Industrial Revolution way of thinking in order to sustain our natural resources long into the future.  Bergman argues that it has evolved into several stages from “Design as Usual” to “Design as Unusual” to “Green Design as Unusual” to “Green Design as Usual”. In a nutshell, designers first started doing unusual things in response to the environmental movement– this got labeled as green design– which eventually became more commonplace in the design world, or “usual.”

Now Bergman asks if we should be heading toward a new stage called “Design as Usual” where the green element of design becomes transparent. “Transparent green” is the idea that green thinking should be integral to all design and not a separate category. It sounds good but Bergman poses this question: if green is implied in design, will consumers stay aware of sustainability issues? This is where the panel started.

It seemed to be unanimously agreed that sustainability must be achieved through redesigning systems, not just products. Milne stated that government has the ability to create sustainable, closed systems and that there is an opportunity there to change market demands and standards, unlike within the private sector, which seldom stays in a closed system and has different motivations.

Joachim asserted that there is a need to reform education so that systems-thinking is better incorporated. He was opposed to the idea of specified majors that restrict students to only thinking about the world in one sense. Bergman agreed and said that that is why he loves architecture so much, “It is one of the last generalist fields.”

There needs to be a shift in society’s mindset toward consumption. Product designers shouldn’t be working with perceived or planned obsolescence in mind. Architects shouldn’t be wasting tons of materials and energy on decorative features. The public should divorce itself from such things as the idea of shopping as recreation. How do we do this?

Szenasy wonders why these issues haven’t gotten better PR. Why, for example, isn’t New York City prouder of its green efforts? City planners across the country look to New York as a leader in green design. Milne applauded the city’s efforts toward “active design,” which is where city infrastructure is built to engage the public and force them to exercise. But how many people are even aware that the city is doing that? How many people would be upset that the city is doing that? Look at the High Line. Cities around the country are starting projects to mimic New York’s great park yet the panel wondered, how many New Yorkers are aware of the sustainable implications of the park, how it’s revitalized a neighborhood, how the use of native plants has reduced water and energy use while also increasing native biodiversity, and so forth?

Someone suggested one reason is because when people think of “green”, they think of the apocalypse. People don’t want to think of the possibility of humanity ending, especially if it is because of their own irresponsible behaviors. Joachim said many people see green standards as a loss of liberty. Living sustainably often means giving something up and no one wants to be forced to do that.

In the end, it seems like the solution lies somewhere between education and redesign. Society needs to better understand how and why to live green and the systems we live in need to be reorganized.

 

By: Malone Matson

Joining Professional Organizations for Landscapers

Eco Brooklyn is an NY ecological landscaping company currently working on a project to build a natural swimming pool (read more here.) Natural pools are a new service that Eco Brooklyn is adding to our long list of amenities.

In an attempt to gain publicity for Eco Brooklyn’s green contracting services, we considered joining a few professional organizations. Here is a list of those organizations and the membership fees our company would apply for:

  • American Society of Landscape Architects– Affiliate Member (individual): $322 or Corporate Member (company): $1,950
  • Association of Professional Landscape Designers– Industry partner: $400 or Professional member: $240
  • Genesis 3 Design Group– Silver Sponsor (cheapest option): $3,000
  • Association of Pool and Spa Professionals- Builder/Installer membership: $575

The benefits of joining these organizations include having your company’s name posted on their website, being able to tout your membership on your website or to customers, and sometimes access to professional practice networks.

In the end, Eco Brooklyn decided these benefits weren’t for us. We already have enough business  in our multidisciplinary field – a wide range of interconnected services from gut renovations, green roofs, gardening, ponds/waterfalls, and more.

Our jobs almost never fall only under one category – say landscaping – because green building is such an interconnected process, so we decided that advertising ourselves in any one specialty isn’t a thorough representation of the business we do.

However, this is a personal choice so if you are a green contractor, waterscaper, landscaper, or salvage and renovation company interested in pursuing such a membership, the above organizations are the ones we recommend.

natural pool contractin

Eco Brooklyn's natural swimming pool. A natural pool has two zones, the swimming area (center) and the regeneration area surrounding it, which will be filled with gravel and plants to clean the water.

 

green contracting nyc

Here is an example of a completed natural swimming pool

Review: Anthony Archer-Wills, Water Garden Designer

green pond designer Anthony Archer-Wills is a world class water garden designer who has built over 2,000 ponds, water gardens, waterfalls, and streams across the globe.

He has several books out, among them The Water Gardener and Designing Water gardens: A Unique Approach.

Gennaro Brooks-Church, Eco Brooklyn’s Director, had the opportunity to take a course with him on designing natural swimming pools, hosted by the US distributor of Bionova Natural pools. Eco Brooklyn is building a natural swimming pool at the Green Show House.

