New York Green Contractor is Childish

As I continue to grow as a green builder I become more and more childish. Adults might make it sound fancy by calling it my “inner child” but for me it just feels childish. And I love it. Part of this awakening is that I have a four year old son through whose eyes I can see things.

Often we’ll find ourselves laying on the ground lost in the minute world of a small bug, morphing the science of what an exoskeleton is with stories of the bugs heroic escapades as a knight in shining armor. As a green contractor in Brooklyn this is especially poignant.

On average New York city children don’t get exposed to nature like other children. They tend to be very intellectual with more chances of knowing how to get around on the subway than any idea of how to walk through a forest.

My son playing with a native Box turtle on our green roof

This of course is fine and very useful if you need to get uptown. But I increasingly see that they can have both worlds. They can be wonderfully cosmopolitan while also having the incredibly enriching life of the natural world.

The solution is in the design  and implementation of natural worlds existing harmoniously in our very condensed New York living space. This green design process is a large part of what I think about when doing a green renovation; Not just because I want children to enjoy the wonders of nature, but because the natural world brings out the child in all of us.

There is nothing more therapeutic than communing with nature, and there is nothing more debilitating than an absence of it. The word Biophilia is key to this – literally meaning “love of life”, and Biophillic design is the cornerstone of green building.

This psychological life centered view of Green Building may appear contrary to some who like to count carbon offsets and embodied energy. But for me Green Building isn’t about saving energy like so many technocrats like to claim; this is like saying hiking is about covering lots of miles.

Certainly energy efficiency is important because without it life is increasingly being destroyed. But the goal behind all these numbers is more life, or at the very least less killing.

Green building is about creating life – lets break the two words down to see what I mean:

The word “Green” is really just a catch-all phrase for nature and it’s harmony. That is something most people agree with. The word “Building” is a little trickier. I feel that to say the word “Building” only applies to the act of erecting ecological structures for humans is narrow minded in the extreme.

A Green Builder knows this more than anyone because you can’t be a green builder without understanding that everything is connected. A green home in Brooklyn with bamboo floors and super efficient HVAC influences everything from forests of bamboo in China to Copper mines in Columbia. And on a micro scale those HVAC units are going to give off a constant flow of water condensation creating an ecosystem on the side of the house.

So a Green Builder knows that “Builder” is much more than bricks and mortar, regardless of whether they are salvaged. It is about Building Green, literally creating ecosystems, of which humans are part of but certainly not the only ones.

So as a New York contractor I see my role as one of creating multiple ecosystems, literally building green. Part of that is the typical brownstone renovation process, for example, but there is a lot more.

Simply put, I build ecosystems, not brick boxes.

We disguised a hallway with a living wall to provide relaxation in a yoga studio.

 

The green roof, back yard, front yard, the NY waterway down the road, all these things are part of the design matrix that at first people wouldn’t think of when renovating a brownstone. But it is very connected. The interior ecosystem of people eating, sleeping, and bathing uses and creates energy. My job is to make sure this energy is acting in harmony with its surroundings but designing the systems – water, electric, etc.

Considerations involve where the water and sun come from and where they go – solar, rainwater, graywater…if I get it right then there is less garbage (due to salvage) and more life in the world once I am done with the job – life in the form of a happy bunch of humans but also life in the sense that these humans create food for plants and animals in the form of human waste. In turn the plants and animals give back to the humans…

And this is why I am getting more childish. As I surround myself with more and more alive ecosystems that I give to and I receive from I am more engaged, more playful, more carefree. It comes across as childlike. This is a good thing.

And because of seeing how I react to these ecosystems in a childlike manner I have learned to use children as the guide for how I build.

My son exploring our native garden designed with inspiration from the book Manahatta
My son exploring our native garden designed with inspiration from the book Manahatta

An ecosystem that is great for a child is also great for an adult. Children only magnify the experience (as well as the negative one – lead paint for example). As an example of good childish design, at my house I have a pond in the front yard that is literally a child magnet. Children insist on going by my house. It is their daily pilgrimage to see what the water, plants and animals are up to. This is why I know I got the design right.

And sure enough the adults follow. I love watching secretly from my window the childlike smiles of adults as they stop themselves in their harried life and take a moment to look at the pond. They soften and for a brief moment they relax a little. You can see them come alive a little, their curiosity increasing.

And for good reason. Not only does the pond bring back childhood feelings of calm and innocence, it literally brings back ancestral memories. Psychologists believe this is because the vast majority of our evolution was spent as hunter gatherers, closely attuned to nature, and certain things – like a gently trickling pond with clean water and non-threatening fish – offered us things that kept us alive – fresh water, food, a place to rest.

We are so caught up in the now that we forget the weight of our genetics. Roughly speaking, Modern Homo Sapien hunter gatherers (or actually scavengers) have been around for 200,000 years and it is only in the last 10,000 years we became more agricultural.

It is only in the past couple hundred years that we became completely disjointed from nature. And this doesn’t even take into account that there have been human-like beings for 4 million years.

All this is to say that nature is profoundly connected to us in ways we can’t imagine and a couple thousand years of “civilized” living isn’t going to knock that out of us.

Studies have shown that staring at a healthy fish tank produces the same rejuvenation as sleep or meditation. Analysis of recuperation times and pain killer prescriptions have shown that people recover faster and in less pain if their hospital bed has a view of nature. These small and subtle examples only confirm what everyone knows already: nature is good for us.

But I’m starting to realize that nature IS us. “Obviously”, you might say, but it isn’t. We are completely brainwashed by outdated Romantic ideals that clearly see humans and nature as separate. This Romantic view is definitely one of the key players in the Earths largest climactic and species change in history, resulting in massive levels of cognitive dissonance in the human race – some dealing with it in denial (religious groups), others in panic (environmentalists), and yet others in nihilistic acts of self destruction (capitalism).

And so, in the concrete jungle of NYC, I see the role of a green contractor to be one of historian, biologist and psychologist, looking into past ecological designs that offer a sense of safety and peace to humans – a place where our inner child can feel safe – while also offering other life forms a place to grow harmoniously.

This is a lot to fathom when all the client wants is a new kitchen for their one bedroom condo, but it also makes things easier. There is nothing more difficult than living a life without meaning, and there is nothing more meaningless than capitalism in its crudest form. Essentially a green builder is able to weave meaning into that process, explaining to the client that the kitchen is much more important that simply picking paint colors.

Once you understand that all things are connected through systems it becomes clear that in every renovation there is an opportunity to create or destroy life. With this view it is easy to put paint colors into perspective and focus on the more important and meaningful things in life.

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