Hempcrete for Brooklyn Brownstone Extensions

We at Eco Brooklyn have been in love with Hempcrete – a mix of lime and hemp for walls – for years. A hempcrete wall provides strength, protection and insulation all in one.

Compared to stick and frame building it uses much less wood and is much more solid of a structure. A hempcrete home feels solid. And the soundproofing qualities are amazing.

The one drawback is that you do need a thicker wall – at least 12′. In space starved NYC this can be a problem. The wall doesn’t, however need any kind of finishing (sheet rock for example) so space is saved there.

We think a Hempcrete application is perfect for a brownstone extension. It is so much greener than the cinder blocks often used. And in terms of comfort it is unmatched. No air leaks or thermal bridges.

Eco Brooklyn is a New York Hempcrete installer. We feel that it has it’s place in the NY green building lexicon. More and more, though, the green building lexicon is simply becoming building lexicon. Green building makes sense.

We are eager to install more hempcrete walls. Even if it is just one wall that acts as a centerpiece, the visual beauty and tactile comfort of hempcrete is makes it practically a work of art. Optionally you can plaster the wall with clay, another beautiful material.

Check out this video on how a hempcrete wall is built. You will notice how very simple it is.

Wood Certification

A little while ago we visited a green pavilion with “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.

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.

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 materials salvaged from dumpsters, which is the most sustainable option available. It is rare we buy new wood any given year.

Certified woods offer an acceptable last option alternative. But as a green building company we are skeptical of certifications. Most of them are simply labels that allow the consumer to feel better about their purchase and allow the producer to sell more, but in reality not much has changed. Trees are cut down, habitats are destroyed.

It is impossible to reproduce that. Even when companies replant trees, they do it as a mono-culture with one species of tree. That is like saying elevator muzak and Mozart are the same. One is lifeless. The other is full of life.

Understandably our view is not main stream. If it were then most construction would come to a screeching halt and we would love that. But realistically certifications are a move in the right direction for mainstream builders. With time hopefully the certifications will get more and more stringent.

Praise for Siga high-performance tape

As a Green Builder we are always looking at the newest developments in green design. Today the folks from Siga were kind enough to come by and show us their energy efficient air sealing products.

We recently finished a Passive House renovation of a Harlem brownstone and worked closely with the air sealing supplier 475. They sell Pro Clima tape and it worked really well.
Siga seems like a great product too and I welcome the increase in air sealing options to the NY market.
The three key benefits of Siga are its outstanding adhesive qualities (its sticks to any surface), its vapor permeability, and its rain driven protection. Not to mention all their products are VOC free and are made with green technology.
They are certainly worth checking out: http://www.sigacover.com/us/

Makin’ Tracks in Brooklyn Bridge Park

Over the  past few years biking has become an increasingly popular mode of transportation in New York City. More than 200,000 people bike everyday in New York City. There was a 26% increase in the number of cyclers between 2008 and 2009. Here at Eco Brooklyn, a number of our employees ride to work and it is common to see our front fence covered with bikes.

Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s strong push for more bike lanes, which is great, New York isn’t always the most bike friendly city; we have yet to create an urban plan that makes biking a priority, like the plans of Amsterdam and Copenhagen. In NY, bikers are still very much lone riders in a dangerous sea of motor vehicles.

One NY resident – Joshua P. Rechnitz , is attempting to increase the biking culture dramatically, not on the streets but in the form of a huge cycling track.

This peaked our interest. As a New York green builder there are two things we are interested in: buildings that increase healthy habits for humans and making those buildings out of sustainable products.

Joshua P. Rechnitz is a Manhattan resident, and partner of the Hudson Urban Bicycles and a competitive cyclist.

He also happens to be a philanthropist and recently gave the NYC Parks Brooklyn Bridge Park 42 million dollars to build a velodome- an indoor cycling center. In addition to the cycling track, the 115,000 square-foot facility will include indoor space for basketball, tennis, volleyball and gymnastics. It will also include seating for almost 2,500 spectators.

The 42 million dollar donation to the NYC parks department is the largest in the history of  New York. Previously, the donation from Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenburg for the High Line has been the largest donation to the Parks Department. Rechnitz’s donation includes a promise to underwrite the first ten years of the new field house.

New York City was once considered the world capital of cycling.  Indoor velodome races captivated large audiences in Madison Square Garden, circa 1879-1920. In 1922, a giant velodome was built near the Harlem River on 225th and could seat 16,000 people (it burned down in 1930). Enthusiasts now believe this is the time to bring a long tradition of competitive cycling back to the city.

Although this facility has the potential to create a new community of cycles, many community member are saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Leaders of community groups in the abutting neighborhoods of Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights are tentative about the plan because of its shear size, which is significantly larger than a football field. The stadium also has the potential to pull a lot of traffic onto the 19th century cobble stone streets of Brooklyn Heights.

But an important question arises: what is more important: green space with trees and grass or development, albeit development for cycling? Some community members claim that over the past few years Brooklyn Bridge Park has been nibbled away by new structures, and this new velodome would be a continuation of that trend in a big way.

Although it seems that the velodome would replace an old warehouse that currently sits at Pier 5. The proposal does not seem to suggest that developers will retrofit the already existing warehouse, but rather just tear the existing structure down and build a new one.

Currently there is only one velodome left in New York City, at Kissena Park in Queens, but the 400-meter city owned track is not enclosed. One idea is to take the Rechnitz gift and build the proposed velodome on the existing velodome site in Queens, which sits just of the Van Wyck and Long Island Expressway. In addition to not crowding a park, there would be opportunity to retrofit an existing building and also ample room for parking.

This proposal and gift has potential to really expand the cycling culture in New York, a movement that is already strong but could use more support from the city. An increase in cycling culture could drastically reduce the city’s carbon emissions through reducing car traffic and also make the city a bit healthier and happier.

Our main question is whether the velodome can be built so as not to decrease green space but actually increase it. This would mean not building on land that should be park space as well as creating a structure that increases green through living walls, ponds and green roofs.

After that we would want to know that the structure was built to the highest energy efficiency standards possible and with the greenest building materials. This usually means retrofitting an existing structure over building a new one.

If the building increases green space (for more than just humans), doesn’t create a huge environmental impact during construction and during ongoing running of the facility, then the fact that it contributes to New Yorker’s healthy lifestyle as a cycling park means it is a win-win situation for everyone. These are the standards by which we build and it really makes sense.


Biomimicry and the Eden Project

The Eden Project

As a New York green builder, Eco Brooklyn is always interested in learning about what other sustainable design ideas are out there.  Last night, I listened to an amazing TED talk that took green building to a whole new level.

Michael Pawlyn, formerly with Grimshaw Architects, London, spoke about biomimicry and sustainable design and how he believes we should be looking to nature for both our inspiration and the solution to our design dilemmas. By looking to nature, we can create more efficient systems and usurp the benefits of nature’s 3.5 billion years of R&D.