Anthony sets the bar for water design. He is best known for his mimicry of natural water systems and the resulting subtlety of his designs. Where most “watershapers” go wrong, Anthony says, is how they design the inflow of water. Often it is not well-concealed or does not attempt to appear natural. Water fountains, for instance, do not resemble any kind of natural event (and, if I might add, increase water consumption through evaporation.) That’s why they look out of place, tacky even.

The most successful water gardens are the ones that you can’t tell are manmade, that look as if nature had placed them there hundreds of years ago. Not only are they more aesthetically appealing but they also work more harmoniously with nature. Read more here.

Here are some examples of his work:

Backyard pond design NY

NY Green Contractor

NY Sustainable construction

 

The one hitch in his amazing designs is the amount of energy used to pump water. His projects are sometimes so large – lakes, rivers – that the pumps used to move the water are massive. Though we are in complete awe of his art there is definitely an element of energy waste.

Some of his clients have the money to move mountains, and although the water work is amazing, the drive behind the work is not always ecological but rather somebody’s desire to have a lake view where there previously wasn’t one, cost and waste be damned.

Building water places, or in some cases rebuilding them, is important work. Of paramount importance is to consider the amount of waste produced and what is done with it during the construction phase, how much energy is used to maintain the water system, and what the water garden’s implications are for the surrounding ecosystem (it is likely that such water systems add to the biodiversity of an area but you cannot forget about the area that was destroyed to make it).

Eco Brooklyn is interested in learning from Anthony Archer-Wills’ naturalistic design and applying those techniques to smaller scale, low or zero energy green water gardens, natural swimming pools, streams and pond designs in New York City.

By using gravity fed rain runoff and gray water with solar power we are learning how to make water features perfect for the New York City garden.

As NY green contractors and innovators of sustainable design, we are pushing ourselves to build with as little ecological impact as possible while trying to maintain the design tradition pioneered by Anthony Archer-Wills.

Our latest job is being build in a Brooklyn garden that had very high lead levels in the soil. We used the digging of a small natural swimming pool as an opportunity to flip clean soil from deeper in the ground over the contaminated soil.

Then, using walls from salvaged brick and broken sacks of cement we built a container. The end result will be a pool for people to play in that uses no chemicals and integrates naturally with the rest of the garden, designed by Eco Brooklyn with stones and native plants to look wild.

Another job we completed was a pond and little stream.

We wanted the pond to look like it was as natural as possible.

Eco Brooklyn was largely inspired by Anthony’s work in the design of this pond and waterfall. We tried to imagine how the rocks and pebbles would fall and settle in a real river, where riparian plants would most likely take root, what kind of nooks create the best hiding places for our fish, and so forth.

Keeping in mind Anthony’s warning, we have tried to make our water source as well concealed as possible so that it looks like the water is seeping out of the rocks.

We are constantly rearranging the pond’s plants and rocks in an effort to best match nature (and, to be honest, just for fun.) But we feel that this constant rearranging is yet another imitation of nature as we know that rocks, plants, and animals are always in motion in a stream environment.

Green water garden/green pond

Here is a video of a robin bathing in our stream!

A Photo Update of the Eco Brooklyn Roof Garden

Eco Brooklyn’s green roof garden has been flourishing since we installed it over two years ago. Check out the photos below!

NY Green Roof installers

Native Plant Green Roof Installation

This roof garden relies solely on rainwater so we never have to waste water!

Eco Brooklyn Green Roof Garden Installers

Our bees act as natural pollinators, ensuring beautiful flower blossoms for seasons to come! Not to mention they provide us with tasty honey.

Green Roof Landscaping

Can you believe this self-sustaining oasis could exist on the roof of a New York City apartment? As a NY green contracting company, Eco Brooklyn can make it possible for you to have one of your own!

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.

Eco Brooklyn 2010-2011 Annual Report

The year has ended and a new one has begun. I have prepared a state of the union statement for where Eco Brooklyn has been and where it is going.

Here goes….

2010 was a turning point for Eco Brooklyn: we became too successful for our size. Up until last year our love for green building and eagerness to turn Brooklyn green meant we took on every green job that came our way. But in 2010 we actually took on more work than we could handle. At one point we had six full brownstone renovations going at once plus a host of green roof installations and other green building jobs.

During the year did green roofs, gray water systems, custom green kitchens, salvaged floors, eco gardening and countless other cutting edge green building. Our clients were great and never did we have to compromise. We maintained our policy of never buying new wood and we got closer and closer to our Zero Brownstone goal.

But we were so busy that it stopped being fun and started to feel like work.

