The Fireboat House in East River Park Goes Green

The new green roof at the Fireboat House in East River Park, home to the Lower East Side Ecology Center
The new green roof at the Fireboat House in East River Park, home to the Lower East Side Ecology Center

As the extremely extended makeover of East River Park finally seems to be nearing completion, the park now includes far more plant life than it has recent years. But green space is always at a premium in NYC, as the Lower East Side Ecology Center knows well. Last month, the not-for-profit, which provides community based compost and recycling programs and encourages stewardship of green spaces throughout the city, installed a “green roof” on the Fireboat House, its newly renovated facility in East River Park. The green roof is a bed of plant life located directly on top of the building, which served as a base for firefighters patrolling the river in the 1930s. It will help keep the building cool in warm months, and should grow more full and vibrant with time.

Caroline Kruse, development director of the Ecology Center, explained that the roof is composed of plant life tailored specifically to survive on the banks of the East River. A company called Xero Flor designed the roof to endure intense wind and sun at the building’s location, near the Williamsburg Bridge.  The roof will help offset the sun’s effects on the building as well. “It will keep the building cooler,” said Kruse, “especially because we’re so exposed here.”

The Fireboat House is Parks Department property, and the Ecology Center operates with a license agreement, running programs focused on sustainability in exchange for use of the space. “It’s almost like a barter agreement, “ Kruse explained. As part of the Parks Department’s ongoing work in East River Park, the Fireboat House underwent a renovation helmed by DesignNYC, an organization that pairs architects with not-for-profits looking to improve their facilities. The Ecology Center also received a grant from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to incorporate a green roof into plans for the renovation, and Parks employees installed it in July.

The building’s inherent limitations influenced the roof’s ultimate design. “The roof really can’t hold that much weight,” said Kruse. “Like you can’t just put a rain barrel on the corner.” Other aspects of the structure are frustrating remnants of a its former use; the roof is only accessible by a long ladder, and a large shaft, once used to hang cotton hoses to dry, runs the length of the building. In addition, Parks employees managing the final stages of the East River Park renovation still occupy the second floor office space of the Fireboat House. For these reasons, the Ecology Center can’t currently offer much programming at the space.

“We will have more volunteer opportunities when we occupy the bulk of the space,” said Kruse. Currently, interns at the Ecology Center manage maintenance of the roof, but she hopes that responsibility can be turned over to the public eventually. She also discussed potential plans to install a staircase in the empty shaft to improve accessibility to the green roof, but that construction will likely not begin for years given the typically sluggish pace of construction projects in city-owned facilities. Still, Kruse sees the green-roof as model for sustainable designs at work in public buildings. “It’s a nice demonstration of how you can create green infrastructure on city property,” she said.