Brooklyn townhouse retrofit embodies a “slow building” ethos

Brooklyn townhouse
© Margaret Badore

There are many special things about the home of Gennaro Brooks-Church, the director of the green building firm Eco Brooklyn. The first thing you may notice when approaching the townhouse in Carroll Gardens is a small cascade of water, flowing into a small pond in the front yard. On the sunny November day when I visited, two turtles were out sunning themselves.

© Margaret Badore. The pond at the front of the house.

In the back, there’s a much larger natural pool, which keeps itself clean with the help of fish, bacteria and plants. At five feet deep, the pool is a nice place to take a dip on hot days. On the roof, a stream flows through a garden of native plants. All of these creative waterways, in addition to a dry well installed under the walkway in the back yard, catch rainwater and prevent it from becoming part of the municipal water system, and contributing to the nearby Gowanus canal’s sewage overflow problem.

© Margaret Badore. The backyard and natural swimming pool.

Brooks-Church has been in house since 2008, but it’s still a work in progress. He plans to install solar panels, and further extend the stream in the backyard. Brooks-Church describes his approach as “slow building,” drawing a parallel to the Slow Food movement.

© Margaret Badore

“It ceases to be goal oriented, and it becomes more about the process,” he said. Working on the house over a longer period of time has allowed him “to have a conversation with the space.” It has also given him more time to nurture the natural elements of the property, and to better understand how the plants and animals interact with the living systems he builds.

© Margaret Badore. Gennaro Brooks-Church and his son on the green roof.

Brooks-Church said that he does keep a tighter schedule when it comes to the projects that he creates for his Eco Brooklyn clients. However, he said most clients come to him with an appreciation that his approach to building is different. Some of his projects include the recently opened Bright ’N Green building and the sustainable retrofit of a brownstone in Clinton Hill.

In some ways, this slow building approach is a return to an older method of building. Today, global infrastructure allows building materials to be shipped from all over the world, but this wasn’t always the case. “Up until 50 years ago, people mostly built with the materials they had at hand,” said Brooks-Church. “The dwelling was part of the landscape.”

For Brooks-Church, and many of his Eco Brooklyn clients, using the materials at hand in New York means salvaging and repurposing discarded materials. He is a prolific dumpster-diver, and many salvaged gems can be found around his home. All of the wood floors are reclaimed, while glass reclaimed from an advertising company has been used to create beautiful panels in the floors that allow sunlight to travel down from landing to landing. An old fire escape has been re-purposed into railings and walkways.

© Margaret Badore. Salvaged glass panels allow sunlight to travel from floor to floor.

In the backyard, Brooks-Church recently completed a treehouse for his three children, built out of materials from a Manhattan water tower and cast-off wood from a construction project down the block. (See more photos of the treehouse here.)

© Margaret Badore. The treehouse.

There are some tradeoffs to a slow building approach. Although recycled materials can be found for little cost, the added labor can become more expensive. He doesn’t have the same ability to specify what materials will be needed, nor coordinate delivery times the way one might while working on a more conventional contracting project. During the early stages of the renovations of the townhouse, many of the building materials (still looking a lot like trash) had to be stored in the front yard—to the annoyance of the neighbors.

© Margaret Badore. In the basement apartment, which is rented out on Air BnB, a fire escape has been turned into an airy walkway that leads to the backyard.

However, like the pleasure that comes from carefully creating a slow food meal, Brooks-Church said the slow building process has “the richness of knowing where all the ingredients come from.”

Tags: Brooklyn | Buildings | Recycling

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