Habana RWH

By Adam Brock

If there’s anywhere in New York that knows how to honor nature’s processes and the local community in style, it’s the Habana Outpost. Located in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene, the Cuban restaurant/community space is brimming with ideas for bringing ecological thinking into an urban setting. To name a few: mint for the mojitos is grown hydroponically on site, the furniture is made of recycled and reclaimed materials… and they rock a bike blender on the patio. Hard.

It’s no surprise, then, that Habana Outpost has for the past couple years agreed to play host and client to the Urban Studio Brooklyn, an introductory workshop in collaborative ecodesign. Drawing its inspiration from the renowned Rural Studio program of Auburn college, the Urban Studio Brooklyn (USBK for short) gathers architecture students from across the state for a nine-day intensive course in the art of designing and building for nature in the city.

While most design curricula are still rooted in memorizing theory and competition between students – qualities that aren’t so conducive to systems thinking – the Urban Studio adopts a place-based, collaborative, and interdisciplinary approach, letting students learn by working with real professionals on real projects. If this year’s USBK effort is any indication, it’s an approach that Cooper Union and Pratt would do well to consider.

The course, which wrapped up last weekend, covered the design and construction of a rainwater harvesting system for the Habana Outpost’s roof. With the help of a team of professional consultants, USBK’s eight students devised a system to collect stormwater from 800 square feet of the building’s roof, filter and pressurize it, and store it in a metal tank. The water will be used to fill toilets, run a chiller and icemaker in the basement, and spray down the patio – not a bad set of duties for what’s essentially a free resource.

“All the criticism I’ve heard in regards to LEED is that it’s more about following a checklist,” says Lori Gibbs, the program’s director. “Here, it’s [about] coming up with new, inventive, forward-thinking ideas and trying to apply them.” While rainwater catchment systems themselves are nothing new to sustainability science (at least in more rural areas), USBK’s design process did manage to add a clever new feature from the standard regimen: the green gutter. After it was deemed that the building wasn’t suitable for a green roof, one of the students had the idea of using the rainwater to nourish plants that grew along the wall. The result is an elegant array of native species in a 20-foot-high row of planters, displayed prominently above the restaurant’s signature food truck.

Habana Green Gutter

Out on an ecovillage or an organic farm, these features would have made an impressive rainwater system in their own right. But the USBK team rightly recognized that on clamorous Fulton Street, it’s not enough to close nature’s loops – they must be made visible and celebrated. Most of the mechanical elements for the system were deliberately kept in the open, with bright hand-painted signs labeling the major parts. And for the program’s completion, the Habana Outpost management did what they do best: invite the neighborhood to come out and take a look by throwing a patio party.

To be sure, there’s still a few hurdles for the Urban Studio to overcome, especially regarding lack of support from the major architecture schools. And for all its flair, this year’s project was hardly zero-footprint: mainly due to time constraints, the team was compelled to construct the system from virgin materials, including toxic PVC pipe and energy-intensive metal.

But seeing the creative ideas and vibrant sense of community that USBK and the Habana Outpost are cultivating, it’s hard not to be convinced that these guys are on to something. Something small, perhaps, but huge in its implications – and ultimately much more potent than the green skyscrapers and ecoboutiques popping up across the East River. Can a forest green uprising really take root amidst the concrete and bling of America’s biggest city? If the USBK and Habana Outpost are any indication, it’s only a matter of time.

By Adam Brock 

The phrase “sustainable design” is often associated with things like bioplastic, solar-powered flashlights, or cradle-to-cradle office furniture. While these and other innovations continue to push the green design envelope, even the most forward-thinking ecoproducts can’t honestly be called sustainable quite yet: they’re still nowhere close to eliminating their negative impact on the planet.

The good news, though, is that actual sustainable design is entirely possible. The trick is in redefining our notion of what “design” is: just like electricity generation and food production, the most sensible approach to design from an ecological standpoint is to decentralize. Contrary to what corporations would have you believe, there’s no reason we need to rely on mass-produced stuff to meet our needs. It might take a little more work, but putting design into our own hands is cheaper and more rewarding than getting something from a store. It can often be more effective, too; after all, nobody knows the clients better than the clients themselves.

With these values in mind, me and my fellow volunteers at ROSE decided to undertake the design challenge of cooking food completely sustainably: using only recyled materials and the power of the sun. No fossil fuels, no embodied energy, no money. It was a high benchmark, and from the beginning, we knew we probably wouldn’t meet all the constraints on the first try. But we were just as interested in the process of designing and building the cooker as we were in the final product.

