Upcycled Shipping Container: Windows

Sustainable architecture and passive building designs are swiftly increasing in popularity and as a NY green contractor we have been busy developing creative and sustainable structures in Brooklyn, NY. Our current project is a two story studio and office space built from 5 recycled shipping containers. A more comprehensive post will be added regarding the entire project, however we are first adding a short series of photographs displaying the process of installing a 9 foot circular window in the second story of the container.

Outline and frame for circular window in the second story

Outline and frame for circular window

 

Our welder cutting out the circular design from the container

Our welder cutting out the circular design from the container wall

 

Smoothing out the edges and showing off the beautiful view from the second story

Smoothing out the edges and showing off the beautiful view of the port from the second story

 

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Window installed

 

 

View from the street

View from the street

 

Green Building is not a product

A reporter just interviewed me on green building. I thought I’d share it here since the reporter has a pretty common viewpoint, one I believe is not correct.

What aspects home remodeling/room design are the most popular “green” solutions?
Most clients know they want to renovate green but usually don’t know exactly what the details of that look like. In many ways they come to Eco Brooklyn for education rather than your typical contractor/client relationship. Normally people are not as involved in the materials and process as a client doing a green renovation is.
The “green solution” is not a product but a method of building that uses less energy and is less toxic. This can apply to anything from flooring to landscaping. In terms of imaginary, if your typical non-green renovation had the metaphor of boots on a concrete sidewalk, then an ecological renovation is about walking barefoot at the beach.
This imagery highlights the importance of nature and walking lightly.

What are the top 3-5 products that Eco-Brooklyn suggests to homeowners? Ex. tankless water heaters, solar panels, etc.
We don’t have any. The focus for us is not product oriented. It isn’t even about consuming anything. For that reason we encourage the client to accept as much salvaged materials as possible. The greenest product is the product that doesn’t get made. Even greener is a “product” that is taken from the garbage, thus lightening the planet’s garbage load.
There are places we do buy new, and these are the areas that require maximum energy efficiency – windows, doors, appliances, water heaters etc. Again we don’t care what brand as long as it is the most efficient on the market at the time. That changes constantly.

Many eco-friendly options today are much pricier than its “normal” comparables. What do you say to a homeowner who is looking to justify the price?
That is only true if you live in complete isolation unconnected from anything else in the world. If you look at the big picture building green is much cheaper. The analogy I use is green building is paid for in cash. Normal construction is put on a credit card. Saying normal construction is cheaper than green is like saying things you buy on a credit card are free. Normal construction may be cheaper at the point of purchase, but who is really paying for your consumption? Is it that person dying of cancer? The child labor? The polluted river? The dying wildlife? Unless you have your head in the sand you don’t have to look very far to see how expensive building is. Green building looks a hell of a lot cheaper in comparison.

Leave Your Surroundings Cleaner Than When You Arrived

When I first started mentoring interns one of the first things I told them was that they always had to leave their work area cleaner than when they came to it. Over time this metaphor became the most powerful thing I think I can teach them.

Leave your surroundings cleaner than when you arrived…..

If that isn’t the most beautiful mantra to live by I don’t know what is. And unless it isn’t painfully obvious, by “cleaner” I don’t mean organized or disinfected. I mean leave nothing behind but footprints in the sand.

And because of the laws of entropy this does not mean simply not making a mess. By merely living you make a mess. Even the most austere yogi consumes, kills other creatures, and creates waste. So if you really want to leave the world cleaner than when you arrived you have to actively clean up.

And you can’t just clean up after yourself. Because the world is global and most of your mess is actually being made by a manufacturer across the planet, it isn’t enough to simply keep your own life clean. You have to proactively clean up after others if you want to even make a dent in the mess your life creates around the world.

As a New York green builder I am blessed by an occupation where I spend my days cleaning up after other people. So this mantra is easy for me. We are constantly salvaging other peoples’ garbage and creating beautiful eco homes out of it. I can think of nothing more satisfying than knowing each day I have made the world a better place. I am very grateful.

Here is a great clip on this topic that shows how you can create friendship, a sense of connection, a sense of purpose and a sense of fulfillment by simply picking up garbage. It is a powerful and simple message, and one that I plan on doing with my interns. We are going to the Gowanus Canal, which happens to be a block from the Eco Brooklyn Green Show House, with a bunch of garbage bags and a six pack of good beer to leave it cleaner than when we arrived.

