Brooklyn has become the worst-kept secret as a hipster haven of artisanal bakeries and high-end tattoo parlors. As such, the industrial building rising above Brighton Beach—covered with photovoltaic panels and roof-mounted wind turbines—barely merits a second glance. The condominium, with the optimistic moniker Bright ’n Green, is pursuing a slew of sustainable design certification programs, including the Living Building Challenge (LBC), LEED Platinum, and Passive House. If successful, it will set the bar high for a bright and, um, green future for housing in the area. Behind the façade, however, the project is raising some eyebrows in the local building community.
The developer behind Bright ’n Green’s solar panels, turbines, and net-zero energy target is Robert Scarano Jr., AIA, a brash, native son of Brooklyn’s more rough-and-tumble construction history. Scarano is linked to several controversies that sound like the stuff of urban legend for architects: hiding bathrooms behind drywall, registering lofts as storage areas to skirt local zoning limits on square footage, and allegations of out-and-out building plan fraud.
For Scarano, Bright ’n Green is more than an opportunity to stand at the forefront of sustainable housing. It is a chance for redemption.
“People look at me like I have two heads because I’ve now gotten into green building,” he says. “But I’m doing everything to show that I now know there are two sides to every story besides my own. Believe me: I listen a lot more than I used to.”
Scarano may not be well known outside New York but in many ways, he has had the largest hand in shaping the aesthetics of his home borough. Dubbed the “the supersizer of Brooklyn” by The New York Times, his namesake firm was once one of the most prolific in the city, working on hundreds of mostly small-scale projects in the last decade. Critics alleged that he put the needs of his clients—developers who wanted to maximize profit by maximizing sellable space—above good taste or any regard for building codes. In 2005, for example, he proposed perching a 40-foot-wide addition incongruously atop the roof of a 19th-century warehouse being adapted into condos in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens. Neighbors, outraged by the perceived assault to the community’s aesthetics, nicknamed the project “the Hell House.”
The addition, which was partially constructed, was ultimately nixed and deconstructed. But the complaints kept coming. In 2010, the New York City Department of Buildings barred Scarano from filing any documents with the city after he allegedly submitted false information to a self-certification system—a system that was put in place to make processing building plans easier and cheaper for architects and developers. The decision effectively barred him from working as an architect in the nation’s largest city. Despite several appeals, the ruling stands today. And it is why Scarano now calls himself a developer.
Though the firm Scarano Architect is heading up Bright ’n Green, Scarano says that the office works independently of him. Still, the project exudes Scarano’s characteristic go-big approach. After completing several sustainable design courses at the city’s Pratt Institute and New York University, Scarano says he decided to put “skin in the game” by funding a project. Bright ’n Green has no other owners or developers because he had “no real idea where I was going to land” with it and wanted to be “wholly responsible,” he says. Scarano did call upon the expertise of several architectural and engineering colleagues in his firm—including Scarano Architect project manager Yuriy Menzak—in what Scarano says was a collaborative effort. However, he says, he left the day-to-day design decisions to his firm. The Department of Buildings confirmed that Scarano was the original applicant of record for Bright ’n Green in 2007 and that he was later superseded by David Silberman, an engineer who assumed liability for the project. However, Silberman himself is listed on the Department of Buildings’ website as having “voluntarily surrendered his ability ability to professional certify building documents submitted to the DOB” in 2005, says NYC DOB press secretary Kelly Magee. The DOB and Silberman did not respond to written requests for clarification.
In 2011, construction of Bright ’n Green kicked off with the remediation of its brownfield site. To meet the project goal of net-zero energy, more than 130 solar panels cover nearly every inch of the six-story-tall façade, and 6-foot-diameter wind turbines will stand on the building’s roof. The roof will also house the community hot tub, which is fed by an evacuator tube hot water system and sits adjacent to a nesting bird and bee haven. The building’s regenerative-drive elevator will consume less than the equivalent of $28 worth of electricity per year, Scarano says. Tenants will have the option of unlocking the elevator via a smartphone app, which is intended to make them think twice before taking unnecessary trips up and down.
Two of the six condo units have large balconies—upwards of 200 square feet—that are designed more like roof gardens than the conventional urban high-rise backyard. The balconies will be filled 1 to 2 feet deep with soil in a pattern meant to evoke rolling hills and planted with native vegetation. Captured rainwater will drip-irrigate plants on the main roof and at the building entrance. Other energy-efficiency measures include 24, 50-foot-deep geothermal wells for heating and cooling, a building envelope comprising R-48 structural insulated panels, and triple-glazed windows with a 0.17 U-factor. An energy-recovery ventilator will filter air throughout the building, and a monitoring system from PowerWise Systems will collect metrics such as energy consumption, carbon footprint, and temperature fluctuations from 160 different points. Bright ’n Green is scheduled to be completed by this year; units are listed on the market now and currently range in price from $325,000 to $850,000.
In terms of design, Bright ’n Green still incorporates many of Scarano’s signature elements. Four duplex units have loft spaces similar in configuration to those that got him in trouble with the Department of Buildings in the past when he classified them as storage. This time around, however, Scarano says that he registered the lofts as “habitable space.”
If it delivers, Bright ’n Green will be the fourth LEED Platinum–certified, multifamily residential project in New York City. It is also one of the first multifamily projects in the nation registered to pursue full LBC certification to date. However, certification is never guaranteed. LBC, for example, requires projects to be net-zero waste, thus precluding them from connecting to the municipal sewer system. However, New York does not allow projects to manage blackwater on-site. Scarano says he can circumvent this rule by providing the ability to offer blackwater waste management in the future, a tactic other projects pursuing the certification have tried. Amanda Sturgeon, FAIA, LEED Fellow, LBC program director, says that certification will not be granted until the building can prove it has no sewer connection for at least the 12 months after first occupancy, as well as meeting the other certification requirements.
As for Bright ’n Green’s bold aesthetic, Sturgeon and Jacob Kriss, a media associate at the U.S. Green Building Council, both say that community reaction to the aesthetics of Scarano’s previous buildings play little role in their respective programs’ certification decisions. “It is not the Institute's role to make judgment on the design teams that chose to use the program in their projects,” Sturgeon says. “We do have some requirements [in one facet of the Living Building Challenge] about the scale of projects that the project will need to demonstrate it is in compliance with during certification.”
Only time will tell if Bright ’n Green opens the doors to innovation in green building—and if it will fall victim to its developer’s ostentatious style. But Scarano remains undeterred and as ambitious as ever. He already has plans for similar green residential projects, as well as for green schools, churches, and medical buildings. “In the past, I got trapped in this Hollywood world of building really cool buildings that were selling and not worrying about what we were doing,” he says. “I didn’t know I had to satisfy every human being, not just clients.”
Like its neighborhood in the ever-shrinking areas of Brooklyn that remain working class, Bright ’n Green stands at the cusp of garnering the cachet and global reverence once reserved for Manhattan, and the corruption of its catch-as-catch-can past. And so does Scarano.