Mother Earth Living

Show Time: The Completed Natural Home Show House

Once a neighborhood blight, this healthy, solar-powered duplex in Boreum Hill, Brooklyn, is now an inspiration.
By Elizabeth Kuster
March/April 2010
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The original 1920s red brick facade contrasts with the sleek solar panels peeking out from the rooftop garden.
Photo By Stephen Ang
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When we introduced the 2007 Natural Home Show House in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, we said it would feature cutting-edge green remodeling techniques and healthy materials. We also said construction would be complete by the end of that year. The timing didn’t quite work out (blame the recession and the complexities of building in New York City), but the long-awaited result exceeds our highest expectations.

Monumental makeover

When construction began, the Show House was a dilapidated, burned-out shell in danger of collapse (in fact, its roof had collapsed). Built in the 1920s, the structure had been a residence, a pharmacy, a Laundromat and a deli before it was almost destroyed by a fire in 1980. The boarded-up, garbage-filled property was a blight in an otherwise charming, tree-lined neighborhood of well-kept brownstones.

Today the circa-1920s brick façade remains, but it now embraces a new limestone-clad structure housing two state-of-the-art townhouses. The building has rooftop solar panels, an air-filtration system and a rainwater-collection system for the native foliage that has been planted throughout.

How green can you go?

Original developers Rolf Grimsted of R&E Brooklyn and Emily Fisher of Halstead Property had planned to use solar panels and sustainably harvested wood when they took on the renovation in 2006. Architect Tony Daniels encouraged them to go deeper. “Tony asked us, ‘How green do you want to go?’” Fisher says. “We said, ‘What do you have in mind?’”

Grimsted went so cutting-edge, in fact, that more than half of the products used in the Show House didn’t even exist when the project began. “It’s amazing how far green-product offerings have come,” says Sarah Beatty, founder and owner of interior décor supplier Green Depot. “Rolf and Emily really embraced all the technology that was emerging. They always kept an open mind...So we were able to call them and say, ‘Hey, we know you spec’d the bathroom, but there’s a fabulous new product...’ ”

To sidestep misinformation and “greenwashing,” interior designers Erika Doering and Erika Hanson grilled manufacturers about everything from finishes and adhesives to what they were doing with their scrap. “To really figure out whether someone’s greener than their competition requires about a 10-hour interview,” Hanson says. “And you have to know what questions to ask. We said, ‘Don’t just tell us where the final processing is done; we need to hear where every part comes from and all the transportation between.’”

The team examined every material in terms of cost, benefits, location, carbon emissions and toxicity. “It was a constant weighing of choices,” Grimsted says.

Healing on every level

The Show House is among the first residences in the nation to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s stringent LEED for Homes criteria; it’s also slated to be New York’s first American Lung Association Health House. “The healing occurs on many levels,” Grimsted says. “We healed a real hole in our neighborhood first. We mitigated an environmental disaster. And when you heal a spot in the community, that helps heal the world.”

Emily Fisher has seen how the project has made a difference. “I was on the corner two weeks ago looking at the garden as it was being installed,” Fisher says. “A woman walking by said, ‘Can you believe this corner looks so nice? I never thought in my lifetime I’d see it looking so good!’

For occupants, Grimsted says the building acts as a lung. “If someone in your family has chemical sensitivities, immunity problems or allergies, this house would be better for them. The sound attenuation, the clean smell, the instinctive sense of well-being—you immediately feel the difference when you come in off the street.”

“It’s a well-insulated, energy-efficient building that has its own power source and doesn’t use toxic materials and finishes,” Daniels says. “There’s not another building like it in New York. When the apocalypse comes and the grid goes down, the Show House is the building I want to be in.”

Split personality

The Natural Home Show House is actually two homes—one facing Nevins Street, the other facing Pacific Street—on a corner lot. Each has its own distinct identity. 

What established the character of each townhouse?

Rolf Grismted (Developer): Their location in relation to the sun. We tried to make tradeoffs: The Nevins unit gets less sunlight, so we gave it a roof garden. Meanwhile, we gave the Pacific side—which receives much more direct southern light—a two-story living room with a huge storefront window. It’s so bright, somebody who’s light-needy might prefer it.

Did you approach the interior design of each one differently? 

Erika Doering (Interior Designer): Absolutely. Pacific is wide open and bright, so we made the interior design cooler, more innovative, more streamlined. Nevins looks out on the backyards of all the brownstones nearby, so we gave it country detail—it has a warmer, more traditional, handwrought feel. 

Will the design of each townhouse determine who buys it?

Sarah Beatty (Supplier): Yes, because each of the homes has such a distinctive point of view. People thought these were going to be two cookie-cutter townhouses, but the person who buys the Pacific Street unit is going to be completely different from the person who buys the Nevins Street one. The person who buys Pacific will be more “of the world”; that house has a community connection, and it’s a great entertainment space. The person who buys the Nevins side—with its huge kitchen—will be more of a homebody. Both homes are equally exciting, though. And the great compliment is that if you walk into either, you wouldn’t know that all the materials are green. I love that!

A chat with the developers

What did this project teach you about green building? 

Emily Fisher: A lot of green building is common sense, things that people have been doing for centuries: Don’t put toxins in your home. Don’t import material from halfway around the world if you can find something close at hand that works just as well. Don’t throw away things that still have use in them. Adapt to your local environment; don’t use materials that are going to require intensive heating and cooling to keep your home a comfortable temperature.

What was the best moment for you?

