Lofty Ambitions

An abandoned Brooklyn warehouse heralds the onset of hipster environmentalism

| July 15, 2004


Sustainable living, though universally recognized as a worthy goal, has often been characterized as the stuff of wealthy hermits and communal farm dwellers. But two New Yorkers have built a haven of green living within the urban landscape, proving that creativity and determination are the only two qualifications for taking the sustainability leap. Sculptor Benton Brown and his wife Susan Boyle converted a 14,000 square-foot building in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn into an environmentally friendly apartment building. The project, financed largely through private investments by friends and family, took two-and-a-half years of hard work and involved a team of seven unskilled workers trained by the couple. Though Brown and Boyle are both novices in the fields of construction and engineering, they have become pioneers, inspiring academics, politicians, and fellow eco-urbanites.

While Boyle is an experienced advocate for urban environmentalism, having worked for years at Transportation Alternatives lobbying for a better urban infrastructure for cyclists, Brown became interested in the project because of the engineering challenges it presented. Both Brown and Boyle rose to the challenge, crafting the building's eco-friendly infrastructure using high-tech gadgetry and clever construction. Much of the building is made from neighborhood salvage, and its utilities are provided through radiant heating, natural ventilation, a rainwater collection system, a high-efficiency condensing boiler, and a solar energy system that creates nearly half of the building's electricity. 'It was just amazing to find out how much better sustainable building functions than conventional building, how logical it is,' Brown glows. 'I think of it more as 'high-performance' than eco-friendly.'

By proving that city life and green life are not mutually exclusive, Brown and Boyle are helping dispel the image of New York City as an asthma-inducing concrete wasteland. Boyle asserts, 'New York City, to me, is the greenest city in the world, for the energy efficiency of its compact living and ease of public transportation.' With a long waiting list of potential tenants for her pet project, Boyle's vision of a green Brooklyn is becoming a reality.
-- Brendan Themes

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