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.

| March/April 2010

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!’

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