Michael Pawlyn also addressed the importance of creating efficient cyclical uses of products (beneficial to both humans and nature) instead of the current, inefficient linear model of produce, use, throw away. (This theory is laid out eloquently in Michael McDonough and Michael Braungart’s must-read, Cradle to Cradle.)

Looking to Nature for Answers

Nature is effecient.  Nature epitomizes the mantra waste not want not.  In nature, waste is food.  Humans, on the other hand, are the polar opposite.  We are wasteful, inefficient, and operate on a use-it-once-and-throw-it-away mentality.

Many engineers and architects are practicing biomimicry, looking to nature for answers to the world’s most pressing problems, including us here at Eco Brooklyn.  The passivhaus pond in the backyard, for example, uses no chemicals, but gravel, rocks, and plants, to filter out dirt and other impurities.  Just like nature would in a pond or lake.

The idea of mimicking nature in manmade inventions is not new by any means.  The Greeks applied “the golden ratio”, also called the golden mean or golden selection, to their art and architecture.  The Pantheon is based on the golden ratio.  Even the volutes on ionic columns use these proportions.

Medieval alchemists would initially determine a plant’s potential healing qualities by what it looked like.  For example, the leaves of the lungwort plant, which resemble the human lung, were used to treat respiratory problems.

Cyclical vs Linear Consumption

Nature functions on a closed loop system.  The waste of one is the food for another.  The dead leaves that come off trees in the Autumn become nutrients for the soil and earthworms on the ground to which they fell.  The earthworms eat the leaves and their waste provide nutrients for the tree, which then gives it energy to produce new leaves in the Spring.

Biomimicry is about creating manmade systems that replicate the remarkably efficient systems found in nature.  In one of his lectures, Pawlyn gives the example of Cardboard to Caviar.  The expensive cardboard packaging that caviar comes in was bought from a restaurant and used as bedding for horses in stables.  When that wore out, it was taken and added to a compost heap that feed worms.  These worms are harvested and sold as food to roe, whose eggs are then harvest and sold as caviar at the same restaurant.  These types of closed looped systems are both economically and environmentally sound.  The metabolism of our cities needs to be reexamined so that nothing is wasted and beneficial, efficient systems are created.

The Eden Project

The eden project biomimicry

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to create sustainable, carbon neutral (or even carbon positive), green designs that are more efficient and cost less than the “standard” models.  “It is possible to cut carbon emissions and save money,” says Michael Pawlyn. “The key to it is innovation.”  This has been proven by Mr Pawlyn in his work on many projects, specifically the Eden Project in Cornwall, England.

The Eden Project is the world’s largest greenhouse.  It is the second most visited paid attraction in England.  It was designed by Grimshaw Architects and opened in March 2001.

The site is on a reclaimed Kaolinite mine.  Since the site was still being quarried during the design process, they had to design a structure that could be built regardless of the what the final ground levels were going to be.  The result is a series of bubble-like domes of varying sizes strung along the landscape.  By looking to nature, they discovered that the most effective way to create a spherical surface is by using geodesics (hexagons and pentagons).  These bubbles are a series of giant hexagons welded together and then inflated.

The biomes are made of Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), a transparent polymer that is used instead of glass and plastic in many modern buildings.  ETFE is incredibly strong and much lighter than glass.  Because of the lightness of the material, less steal was use for reinforcement which means more light can enter the space and less energy is required to heat space in the winter.  In fact, the structure itself weighs less than the air it contains

ETFE costs 1/3 less than the traditional glass solution.  ETFE is one percent of the weight of double glazing.

The Eden Project is just one of many examples of biomimicry and how man can learn to be efficient by mimicking what is already happening in nature.  By being aware of how nature solves problems we can improve our everyday lives.  Small things such as composting can make a big difference.  Compost puts nutrients back into the soil, feeds earthworms, and diverts food waste from going to landfills.  Finding new uses for old items gives them a new life.   We saved hundreds of pounds of lovely Blue Stone from a fate of going to the landfill by pulling it out of a dumpster and using it as paving in the front yard.  We can all be eco builders, practicing the principles of biomimicry.

In the words of Margaret Mead, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Here’s Michael Pawlyn’s TED talk: 

Phone Booth Aquarium

When was the last time you used a pay phone?  For me, I think it was when I was in High School in the early 90s when I was stranded downtown.  But since everyone, and I mean everyone, has a mobile phone now, pay phones are obsolete.   In a way, I am saddened by the fact that phone boxes are useless.  They are cinematic icons (Superman, Charade, and the Birds, just to name a few) and can be found in cities large and small around the world, in various shapes and sizes.

So what happens to all of those phone booths?


Sadly, many have already been sent to the landfill.  Others lay unused and neglected on the roadside.  Some, however, are being rescued and converted by very cleaver people into things such as loos and libraries, showers, and sofas.


Some of the most exciting phone box conversions have been into fish tanks.  One of my favorites is by designers Benoit Deseille and Benedetto Bufalino as part of the Lyon Light Festival in France.  It is a local curiosity and a big hit amongst visitors.  The Lyon Light Festival is an anual event celebrating the Mother Mary, who, legend has it, spared the town from the Plague in 1643.

Aquarium phone box Lyon france


Other examples of phone booth aquariums are this goldfish aquarium in Japan:

Telephone booth fish tank

This lovely red phone box aquarium in England:

phone booth aquarium

This aquarium, which was part of an entire exhibit featuring creative fish tank ideas:

fish tank telephone booth

And this New York-themed fish tank design is from Animal Plant’s “Tanked.”  In doing research for this post I came upon an ad saying that the owners of this aquarium did not like it and put it up for sale on Ebay.

phone booth fish tank

Seeing creative adaptive reuse ideas such as these phone booth aquariums makes me want to go out and adopt an abondoned phone booth.  I wonder if it would fit into a taxi?

If you want to see more creative phone box conversions, click here.

Das Haus New York

green builder brooklynLast week, the interns from Eco Brooklyn went to the Net Zero Symposium sponsored by Das Haus in White Plains, New York to hear lectures and view a model of Das Haus, a passivhaus model made from two shipping containers that functions completely off the grid.  The conference was held at the White Plains Public Library and about 100 people were present.


Das Haus (German for “The House”) is a traveling pavilion featuring German innovation in photovoltaics and energy efficiency. Das Haus is calling on ten cities across North America.  Das Haus tour hopes to accomplish two goals: introduce North America to Germany’s innovations in solar energy and green construction, and create an ongoing dialogue across the country about policies, construction materials and techniques, etc., regarding sustainable design.


During the Das Haus conference in New York, the lecturers were a mix of Germans and Americans.  The Americans who spoke are based in New York and addressed what is going on in the state.

Das Haus tour New York


Guy Sliker, from the New York Power Authority personified the attitudes of the typical American: America knows best, we’re number one, look at all that we have accomplished, go America!  Mr Sliker spent the majority of his speech listing numbers that prove these (mis)conceptions.  Mr Sliker was overconfident in New York Power Authority’s progress and too comfortable is the direction the ship is sailing.