Rolf Grimsted: When the roof garden came in. There was something full circle about that moment; it symbolized regrowth and brought together everything we were trying to do.

Fisher: Last October, during Open House New York, watching people circulate through the homes and hearing how complimentary and excited they were gave me a great feeling of satisfaction. I feel we pushed the rock up to the top of the mountain. I saw that both townhouses worked well as places to entertain and that there’s a nice play of air and light—you’re very aware of where the sun is throughout the day. The windows make you feel wonderfully in touch with the neighborhood. The sun just floods in!

A chat with the landscaper

Marni Majorelle of Alive Structures transformed the building’s exterior with a stainless-steel cable trellis system planted with grapevines, trumpet vine and wisteria, and a small green roof planted with perennials intermixed with basil, parsley and creeping thyme. 

Why does this landscaping matter? 

Majorelle: I’m really committed to creating natural habitat and using low-maintenance plants that invite nature back into the city. Plants are a powerful solution to a lot of the problems we have in New York. They filter pollution, create oxygen and reduce the urban heat island effect, which is when it’s several degrees warmer in the city than just outside it. Photosynthesis, evapotranspiration...you can have all these amazing things taking place on your roof!

Any advice for aspiring gardeners?

Majorelle: Learn more about native plants! There may be beautiful ones you haven’t heard about that you could use in your garden. Gardens can be a real force for increasing biodiversity, so gardeners should think of themselves as people who can help the environment by creating natural habitats in their backyards.

The good stuff

Developer: Rolf Grimsted, R & E Brooklyn, Brooklyn, New York, (718) 858-7500
Architect: Tony Daniels, Cycle Architecture, New York, (212) 227-2811
Interior Design: Erika Doering Design, Brooklyn, (718) 923-0231; Erika Hanson Design, Brooklyn, (718) 935-9898
Supplier: Green Depot, Brooklyn, (212) 226-0444
Interim and Post-Construction Cleanup: GoGreen, Brooklyn, (718) 625-0260
Landscaping: Alive Structures, Brooklyn, (917) 743-7735

House Size (square footage):
93 Nevins: 3,079; 453 Pacific: 3,059
Bedrooms: 3 in each townhouse
Bathrooms: 21⁄2 in each townhouse

Energy

Heating/Cooling System: Hybrid solar/gas with Warmboard radiant heat subfloors, Apricus evacuated-tube solar collectors, and Rober high-efficiency gas-fired heat pump
Electricity Source: SunPower solar electric system with rooftop photovoltaic panels
Appliances: Bosch Energy Star dishwashers; LG Energy Star refrigerators, washers and dryers
Insulation: High-performance BioBased spray-foam made from agricultural waste

Building Materials

Exterior Materials: Regionally sourced limestone quarried in Indiana; reclaimed-brick façade; high-recycled-content steel framing GW Manufacturing superinsulated front doors. KML by Andersen Energy Star windows with low-E, argon-filled double glazing 

Interior Materials 

93 Nevins: 100 percent recycled Cerim Pietra Riciclata tile. Trikeenan ceramic tile made in New Hampshire. Pioneer Millworks salvaged Jarrah floors. Re-milled salvaged Jarrah windowsills. Eleek recycled aluminum tile. Locally sourced Oso Industries custom-cast concrete. Reclaimed oak stair rails. 75 percent post-industrial Eco-Terr countertop and windowsills. Ann Sacks 88 percent recycled Inca brass tile. Slate floors quarried in Vermont. Bedrock Industries 100 percent post-consumer recycled glass tile. Bio-Glass recycled glass shower seat.  

453 Pacific: Ceramiche Caesar EU Eco Label ceramic tile. Maple trim, stair treads and stair rails from New York state. Oceanside Glasstile 30 percent post-industrial recycled glass tile. 3form 100 percent post-consumer countertop from milk bottles.
Sandhill 100 percent post-industrial recycled glass tile. Ann Sacks 21 percent recycled Marumi Toryo tile. FSC-certified EcoTimber prefinished laminate maple flooring with low-VOC finish.

Both: Forbo Marmoleum floors. Natural Cork floors. AFM Safecoat low-VOC primers and paints. 55 percent post-industrial waste glass Terra Traffic tile. Toto low-flow, dual-flush toilets. FSC-certified Breathe Easy kitchen cabinets with low-VOC finish. Ice-Stone Cradle-to-Cradle-certified post-consumer recycled glass and cement countertops. Julien 90 percent recycled-steel sinks. 100 percent post-industrial Bio-Glass countertops. 3form 40 percent pre-consumer recycled Varia Ecoresin bathroom-door panels. Recycled-content door locks and hardware.

Water

Water Conservation Systems: Salvaged rain barrels. Stormwater retention tanks.
Fixtures: Energy Star fixtures. Dornbracht electric-sensor faucet. Toto sensor faucets and low-flow, dual-flush toilets.

Construction

Waste Reduction: Responsible chain of custody tracked all materials and waste; all waste reused or recycled whenever possible. Pallets returned to supplier.
Air quality: High-efficiency RenewAire energy-recovery ventilators with electrostatic filters.

Landscaping

Site and Land Use: Green roof. Planted terraces; planted roof decks; garden border around façade. Native trees, shrubs, flowers, herbs and grasses.
Water Conservation: Five 65-gallon salvaged rain barrels collect most roof runoff.

Certification

• U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes (pending)
• American Lung Association Health House (pending)
 
Elizabeth Kuster is a Brooklyn-based writer who wishes she could live in our Show House. 


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