A green building culture is emerging in Detroit

This year's erratic weather has been tough on people and property in Metro Detroit. One of the coldest and snow-filled winters in memory gave way to a rainy summer where successive storms caused record flooding. During winter, many dealt with frozen pipes and exorbitant heat bills; in summer it was flooded basements and sewer backups.

But some buildings in Detroit were insulated from the extreme conditions -- by design.

"The Green Garage is, in essence, buffered from all that," says Tom Brennan.

The lobby of the Green GarageBrennan co-owns the Green Garage with his wife Peggy. The building, a historic Model T showroom in Midtown Detroit, was renovated between 2009 and 2011 to house a community of triple-bottom-line businesses, deliberately incorporating as many environmentally sustainable design elements as possible.

Despite widespread flooding in the vicinity, the building sustained no damage thanks to design features that mitigate stormwater, including a permeable parking lot and green alley and native plantings surrounding the building.

Green Alley next to the Green Garage

The Green Garage is part of a growing green building culture in Detroit. Those who advocate sustainable design cite a number of potential benefits -- protection from extreme weather being one of them. The most salient effect of green renovation, however, is reduced energy consumption, which results in lower utility bills.

Brennan cites a dizzying number of features that are helping the the Green Garage maximize efficiency: high-resistance insulation in the walls and roof, Cardinal glass windows that block UV-light, solar panels for heating water that is then circulated through a radiant floor system to provide further heat. Thanks to these design features and more, the Green Garage consumes just 15 percent the energy of a comparable office building.

Diane Van Buren's firm Zachary & Associates spearheaded the renovation of 71 Garfield, a historic building in Midtown Detroit featuring live/work lofts. Since the renovation, Van Buren says that the building now operates at one-third the energy expenditure it had previously. They achieved this level of efficiency by installing a 20 kilowatt solar system on the roof, a geothermal heating and cooling system, and foam-insulation, among others.
Diane Van Buren
71 Garfield

Private developers aren't the only ones realizing the benefits of green renovations.

Coleman A. Young Municipal CenterGregory McDuffee is president of the Detroit-Wayne Joint Building Authority, the organization that manages the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. He says that renovations to the center amount to energy savings of approximately $1.8 million dollars per year. Amazingly, many of these changes were simple and cheap.

"We discovered an enormous amount of low hanging fruit," says McDuffee.

The cleaning staff now works during the day, instead of at night, which required the lights to be on nearly 24/7. The building switched to single-stream recycling to reduce waste. 4,000 cooling boxes were retrofitted for increased efficiency.

Updated cooling system at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center

McDuffee wasn't the only one who emphasized the simple steps an average property owner can make to reduce costs.

"Forget the solar panels," Brennan says. "Good insulation represents 60 percent of your energy costs."

Jacob Corvidae, interim executive director of EcoWorks, a green advocacy organization, urged similar solutions -- more efficient insulation and windows -- as ways to reduce energy consumption. "These are relatively simple changes that pay for themselves within a year," he says.

Making a building more energy efficient confers a number of non-financial benefits -- it also has a direct effect on the mental and physical well-being of the people who live and work in these spaces.

"Almost everything we do to make our building more sustainable leads to a healthier work environment," Brennan says.

The Green Garage receives natural light from ceiling panels called Solatubes, filters all outside air, uses biodegradable cleaners, and maintains 30 species of native plant directly outside the front walkway and alley.

The Mariner's Inn, which provides shelter and services for returning citizens, renovated its building with the help of EcoWorks to make it more energy efficient. Solar heaters provide water throughout the building, sealed windows and proper insulation cut down drafts and exposure to cold walls, and well-filtered air reduces asthma and allergy triggers.

"The benefits of these renovations went to some of Detroit's hardest hit citizens," Corvidae says.  "These changes make a big difference. They feel like they've come out of the cold and we can reduce their health bills. This is crucial for someone trying to re-establish their life."

Green designers and activists hope their examples will lead to institutional change. They believe that their approach to building design, if adopted at the city-level, could have a major economic impact.

Tom BrennanBrennan makes a simple economic argument for sustainability. At the Green Garage, all the tenants are startups with little disposable cash. By reducing the amount that goes into utility bills, he says that that extra capital can go into the expansion of their businesses.

"It gets back to our competitiveness as a city and as a nation," Brennan says. "If we have high infrastructure costs that have to be born in our products and services, then we're setting our businesses up for failure."

In 2013, Michigan sourced 53 percent of its electricity from coal plants, much of it shipped from Wyoming and Montana. Van Buren says we should be asking ourselves, "How much does Michigan pay to burn coal for electricity that we could be providing by sunshine everyday?" On a sunny day, the solar panels at 71 Garfield supply half the electricity consumed in the building.

Taxpayers ultimately pay for inefficiencies in energy consumption. McDuffee understands this well, as he's directly answerable to the public. "Every dollar we don't spend, we save for our taxpayers," he says of his work at the Municipal Center. With this philosophy in mind -- McDuffee also added "environmentally appropriate" to the mission statement -- he has proposed a number of future energy and tax-saving renovations, such as a green roof made of sedum to lower the heat load and a more absorbent parking lot to reduce water runoff.

"Imagine multiplying that by 100 buildings downtown," McDuffee says. "You can make a real impact as a community."

Gregory McDuffee of the Detroit-Wayne Joint Building Authority

While McDuffee's vision may be not be realized anytime soon, he and others have witnessed a greater city-wide emphasis placed on green design. Van Buren has been touting preservation and sustainability since the early 1990s. Developers once expressed skepticism about plans like those for 71 Garfield, but now, she says, "It's a no-brainer...There's a new green culture in Detroit."

Like Van Buren, Corvidae has worked in this field for years. EcoWorks started 33 years ago ("We were green well before it was big"), but the organization's projects have gained more traction lately thanks to greater region-wide support. EcoWorks has collaborated with Detroit Public Schools, the City of Detroit, Henry Ford Hospital, the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, and many more organizations to form the Detroit Youth Energy Squad, Reclaim Detroit, the Green Task Force, and the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office.

While many green practices might make financial sense, in the end, sustainable design is about our relationship with the Earth. Using natural materials like clay and wood, allowing for the influx of natural sunlight, and having plantlife directly outside, Brennan wants visitors to the Green Garage to feel the building as an extension -- not a defeat -- of nature. This will, hopefully, have a subtle effect on their treatment of the environment elsewhere.

"You have to care about things other than yourself," Van Buren says. "If you care about the Earth and our grandchildren and the future of this planet, then the only bottom line you have to look at is an environmental one."

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.
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Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.