Net Zero symposium New York

Kim Curran, PV Instructor from the Bronx Community College, gave a distilled explanation of how PV works and the challenges the industry is facing.  She gave a more realistic picture of the solar industry and the problems it is facing, such as bringing down cost, increasing efficiency, and the state of government incentives.  Kim’s and most of the other presenters’ presentations can be viewed here.


It is an amazing thing that some of Germany’s technology is coming over the pond to North America.  Germany has been using PV panels, energy efficient designs, and green roofs for decades and are lightyears ahead of North America in their development, understanding, and implementation of sustainable ideas.  This is a giant step for progress in North America.


Green Roof Professional certification

The Green Roof Professional (GRP) certification system was developed by Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a not-for-profit industry association working to promote and develop the market for the green roofs throughout North America.

In addition to providing a professional accreditation program, the organization facilitates the exchange of information, supports research, and promotes the establishment of effective public policies. The organization presents Awards of Excellence to celebrate innovative professionals and organizes the annual CitiesAlive conference to develop supportive policies.

Green Roofs for Healthy Cities has been committed to developing a professional accreditation program to legitimize green roof designers and provide education to fill knowledge gaps and improve the quality of work.

In 2004, Green Roofs for Healthy Cities developed its first training course, Green Roof Design 101. It has since added Green Roof Design and Installation 201, Green Roof Waterproofing and Drainage 301, and Green Roof Plants and Growing Media 401. The classes are available in Toronto, New York, Atlanta, and Denver on select dates. They are each full-day courses recommended as a part of the GRP training program. The following half-day courses are also available, and count as continuing education credits:

·  Advanced Green Roof Maintenance

·  Introduction to Rooftop Urban Agriculture

·  Green Walls 101: Systems Overview and Design (2nd Ed.)

·  Integrated Water Management for Buildings and Sites

·  Ecological Green Roof Design

·  Green Infrastructure: Policies, Performance and Projects

·  Green Roof Policy Development

Each course is accompanied by a course manual, which includes all the material on the accreditation exam.

Unfortunately, the accreditation process is rather expensive. Tuition for each full-day course is $399 USD and is accompanied by a course manual. Each course manual can be purchased for $199 USD separately for those who choose not to take the classes in person. The accreditation exam itself consists of 100 multiple-choice questions and lasts 2 hours. It costs $495 USD to enroll and cannot be taken online, but is only offered in Denver, Toronto, New York, and Chicago, incurring further transportation costs. In order to maintain GRP Certification, you must be a Green Roofs for Healthy Cities member ($160 USD annually), and renew your certification every 2 years. This involves completing a minimum of 16 continuing education credits, 8 of which must for GRHC related activities, and paying a renewal fee of $95 USD. Interestingly, each continuing education course is listed at 3.5 units, effectively forcing members to increase the number of classes they must take to maintain their accreditation. Some of the half-day courses can be taken online for $125 USD as part of the Living Architecture Academy.

While the accreditation process may be designed to increase the reliability of green roof designers, Green Roofs for Healthy Cities is also cashing in on the deal. The North American green roof industry grew by 115% in 2011, drawing many more interested professionals and increasing public awareness. Much like LEED in their field, GRHC monopolizes the accreditation process and effectively takes advantage of all the growth.

The existence of the certification is a double-edged sword: while it assures potential consumers that the professional hired has a sound informational backing, it also forces those who want to become green roofers to submit to the monopoly as it becomes the standard.

As a guerrilla green builder, EcoBrooklyn works with clients who seek the most cutting edge techniques. We reduce the net energy of each project by maximizing the use of natural and salvaged materials. The green roof methods taught in the GRP program adhere to the contemporary methodology involving plastics and other foreign materials. While we agree with the basic ideals driving GRHC’s mission (in that the application of green roofs is an essential component to reducing building impact and bettering the urban environment), we do not believe that adhering to the methods prescribed in the accreditation program are necessarily the only right way to build a green roof. In addition, as the organization grows, there is the danger that monetary and political pressures skew the curriculum towards supporting certain brands and materials which may not necessarily be the most ecologically friendly. The GRP curriculum is updated to include new knowledge, and we hope that GRHC’s updates will move towards greater net sustainability.

As it stands, the program is a good way for interested people to learn about green roofs as long as they allow themselves to expand on the ideas taught by GRHC. While we applaud Green Roofs for Healthy Cities’ organizational and promotional achievements, we hope that it does not become a prerequisite to legitimize oneself in the field but instead serves as a possible stepping-stone for professionals.

Why Should I Use Native Plants?

A significant aspect of green building and living sustainably is using vernacular materials and buying locally. Being green also means being a locavaore, eating and buying foods grown locally. But what about the vegetation we choose to plant in our gardens? We may choose a particular plant because of aesthetics, how well it will grow well in shade, or the fact that it was on sale at the nursery. Choosing which plants to put into our gardens is another area in which we can make more sustainable choices. Here at Eco Brooklyn, we stress using native plants at home and in all our Brooklyn Green Contractor jobs.

What are Native Plants?Brooklyn Green Contractor

Native plants are those which are indigenous to an area that have not been put there by humans. In North America, that becomes a bit more complicated because Europeans introduced many plants to the Americas beginning in the 15th century which some classify as “native.” Most botanists, however, define native plants to be those which were in the Americas before the Europeans arrived.

Why Should We Use Native Plants?

Currently, approximately 25% of the plants growing in North America are at risk of becoming extinct because of human activities. By using indigenous plants in our landscaping projects we can slow or even reserve the threat of species extinction. Native plants also assist in the larger picture of bolstering up native insects, moths, butterflies, and other animals native to the area. Here at Eco Brooklyn, we try to use as many native plants and animals as possible (such as the fish in our front pond or the Eastern Box Turtles in the roof garden).

Native Plants are Low Maintenance

Think of Indigenous plants as your local tour guide – they know the area, the best spots to hang out, and where you can take shelter from the storm. Native plants have become acclimated to the temperatures, annual rain fall, and have a relationship with the local wildlife. Native plants, therefore, require less fertilizer and pesticides, if any, and once established, require no irrigation.

Native Plants Rarely Become Invasive

Native plants stay put. They have a harmonious, symbiotic relationship with other vegetation that is beneficial to all, so native plants do not take over the landscape like “foreign” species do. Native Plants are Part of Our History The plants grown here in the Americas have played an important role in the history and civilization of this country. Herbs have been used by “medicine men” to remedy ailments, tree saplings were used to make bows and arrows, berries were used to make dyes, and let’s not forget our elementary school education of the Native Americans teaching John Smith, et all, how to grow corn.

What plants are native to your area?  

Native Plant Database allows you to do searches based on area, soil pH, plant type, etc.  It’s very extensive and customizable.

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.


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


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

Brooklyn’s Baggage: Soil Contamination in our own Backyards

A Brooklyn backyard before soil remediation.

