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.
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.