02 November 2009

introducing - the library of trash

This past Saturday, Halloween, I received my permaculture design certificate (hurray!). Today, I feel like I've been reborn with new eyes. I've put on my permie goggles and I'm not going to take them off.

As part of the class, each student had to design something using permaculture principles. This is the story of my project...

Something was born out of the design process which I wasn’t expecting. As realities were uncovered and patterns discovered, a broader picture came into view — maybe even something that was there all along. Sometimes all it takes is new eyes to see what lies before us.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
~ Marcel Proust

My original intention for this project was to design my business of helping people with environmentally exacerbated health conditions — like asthma and allergies — to find relief. And in thinking of this business, I thought of myself as the key component of it. I am what people will interact with.

So what do I interact with?

Imagining my surroundings as an extension of myself, I thought about the largest thing surrounding me immediately and on a daily basis — the building that I live and work in.
“The Belnord” — a 6-story, 41-unit apartment building built in 1921. It’s in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn — just downhill from the second highest point in Brooklyn — Mount Prospect Park — once the site of a reservoir, until the Catskill Mountain and Delaware River Valley reservoirs took over in the 1940s.

The Belnord is located in USDA Growing Zone 6B, fed by the Catskill/Delaware watershed west of the Hudson and Croton watershed east of the Hudson. The average rainfall is 46” with a peak dispersal of 4.53” in July. The wastewater treatment facility is Owl’s Head.

Owl's Head Wastewater Treatment Facility

We live on the third floor in a north-facing apartment with no direct sunlight. The desire to grow food prompted us to start a little garden under grow lights in our second bedroom or office.

JalapeƱos growing under lights in our apartment

The apartment is used in the traditional domestic sense, for sleeping, cooking, and eating — with the exception of an ever-growing collection of items some may deem trash. I call this my library of arts and crafts to be. It’s also located in the room I call “the office.”

There is a similar catalog of materials in the basement of our building called the recycling center. This recyclable trash gets picked up by truck and brought to a facility where lots of water and energy go into recycling it. All the rest of the trash goes to a landfill.

The basement, which is only accessible to residents by elevator, is also the site of a book exchange and the residents’ bicycle storage.

So I started noticing this pattern of trash, and this resistance in me to both not throw anything away and not take the elevator to the basement, where the recycling center is, and where I kept my bike until I decided to boycott the elevator.

And I imagined a place where I could take my trash and put it to good use.

But before I get to that, a little more context, or goals articulation.

The goals of this project are:
  • To grow and eat nutrient dense, delicious food
  • To maintain healthy air to breathe — in my own home, in the homes of those in my community, and in the air outside as well
  • To create a community of sustainably minded people
  • To reduce the amount of trash going into the wastestream
  • To make trash beautiful, and to change people’s minds about trash and its uses
  • To provide a center for learning the arts of gardening, crafting, food preparation, and all sorts of creating
  • To enhance the local economy through partnerships with budding like-minded businesses
  • To provide community members with right livelihood
  • To demonstrate what’s possible in the urban center — growing food, upcycling “waste” materials, providing positive work, education, inspiration


The plan of which is made entirely from repurposed and found materials.

The Library of Trash is a 7,000 square foot warehouse space with adjoining outdoor property.

It is a multifunctional space run by a multidisciplinary member cooperative. I am the generalist. My partners are gardeners, artists, crafters, builders, and cooks. We collaborate, we barter, we share knowledge with each other and the broader community.

In this space there is an experimental vegetable garden, a mini fruit orchard, four-season growing potential, a place to host events and classes, a place to create and experiment, and a place to keep materials for creating.

There is a strong foundation and purpose, yet the space adapts to meet the day’s given needs.

Passing by the Library of Trash you might be attracted by the living fence, yet detritus and pests will be repelled by it.

A street cart sells produce from our garden or prepared food from our kitchen in front of a window that displays our latest upcycling projects.

A covered bike rack stores our means of transport and distribution.

When you enter you are greeted by a member working at the mobile reception desk.

The member is crocheting a yoga mat bag out of plarn.

He directs you to the garden on the south side of the property to learn about biodynamic treatment of fruit trees. On your way out, you notice the living curtains which both keep the hot sun out in summer and filter the air indoors, while providing fresh oxygen to the building.

While waiting for class to begin at the picnic table on the deck, you can’t help but notice the greenhouse filled with citrus and other tropical produce. In winter, the greenhouse is heated by compost, and the greenhouse helps heat the building.

On the back of the greenhouse is a rainfed shower heated by the sun. The grey water from the shower trickle irrigates the vegetable garden.

Wastes from the garden and the fruit trees go to the compost. The compost in turn provides nutrients to the soil, and also heats the sink water in the restroom and kitchen.

The sink water, fed by the 2,000 gallon water storage units, goes to flush the toilets.

The toilets and the garbage disposal from the kitchen sink feed the biogas digester which provides cooking heat and heats the building in winter.

The kitchen serves as a demonstration facility for food preparation and preservation, as well as a lab for making and experimenting with beauty and cleaning products made from ingredients grown in our greenhouse and garden. These products are packaged in upcycled jars and bottles that our customers can return to refill.

When you finish your lesson in biodynamics, you go to the darkest corner of the property to learn about mushroom cultivation.

You love learning these new skills so much that you decide to stay all day and learn about upcycling glass bottles into vases and glassware. The materials for this class are sent down from the second floor via dumbwaiter.

You are so intrigued to see where these materials appeared from that you take the stairs to the second floor.

On this floor, you’re greeted by another member of the co-op. She gives you a tour of the trash library — materials amassed by members on dumpster diving missions or donated by community members.

Materials like old pipes, telephone wire, tin cans, and old silverware. Maybe you’re looking for a reclaimed window to make a cold frame or scrap wood from a gutted building to fashion a loom. And here are some scrap fabrics to weave a belt or plastic bags to weave some placemats. How about a decoupage or papier-mache project from junk mail and old catalogs?

You hear sounds of sewing and sawing so you ask to see where it’s coming from.

In the studio space, there’s a co-op member building a compost bin from wooden palettes collected from the curb for a nearby community garden. Another member is making cloth napkins from old dress shirts to sell at Sunday’s market being held on the roof.

The roof? You ask. Yes — do you want to see it?

And up you go to the top of the Library of Trash.

You take the stairs, but if you weren’t able-bodied, the elevator reaches the roof.

In front of you is an expanse of green — greenroofing that attracts native pollinators while keeping the building cool in summer. It also provides a sense of refuge in the urban landscape.

Solar panels add a redundant source of energy to the biogas digester — to power the elevator and any electric appliances.

You smell something baking and walk to the west side of the roof. Bread is baking in the solar oven. The flour was provided by a local grower of heirloom grains, exchanged for a wind turbine that our co-op made from old bicycle parts in order to power their mill.

You notice the dumbwaiter also reaches the roof. This makes it easier to bring materials to the roof for big events and market days.

The roof itself is a giant, 3,500 square foot surface for catching rainwater – enough, not subtracting greenroof absorption, to collect 2,100 gallons of water per one-inch rain event.
There is also a small shelter housing a bar for events that serves as rainwater catchment for rooftop use.

And there are skylights lighting the workspace below.

Wow, what a long day, you say.

And I turn to you and ask, want to stick around for a sunset rooftop yoga class?