Many Brooklyn homeowners have inherited a common problem: contaminated backyards. This is a result of over 100 years of garbage incineration, car fumes and toxic paint. In New York, soil is deemed contaminated if there are more than 400 ppm of lead present in the soil (in Euro the maximum is 100ppm!).

A few months ago, Eco Brooklyn wrote a blog about soil tests and remediation jobs they have done. The results from the soil analysis were staggering…the Eco Brooklyn Showhouse backyard had 3,500 ppm of lead!

Lead, and other heavy metal contaminated can be very harmful to health. Especially children.

There are the few steps you can take to test your own backyard!

A soil test is an analysis of a soil sample to determine the content of nutrient, contaminates, composition, acidity and other characteristics of the soil. Contaminate elements usually include arsenic, barium, cadium, copper, mercury and lead. By performing a soil test we are attempting to indicate the deficiencies that need to be remedied and the toxicities from excessive fertility.

How to test your soil for contaminates:

Take sample from a 6-8 inch hole.

Take sample from a 6-8 inch hole.

Method for Garden Soil Sampling

  1. Use a spade or trowel and take samples of soil from 10 or more random locations distributed throughout your area of interest. Place all the sampled into a clean container. For small areas, a minimum of 3 samples is recommended.
  • Grass-Sampling depth should be the top 3-4 inches deep
  • For other plants, the sampling depth should be the top 6-8 inches.
  1. Mix up the container and remove pebbles, leaves and plant roots. Transfer at least one cup of the soil into a .5 lb plastic bag and seal it. Try not to fill the entire bag because it will be flattened in the mail.
  1. Place the plastic in a mailing envelope or a small box. If the samples are wet, dry them at room temperature.  Drying the soil by using a stove or radiator may change the readings.


    • Lead Test – $10.00
    • Heavy Metal Test – $35.00
    • Basic Soil Quality Test – $45.00
  1. Soil samples are screened for (1) pH, (2) salt content, (3) soil class using jar test, (4) NPK levels using field kits, and (5) lead, chromium and zinc using XRF analyzer. Results available within one week.
  2. Soil samples are analyzed for (1) total organic content, (2) nitrate, phosphate, ammonia contents, (3) potassium and micro-nutrients with modified Morgan extraction method, (4) soil class using hydrometer method, and (5) heavy metals using wet digestion-ICP-MS method.
  3. Five toxic metals (Pb, Cr, As, Cd and Ni) are analyzed for plant tissue samples with acid digestion ICP-MS method. Please note that these samples cannot be sent through mail (i.e., must be dropped off in person). Results available 2-4 weeks.
    • Advanced Soil Quality Test – $75.00
    • Tissue Analysis: Heavy Metals in Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs – $30.00

You can conveniently send your soil to the testing lab at Brooklyn College. Dr. Cheug, a Professor of Earth science and soil analyst has upgraded his techniques so that the process only takes an hour!

What do you do if your soil is contaminated?

A Brooklyn backyard after soil remediation.

There are two different routes that you can take. The first is to depend on the power to plants to do most of the remediation. Ideally you would use plants that are not used for food or medicine.

After the plants have grown and absorbed the contaminates, the plants need to be removed from the contaminated area. This process would have to occur multiple times over a few years.

The second possible route is a complete soil remediation, where a company, such as Eco Brooklyn comes in and removes the top 6-8 inches of soil, places a barrier down and then covers the void with new soil. There is potential for contamination as the workers walk through the house creating opportunities for contaminates to be brought into the house.

Eco Brooklyn recommends that a complete soil remediation is the best way to react to soil contamination. Although there is a potential to contaminate a home, we believe that with our careful procedure, the results are safer and more effective.


Squibb Park, Brooklyn: Prototype for a New Generation of Sustainable Bridge Design:

After receiving a generous amount of funding, Brooklyn has commissioned a pedestrian walkway to connect Squibb Park and the Brooklyn  Bridge Park. The 4.9 million dollar bridge will be designed by Ted Zoli, a MacArther Genius Award-winning structural engineer, he is not only one of the nation’s “it” engineers but also among the nation’s foremost experts on “terror-proofing.”

As a New York green builder we were interested in this project based on their choice of material. Metal? Nope.

Zoli’s vision of this sustainable design is grounded in an old-fashioned material: wood. And not just any wood: Black Locust. Zoli attempts to create a prototype for modern sustainable design techniques. Long-lasting, rot resistance materials are a pivotal element for the future of sustainable and green bridge designs.

The Black locust grows fast and strong, making it a great green builders material

Eco Brooklyn loves black locusts because they are native to the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Black locust is known for its rot-resistance, durability and its sustainable nature. The rough-sawn decking and wooden structural elements will be coated with a natural finish that changes color and often warps slightly when exposed to natural elements.

In many places the tree is actually considered a pest and they regularly cut them down along roadways. Using something that normally is considered garbage is the ultimate green green builders goal. New York green contractors constantly reuse discarded brick and old joists. By using black locust Zoli is continuing that tradition.

Zoli did not only choose the Block locust building material because it is native to the  Northeast but also because is a prominent feature in the Brooklyn Bridge Park landscape. Zoli is attempting to expand upon the language of the Brooklyn Bridge Park by incorporating some of the materials like Black Locust and wire into his own design.

The combination of natural, durable materials and smart design seem to be the foundation and future for this new generation of bridge designs that center around sustainability. The Squibb design is just one stepping stone for the use of rot-resistant natural building materials in vernacular bridges.

The 396-foot-long bridge, with two main spans of 120 feet will connect a small-paved park at the north end of the historic Brooklyn Heights Promenade with the Brooklyn Bridge Park, originally designed by Michael Ban Valkenburgh.

This bridge, which will hover above Furman Street will zig zag through the existing tall oaks and between two buildings while descending 30 ft in elevation from its starting point to its endpoint in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The bridge will be supported by poured concrete pillars and suspended by steel cables; the primary construction material will be 6- and 10-inch diameter pieces of Robinia pseudoacacia or black locust.

Despite the detachment from the typical urban bridge, which is usually metal and gritty, Zoli’s design is a seamless combination of the rural and the industrial.

This bridge is an incredible addition to the Brooklyn community for multiple reasons. It functions to reconnect pedestrians to the Brooklyn Bridge Park which is currently isolated by roads but will also serve as a prototype for urban design using natural material rather than metals and synthetics.

Bridge connecting Squibb Park to Brooklyn Bridge ParkOne major component of sustainable design is finding long lasting materials. If we are able to learn about and utilize some of trees in our own regions then green builders will be able to save energy through shorter transportation distances and become less wasteful in the creation of new manmade materials.


The Weather Underground Movie

Since the Occupy Wall Street events this fall I have immersed myself in information that questions existing paradigms and searches for solutions to current problems. I’ve always done this, and as a green builder I do it on a daily basis, but the recent Occupy Wall Street events has given my ongoing education a focus and timely reference point.

