Green Developer Robert Scarano “Brightens” Brighton Beach
If a tree can grow in Brooklyn, so too can a building green enough to help a few more of those trees stand tall in Brighton Beach.
The Bright ‘n Green residential building in Brooklyn’s oceanside neighborhood has the technology and eco-friendly design that virtually produces its own energy, releases barely any carbon emissions and heats its own water by way of solar energy.
In other words, this is the net zero building that could spell “the end to energy bills” — at least, so claims Robert Scarano, the proud developer of Bright ‘n Green.
“I kind of took on this job with the intention of showing the industry what a proper building looks like and how it should be,” says Scarano, adding that the building “could use so little energy and produce so much energy that it can really be off the grid.”
While his building is not entirely “off the grid” (it still sources power from Con Edison), to give people a better idea of how “green” this building can be, real-time data monitoring software gathers information from more than 100 sensors placed throughout the building. These sensors break down how many tons of CO2 were spared from being released into the atmosphere (30 tons per year, according to the building’s website), how many trees are being saved, and how much money the residents of Bright ‘n Green are saving.
The six units in the building are heated and cooled by a geothermal-based air conditioning system, which uses the temperatures from the earth underneath the building to heat or cool fluids as they pass through an underground network of pipes. Wind turbines and solar panels perched atop the building generate enough power to meet a bulk of Bright ‘n Green’s daily energy needs.
For instance, a sunny October 17 generated 181 kilowatt-hours for the building — enough to charge an electric car to drive eight laps around the Monaco Grand Prix, run a refrigerator for 40 days and charge the average cell phone for 5.6 years, according to Bright ‘n Green’s Emphase Solar Energy Dashboard.
As for the wind turbines, Scarano says those can run the entire building for “two days and constantly keep charging as long as there’s wind, which we think is pretty easy to get in this location, because near Brighton Beach there it’s quite windy.”
Rainwater storage tanks collect tens of thousands of gallons of rainwater for daily indoor use. Greywater is collected through separate plumbing and piping. Solid waste is sent down to a worm composting system.
The building owes its clean internal air to an air quality control system that dehumidifies, ionizes, and heats and cools air through natural power sources. A liquid desiccant air conditioning system uses a solution made of salt that rids the air of harmful airborne germs and other contaminants.
“There’s no dander, there’s no microbiology, there’s nothing in there,” says Scarano. Still there are challenges in maintaining a clean internal environment at Bright ‘n Green, he explains.
Volatile organic compounds, or “VOCs,” are often found in paints and cleaning products and contain a mixture of chemicals that can cause potentially harmful effects to those living inside the home.
“The things we put into the building — the wood and the boards and the materials — all generate low levels of VOCs,” Scarano says. And he can’t prevent people from bringing in furniture made of pressboard and glue that could “shoot the VOCs up tremendously.”
The building can maintain these levels even with the windows closed, thanks to an ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) system that circulates fresh air to each apartment throughout the day, Scarano adds.
Bright ‘n Green has garnered some impressive eco-certifications along the way: a perfect four-out-of-four Green Globes certification and an Emerald ranking (the highest available) from the National Green Building Standard, among others.
This is a big shift from the simple tenet to how Scarano once designed his buildings in the heyday of his career: with little mind to energy conservation.
“They didn’t really function great in terms of how they operated,” says Scarano. “[These] homes were hot, they leaked air, [and] the windows weren’t of good quality.”
Another fault of these buildings: they sometimes were so big that they violated local zoning laws. This got him in hot water with New York City — the Department of Buildings banned him from filing construction plans with the city — and it nearly brought a premature end to his architectural career.
Seated in his cluttered office in Brooklyn, complete with an enviable view of the Manhattan Bridge and the East River, Scarano spoke in his native Brooklyn drawl about how, in that moment when his future as an architect was in doubt, he took on the role as the developer of Bright ‘n Green. In doing so, he found salvation in not building big, but building green.
“The building industry is sort of like the dinosaur of all industries — we do things so primitively,” says Scarano. “To build a building the way we build them is the most crazy thing you could imagine.”
He enrolled in and graduated from Pratt Institute’s Sustainable Building, Infrastructure Design and Management program. He reached out to virtually every consultant he could find: Tomás O’Leary of the Passive House Academy, Ray Leach of OceanSafe, and Jessica Baldwin of Solar Plumbing Design, among others.
A diagram of the geothermal cooling unit
“The amount of consultants I had on this job was probably more than the total amount of the Freedom Tower and the Barclay Center combined,” says Scarano.
Four years and $4 million later, Scarano has conceived of a building that he is confident will earn not just LEED platinum certification, but will also be given the Net Zero Energy Building Certification. That certification, which is overseen by the Living Buildings Challenge, is given to a building that uses energy from natural sources like the sun and the wind to “exceed net annual demand.” He is waiting to amass one year’s worth of data from Bright ‘n Green before submitting his application for the Net Zero Energy Building Certification.
“People had a tremendous fear of [green building],” says Scarano. “They thought it was very expensive, worried about acceptance, things like that.”
He adds: “In a county like this, at this point, we really have to start looking at this in a much more serious way.”