Fun Built with Salvaged Material

The growth in sustainable and green living has given rise to a movement of eco-tourism in a variety of forms across the country.  Specifically the use of salvaged materials is making a breakthrough in the realm of practical and/ or novel green construction.

Across the country salvaged building trends and communities are blossoming and their projects range from the awe-inspiring to the comical.  I recently came across this link to a list of 8 “roadside” attractions made primarily or entirely of salvaged materials:

 

http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/eco-tourism/photos/8-roadside-attractions-made-from-salvaged-materials/must-see-places

 

There’s a beer can house, a quilted-oil-protesting-gas station, and the largest tree house ever built (complete with sanctuary and basketball court).  Besides roadside attractions I’ve come to find through friends and my own travels a number of interesting things made by hand with salvaged materials.

Made from recycled material

The Recycled Roadrunner.

Once a year in Glover, Vermont there is a gathering of people, “The Human Powered Carnival”, that is the only (to my knowledge) 100% handmade and human powered carnival in existence.

 

Internationally there is a movement of “freeganism”, a life style based around obtaining all necessary materials to live well without using money, this means dumpster diving for food, squatting (sometimes clandestinely), bartering services, and general scavenging.  There is enough usable waste produced by most large companies and institutions to feed, clothe and shelter everyone who needs it.  This movement is intrinsically related to the Human Powered Carnival, there is no advertisement besides word of mouth and there is an air of communal co-operation in all aspects of the event, from cooking to cleaning and operating the rides.

One of Cyclecides attractions

In a similar spirit, in California, there is “cyclecide”.  Cyclecide is an organization based on finding expressive, interactive and alternate uses for bicycles and bike parts.  This idea sprang in 1996 and is rooted in a “freegan” ideology, their first pieces came from dumpstered bikes and some still do.  Their main event is a touring “bike rodeo” featuring varied attractions, from art installations to interactive bike or “pedal” powered rides, and valuable information.  This rodeo is not for the faint of heart, group events and contests such as tall bike jousting, while extremely fun and entertaining do pose some real danger, perhaps that’s what makes it so fun?

This is an excerpt from their website that clearly describes the group’s core beliefs;

“We remain passionately devoted to the idea of the bicycle as a piece of interactive kinetic sculpture that can make music, breathe fire, even save the world!”

 

Cyclecide

Cyclecide

What I find most exciting about this small grassroots movement is its power to subtly invoke great change in a person’s cognition, with the near comic novelty of some of these art pieces and attractions people will let their mental guards down and approach this concept with a more open and relaxed mind, which is sure to get the wheels turning in ones head (whether pedal powered or not).

DIY Vertical Gardens

Vertical gardens or living walls are a beautiful and efficient way to maximize green space within an urban context. Aesthetically, vertical gardens can be used to improve the façade of buildings while providing other ecosystem services such as enhanced air quality.

Perhaps first employed by the Mesopotamians to create the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the principles of design have expanded past cascading plants to include plants rooted at different heights of a wall. Living walls vary in size, design, and complexity.

Two of the best-known living walls are on the Marché des Halles in Avignon and the Museé du Quai Branly, both designed by Patrick Blanc. However, man-made living walls are not constrained to grand public buildings.

Marche des Halles en Avignon, designed by Patrick Blanc

It is very feasible to create you own, and in fact personal vertical gardens beautifully complement the exterior of Brooklyn brownstones, although it is recommended a professional be consulted for walls higher than 7 feet.

The character of your vertical garden is determined by the framing material and plant selection. While plant selection may vary by individual taste, native species are generally hardier and better suited to the local climate and pest and disease conditions.

Green landscaping with native species is also a proactive way to support the area’s native ecosystems. You may decide to choose a theme to guide your plant selections, such as a foliage wall, mosquito-repellant wall, epicurean wall (pick your salad ingredients!), aromatic herb wall, or a perfumed wall.

Succulents are easy plants for beginners since they do not need substantial irrigation. For vertical gardens created sans soil, epiphytes and lithophytes are necessary plant selections. Epiphytes attach to other objects solely for physical support and are not parasitic. They obtain nutrients from rain, air, and debris. Common epiphytes in temperate zones such as New York are lichens and mosses.

We will list and describe framing methods with increasing complexity.

The Woolly Packet Garden Company offers a series of “woolly packets”, pouches made from recycled water bottles with an impermeable moisture barrier and felt to wick the water. These packets are easy to install and arrange as you please. Although the design is not constrained to vertical garden use, the pouches lend themselves well to such installations. Watch this video for further description:

Flora Grubb Gardens is featuring an example vertical garden installation in their store.