This evening I watched a poignant documentary “The Weather Underground“, which chronicles the efforts of a small group of white students in the late ’60’s and early 70’s who planted bombs around the US to raise awareness of the atrocities of the Vietnam war.

The movie is powerful because these people are smart, conscientious individuals who did not take their acts of violence lightly. The movie explores their insights into the successes and failures of using violence to combat violence.

The conclusion? Well, there is no easy response to the Vietnam genocide and how we should have stopped it. Are some acts so horrible that violence to stop it is justified? Most police and military forces would say yes. And yes. And yes many times over until the threat has been obliterated.

Whether that threat is a black man in the ghetto or an Arab half way across the globe we, “we” being those who are not in the police or military view finder, find it acceptable that  the “threat” be killed regardless of whether they deserve it.

Or maybe it isn’t acceptable but we let it happen every day without so much as a pause in our lives. We accept the party line that the military is looking out for our interests even if we know it is a lie. Such a convenient lie it is.

And maybe these people are threats, if our interests happen to be cheap oil, cheap sneakers and large amounts of easy to digest entertainment.

But when it is a civilian who does something violent to try to stop violence such actions of counter brutality are not allowed nor socially acceptable. Civilians are expected to meet violence with non-violence. A civilian who meets oppression and violence with counter violence is called a terrorist time and time again.

Why is this? Is it just the people in power trying to keep it so?

This strikes a chord with my life. My father was not part of the Weather Underground but he did belong to a similar group during that time. He was accused by the government of setting off pipe bombs, one in front of the Berkeley court house that was sending draft resisters to high security prison and another in front of the Bank of America that was the main financier of Napalm.

Idealistic hippie or dangerous terrorist? Interpol and the FBI felt the later and I spent my first 17 years traveling the world under my parents’ wing as political refugees.

Did my father make a difference? He made a difference to me. I wouldn’t be a passionate green builder dead set on making the world a more ecological place if it weren’t for him.

The hippies dropped out and opened their minds to new ways of being, some good, some not. Either way they learned a lot, if anything how to learn itself, and passed that learning on to their children, most of whom dropped back into society with that knowledge.

So what do we do now. We don’t have a Vietnam to rage against. We have the less visible but more dangerous ongoing destruction of the planet. Us humans are destroying the planet with such violence and heartlessness that any informed green builder knows they are almost symbolic in their effectiveness against the machine of destruction.

Yet like the Weather Underground, an isolated small group that did little to stop Vietnam’s war machine on the surface, green builders must see that symbolism is powerful. Green builders are archetypes where success is not measured in trees saved but in torches carried.

And as long as the torch is being carried, no matter by how small a group and no matter how large the darkness, we will have hope. It is in carrying the environmental torch that we stay alive, regardless of how much ecological destruction is around us.

I don’t see much use in meeting violence with violence. Trying to kill the corporate machine is like trying to kill a monster with endless heads. The success and downfall of capitalism is that it has no moral judgement. You can’t kill something if it is heartless.

But meeting violence with passion, now that is a winning strategy.

I have looked deeply into the soul of our society and have concluded that we are fucked. We are on a crash course with ecological destruction for the sake of greed, power and the blind genetic imperative to spread the human seed as far as humanly possible.

And so I have thrown up my hands and decided I have two options. One, build a pipe bomb and, like the Monkey Wrench Gang, try to wreak as much havoc as possible against the machine of ecological doom. Or two, create a reality where my existence is not part of that machine.

Not a reality like the mind numbing lala land of mass media and material consumption, which is the current solution to numbing the pain we feel as we destroy our own global body.

But a reality that looks at reality with brutal honesty and takes one step, no mater how difficult and painful, yet so amazingly liberating, to a greener personal life. That existence may be lonely. It may be difficult. In fact it may not work at all.

But you just get back up. And before you know it a day has gone by where you didn’t take part in anything too destructive. You may have even helped grow something green, as simple and small as that may seem.

But then a strange thing happens. I have seen it happen in my life and I have seen it happen in every successful revolution in the history or humanity:

You meet somebody else who is holding the same torch as you.

A friend. A person who speaks your language in the babel of destructive insanity. Even if it is a passing in the darkness it is enough to keep the flame alive and even brighten it.

And all of a sudden you aren’t as freaky and alone as you thought you were, not that it matters because by then you are pretty used to your way of life. It takes balls and stubbornness and  a deep passion to stick to what you know is right. And sometimes what you thought was right is wrong and you have to continue seeking.

But you learn it is the seeking that is important so you aren’t too worried when you fuck up. Well, worried maybe a little, but you get used to making mistakes and learning from them.

Then you meet somebody else. Over time you have a little group of people who experience life like you. You may be in the belly of the beast but together you have your own parallel universe. This is not a universe in reaction to something bad. This is a universe in creation of something good. You aren’t there in opposition anything but rather in search of the very best way you can be.

And in the end, who cares if what you discover is right or wrong. Or right again. Because over time you live what is true to you and what you do today becomes yesterdays history, your history, like a stick to lean on as you walk into the future.

So yea the Weather Underground may have been stupid kids in a stupid society or visionaries in a stupid society…..but at what point does that torch become society and back again?

We are society and society is us. We are the machine that kills nature to grow and we are the nature that is killed. It ain’t easy sorting it all out but god knows we try. And so did the Weather Underground. And for that I salute them with pride and honor to be part of their tribe, no matter how confused we are.

Natural System House Design Book

I just read the book “A Natural System of House Design, An Architect’s Way” by Charles Woods. I was interested in it from Wood’s involvement with Malcolm Wells, a great natural architect and the pioneer of earth covered building.

Before I start my review I need to make clear that I see Woods as a fellow green builder and any critique I have is as one colleague to another. He is clearly an ally in my path of making the world a greener and healthier place.

In his book Woods sees himself more practical architect than Wells who has very strong but sometimes impractical views about ecology and how natural homes should be built. Woods says that Wells is, “stricter on this than I am. But I think I have come up with a reasonable compromise.”

And it shows in his architecture, which tends to be a lot more conventional from a systems point of view. I’m not talking visually but in terms of the materials specified (or more often not specified), the discussion of (or lack of) green systems like solar panels, gray water, composting, material recycling etc. and how they integrate into his designs.


At one point he calls one of his house designs an Earthship and makes mention of another “environmental architect” who also calls his work an Earthship.

charles woods earthship

Woods writes,

“my houses have been looking more and more like ships of sorts. Why? Well…our houses really are like ships if you think about it. They do travel – not through sea or air, but through time and space.” But this shows Woods complete lack of understanding of an earthship.

The other architect is Michael Reynolds, a true natural builder and revolutionary thinker. To compare Reynold’s Earthships to his own work shows how ignorant Woods is of what defines an Earthship or a natural home. As an architect, and in my opinion like most architects, Woods is primarilly concerned with the visual aspect.

Throughout the book Woods is concerned with his “signature style” of design. For me this lacks the vision of what true green building is about. Yes green building can have a signature look. But green building is an acknowledgement of systems, the interconection of them and the impact they have on the planet.

