Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Beyond green building: Alex Wilson on resilient design

Alex Wilson

After Hurricane Sandy, preparing New York for future disruptions became a common topic in some government and civic circles. Municipal Art Society convened an excellent conference in January. (Some of the videos are available online.) Conversations mostly gravitated to future hurricanes and floods, although climate change will bring a range of potential disruptions and extreme weather events. So far, calls to sharply lower our carbon emissions to reduce the scale of future climate disruption don't seem to be getting much traction.  However, for NYC civic leaders to take a serious look at post-Sandy preparedness is a giant step forward.

The Bloomberg Administration recently launched the NYC Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, which encompasses several interagency task forces. One is the City’s new Building Resiliency Task Force, which will look at both the direct effects of extreme weather on buildings, such as flooding or wind damage, and indirect effects caused by infrastructure outages like loss of electricity and water.

One member of that task force is Alex Wilson, a leading green building publisher for thirty years, as the founder and executive editor of BuildingGreen.  In addition to authoring several books and hundreds of articles, he served as executive director off the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association.  Alex is one of those taking green building to a deeper level by incorporating resilience to accelerating social and ecological changes. At a recent Green Drinks NYC event, he spoke about his newly created Resilient Design Institute (RDI) and what we can do in NYC.

Alex got involved in building resilience after Hurricane Katrina, working in Gulf Coast communities not just to restore them to their previous condition, but to prepare them for future events. Alex noticed that older homes, with their vernacular architecture, were better adapted to deal with problem conditions. The broad wrap-around porches and open room design of older homes built before air conditioning became universal in the 1940s were well-suited for coping with heat, and supplying natural ventilation. If electricity is cut off, the old-fashioned houses are much more livable.

Alex began combining the best of traditional design methods and contemporary science and materials to build structures that are livable even without fuel or electricity.  For five years, he called it passive survivability and as he put it, failed miserably. Then he shifted to a more upbeat term: resilient design.

The historical data is showing huge increases in intense storm events, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. With our insufficient progress in reducing carbon emissions, climate related disasters will keep increasing. The green building community will increasingly have to meet the need for resilient design, learn how to build net zero energy homes, and to apply those design principles to entire communities.  Environmentally aware folks will get this instantly, but an appealing message for non-environmentalists can simply be that these homes will keep their family safe. “Even Rush Limbaugh could like that.”


New England towns like Brattleboro were flooded when normally placid streams running through them were inundated by torrential rainstorms. To minimize future flooding, communities directing streams through single three-foot culverts could replace them with three four-foot culverts.  Whether in small communities or in NYC, builders will have to use materials that don’t become useless or toxic after they get wet. It’s common to fixate on flooding, but that’s just one point of vulnerability.

Wind events

Even light frame residences can be engineered to resist uplift forces of strong wind events. In Dade County, Florida, county codes require extra tie-downs connecting structural elements. In Oklahoma, it’s common to build small hurricane safe rooms of reinforced concrete, partly underground.

High temperatures

The less heat is absorbed into the house, the less energy will be required to meet cooling needs. Wrap-around porches on south and west sides of a house shade the first story with broad roof overhangs, preventing heat absorption. Roofs with highly reflective coatings absorb less heat, as do windows with low emissive glazing. While venetian blinds on the inside of a window are helpful, it’s better to prevent sunlight even passing through the glass. Two approaches are exterior shades covering the windows, or manually adjustable sun shutters. For NYC buildings, external screens can be mounted over west side windows and angled to minimize how much summer sunlight enters the window.

Water shortage and drought

Climate change effects in the northeast are expected to include more rain, along with generally more erratic weather. The south, west and Midwest are already getting more frequent and severe droughts. (Check the US Drought Monitor for regional drought forecasts.) Buildings in those areas can minimize their water requirements by installing not just low-flush toilets, but composting toilets and waterless urinals. Grassy lawns do well in the water-rich northeast. For drier areas, xeriscaping - landscaping with desert plants and less-thirsty native plant species – and even gravel lawns are probably a better fit. Rooftop rain harvesting or water catchment is a good idea anywhere, even in NYC, but easier to promote where there is greater public concern about drought. Where rural houses get water via an electric pump, adding a manual pump ensures consistent water supply even if the power goes out.


How can buildings be designed to stay warm or cool for a long time even if electricity is cut off? Droughts can indirectly cause power outages, as about 90% of our power plants require cooling water to function. Installing very high levels of insulation, above what’s currently encouraged, is the answer. While triple-glazed windows are considered to be a premium in the US, they’ve been standard in Swedish building codes since the 1970s. Most US homes with solar photovoltaic panels are not automatically protection for electric outages, as they’re designed to operate in connection with the power grid. PV systems have to be customized to operate as an island from the grid before they can provide power security in the event of a grid outage.