We based the oven’s design on one described in Aric McBay’s Peak Oil Survival: Life After Gridcrash (a great resource guide to becoming more self-sufficient, even if you don’t subscribe to the apocalyptic predictions of the peak oilers). Basically, the design consisted of an insulated wooden box with metal lining on the insides, and a glass top tilted at 30 degrees for maximum solar exposure. Around the top was a sheetmetal funnel designed to channel more of the sun’s rays into the box. Food was to be inserted through the back, which folded down like an oven door.

We sized the cooker around a sheet of old window glass that Jeevan had lying around, which we had trimmed in the Kanda market. The box itself was constructed out of sheets of used concrete formwood, and we employed ash, collected graciously by Jeevan’s wife from around the village, as an insulator. So far, so good – we had almost all the materials we needed, and still hadn’t spent a rupee (or a kilowatt hour). But we couldn’t source any used metal sheeting, which was an essential component of both the inside lining and the funnel on top. In the end, we caved and got it new at the market. It was an unfortunate compromise – metal is one of the most energy-intensive materials to produce and transport – but a necessary one nevertheless.

Constructing the oven proved to be at least as challenging as designing it. I hadn’t picked up a saw since 7th-grade stagecraft class, and the tools we had to work with weren’t exactly top quality. As is always the case, there were plenty of unexpected challenges we had to solve on the fly as the design came together: the nails kept bending, some of the boards split, the metal wouldn’t blacken in the fire, and the ash kept leaking out of the seams in the wood. But, little by little, the challenges were met, the oven took shape, and after a solid three days of sawing, cutting, nailing, trimming, grouting, and adjusting, we had a pretty decent-looking solar cooker in front of us.

To put the oven to the test, we decided to see if we could bake some challah. After collecting all the ingredients and kneading and braiding the dough (a design challenge in itself), we put the loaf in the oven on a hot afternoon and waited. After a couple hours, we opened the oven door and cautiously felt around. It was hot, alright… but not hot enough, probably only 200 degrees or so.

What went wrong? After some examination, we decided that the box hadn’t been made airtight enough – we could feel several places where the hot air was leaking out. Fixing it would’ve required temporarily dismantling the metal funnel and finding a better sealant than the cement we’d been using – certainly possible, but not in the two days we had left at Kanda.

In the end, then, our sustainable solar oven wasn’t quite sustainable, and it wasn’t much of an oven, either. But was it a failure? I don’t think so. For me, the learning process alone was enough to justify the financial and ecological costs of the project. And it’s entirely possible that another ROSE volunteer will improve the cooker in the months to come, making the design fulfill its intended purpose. For now, then, I’ll see it as a collaborative work in progress – and a valuable lesson in forest green design.

By Adam Brock

With the exceptions of dedicated gardeners and the 6-to-10-year-old set, worms generally aren’t something we spend much time thinking about. But they’re as valuable to healthy plants as water and sunlight – their constant burrowing keeps the soil airy, while their droppings (or “castings”) make wonderful fertilizer. So wonderful, in fact, that Princeton dropout Tom Szaky and his company TerraCycle have made a killing selling the stuff out of reused soda bottles.

While away in Arizona, I developed a worm plan, as well – though my own ambitions were somewhat more modest. I wanted to cut down on my house’s landfill waste, while rejuvenating the soil in our little Brooklyn yard. Worms seemed like a good choice over a traditional compost bin: they munch through scraps much faster than bacteria can break it down, meaning that you get your fertilizer in about two months, rather than a full year. They’re also smaller, and the end product is richer in nutrients. And so, with the help of a few handy guides, I channeled my inner 3rd grader and dove in to the rich and slimy world of vermicomposting.

The first step was finding a suitable box. I didn’t want to have to buy anything new, and making one out of old wooden pallets – an abundant resource in Williamsburg – seemed like too much work. So I settled on a big plastic storage bin we had sitting around, and drilled holes around the edges for ventilation. Next, I tore up some newspapers (black and white only – color ink is bad for the worms) into 1-inch strips for bedding. I got the strips moist and put them in the bin, fluffing them up till they gave a 6 inch cover. Finally, I needed to buy worms – specifically Lumbricus Rubellus, or Red Wrigglers. I got these from the Lower East Side Ecology Center stall at the Union Square Greenmarket, for $18.50 for a pound.

And that was it. Three hours of work and $18.50 was all it took to get a living, writhing decomposition machine going in my yard. A week after setting up the bin, it seems to be working great: the worms are wriggling away, the bedding is warding off flies and smells, and there’s a growing layer of rich brown stuff at the bottom of the bin. The only issue: my house, full of hungry 21-year-old boys, seems to be making more food waste than the box can handle. With the amount of scraps we’re generating, getting into the fertilizer business might not be such a bad idea, after all…

Carry That Waste

May 11, 2007

Carry That Waste

On my way from Arizona to Brooklyn, I’m spending a week in my hometown of Denver, giving me a chance to practice low-impact living in a medium city before taking it on in the swarming mass of consumption that is New York. I’ve started taking “navy showers”, turning off the water when I lather up. I’m also resisting the chiding comments of my family and friends and avoiding driving and riding in cars whenever possible, instead relying on my bike, longboard and public transit to get around.