If you look at Reynolds’ work it definitely has a very powerful style that is unmistakably “Reynolds” or “Earthship” but that is not what makes an Earthship.

A earthship according to Reynolds' vision

An earthship can look however you want. The true definition of an Earthship is that it is made from local natural materials that have the lowest embodied energy possible and that it is off the grid in terms of gas, electricity, water and sewer. And in terms of food production to a large part too.

earthship systems

It is entirely defined by its systems and how they impact the environment. It has nothing to do with how it looks. In fact I wish the Earthships did have more great designers involved since they usually all look the same – they have a DIY weekender look. Which is of course because most of them are DIY buildings by the owners. And that is the genius of an Earthship. But that is another topic.

Woods Design

In terms of Woods book I enjoyed looking at the pretty drawings of houses. They are mostly rendered by the extremely talented Malcolm Wells. And when you combine Woods immaculate aesthetic you get some trully striking designs.

charles woods design

Frank Loyd Wright Influence

Woods is completely overwhelmed by Frank Loyd Wright’s style which isn’t a bad thing. The houses look beautiful. They are works of art even if they aren’t original. We would all benefit from a house designed by Woods.

But despite him saying that students of Wright “became little clones” and that Woods is “still overwhelmed, awed, and humbled” by Wright’s designs, Woods sees himself as having his own style unique from Wright. I see small differences in Woods’ work but overall they look like Wright designs to my untrained eye.

For example a design by Woods;

charles woods falling water

And the famous one by Wright:

wright falling water

Note: I am about to go on a long rant. And it may possibly be hard to follow – not because I am dealing with things above your head but because I don’t think I articulated it very well. Hopefully you can hang in there and not get too bored because it really is important stuff!

Architect as God

I had a hard time getting through Woods self importance. He constantly threw himself next to the great architects like Corbusier and Wright. As a teenager he says he was a “little prodigy.” Towards the end of the book he wraps up his perspective by quoting Ayn Rand’s fictional Architect and epitome of arrogance, Howard Roark from her book the Fountainhead, “I don’t build in order to have clients – I have clients in order to build.”

Green Builder Defined

I am a green builder. And as such have thought long and hard what my reason for building is. I have concluded that green building puts nature first. Period.

So anyone, including fellow green builders like Woods, who has an agenda other than putting the wellbeing of the planet first is not benefiting the planet (and thus humans as part of it) to their full potential and not technically fully a green builder in my eyes.

They may be a great builder and a wonderful human being. But I think it is important to own the definition of green builder. Hell, Woods doesn’t even call himself a green builder. He says he is a natural builder. But I think he would call himself a green builder too.

Woods’ attitude as an “Artist/Architect” with a capital “A” hampers his ability to be a true green builder. As long as his vision is more important than anything else the vision of the planet will always come second to him.

The Howard Roarks of this world with their purity of self expression and their laser sharp personal vision are isolated from the wholeness of the universe, in fact that may be their genius. Or you could argue they are taping into the greater universal energy.

Either way they are separating themselves from their earthly environment. As long as an Architect or Artist insists that “everything filter through my mind” first (as Woods puts it) before it becomes reality then they are claiming that they are the only and ultimate authority.

But no person is an island, regardless of your divine talent.

Although I suppose to us lesser mortals it is inspirational that these Artist/Architects have this talent, and I suppose like the pre-Martin Luther priests we know who to turn to if we want a conduit of Godly creation.

Me as Artiste

But as a person who was one of these Artists for over a decade, who lived and breathed the Roark inside me (I read the Fountainhead like a bible twice), who created great works of art that only my soul could create, I understand what it means to be driven by an inner truth.

It is an intoxicating state of mind. Your soul’s voice is the only voice you hear. You guard it like a precious jewel from the vulgar baseness of the world that is constantly trying to pull you into mediocrity.

And in so doing you separate yourself further and further from the world. You are a single shining light who gets it power from its own solitary divine source. And there is nothing wrong with this. Some of the greatest accomplishments in the world by humans came from this attitude.

But then things changed for me. I realized that the world needed me and that my actions, no matter how pure and honorable, were not helping the planet. I heard the planet’s SOS call and it pulled me to look outwards instead of always inwards.

Note: You are about half way through the rant. Congratulations and keep going!

Sebastian Bach Inspired

This is when I flipped from aspiring to be Mozart and started aspiring to be Bach.

Mozart was a Roark who like Woods could only create from their inner voice. As Woods says (arrogantly?), “I don’t think it is a matter of arrogance – it’s the only way I know how to work.”

But Bach was a lowly draftsman with a large family to feed. He was on meager salary by the church to churn out show tunes each week for the sermon, no more glorious or divinely inspired than the underpaid mason who built the beautiful cathedrals. Bach was a humble employee with a boss and a weekly deadline.

In his time nobody proclaimed him a genius. He was just the guy who helped put the weekly sermon together. Now I don’t know what Bach’s reason for being was. It is not important since it is speculation for me. I know little about the man. I’m just using him as a metaphor. To make my point I am going to make up his purpose and say that he wrote for others – for his boss, to feed his family.

And I think that is what a green builder does. They are servants to the planet. Their creative genius comes second to their devotion to improving the planet. I would actually say that is their creative genius but it is a selfless one.

I’m not saying the Artiste isn’t selfless. I would have died for my art. Nothing was more important than creation. My friends, myself, my family, the world, it all came second to my creative purpose. I sacrificed it all for the art. My point here is that the health of the planet was very low on my list of priorities.

Also, some people who don’t have the holistic vision of  the universe – that we are all connected – would see this servant attitude of putting other things before personal creativity as failure.

For example you see it portrayed in the film Barton Fink, where a writer strugles with these very issues of inner vision vs. worldly corruption of that vision.

There is a scene in the movie when Fink the idealistic writer is explaining to the life hardened producer about wanting to write “something beautiful” with the screenplay. The producer, Lipnik, lays him out with the “hard truth”:

“You think the whole world revolves around whatever rattles inside that little kike head of yours? You think you’re the only writer that can give me that ‘Barton Fink’ feeling? I’ve got a HUNDRED writers that can give me that ‘Barton Fink’ feeling!”

But if you understand that we are all connected, that the flap of a butterfly does create storms on the other side of the planet, then you know that the most self preserving, self satisfying thing to do is to serve the whole with an understanding that you are not separate from it.

And even more importantly you can see that serving the whole and following your inner soul is one and the same.

There is no choice between one or the other. We are always doing both. The important thing, though, and this in my mind is really, really, important, is to understand you can’t do one without the other. To truly know it – and this can be a life long realization. It is the basis of most religions and how many enlightened people do you know? For most people becoming one with the universe is an elusive experience we may never have.

But just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

This was the source of Fink’s struggle and the producers hardness. They could not see the wholeness of the universe. They thought that self creation was separate from universal unity. And likewise does Woods and Roark.