Food security

New Yorkers don’t usually think about where our food comes from. We will when droughts affect Midwest grain production, or yield of fruits and vegetables from California’s Central Valley. That’s a good reason to promote growing more of our food within New York State, and even within NYC, as we’ve been exploring lately on this blog. Alex points out that buildings and power plants can capture waste heat and run it through greenhouses and aquaponic systems, which combine production of plants and fish.

Existing buildings

Experts can design new buildings to very high standards of efficiency and resilience, which are far beyond the vast majority of the current stock of standard NYC buildings. Resilient building retrofits are very hard and very expensive.

For houses and multi-family buildings, about four inches of additional insulation must be applied, either to outside, using mineral wool, or the inside, using foam. How the building handles moisture is critical. If water gets in from the outside, or moisture condenses from the inside, it can cause mold, or damage building structures. Roof overhangs are essential to keep rainwater away from exterior walls. Moving equipment from basements to second floors or the roof is obviously a challenge, as is applying these approaches to big commercial buildings.

The commercial building industry could start coping with resilience challenges – if the insurance industry compels it. Alex noted that some European designers have "re-skinned" commercial buildings with an entire new facade to gain the high-performance that was missing in the original building. “That's expensive, but one strategy to make an obsolete building far more sustainable and resilient at significantly less cost than tearing it down and starting over."

DM: What are the key messages you hope to share with the Building Resiliency Task Force, and what particular actions do you want the Task Force to take?

AW: One of my messages is that resilience is about a lot more than flooding. We need to be creating residential buildings (multi-family apartments, row houses, single-family homes) that embody passive survivability--buildings that will maintain livable conditions even with extended loss of power or interruptions in heating fuel. This means changing the way they are built so that they have far better energy performance. We can build new homes or apartments that will never drop below 50°F even with no power or oil or gas heat. We can retrofit older homes and apartments to do that, but it's a lot harder and more expensive. The easy part is new construction; the far greater challenge is the existing building stock.

DM: It seems that some people in the Bloomberg Administration get the need for resilience as well as energy efficiency and conservation. Where else do you see that awareness in NYC? In what NYC business or civic communities do you think it is especially important to raise awareness of the need for resilience? How can individuals help?

I think the NYC chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, Urban Green, has done a great job at raising awareness about resilience and sustainability. AIA New York and especially the Committee on the Environment (COTE) is also engaged in this. The number of well-known companies that are engaged in the Buildings Resiliency Task Force is very heartening: Durst, Albanese, and Tishman to mention a few. I don't know what role other organizations and companies will play in advancing resilience.

DM: I’m sure that many Building Green publications have covered resilience applications specific to NYC. Can you share the links of any such articles for New Yorkers who want to take next steps in resilience?

AW: This editorial from December 2005 introduced the concept of passive survivability and is available without logging into, as much of our content is only accessible to subscribers.

This article, from 2006, provided a more in-depth review of "passive survivability" as a design criterion for buildings, and it is also free:

On the RDI website I posted a ten-part series on the fundamentals of resilient design, though that would be a lot of links. Otherwise, you'd have to scroll through a dozen blogs in finding that series:

This "Taking Issue" editorial in Fine Homebuilding does a pretty good job at laying out the case for resilience for homes:


Tip of the hat to Margaret Lydecker, founder of Green Drinks NYC, and event organizer Paul McGinniss of The New York Green Advocate and featured contributor to EcoWatch.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Opportunities for urban food production on roofs and lots

What are the opportunities for community based nonprofits or entrepreneurs with limited resources to make money from urban agriculture?

Despite all the buzz, there's actually very little urban agriculture in NYC considering the vast amount of rooftop and backyard space available.  Everyone looking at urban agriculture agrees the City would benefit from having much more of it.  The prospect of income would help, but it's especially difficult to run urban agriculture projects as businesses.  Their start-up costs can be high, and the profit margins are usually low.  Projects with enough money to build high-end rooftop greenhouses that enable year-round production of high end greens and tomatoes can do very well, but limited cash means fewer options.   However, we found some opportunities for groups more concerned with
hunger, nutrition and environmental literacy than cash profits

Community gardening has a well-established presence in NYC.  During the 1970s buildings burned across the City, and residents of troubled neighborhoods reclaimed vacant lots. Community gardens from this era were intended to provide public neighborhood green spaces. Some are beautifully landscaped, and some offer small gardening plots for individual neighbors. 