Wooly Pocket installation

For a more complex system, pre-made frames are available for sale from several manufacturers. Gro-Wall offers easy to stack frames.

VGM also offer green wall modules. Drip irrigation coupled with the effects of gravity water the plants in both systems, although this can also be adapted.

Our favorite option at Eco Brooklyn for small walls is using salvaged pallets as a frame for a living wall. We are currently creating a wooden pallet living wall installation in the Green Showroom. Simple and effective, this method limits the amount of new material needed for the project and decreases life cycle emissions and cost.

Pallet living wall

 

Pallets can often be found for free at local gardening stores. Pallets without significant back support may need to be augmented with scrap wood on the back. You can then staple landscaping paper to the back, bottom, and sides to create a secure void for the soil. Soil is poured through the slats and the selected plants are then planted in place and watered. Once planted, the pallet needs to remain horizontal for one to two weeks until the roots can take and stabilize the soil.

There are two easy ways to create your own frame.

The second method does not require the additions of any soil!

Succulent frames

Method 1: Cut 4 pieces of lumber to the desired length and nail them together at the corners to create a box frame. Staple or nail wire mash to the front face of the frame and a piece of plywood to the back face. Fill the void with soil and then poke the stems from plant cuttings through the mesh. Allow the installation to remain horizontal until the plants are securely rooted. Water lightly or use a drip irrigation system. For smaller frames, it may be easiest to lay it flat when watering and allow the soil to drain before hanging it back up.

Note that the above method works best for small frames, as it does not require a complex irrigation or fertilizer system.

 

Method 2: This last method is the most involved in terms of infrastructure but very rewarding. It isn’t that green either since it requires a pump. It is however the most popular system and many massive walls have been created this way.

Noémie Vialard’s book Gardening Vertically offers a more in-depth description of the process, which was initially developed by Patrick Blanc. While it is possible to make a portable system, it is most effective as a permanent display.

Wooden battens are first fixed to the selected wall space, and then a PVC panel and two layers of irrigation matting are added over the battens. The irrigation system consists of a perforated pipe connected to a pump, which activates a couple times a day for a few minutes.

Nutrients can be diluted into the water tank to fertilize the ecosystem. The plant roots are inserted through holes in the second layer of felt (such that the plant is secured between layers of irrigation matting).

Because the system has no soil substrate, there is no water retention. To mitigate the high water usage, you may want to plant perennials at the foot of the wall to consume surplus water or create a fish pond at the base. Use gray water to irrigate if possible.

Apart from the electric load, this system is not sustainable in another way: if you stop the pump the plants die quickly since there is no humid soil to keep them. In that sense it is a very artificial environment. The closest natural habitat is a rock wall in a tropical jungle.

For this reason we prefer the soil based living walls. We build our own structure instead of buying pre-made products because it allows us to save costs and customize to the space.

A vertical garden installation can beautifully augment the aesthetic value of your home. Living walls do not need to be grandiose or complex and the concept can easily be adapted to personal usage. Outdoor walls are easier because you don’t have to worry about flooring issues in the house. But indoor walls, provided they get sunlight, don’t get blasted by weather extremes. Indoor walls need special attention to avoid mold issues, but if that is under control they add a freshness to the air that is wonderful.

Eco Brooklyn is a living wall installer because we really love what a living wall does to a space. It fits perfectly with our mission to turn NY green!

Demolished Buildings Get a Second Life as Contemporary Furniture

12×12 is the maximum dimensions a shelter in North Carolina can be before it legally becomes a house, subject to property taxes. For this reason it is a hallowed number among the off-the-grid set, and the title of a popular book on one man’s foray into the world of tiny houses.

A stockbar

This stockbar by Fort Maker was made from 200 year old casks!

It is also the name of a new exhibit of contemporary furniture. New York designers were challenged with creating something beautiful out of the remains of demolished New York City buildings. 12×12 is the innovative result.

Trunks by Karl Zahn, one of the twelve designers whose works were displayed in the show

The exhibit aimed to draw attention to the potential of materials abandoned to the trash from the many buildings demolished daily in New York. Eco Brooklyn fully supports this goal, as New York’s demolition sites are our preferred resource to build new structures or renovate older ones without requiring any more trees to be felled. In fact, as a New York City green contractor, we have never bought new wood, including all our joists, studs, floors, subfloors, stairs, and doors, with the exception of FSC formaldehyde-free plywood for kitchen cabinets.

