Most of us have imagined our dream home. Mine is one of those treehouse-cabins 30 feet up, overlooking an undeveloped lake. The likelihood of my fantasy abode coming true is slim, but some people make their ideal home a reality, and Gennaro Brooks-Church, founder of Eco Brooklyn Living Walls, is one of them.
"All day, people stop by, take photos, ask questions, and share their gratitude for this little slice of ecology in the city," said Brooks-Church of his Brooklyn town house. That's because he has fit a multitude of beautiful, creative, and ecologically sensitive aspects into its limited footprint.
"We are biophilic creatures, so our ideal habitat is full of natural elements. And in NYC where land is limited and costly, where else can you build but up?" he says.
The additions were not made all at once. Brooks-Church bought the building in 2008 and started adding the natural features you see below in 2009. Like the natural world that inspires him, each element has had time to grow and change to fit his family's needs.
The first thing you'll notice — even from down the block — is the townhouse's glorious green wall. It contains a huge variety of plants, including "shrubs like rhododendrons, jazz hands, brass buckle, sprinter boxwood, to perennials such as autumn fern, heuchera black pearl, liriope, and green carpet, among others," according to Brooks-Church. It's food-safe (plants grow in coconut fiber), so edible plants could be part of the wall in the future, and since it's drip-irrigated, it uses a minimum amount of water. In the winter, the plants insulate the house, and in the summer, they keep it cool, reducing energy costs in all seasons.
"Planting a living wall is like painting," said Brooks-Church. "I love the creative process of designing patterns and picking plants and textures that work in this environment, making it a living work of art. It’s the first townhouse facade covered by a living wall in the United States. Hopefully, this will be the first of many and, like so many things, it started in Brooklyn," he said.
Front garden and pond
City code in New York City says that ponds shallower than 22 inches don't need a permit, so Brooks-Church's is just shallower than that, though that's plenty to attract wildlife — and people. (There's a safety gate, too.)
"The draw is the pond does not look human-made — it looks like it's been plucked from a forest in upstate New York. People get emotional, stop me, and thank me for making this little oasis, and they meditate and soak up nature. I didn't plan it that way, but that's what happened!
"The front garden was built with native plants, like ferns, that I found from a friend's property upstate, and I used stones from the property's original foundation. Everything appears very dramatic and almost pre-historic, which is probably the case because people say stones in New York come from glaciers of another time."
Brooks-Church originally built the front pond for his kids, and today, he says, "Every kid in the neighborhood knows about it!" He didn't plan for it to be a turtle habitat, but the connection was quickly made in the community's hive mind. "People started bringing turtles, rescuing them from different places like fish tanks and Chinatown soups, so there are 11 or 12 today, making a turtle sanctuary," says Brooks-Church.
And it's not just a sweet resting spot for the reptiles: "At any one moment, there is always a person standing outside and looking at the turtles," he says.
Rooftop stream and garden
"Before Eco Brooklyn, I was a green-roof installer," says Brooks-Church. "With my own home, I wanted to push the boundaries of what you could do on a roof. I decided that building a river and a pond would be a real technical challenge, so it excited me. There was a lot of grading involved to create the right pitch angle for the water flow. Making sure the roof can handle the weight, and that the waterproofing is correctly done, is also tricky," he said.
It wasn't just a technical challenge, but also an aesthetic one: "There is a lot of detail and creativity involved in recreating a natural environment visually and literally. However, the rooftop now has a stream, tree, garden, two waterfalls, and a native box turtle — it’s a real forest! The plants are all native, ranging from coral bells and goldenrod to wild strawberries and blueberries," says Brooks-Church.
Natural swimming pool
The beauty of a natural swimming pool is that unlike the chlorinated version, it's a lovely addition to the backyard year-round. "The natural swimming pool has a moat of gravel around it, creating a surface area for beneficial bacteria and plants to reside — they consume the nutrients in the water and keep the water clean. A natural habitat has formed as there are frogs, salamanders, toads — it's a place for dragonflies to lay their eggs and where birds come to bathe," says Brooks-Church.
He admits it cost about twice as much to build the natural swimming pool, but he and his family appreciate that it creates an ecosystem and feels great to swim in. He's even tested the water and says it's cleaner than what comes out of his tap — which is a feat since NYC tap water has some of the best water quality of any large city in the U.S.
Even with the limited space of a Brooklyn townhouse rear garden area, there's more in the backyard than just the pool. "There's an oak tree and a pawpaw which creates fruit similar to a mango, but it's native. The backyard also has raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and black locusts. I built the backyard to be like an urban jungle with rocks — I wanted my children to learn to climb and explore, building their eye-hand coordination," says Brooks-Church.
All of these details add up to a beautiful, functional space that's now recognized as a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.
"In the very back, there is a two-story treehouse made out of wood I saved from a water tower. The floor area is 50 square feet, and each floor is made from salvaged glass panes from an advertising agency that was disposing of the material. The treehouse has a green roof on it with native plants. The kids hang out in it and play, and the grownups gather and enjoy nature in it."
Indoor living wall
Yes, there's a living wall inside the house, too! "This living wall is made from tropical plants from Florida, such as Boston fern, pothos, neon fern, and rabbit's foot fern. And this one has a lizard that came along for the trip — if you listen closely, you can hear it chirp. This wall is also automatically watered and it has grow lights that activate automatically at night," says Brooks-Church of his dream home.