While there are superficial similarities, urban farming is quite distinct from community gardening. Urban farming is oriented around the pragmatic goal of producing food. Increasing its practice in NYC has recently become a topic of governmental, academic, and popular interest.

No one expects urban agriculture to provide more than a fraction of the City’s food needs. “The Potential for Urban Agriculture in NYC,” a report from the Columbia University Urban Design Lab, clarifies that urban farming can play an important role in community development, significantly contribute to food security in some neighborhoods, enable entrepreneurs to establish viable businesses, and catalyze larger food system transformation (pp. 2-5)

But where can it take place? The profit to be made from real estate development on vacant land in NYC is much greater than that from farming, which limits farming to unconventional spaces from which there isn’t a much more profitable competing use. The Urban Design Lab states there are over 52,000 acres of backyard space in NYC (p. 38) and about 3,000 acres of flat roof space on large NYC buildings suitable for rooftop farming (p. 40). There are “clusters of potentially suitable roofs in the Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and the Maspeth and Long Island City neighborhoods of Queens, which is one of the most promising areas in the nation for rooftop agriculture” (p. 44).

Although urban farming clearly has great potential, and some of its initial projects are widely publicized, the amount of urban farming actually taking place in NYC is extremely small. Well-capitalized businesses like Bright Farms and Gotham Greens can pay for expensive rooftop greenhouse systems that enable year-round production and steady income – but there are still just a few of them, despite the abundance of potential investors and rooftops.

How might already existing resources, innovations, and stakeholders be linked to scale up urban farming in NYC? Community based nonprofits have an underused capacity to market sustainability programs to their constituents, as demonstrated in a recent Beyond Oil NYC report. Urban farming projects could benefit from that marketing capacity, if crafted to be sufficiently appealing to groups with a strong incentive to catalyze or support them.

Some likely candidates are groups concerned about hunger, food security, and environmental justice. While conventional entrepreneurs require minimum expected profits to start a business venture, nonprofits may be willing to proceed based on anticipated yields in the form of other constituent benefits. Start up costs will be much lower for ground level projects than rooftop projects, making them the place to start. If production increases, the project could generate income, from selling produce through a CSA or a nearby greenmarket.

Rooftop Farms

Despite the buzz, there are only a handful of rooftop farms in NYC. There are serious challenges to setting them up: finding a building with roof large enough to make the effort worthwhile (over 30,000 s.f.), and strong enough to carry the extra load (over 50 pounds per square foot). Unique business partners are required: an owner willing to upgrade their building in a very unfamiliar way, and entrepreneurs with enough experience in both business and farming to satisfy the building owner and funders. Farmers and building owners must negotiate a long term access agreement, install a waterproof green roof membrane, and truckloads of lightweight soil. The farmers must generate enough produce sales to cover their costs and loan payments, and pay themselves.

Urban farming on ground level

While there are still challenges with ground level gardening, smaller projects can be started with lower initial costs, enabling community based nonprofits to get involved, and leverage their capacity for grassroots marketing.

As the NY Times writes, the Bloomberg Administration has directed city agencies to identify vacant lots suitable for gardening. OasisNYC provides extensive land use maps and data. 596 Acres maps vacant public lots at which community gardens can be organized. Green Thumb, the community gardening program at the NYC Parks Department, is ready to help volunteers set up and run new community food gardens. One bottleneck is the limited number of those volunteers.

John Ameroso, former urban extension agent and for Cornell University, says the community gardens that flourish today are those focused on growing food, with "a dedicated farmers’ market or a C.S.A.   These amenities make stakeholders out of neighbors who may not like dirt under their nails and rural farmers who drive in every weekend." Those where people just come in to take care of their personal garden boxes, he says, aren't faring so well.

Nonprofits can catalyze the process

Land that can be gardened and neighbors willing to do it still have to be brought together in a complex process. Who’s willing to make the effort to bring neighbors together, train and supply them? Who will carry out this work, and with what resources? This might be a match for community groups with hunger, nutrition and food security on their agenda.

In the last post, we saw how Food Bank of Westchester set up farm projects on the grounds of five nearby nonprofit facilities. Their yield came in several forms: thousands of pounds of vegetables distributed to food pantries; the vocational training for the clients of FBW’s partners; green marketing benefits for all concerned; and the grant income FBW received for vocational and educational services. (Indirectly, they avoided the cash cost of vegetables they would have had to buy from distributors.)

