Birch Coffee - A Sustainable Community Hangout


Photo Credit: Eric Ryan Anderson

When Jeremy Lyman and Paul Schlader wanted to open a café in New York City called Birch Coffee, they felt it needed to be more than just another place that served a warm cup of Joe. Their desire was to create a community around sustainable food and beverages and be a "simple yet special spot to get away from life's grueling demands and regain a little peace of mind". The new eatery needed to feel like it had been there for a longtime - and to forgo the cold "coolness" other cafes seem to display. A search for locally roasted coffees was undertaken that was also bird-friendly and fair trade. The menu was to be packed with organic, healthy and vegetarian-friendly dishes. They knew they wanted to compost and recycle waste along with encourage people to share used books with a "take one, give one" library. To top it all off, they discovered they could also make the interior green. The project is currently hoping to become a LEED-Gold project.
Image Credit: inFORM studio

For full disclosure, I should mention I am one of the designers on the project. I have been heavily involved with the LEED coordination, commissioning of the HVAC systems and the overall green design along with inFORM studio who serves as the architect-of-record and assisted with the design. When I first met Lyman, he did not know that making the interior green was even an option. Over lunch at a popular spots in the Union Square area of Manhattan, I showed him a bunch of projects that had accomplished LEED status. We talked about what he wanted the feel for the place to be, and the goals for the outcome. Cost was an issue - and Lyman wanted to make sure that going green would not break the bank. Tight budgets are a reality in design - and I thought the project would be a great opportunity test the concept that we could create a highly green project without it costing one penny more than another other kind of project. This was in early 2008 - just months before the economic meltdown. Not the best of times to start promising people green at no extra cost. Turns out, a shrinking economy was a blessing in disguise.

Good Stuff Movement
New York City is experiencing a kinda caffeine renaissance in boroughs like Manhattan and Brooklyn. Over the last couple of years, dozens of coffee shops and cafes have changed their practice of making mud, hot stuff, ink, jamocha, java and joe (all slang for coffee) from simply a commodity to sell into a movement that sees it as a form of art to be enjoyed. Birch is fully aligned with this good stuff movement. Lyman and Schlader are not just café owners. They are obsessed with coffee. At any shop, you can get java made from a standard drip machine or espresso maker. That's just the beginning with these guys - they don't just have an espresso machine, they have a La Marzocco GB5 Espresso Machine. They "cold brew" their iced coffee uses no hot water at all and it takes 24 hour to complete ensuring a super tasty drink that is naturally sweet and rich. They also use a Kyoto Style iced coffee drip machine, which is more than three feet tall, and employs a 12 hour gravity brewing system to generate the dark brew. The Kyoto looks more like sculptures than coffee machine.


Photo Credit: Chambers Design, Inc.

They don't stop at drinks though. They are crazy about nosh. Last spring they competed in the National Grilled Cheese Invitational in Los Angeles against 300 other competitors for the crown of best Bread-Butter-Cheese in America. They didn't win - but for Lyman, it is all about having a good time. Their grilled cheeses and other menu items reflect a commitment to sustainability because they source roughly 90% of all their products from local farms and all the coffee is roasted only 20 miles away.

Sustainable Community
To create a community of socially and environmentally-minded patrons, they give 15 percent of all their sales on select Thursdays to Falling Whistles, a nonprofit working to bring peace to the Congo. The café hosted the founder of Falling Whistles, Sean Carasso, and Congolese refugee, Yves Muya, for a screening of their newest film Peace Is the New Frontier that lays out their "vision for ending the world's biggest war that no one is talking about". Lyman and Schlader also work with Bideawee, a local animal shelter that provides homes and veterinary care for stray dogs and cats.


Photo Credit: Birch Coffee
The Green in the Cafe
Then there are the green things they did for the interior space. The café is housed in an existing hotel in the Flatiron District of Manhattan called the Gershwin Hotel. It is a sight to see with acrylic objects projecting from its façade like translucent tongues. More than 80 percent of the existing floors, ceilings and walls were kept to help express the sense of age as well as eliminate using new materials that deplete natural resources. The countertops are made with high recycled content concrete made by artisans located in New Jersey. All the furniture is made from reclaimed wood retrieved from old buildings toward the five boroughs, and finished with eco-friendly stains. Appliances and light fixtures are Energy Star. Additional new air handlers were installed to enhance the existing ventilation system to create better indoor air quality. New wood was used to define the space - and it is all FSC Certified and urea-formaldehyde free. All the paints zero VOC as well as adhesives and sealants. A composting and recycling program was developed that diverts more than 50 percent of the garbage from landfills than required by local and state code.


Photo Credit: Chambers Design, Inc.
Green at No Cost
All of these features along with others has inched the project toward becoming a potential LEED-Gold rated project. During the downturn of the economy, the budget was reduced by about 10 to 20 percent. The team's commitment to making the project green at no additional cost remained. We found that creativity and experience were the defining factors for making good on the promise for not one penny more. After all the dust had settled, that's exactly what we give them and came in on budget. The café has been open for more than a year now, and it has been ranked as one of the best places for coffee in New York City by such esteemed organizations as the New York Times, Time Out and Epoch Times. Many have, also, recognized that the space is as special the joe - a point of pride, to say the least. All in all, great places are not just about green, or designers or owners - everyone has to be involved. Long live great coffee and community's based on sustainability!

More on Coffee and Green Cafes
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Starbucks Shareholders Reject Recycling Initiative
Green Suggestions for Coffee Shops
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Tags: Buildings | Designers | Urban Life

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