A bathtub Eco Brooklyn crafted from salvaged materials

An example of Eco Brooklyn's work, made with completely salvaged materials

By using wood from our very own Gotham Forest, we can help protect living forests by reducing the demand for deforestation, a major driver of climate change and habitat destruction.

A seesaw made from reclaimed wood

Sometimes green design is fun and games: a see-saw by Nikolai Moderbacher

The designers sourced their lumber from landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island, as well as buildings from another era and another New York, such as a warehouse from 1832, one of the last of the 19th century’s dry goods district. One of the most glorious aspects of buildings is their ability to serve as witness to countless events and histories, and so the transformations of these storied buildings into furniture allows the sleek, contemporary pieces a depth and richness in their mysteriously alluring backstories.

a sleek wooden chair made from salvaged materials

I used to be a Park Ave water tower: chair by BELLBOY

Some of these stories inform the new pieces, infusing them with a thoughtfulness and humor found in the continuation of a theme, such as a “Vice box” made from the floors of a Prohibition-era dance hall, or a liquor cabinet made with wood sourced from the East Village Mars Bar. You can discover the buildings that became the furniture here.

circular bench

This round bench doubles as a storage unit: bench by Louis Lim (photo credit: Inhabitat)

Perhaps best of all, the unique pieces were sold at silent auction to raise money for Brooklyn Woods, a woodworking training program for low income and high risk New Yorkers, helping to pass on the tools and inspiration to keep New York’s buildings flowing into reincarnations that pay homage to the city’s history while providing for some truly green design.

-Jenna Steckel

CORK IS STILL GREEN

In the last year or so cork has attracted more media attention than in the last 2,500 years of use. Beginning with the Egyptians, cork has been used as a stopper for vessels containing perishables like wine,

water, and olive oil.  Since then the use of cork has expanded to use in flooring tiles, shoes, insulation, floatation devices, and even furniture.

Recently a misconception has been going around that cork producing oak trees are becoming endangered and the environmentally sound thing to do is to find alternate materials.  This is largely due to a mass miss interpretation by the public on the decision many wineries are making to move away from using cork in their bottles.

The real reason cork is being avoided by most wineries is simple: to reduce exposure to a fairly innocuous mold that grows on the bark from which cork is made.  This mold, if present on a bottles cork, will effectively spoil the contents of any bottle it is sealing, the term for this is “corking”.  Though not hugely common, wine makers find it safer to switch to alternative methods like plastic corks or metal twist-tops.

The underlying issue is that this misunderstanding may have adverse environmental effects.  If people continue to believe cork is endangered and that cork products should be avoided then obviously the demand goes down, which is already occurring in some areas of the market.

The process of obtaining cork is inherently sustainable and eco-friendly.  The tree is planted and allowed twenty years of uninterrupted growth and, when mature enough, the bark is stripped in the spring time, not harming the tree.  This process is repeated roughly every nine years when the bark has been sufficiently regenerated, and can continue for as long as 160 years.

A drop in demand would lead to diminishing cork forests and production as other crops become more profitable. It would also effect already fragile economies, especially in Portugal where the skilled process is a centuries old familial tradition and risks being being replaced by newer attempts to make money should the demand for cork not grow.

For the NY green contractor, using cork in projects, whether retrofitting an old brownstone or building a roof top addition, cork not only offers a great ecological option but contributes to maintaining an age old tradition.  With its varied uses and applications and beautiful natural aesthetic it is a favorite of Eco Brooklyn.

We always try to salvage local flooring first, but in some cases where local wood does not work we love cork. It is especially nice in areas like bedrooms or closets where bare feet can appreciate the soft and padded quality of cork.

 

A graphic of a cork trees biological structure.

 

What the process of obtaining cork has looked like for centuries.

An example of the potential cork has as a flooring material.

And now for something completely different….

Humble Homes, Simple Shacks, Cozy Cottages, Ramshackle Retreats, Funky Forts: And Whatever the Heck Else We Could Squeeze in Here

The book Humble Homes, Simple Shacks, Cozy Cottages, Ramshackle Retreats, Funky Forts: And Whatever the Heck Else We Could Squeeze in Here is a cross between Malcolm Wells and redneck literature.

The author, Derek “Deek” Diedricksen, is a scrappy young guy who took his love for kid forts and turned it into a deep study of how to build tiny shelters on a budget.

The book is full of scribbles and rambles (very much along the humor and style of Malcolm Wells) on how to build your own back yard or forest hideaway.