Perhaps that view is their contribution to the world – their inability to see the whole? “It’s the only way I know how to work” as Woods says.

But I don’t think so. Regardless of our talents, we all have something to contribute in the grand scheme of things. From a universal point of view the mail carrier and the Mozart are all crucial. And to know that is to know we are all connected.

Focus On Our Connections

So the trick for me is not to worry about my talents but to focus on my connections – to the planet, my family, my neighbors, the air I breathe and the food I eat.

And to serve. It almost doesn’t matter what – Serve my family, my clients, my workers. Ultimately I hope it all goes to serving the planet and the universe. Ultimately I hope, in my limited understanding of how things work, that through serving I am served. Because an interconnected web always comes back to itself.

But as a green builder I serve first and foremost nature, with the understanding that both the oceans and my tap water, the Savannah of Africa and my close family are all part of the nature I serve.

I set out each day with this intention and over the course of a million decisions each day the question is always – which choice serves nature best?

Does this mean I piss my girlfriend off? My neighbors? Myself? Yes. Unfortunately. Regrettably. Embarrassingly.

My acts don’t always harmoniously balance the universal whole with loading the dishwasher in time. I tend to err in favor of some universal planetary savior thing, which ironically is due to me being self centered and forgetting that loading the dishwasher is just as much a part of the whole.

But my life is not over and I hope that as I mature I will improve the balance between immediately local needs like mortgages and more esoteric needs like saving rain forests I have never visited. Both are important.

Note: Congratulations you managed to wade through the entire rant. Now if you could comment below and tell me what I was trying to say that would be great because I lost myself about half way through. But I know it is important and would love for somebody to explain it to me.

Module System

Back to the book. Woods’ main point in the book is the connection between geometry and earth, and that nature is inherently geometric. He thus presents the Module System.

The module system is very simple: always design in measurements of 4 feet.

A room should be 12’x20′ and never 9’x23′. Always use increments of 4′. You can go smaller. A closet can be 2’x6′. But never 2.5’x5′. Like wise a house can be 32′ high but not 33′.

charles woods thinking modular

The reason for this, and I agree entirely, is that the module system forces the home to be inwardly symmetrical. Like our body, a seashell, a leaf, the house retains an inner harmony where all the parts resonate on the same linear language.

charles woods modular geometry

I think his choice of 4′ as the module foundation is a little random. I don’t know enough about nature’s measurements or sacred geometry to know if 4′ is any better than say 3′. Maybe we should be building along the Golden Triangle?


But either way if you stick to a modular foundation, and 4′ makes a lot of sense in today’s building since things are often in segments of 4′ – the 4’x8′ plywood for example – then you create an inner harmony. The 4′ foundation is also a hell of a lot easier than some of the more complex sacred geometry ratios.

charles woods design based on modular harmony

Like a dew drop that holds itself together, the house will also hold itself together. There is an inner tension that holds all parts tegother. Without it the dew drop falls apart and becomes chaos. Without an innner harmony in a house it starts to look like a bunch of sticks and stones randomnly thrown together and it is painful to live in.

This modular system is both simple and genius and everything in the world should be built using a foundation grid.

charles woods design 2

charles woods design 3

charles woods design 4

Green Contractor Defined

A couple years ago I was looking into the cold blue eyes of a lying, money grubbing man. He also happened to be a neighborhood contractor. And he said to my face in all seriousness, “I am a green contractor.”

Having seen the future of contracting he had started to use low VOC paints and he had hired a construction manager with LEED AP credentials. I saw right through it. He was simply a smart business man with good marketing skills. Yet maybe he did see himself as a green contractor. Maybe he just had a different definition. To some people he probably did look like a green contractor.

I walked away with an acute awareness that the bandwagon called “green” was immense.

How many times has a middle aged burly man stood up in the aisles of Lowes and miraculously become a “Green Contractor.” These days it happens all the time.

But then I started thinking:

What if this despicable human who couldn’t care less about the planet and only cared about his selfish gain actually acted like a good green builder, meaning he recycled, used non toxic materials, built lots of green roofs and helped people live a healthy life?

Sure he was doing it for all the wrong reasons but does the outcome render the intention immaterial?

What if you expand this person to all people so that the entire world population were obsessed with being ecological, some out of love and others out of self serving interests?

Would we not turn the planet green nonetheless?

I don’t know.

What I did realize from that man was that I needed to own the definition of green, not types like him. I had to define it to the world. I do this both though my actions and my self imposed Life Label as a “Green Contractor and Builder”, combining name and act to create a definition people can gauge other people by.

Ever since that contractor put on the same team jersey as me despite not being on the team I have been obsessed with what it means to be a “Green Builder.” I am constantly searching, like a soul is explored, into what it really means to be a green builder, fully knowing that my definition will immediately become outdated.

How can you define a living entity? Have you ever stared at a cloud, how the only way you know it is changing shape  is because the shape looks different than a second ago. But you never saw it change! It is too subtle.

And again, does it matter if in the end they build green?

But last week it hit me like a ray of sun shining though FSC sawdust in the air. This time I really think I got it.

Here it is, the definition of “Green Builder”:

Somebody who puts the welfare of the planet before anything else.


It is not how many VOC’s your paint has. It is who you are looking out for.

Who is number one on the list? The health of the planet.

As a builder, does every single decision you make hover over how you can make the planet healthier?

If you answer yes then you can call yourself a “Green Builder.”

Before you accuse me of being impractical and fanatically idealistic, remind yourself that the client and the contractor belong to the planet, so their health on all levels is part of the “Green Builder” equation. The contractor needs to make money and the client needs a home to be “healthy”.

For they are part of the whole we seek to keep full of health.

But a Green Builder does not dwell too long on the health of the client and his own self. After a breif pause on those needs, the Green Builders pans out wide again, very wide to see the whole picture, relegating the needs of client and contractor in context to the whole world.

We are not narrow sighted in our outlook but far reaching and broad. We see global. Take it a step further: universal. Forget Earth, how about:

A Green Builder wants to make the Universe healthier.

They do it with every stroke of that paint brush.

With this definition everything is so easy. The next time I look into those cold blue eyes and the man tells me he is  a Green Contractor I simply need to ask myself, “Does this man put the health of the planet above all else?”

The answer is no. So it does not matter how well he walks the walk of green building because with this definition the attention is shifted away from action and results and put on PRIORITIES.

It is all about priorities. Two babies drowning in a pool. The one you save first is your priority. Where do this person’s priorities lie? With himself, with me, with the world? The two first options are atomistic, meaning singular and exclusive. The third option, the world, is holistic and include the other two options.

Ever heard of the “Win Win” concept in business where instead of only you win or only I win we both win. Not yin, not yang but the circle of both. Holistic.

So this brings us to the grand finales of Green Contractor Defined!

A green contractor is one who always thinks holistically

Sure they put the world first, sure they also help the client and themselves but more important than those atomistic details, the Green Contractor is constantly looking for the entire picture. They are endlessly trying to see the always changing whole.