The main problem was logistics. Eco Brooklyn is founded on pure idealism – we are dreamers who believe in making the world a better place. We follow the triple bottom line business model where every interaction is beneficial for everyone including employees, clients, neighbors and most of all Mother Earth.

This energy is great and it is contagious. It is why clients come to us.

But we weren’t focused enough on the day to day details, which resulted in wasted money and stressful projects. We weren’t as pragmatic as we should be, which meant unrealistic goals and missed timelines. We didn’t focus on the bottom line enough, resulting in under bidding or going over budget.

Up until 2010 this wasn’t a big problem. Our energy and enthusiasm made up for any lost efficiency and money. What we lacked in logistics we made up for in good will and creativity.

But by 2010 we had gotten much bigger than previous years and it became clear we needed to make some changes fast. Our biggest challenge was coordinating all the jobs so they ran smoothly and on budget. This is a challenge for any company but when you are redefining green building as you go it is even more challenging. Our work is cutting edge and we often have no past reference for how to price it or organize it.

How do you bid on an earthen floor when you have never done one? How do you meet the deadline when the workers are more interested in making the job ecological and beautiful rather than making money?  How do you make sure the dumpster bill is paid if you are more interested in paying for the salvaged flooring?

All this came to a head this year and the jobs became too big, too many and too complex for us to run on fervent idealism alone. We realized what every ethics driven company eventually has to face: no matter how great your cause if you can’t compete in the marketplace you will eventually burn out from lack of energy and money. You will end up bitter and an example that life is no place for dreaming.

Luckily we weren’t too late in our realization. After a couple jobs with late timelines and hurting budgets we saw that we had to become a lot more efficient and pragmatic in order to continue on our own terms. We didn’t become less idealistic or dreamy; in fact we expanded on those values. We added to our focus the idea that we could be competitive and profitable while keeping our values.

We realized that in order to change the current world to a better world we had to be the best of both worlds.

We stepped up our efficiency and our attention to detail. We focused more on profit, not because we particularly care about money itself, but because we understand that money is largely today’s currency of freedom and power. We reduced the jobs we took on to focus on improving the profit and efficiency of our current jobs. We became a very competitive building company as well as the best green builder.

Going into the New Year we are ready. We have found a good balance between visionary dreamers and effective entrepreneurs.

The biggest step in this process was seeing that in order to change the system we can’t criticize it from the outside but rather we have to offer a better system from the inside. The world is inherently pragmatic, sometimes brutally pragmatic, and if you offer a better system it will be embraced.

So instead of getting angry at the world for caring more about profit and efficiency than the planet’s health we ramped up our business so as to be profitable, efficient, AND good for the planet. Eco Brooklyn is now an example of how to be profitable in the current definition of the term while also being a benefit to Mother Earth.

We learned the hard way, and we suffered loss and angry clients, but it has been resolved and we are looking at 2011 with a clean slate, newly hardened to the realism of capitalism but still blossoming in our idealism and passion to turn Brooklyn green.

And we enter 2011 with a more streamlined and effective company, better prepared to be a powerful force in regreening the world.

Going forward we are being more cautious in the jobs we take on. We have reached a comfortable size and want to stay at this size until we master the logistics of a medium to large company. We feel that at this size we can make a steady impact in turning Brooklyn green without stretching our limits.

We will focus on jobs that take green building further instead of branching out trying to make every job green. We will be very vigilant with our finances and stay profitable so that we never have financial constraints keeping us from being as green as we possibly can.

We have a few jobs in the pipeline for this winter onwards, among them a Passive House Harlem brownstone, a Manhattan Earthship, a Brooklyn living wall, a solar install, and some deep energy retrofits. This spring we launch our green garden design and landscaping arm of the business. Last month we incorporated a not for profit to expand on our salvage resale activities and student training program. The Eco Brooklyn green show house is nearing its completion.

Through these jobs and others we hope to continue growing in our own green building knowledge so that we are even more powerful and effective custodians of a green Brooklyn and a green planet earth.

We as a planet are at a crucial ecological point where we have lost so much and have so little left, and yet because of this there is a passion and awareness that propels so many of us to do good and green things in our lives. We must do more and we must do it now. Turning Brooklyn green is our responsibility because acting locally is the only way we can be good global citizens. If every community and business did this for their own geographical area we would be far ahead in our path to global ecological regrowth.

In closing I would like to thank all Eco Brooklyn’s workers and clients who make Eco Brooklyn and its goals real. Eco Brooklyn is defined by its name as both an ecological company and a company deeply rooted in the community and culture of Brooklyn. The community of New York and Brooklyn is what makes the company so special.

Thank you and I wish you a focused and prosperous green year. Happy 2011!

Gennaro Brooks-Church

Owner, Eco Brooklyn.

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