As a New York green contractor I appreciate his creativity among all else. At Eco Brooklyn sure we eco-renovate New Yorkers’ homes and commercial spaces but what we really do is find creative ways to re-purpose garbage.

We come across a dumpster and we’re like, “Here is a cool piece of garbage, how can we turn it into something useful? I know! Lets make a counter out of it!”

And the next thing you know we are putting it into a two million dollar brownstone and making it look like a million bucks. You can’t buy that at a store.

 

 

Material Reuse with the NYCMEDP

Eco Brooklyn has partnered up with the NYC Materials Exchange Development Program, a great non-profit that keeps reusable materials out of the trash by connecting people with unwanted materials to others who can reuse them.

The NYCMEDP runs a number of ongoing service, outreach, and research programs.  The NYC Waste Match, for example, is a free service that can help green builders salvage materials efficiently by connecting us directly with businesses and individuals doing demolition and construction.  Waste Match also helps these people save money on disposal costs while building an environmentally friendly image.  Salvage is a win-win situation, and we hope that more people will choose to reuse materials now that the NYCMEDP is providing an easy way to do it.

Check out our member page on their site!

New Lives for Old Wood

Most green contractors advertise their use of “sustainably sourced” wood, meaning the trees are harvested in a less destructive way.  What “sustainably sourced” really means, though, can be a slippery slope.  Maybe they cut down old-growth forest and plant a monoculture tree farm instead.  Maybe they cut down a tree and donate a dollar to someone else’s tree planting fund.  It all happens somewhere else, and is easy for clients to ignore, ethical or not.  Our wood is sustainable and local, because we salvage it from New York’s dumpsters and demolition sites.

Using salvaged wood has many benefits, the obvious one being that it doesn’t cut down new trees. It lessens the burden on landfills since most of the wood we salvage was headed to the dump. Also important: our process is not based on consumption models that use new materials and leave no sustainable methods for disposing of old ones. By sourcing wood through dumpster diving or salvaging from demolition sites, we change our pattern from one of consumption to one of regeneration.

Salvaged wood

We got a big haul of great old wood last week.  Look for it in future projects!

The wood floors in our Brooklyn show house were picked out of a dumpster.  Now they look great next to our exposed brick accent wall.

Salvaged wood flooring

The brownstone we just finished up in Harlem has a staircase that we built using wood salvaged from a New York City bar.

Salvaged wood stairs in the Harlem Passive House

The floors are made of maple planks salvaged from a 100-year-old Catholic church.  Here’s what they look like after being finished, vacuumed, and mopped–all ready to move in!

100-year-old maple floorboards in Harlem

We don’t buy new materials, but we don’t compromise in the quality of our construction.  We turn recycled materials into warm, livable pieces that benefit the homeowners and the planet. A green builder is always looking for synergy: many layers of benefits in one material. This maple wood floor for example has several layers of synergy:

1. The church didn’t have to pay to send the debris to the dump.

2. Since much of NY garbage is trucked out of state, no fossil fuels were burned to remove it.

3. The dump didn’t have to process it, reducing the ecological burden of processing garbage and reducing use of taxpayer money.

4. The clients got antique maple floors for the price of cheap new floors.

5. Not one tree was cut down to provide 4,000sq.ft. of flooring.

6. The materials were sourced in the city and thus no fossil fuels were burned to truck the wood from out of state or country.

7. The wood spent 100 years in the church ballroom where countless weddings, funerals, christenings and other parties were held. To say the wood has history is an understatement.  It has Mojo!

Earthship and Passive House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Passive House job Eco Brooklyn is building in Manhattan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Brooklyn Wood Floor Revival

We did two jobs over the past week on wood floors. They started out really ugly. And they ended up amazing. We finished them with 100% pure tung oil so they are really natural.

The first job was to remove some paint that a previous owner, in their infinite and unfathomable intelligence, had painted over the floors. Why they did this we have no idea. But they did such a good job that we also had no idea what was below the paint.

We suspected something great though.

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First we sanded off the paint after determining it had no lead in it. We used a large belt sander. Then we got on our hands and knees and carefully sanded with a hand sander. Below you can see already that the floor was once amazing. it was white oak with mahogany inlay.

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Once we had gotten all the paint off and sanded the old floor to a smooth finish we seeped it in pure tung oil mixed with citrus solvent so that the oil really soaked in. Tung oil needs to be applied in the right amounts so it doesn’t create an oily film on the wood. If done right it seeps in nicely and hardens the wood from within. It creates a long lasting finish that actually beautifies the actual wood.

