Meditations on Green

Zen Buddhism teaches its practitioners to be in the moment, to approach life with thoughtfulness and awareness. So, it seems appropriate that they would also be thoughtful and aware when it comes to the environment.

The Detroit Zen Center in Hamtramck is proving that supposition correct with development plans for their campus located in Hamtramck's north end. Striving for a kind of green nirvana, the plans include an ultimate goal of zero fossil fuel usage.

The first step includes a $150,000 project funded by a $120,000 grant from the United Way's Non-Profit Facilities Center. The Zen Center is matching the grant with labor — which is possible because it already operates a licensed renovation business — and capital valued at $30,000.

"We want to ensure that our facility becomes aligned with the proper principles of living," says director Monk Myung ju Sunim Hillary Moga.

Appropriately wise words from a monk. And there are lessons from this Hamtramck project that we all can learn from.

About the Zen Cen

The Zen Center is run as a collective. There are currently 12 residents: Head monk Sahn Bul Sunim, three monastics and eight resident students. They eat organic foods, share their resources and tend to a community garden. The group also provides food to 18 local families that they plant, tend and harvest at a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm.

The campus currently consists of a duplex residential dwelling — known as the Grand Residence — attached to a Meditation Hall—  where visiting students and monks dorm and practice yoga — and a Zen garden across the street. The center also is working to purchase some vacant structures and lots adjacent to the garden.

The City of Hamtramck is all for the expansion of the campus. "The Zen Center is yet another example of the tremendous community assets that we have in Hamtramck," say director of community and economic development Erik Tungate. "Part of our goal is to empower entities like the Detroit Zen Center to creatively invest in our community."

Meanwhile, the two buildings they currently occupy will be getting some attention and a new building called a jitibang — a reception and community space — will be built at a 45° angle on the corner site, thus joining the duplex and the meditation hall.

Future phases of the Zen Center's plans call for the addition of a second floor to the Meditation Hall for more residential space and the conversion of the basement, which currently serves as workshop and storage space for the center's construction business, back to a commercial kitchen in order to operate an organic grocer and café.

How green is green?

The completely green jitibang will have a roof garden that reclaims water and solar-powered lights and heating.

Meanwhile, the Grand Residence and Meditation Hall will be retrofitted as sustainably as possible — and all the planned improvements are those that any homeowner (with some cash in-hand) can do fairly easily.

Improvements include:
Caulking and sealing around all windows, doors and joints;
• Replacing all windows with low-E, argon-filled, double-paned windows with fiberglass frames;
• Purchasing new Energy Star appliances;
• Replacing conventional lightbulbs with fluorescent LED lights; and
• Installing a new high-efficiency modulating boiler and a solar hot water heater.

Lessons from Zen

I, too, am the owner of an old home. My exorbitant utility costs have me wearing jackets inside in the winter. Plus, it drives me crazy when I stand by a window — even when it is sealed in plastic — and feel cold air blowing. I know I am spending money and using fossil fuels to heat the outside.

I am not a nonprofit (in the technical sense), but I decided to take some of the steps the Zen Center is taking to lower my utility bills and my level of environmental guilt. So, I spent a messy Thanksgiving weekend drilling holes in my walls and blowing insulation made from recycled newspaper into my walls, which has already made my house cozier.

Home Depot rents the blowers for free if you buy 20 or more bales of insulation—my 1300-square feet house inhaled 17 of them. My neighbor and I bought our bales together to save on the rental—she ended up blowing 13 bales into her attic.

And over the holidays last winter, I had new windows installed. They're just like the Zen Center's except that they are vinyl-clad wood windows, in accordance with the Detroit Historic District Commission's guidelines.

Another relatively simple thing to consider is replacing appliances with Energystar-rated ones as they go bust. Or when your hot water heater dies, think about a tank-less on-demand replacement. I have one and absolutely love it. Yeah, yeah, it's environmentally- conscious— because it is not wasting energy heating water 24-7—but, more importantly to bath-takers like me, it never runs out of hot water.

Jerry Belanger, who opened the Park Bar, installed an on-demand water heater and dazzled city inspectors when he had every sink (kitchen, bar and bathrooms) full-blasting hot water at the same time with no temperature diminishment. Belanger is also lighting his entire bar with a total of 130 kW of electricity, which is the equivalent of two standard light bulbs. He estimates that in four months he will have made back the higher purchase cost of the LED bulbs with his energy savings.

Yes, most, if not all, of these things cost more initially. But you can get tax credits as well as major savings on your DTE bill. Just think of it as getting your home ready for the future. Energy analysis and savings is not going to become less common, rather more necessary and ubiquitous.

While it may not always be easy being green in Detroit, the more I write about these issues, the more I see that there are lots of very progressive initiatives that are all seemingly on the verge of converging.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is development news editor for Model D and writes about sustainability for Model D and metromode.


Zen Center's Hamtramck Peace Garden

Entrance to the Zen Center

The Meditation Hall

A Buddha in the Garden

Hanging Robes

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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