Like cloud watchers they strive to define the undefinable, to peek ever so quickly into the meaning of life that ties all these parts into a unified mass. In the end a green builder doesn’t build houses. A green builder builds meaning that makes sense when looked at close as a paint stroke and far as a nebula.

Right now that meaning is green, tomorrow it may be something else. Only the green builder will know.

Peeking through universe

Gowanus Canal to Become Superfund Site

Word on the street is that the Gowanus Canal is going to be designated a Superfund site. The canal is two blocks from the Brooklyn green show house so it is dear to our heart and very clearly part of our ecosystem.

The Gowanus is definitely a good candidate for a superfund designation. It is a common belief among the locals that those living near the canal, between Bond and Hoyt, get cancer more often than other areas in Carroll Gardens.

There have not been any studies that I know of but that is what the Italian old timers say. And for them to say the canal is toxic really means it is toxic. These are lifelong Carroll Gardens residents who grew up when it was fine to start smoking at twelve.

So what does a superfund designation mean? For one it means that the government will finally formally recognize what any moron can see: that the canal is toxic and needs some serious clean up measures. It also means there are different rules for construction and use of the site until it is cleaned up.

This effects me because it might mean that we can’t have the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club use the canal, which is also just down the street from the green show house. You can’t have people paddling around in a toxic superfund site.

We have spent many an hour gliding along the canal, basking in the sun and watching the city from the very interesting perspective of the canal. It is a beautiful place. The water winds around old relics of industrial industry. There are hidden inlets and unseen tunnels.

You are six feet below the city in your own forgotten world. You can imagine that the city has been abandoned and you are a future explorer discovering a lost civilization. It is a very calming experience to paddle the canal.

During the summer when it has gone a couple days without raining and the water has had a chance to run out to sea a few times the canal is very pleasant. It doesn’t smell and almost looks clean. You see the mussels planted by local ecology groups to help filter the water. The occasional minnow furtively kisses your canoe.

Of course if you take a ride in the canal after a heavy rain the place smells like crap and you have all sorts of disgusting bathroom refuse like floating tampons and condoms. This is because the sewer system overflows into the canal when it gets overloaded, for example during rainstorms.

This is why we are going to such care to decrease the rain water runoff and general water use at the green show house up the street: gray water system, rainwater capture, low flow fixtures, efficinet washing machine, green roof and the myriad of other intelligent water management practices a green contractor should consider in Brooklyn brownstones.

All of this lessens the impact on the sewers. We see the direct effect of bad water management in the canal and we want to reduce it. Most people flush their toilet and are done with it. A green builder understands that there is a connection to everything. In Brooklyn a green builder understands that we have an issue with overflowing sewer systems.

Hopefully the green show house will become a leading example for neighbours to follow and it will help in the cleaning process of the Gowanus canal. We’re not talking a lot of money to do these changes to a green brownstone. If anything you make the money back in time through lower water bills.

If the canal is designated a superfund site it will probably finally get funding. This will clean it up and make it a recreation resource for the community. Not just dire hard Gowanus Dredgers Canoe members will be able to enjoy it.

This will better the community and the houses around it.

The irony is that the largest critic of the superfund site is a builder. The anithesies of green builders, Toll Brothers, is vehemently opposing the superfund designation. They have bought large tracts along the Gowanus canal and want to build shitty “luxury condos” which they’ll probably claim has “water views”.

They couldn’t care less about the toxicity of the canal. Let it rot for all they care. It does not effect their short term gains. In fact it effects their short term gains negatively. If the Gowanus is a superfund site then it has to go through all sorts of testing and clean up.

This could seriously hinder Toll Brothers’ plans to build. And they might even have to aknowledge that they plan on covering up toxic land and building over it. They might even be held responsible for cleaning up the land they bought.

The superfund designation means the Toll Brothers can’t sweep the dirt under the rug and build like normal. They want to build fast and cheap, sell high and get the hell out of there. Making a commitment to clean up the community and plan long term for its health is not part of their business model.

Toll Brothers are the Walmart of the building industry. Brooklyn Green Builders and Contractors are the mom and pop stores. The good news is that Walmart isn’t welcomed by Brooklyn residents and mom and pop stores are doing just fine here.

Green contractors and builders have a welcome community in Brooklyn and that is only going to increase.

Try Something New Despite What they Say

The green show house is an experiment in building. Sometimes we really get it right, sometimes we totally don’t. This kind of experimentation can’t be done on a clients house. But since this is a show house we want to show the process, both good and bad.

The hope is that we find better ways to do things or at the very worse confirm that we couldn’t improve on the existing way. Of course because we catalog the whole process, good bad and ugly, we do get flack from conservative builders who have their idea of how things should be done.

Here is a comment by one such person who posted on Brownstoner.com:

“oh christ its the former wedding officiator from ibiza that is attempting to redefine himself as a green contractor…look at the eco brooklyn blog..the guy does not have a clue about anything..everything is done 2 or 3 times because he keeps trying to reinvent the wheel instead of biting the bullet and paying a professional to do the work the right way..”

Yes I did try my hand at being a wedding officiator in Ibiza :). Interesting but didn’t get me excited like green building.

Part of our process in building is to step back and admit that MAYBE we don’t have a clue about building. And who says the wheel is the best tool for the job?? Just because everyone up to now has used a wheel doesn’t make it the best way. How well is that working for us? Not that well if you ask me.

Lets face it, buildings take up insane amounts of energy and resources. It is one of the largest consuming sector in the world. Building a home is the largest expense most families will ever have next to college tuition for their children. The energy to run homes is also one of the largest drain in the world.

Why is that acceptable? Sounds like a pretty crappy wheel to me.

The waste and destruction that goes as the norm in building should be a pretty good indication that maybe we need to reinvent the wheel or get rid of it completely. We need to stick our necks out and try to find a solution that works better.

Sometimes we at Eco Brooklyn have found better ways. Sometimes we’ve discovered that the wheel is completely broken. For example I’ve posted before about the waste that occurs in Brooklyn when one sub-contractor throws out bricks and another sub-contractor buys bricks. ON THE SAME JOB.

The second guy was pissed when I pointed this out to him. But for the GC, this was normal practice. He didn’t care. The expense was simply passed up the line to the owner and the loss was passed down the line to the second sub-contractors profit.

We make sure our bricks get used again. That saves a lot on many levels.

I admit it is difficult sometimes when other contractors call me an idiot for wasting my time taking materials out of their dumpsters. “Why would you want that junk. It is garbage.”

It WAS garbage. But after I pay my workers to fix it it becomes FREE material. Even if it costs the same due to what I pay the workers I still see the benefit in doing it. But usually it costs less.

As green builders we have to do it better and if we don’t see the solution then it is up to those of us in the trenches with the knowledge to find one. The worst that can happen is we get it wrong or someone who hasn’t caught on thinks we are stupid.

I don’t care because there is no doubt for me that in five years there will be two kinds of builders: green builders and unemployed builders.