This is different from varnish you apply on top of the wood. Varnish, the most common being polyurethane from petrochemicals, creates a hard surface on top of the wood but does not actually seep into the wood. It is basically clear paint. Over time the varnish wears off and the wood looks sad. Tung oil on the other hand can’t wear off since it is part of the wood.

Over time the tung oil cured wood only gets richer. And unlike varnish that needs to be sanded off if you want to refinish it, tung oil doesn’t need sanding. You simply add more tung oil to the wood to refresh it or heal a wound in the wood.

The client had wanted a natural floor installer and finisher because she had gotten cancer in the past and wanted to stay away from the toxic fumes of conventional wood applications. We were happy to oblige.

The end result was a previously beautiful wood floor brought back naturally.

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The other job we did was in a gut renovation we are doing of a brownstone. The existing floors were unusable. First was a layer of linoleum:

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Under the linoleum were sad planks of flooring.  They were too badly rotted so we had to rip them out. Below that were some weary subfloors. As you can see from the picture below the subfloor didn’t look like much. It just looked like tired old wood not worth saving.

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Most contractors would never use it and would cover it with new flooring. But we knew better. The house was built in 1903 and had the original subfloors – soft white pine. Adding tung oil to soft white pine is a magic mix since you get the beauty of the pine plus the subtle hardening effect of tung oil.

We also refuse to buy new wood for anything. Not one tree has been cut down from Eco Brooklyn’s building.

First we sanded it and then we applied several coats of tung oil. This is what it looked like after the first coat, taken from the same place as the picture above:

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In another part of the house the subfloor had been taken out and replaced with plywood so we had to put a new floor over it. We installed some wood we had salvaged from another house that was being gutted. The contractor let us go in and remove the flooring. He was happy to get free labor and less dumpster fees since his plan was to rip it out and throw it away.

Here is one of interns (from an inner city youth organization) helping organize and stack the wood:

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An interior design student intern who flew out from California during spring break is helping clean the wood:

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Stacked and cleaned:

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Here we are installing it:

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We then sanded it and applied tung oil. Here it is after the first coat:

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As one of my employees who migrated from high end renovations in Manhattan to work for Eco Brooklyn said, “These floors look like expensive Manhattan floors.” Even without the great help from interns we turned garbage into beauty at a fraction of the cost of those Manhattan floors. Our client is a first time owner getting a government loan who has a very humble salary.

With intelligent sourcing and salvage we can almost eliminate material costs, allowing me to employ more workers while offering affordable high quality floors to the client. Meanwhile we turn the process into an educational opportunity for aspiring green builders. It is so good to be true it almost seems like magic. How garbage can be turned into beauty while everyone benefits is really amazing to me. And extremely fulfilling. It is what Eco Brooklyn is about.

LED drivers

An LED driver is a self-contained power supply that has outputs matched to the electrical characteristics of your LED or array of LEDs. There are currently no industry standards, so understanding the electrical characteristics of your LED or array is critical in selecting or designing a driver circuit. Drivers should be current-regulated (deliver a consistent current over a range of load voltages). Drivers may also offer dimming by means of pulse width modulation (PWM) circuits. Drivers may have more than one channel for separate control of different LEDs or arrays.
definition from led center

Mean Well's  Cost Effective PLP-60 PCB Type LED Power Supply.
Mean Well’s Cost Effective PLP-60 PCB Type LED Power Supply. A nice built-in design for low cost applications.

LED Drivers should not be looked at as inefficient devices. Here is an example of a press release for a 96% efficiency device.

LEDs without drivers?!?! YES! Acriche™ 4W AC LED from Seoul Semiconductor can be directly plugged into the AC line voltage without a converter or separate power supply. (Watch your fingers!)

So as you can see an LED driver is the type of device that comes in many flavors. It depends on your system wattage needs, for the associated cost increase. In an attempt to recycle reuse and repurpose we, here at EcoBrooklyn, decided in a ‘build it forward’ , commonly associated with a ‘green builder’, attitude, to find some drivers of our own. With some ingenuity and help from our friends (our thanks to you) I undertook the idea of using computer ATX power supplies as a regulated Voltage source. Since an LED is a current driven device any fluctuation in voltage even down to a tenth of a volt can cause a large increase in current flow. This can damage or destroy the LED at worst or cause flickering at best, which can have quite a discomforting effect. So with this in mind and the knowledge that computer electronics are very sensitive to voltage fluctuations on a small but reasonably similar level, I had a great match up. Other standard functions include short circuit, over load, over voltage protections and over temperature shutoff. As well as more than one voltage source in the original package. This we can use to allow more than one type of LED being powered by such VCCS (Voltage controlled current source) supplies.