Urban nonprofit groups can copy this model. Vacant public lots available for gardening can be found through Green Thumb, Oasis and 596 Acres. Another resource is vacant private lots. As we’ll see next, even those lots awaiting other commercial use can be temporarily farmed through mobile planters.

The list of community partners willing to help link nonprofits with potential public and private sites might include elected officials, the community board, local economic development nonprofits or business improvement districts. Business organizations may be well suited to contacting private property owners.

Like FBW, city groups can assign one of their staff to spend part of their time organizing a gardening project. Using their relationships and knowledge of the community, the organizer can recruit community volunteers, and liaison with providers of technical assistance and gardening skills training, like Green Thumb. The lots may require fences, and supplies for raised gardening beds (clean soil, compost, lumber) or mobile planting containers. With some initial successes, nonprofits can apply for grants to cover staff salary and program costs.

Innovative gardening techniques: if access to the lot is temporary, there's no soil, or the soil is contaminated

Gardening projects can be temporary as well. It's common practice in NYC to build raised beds, and fill them with clean soil and compost. Setting up semi-permanent structures may not be desirable or possible on lots where access is only temporary.  The way around that is to use mobile planters, which can be moved from one lot as the period of use ends, to a new location. 

Inspired by urban gardeners in Nairobi, Kenya who fill sacks with soil, cut holes in the sides, and plant vegetables in the holes, Feedback Farms in Brooklyn is experimenting with mobile planters that can turn vacant lots into temporary farms.

Stacked on wooden pallets for drainage, their lightweight, low cost sub-irrigated planters (SIPs) can be moved mid-season if needed. SIPs are planting containers in which the water is introduced from the bottom, allowing the water to soak upwards to the plant through capillary action. SIPs have been used in the US for over 100 years. Many do-it-yourself SIPs can be made from plastic buckets and boxes, and their manufacture for sale to urban gardeners has potential to become become a cottage industry.  In a more direct copy of the Kenyan sack growing system, Feedback Farms is testing the use of small sacks, as well as super sacks, a generic industrial bulk bag.

Or, as a NY Times feature explains in depth, gardeners can plant directly in inexpensive, highly biodegradable straw bales.

One NYC group pioneering best practices in food production on small urban plots is
Active Citizen Project (ACP).  They have set up many community-operated farms and food distribution systems in Brooklyn using the SPIN method. The SPIN farming method emphasizes intercropping and scheduled crop rotations for high vegetable yields in small spaces. ACP plans to sell produce to commercial customers and to community members at 50-70% of market price.  ACP's leadership is extremely knowledgable and very pragmatic.  One of the difficulties in running an urban farming business is that they're not producing income during the winter, which makes it tough to support full time staff.  They and many others in the farming space are looking into value added products that can extend the shelf life of their produce and increase their markup.

This winter I attended the Northeast Organic Farming Association of NY (NOFA) and NESAWG conferences. Some of my takeaways were the needs to upgrade food distribution capacity that can link upstate and regional producers with NYC consumers.  Farmers need a large enough percentage of the retail sale price to meet their costs and stay in business.  It's not easy. 

While anyone concerned with urban agriculture wants to see more of it, it's not currently a money-making proposition.  City officials and advocates are going to have to be quite creative with incentives, regulations and programs even to remove the barriers to urban farming as a income-free pastime.  A repeating theme: even if you can't assign a dollar value to it, raising the environmental literacy of New Yorkers is probably the most important reason to promote urban agriculture. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Urban agriculture business opportunities on limited budgets

Description: Leake & Watts Educational Campus

[Updated April 2013]

We looked around for urban agriculture business opportunities for community groups with limited budgets.  While we didn't find much low-hanging fruit in terms of generating cash, we found other interesting possibilities. 

If your group has lots of cash to invest, you can rent a roof and build greenhouses for very profitable year-round production.  But perhaps your organization doesn't have that kind of cash, and would be satisfied with starting more gardens locally, increasing environmental literacy and food security.

In NYC, one of the biggest bottlenecks for urban agriculture is the limited amount of available gardening space.  Two innovations can be combined to dramatically increase the amount of gardening space in a community, at minimal cost. 

In this post, we look at how Food Bank for Westchester set up gardens on the grounds of nearby nonprofit partners, raising lots of vegetables for its food pantries.  This could be replicated in NYC, if community groups could find enough space in their neighborhood on which gardens could be started.  596 Acres is doing a great job of mapping vacant publicly owned lots

In the next post, we look at best practices in urban gardening, and innovations that would make temporarily available private lots suitable for gardening.  No one wants to go to the trouble of building raised garden beds on plots only available for one season.  But using inexpensive portable planters would make many spaces accessible. Sub-irrigated planters have much lower watering needs, and can be moved at the end of the growing season.  It's becoming increasingly popular to cut up straw bales, insert dirt, and use them as biodegradeable temporary planters.