The most interesting experiment, though, has been carrying around my trash. Rather than simply tossing stuff into the nearest trashcan/recycling bin, I’ve been stuffing all my waste into a big plastic bag that I try to take wherever I go… though I forget more often than I’d like to admit. The idea is that by making myself directly responsible for the waste I create, I’ll be less likely to create it in the first place.

After four days, it’s been working even better than I could’ve hoped. I’m constantly aware of how much I’ve accumulated – so far, a few yogurt cups, a bunch of newspaper clippings on sustainability (courtesy of my well-meaning parents), a broken clothes hanger, random napkins, envelopes, and junk mail, an aluminum can, a plastic fork, and some banana peels.

Even better, all the little thoughtful things I could never seem to remember before just come naturally. I used to be an awful reuseable-cup-user, but now the idea of having to haul around a bunch of paper cups for a week makes me think twice before I leave for the coffee house. Instead of grabbing a new sheet of paper to write a to-do list, I just reach in the bag and tear off a clean scrap of paper. And because I don’t want to know what week-old salmon smells like, I find myself finishing the all food on my plate (if there was compost around, I’d be okay dumping food scraps, but there’s not).

So far it’s officially a one-week experiment, though it’s been so successful, I’ve been toying with the idea of doing it more regularly. Not only would it be good for my own footprint, but it would send a powerful message wherever I go – I could even come up with a catchy phrase to scrawl on the bag (any ideas?). There’s some definite issues I’d have to work out: separating garbage and recyclables, dealing with inevitable odors, and finding/making a more permanent bag that I can easily carry around and wash out. But as they say, every designer loves a good challenge, and if it brings me that much closer to one-planet living, I just might be up for it.

Mtn Oak Before and after

The final project for my Ecosa program this semester was a comprehensive masterplan for Mountain Oak, a Waldorf-based charter school in Prescott. Currently run out of an old two-story motel and a couple of converted houses, the school is in desperate need of more and better space. Our task was to develop a vision plan for Mountain Oak, remaking the existing site into something safer, more spacious and ecologically stunning.

As in every design, we started the process with exhaustive research. In this case, we had to familiarize ourselves with everything from local building codes to native plants, although we spent most of our time researching the Waldorf educational philosophy. Founded by German renaissance man Rudolf Steiner in the 20s, Waldorf education emphasizes whole body learning, creativity and imagination, and a connection to natural cycles. Over the years, architects from Steiner onwards have developed a style for Waldorf schools that includes faceted angles, thick, solid details, and natural materials; one paper we found even specified the ideal classroom shape for each grade.

Classroom Shapes

Once we understood what Waldorf was all about, the principles of ecodesign seemed to fit perfectly into the mix. Far from being hidden, we chose to make the green features of the vision plan highly visible, letting the landscape itself teach students about our connection with the earth.

Another recurring theme of the project was community-building. Through a series of community charettes, we incorporated the school’s stakeholders into the design process and got valuable feedback at each step of the process. For instance, we were told time and time again that the pickup and dropoff was chaotic, so we rearranged the flow of people to streamline the process and foster interaction among parents and teachers.

With all our information at hand, we were finally able to begin designing. After hundreds of feet of trace paper, dozens of iterations on CAD, and many a heated group discussion, we ended up with a 5-phase plan that satisfied the many requirements of the school community, city code, and environmental sterwardship. Here are some of the key aspects:

An undulating ferrocement wall winds its way from corner to corner of the campus, curving in response to the activities it encloses, and accented with railings and gates insipred by Steiner’s designs.

The Plaza is a central gathering area for students covered by a six-post shade structure. When it rains, water drains into the center of the structure and falls to the floor, where covered gutters lead the water to the surrounding planted area.

The Village Center is a Steineresque passive solar building with community space on the ground floor and new classrooms for 7th and 8th grade above.

The current motel building gets a facelift with Green Screen, a modular wire mesh filled with planted evergreen vines.

We presented our vision plan to the community last Thursday, and it received a much better response than we could have anticipated. It remains to be seen how much of the vision plan will get built: like our other clients, the Gutierrez family, Mountain Oak has no budget to speak of. But even if it never makes it past the paper, our design succeeded in inspiring the Mountain Oak community to imagine what could be – as well giving us some much-needed experience in putting our wild green ideas into practice.


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