ATX Power Supply

Example of How NOT to build Green

There is a gut renovation going on accross the street from our green show house. It is a classic renovation where a lot of money is being spent and not much thought going into how it is done. The owner is getting reamed with prices IMO.

A couple weeks ago there was a dumpster full of old bricks in front of their job site. We took a bunch of the bricks but didn’t need more and didn’t have a place to store them at that time.

So the dumpster went on it’s merry way to the landfill. Dumpster price to contractor: $700 aprox. He was a sub contractor hired to tear down some walls. Old bricks go for a premium over new bricks. They are actually MORE valuable. Value of bricks he threw out: $1200 aprox.

I didn’t loose any tears over it because this kind of waste happens all the time.

But then yesterday I saw they were hauling in NEW bricks! Lots of them. So this time I was annoyed. I went over and asked why they had bought new bricks when they had just thrown away perfectly good old bricks.

“What old bricks!?” The guy asked. He was a sub contractor hired to build the chimneys and knew nothing about the other bricks. He was annoyed to hear they were thrown out because it could have saved him a lot of money.

This is classic construction status quo. One person is doing one thing and not communicating with another part of the job.

One sub-contractor went in and tore down a wall or two and threw out the debris. He left.
Another contractor went in and built a chimney somewhere else with new bricks.
The General Contractor didn’t think.
Had the two been put in communication they could have shared resources, saved money, saved garbage from the landfill, etc.

Recycling Wood Joists for Siding

We wanted some siding for a wall we built. So we used some 100 year old joists.

We took the joists and cut them into long strips.
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Then we sealed them on both sides so they don’t warp.
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Then we put them onto strips that we had attached to the wall. This way there is air behind the siding that keeps them dry.
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And VOILA! We have a beautiful wall of siding. The wood lived a productive life for over a hundred years holding up a floor in some Brownstone. Now it can live another 20 protecting this Brownstone.
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Bricks, Bricks Everywhere

One thing brownstones have in abundance are bricks. And I keep seeing dumpsters full of them. It is heartbreaking for me. These are beautiful bricks, a hundred years old, with character and texture.

Here is one job site where they knocked down the whole building.

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There were thousands of perfect bricks. The next day they were brimming in a dumpster. And the next day when I came with a truck to get some they were gone, off to a landfill.

We got some of their left overs.

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We use them everywhere. It is quicker to use cinder blocks, but bricks are my preference. It may be weird but there is something very comforting for me to put these bricks back into the house so they can sleep maybe another 100 years. To send them to the landfill seems so absolutely wrong.

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The Maple Floor Fiasco

We found about 500sq.ft. of 5 inch wide maple plank flooring in a dumpster. It had a very slight warp to it due to it not being installed correctly. But with a little sanding we could get rid of that.

So we happily installed the flooring.

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This pic shows the layers. First Pex tubes in sand/structolite mix with stringers 16" on center. Then some paper. Then the wood nailed into the stringers.

Despite our good intentions there were complications….
1. Maple is not a good choice for radiant floor heating since maple bows, warps, expands and contracts more than other woods when there are humidity swings.

2. Wide plank flooring is not good when there are humidity swings because it expands and contracts more than narrow planks.

We had wide planks. We had maple. We had radiant floor heating.

Then we had just laid the sand/structolite mix around the tubes. And my ex-carpenter didn’t give the mix enough time to dry before putting the wood down.

And my ex-carpenter nailed the planks in as if they were narrow plank oak over a normal floor, that is to say he nailed the floor down WAY too tightly. Wide plank, maple, radiant, these are all reasons to lay the wood down with some space between them so they can move.

And sure enough the wood warped immediately. I fired my carpenter.

With my new carpenter we have taken the wood up….yes these free planks of wood, valued at around $3500 for that many square feet, are no longer free. But no worries. We are still way ahead of the game.

The new plan is.

1. dry the wood out.

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2. Let the floor dry out.

3. Seal the wood on all sides so that it doesn’t absorb water as well.

4. Before laying the wood we will put a real vapor barrier on the floor.

5. Then if all goes well we will just have to sand out the original bow and have a great, salvaged, affordable floor!

Things We Salvage

Dumpsters, Job Sites, Garbage Night Streets, Damaged Store Stock, Craigslist, Neighbours, Salvage stores, Ebay, our building… these are some of the places we get our materials from. The rules are simple: it needs to be dangerously close to being sent to the dump or once used.