Gardening on multiple small borrowed parcels

Combining resources enabled
Food Bank for Westchester (FBW) and its partners to raise over 9,000 pounds of organic vegetables for local hunger relief in 2012 - an estimated 40,000 servings.

Over the past six years, FBW has set up and sponsored vegetable gardens on the grounds of nearby nonprofit partners. They started with a part-time employee and a few volunteers. Two years ago, FBW hired Douglass DeCandia  as a full-time food growing program coordinator, under a grant from Westchester Community Foundation. The program raised its goals to include significant organic vegetable production as well as providing vocational training services. They turned more lawns into gardens, and expanded from three to five sites. Now at each work session managed by DeCandia between three and ten clients or volunteers may participate.

All food grown is donated to WFB, which distributes it to over 250 hunger relief agencies in Westchester County. Students and staff at each site can take home however much produce they want. Agreements with food distributors prevent the host facilities from using the produce directly.

FBW’s nonprofit partners

“The adult men incarcerated at Westchester Department of Corrections can take direction quite well and do not need constant supervision,” says DeCandia. The population rotates about every three months. FBW has operated a ½ acre garden at WDC for some time, raising tomatoes, callaloo, summer squash, dry beans and cabbage, and an assortment of greens: kale, swiss chard, collard and mustard.

At Woodfield Cottage, young adults between 14 and 17 years old attend school while awaiting trial. A one acre garden is planted with corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, eggplant, cabbage and asparagus. Leake and Watts houses emotionally troubled high school age students, and a ½ acre garden.

Recently added to the program are Westchester Land Trust’s Sugar Hill Farm and the New York School for the Deaf.

Sugar Hill Farm is the only FBW garden at a private residence. Four separate lawn areas were recently tilled and combined into a ¼ acre garden. The number of community members who sign up for two volunteer days per month varies. Since there is no fence, FBW grows crops that deer don’t like: mustard greens, arugula, turnips, scallions, onions and leeks.

High school age students attend NY School for the Deaf at its Fanwood campus. A supervisor translates for DeCandia, and communication is improving as he learns more sign language. A ½ acre lawn was turned into a garden in the spring of 2012 and planted with garlic, scallions and mustard greens.

Gardening programs complement but do not replace WFB’s hunger relief programs, says DeCandia. He encourages groups implementing this model to get future food recipients involved from the start. “Teach the hungry how to grow food for themselves and their families. While providing them with nutritious food, give them access to gardening space, seeds and tools.” Contact him at 914.494.6986 / 914.909.9612 or  

How to replicate this model in NYC 

Decandia lists the basic ingredients to replicate this model: (1) a nonprofit with a desire to promote food security and the capacity to distribute food, (2) funds to pay for a farmer / educator, who can be either part-time or full-time; (3) funds to pay for tools, seed and other gardening supplies; (4) one or more cooperating facilities with a lawn that can be turned into a garden; and (5) labor, either from the site’s clients or community volunteers.

NYC nonprofits can explore this process with minimal investment, using existing staff and resources.  Rather than applying for a grant to hire new staff, a nonprofit can assign a current staff member to organize a gardening project as part of their duties.  Initial successes can lead to other grant funding opportunities, and eventually, perhaps income from the project.

While broad grassy lawns are certainly more abundant in Westchester, there are still many in the five boroughs.  S
tart with an inventory of nonprofit groups in your community that have lawns, but don't stop there.  Vacant lots can also be used for food production.  City officials and gardening groups are already working to make this more common. 

Activating nonprofits - and vacant lots

As explained in the report “Engaging Community Groups to Promote Energy Efficiency, Solar Power and Local Agriculture,” community based nonprofits can be effective marketing partners for sustainability programs, by leveraging their established reputations and strong network of local relationships.  By linking neighbors, community stakeholders and providers of gardening training, nonprofits can play a catalytic role in spreading urban agriculture. 

For this to work, other ingredients have to be added to the mix.  To give nonprofits the incentive to take such projects on, there must be opportunities to gain social capital, benefit its neighbors, and earn some income. And to create gardens in temporarily accessible spaces, or those where there is poor soil or no soil, there are innovative gardening practices to be applied.  

Details in the next post: Opportunities and obstacles for urban food production: how nonprofits can aggregate nontraditional temporary garden plots in their neighborhood using portable sub-irrigated planters, biodegradable temporary straw bale gardening, and the SPIN method.