Here are some of the things we have saved:

Old Joists from other jobs, our building or Fine Lumber salvaged wood in Williamsburg:
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The joists in action:
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Flooring from the dumpster of a neighbor. He then let use come into his house and rip out the rest.
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The floor in action:
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Metal and wood studs from a garbage heap of a fellow contractor.
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The studs in action:
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Bricks from various job sites, including ours.
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The bricks in action:
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Chain link fence:

Fence used as rebar:

Insulation from another building:

We used it everywhere:

You get the idea. People say, “But what about all the time you spend looking for stuff?” The truth is that it takes very little time. Most of the stuff I pick up on my way to places. I just stop and check the dumpster or job site. It takes two seconds. NY is a land of plenty. Other peoples’ huge amounts of construction waste is our gain. They are happy to see us take off their hands. We are like little birds pecking at their buffalo ears. We provide a small service to them and in return we get bounty.

The irony is that we are building a green show house and companies want to put their products into the home for exposure. For example Lumber Liquidators offered their flooring. They have pretty green low VOC Bamboo (F1 European VOC levels) and some nice cork. I like the manager at the Brooklyn branch a lot. He is a very helpful and sincere person. He knows his stuff. Dave. So I would be very happy to put their floors in the house. But we have so little space because of all the great wood flooring we have salvaged from the streets!

They helped us out because we found about $6,000 worth of wide plank maple in a dumpster but it wasn’t enough to fill the floor so they gave us 100 square feet to cover the rest. And we’ll probably try to find a place to put their cork. It is really nice in a place where you go barefoot like a bedroom.

The same goes for counter tops. We have somebody offering counter tops. But we salvaged massive amounts of great glass to make our own ice stone counters (glass and resin mix):
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It’s not like I want to take business away from these great companies making good green products. I want to push them. But part of the problem our world is facing is the amount of over consumption. I’m aware of the fact that reducing consumption reduces sales for green companies, but long term I think it is the best option.

Salvaging Slate


We needed some slate to repair an existing slate wall on the top of the green show house. One consideration was using a slate look alike that is made from recycled materials.

But then I discovered there is a thriving community of people who salvage old slate from homes. They have merged into the “green” movement but really come from the older tradition of salvaging historic buildings, which of course was green before we had the term “green”.

It makes a lot of sense since good slate can last many hundreds of years. When the people are dead and gone the slate is still there ready for a new renovation (for example the green show house!).

One other thing, though is that the slate has to be trucked to the site from where ever I finally find it…but then that would be the case for all slate, new or old. The trick is to find a source close by.

The slate we have on the roof now is called Pennsylvania soft black with a pointed nose.

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Doing Things Differently

Green building is not mainstream. The systems and habits are not in place. Doing a green job is part construction part education part experimentation because once you start thinking off the grid there are very few reference points to guide you.

I had a plumber walk out of my job today before even giving a bid. He couldn’t get his head around some of the things I’m doing. His last words were, “I hope what you are doing works out, but it’s not the way I do it.”

It is definitely not business as usual. We have different ways of installing our pex tubing and they were at odds with what he knew. I believe our way is better and I’m betting on it. We’ll see.

I had to go through several carpenters before I found one who was willing to do things my way. They are used to reaching out and grabbing a perfectly clean and sized piece of wood for their work. They have no part in preparing the wood. It comes from the lumber yard and all they have to do is put it in the house like Lego. There is something to be said for the efficiency of this.

But on my job they have to pick through a nasty pile of salvaged ugly wood, pull the nails and wires off, rip it to size and only then can they get back to their job. It takes some getting used to and there is no end of grumbling about it.

But I point out to them that I can pay them to do that or pay the lumber yard to get clean wood. From that perspective they have no problem with me paying them instead and the grumbling lessens.

I don’t pay for the wood. I pay a little more for the labor. In terms of my costs it comes out to the same, maybe a little cheaper. But it is not purely a financial issue.

By salvaging the wood I lessen the impact on land fill. I also lessen the amount of wood being cut down. I also get much better quality wood, since the salvaged wood is old growth and miles better than the crap you buy today.

IT COSTS PRETTY MUCH THE SAME FOR ME TO DO THIS YET THE BENEFITS IN MY EYES ARE MUCH HIGHER. This for me is a revolutionary concept. Clearly from the initial resistance I get from industry professionals it is a change from the status quot.

Going from this scrap to wall: