The greenest apartment building in Detroit

Tom Brennan calls them "bioneers." They're residents of the historic El Moore, a recently redeveloped five story apartment and hotel building at Second Avenue and Alexandrine Street. The term isn't a play on the misguided phrase urban pioneer, but rather used to describe those living in the environmentally sustainable El Moorea building so energy efficient, in fact, that sometimes it got too hot. In winter. 

It's an adventure in triple bottom line living, which Brennan and his team have adjusted to in the first year since opening. Tom and his wife Peggy purchased the El Moore in 2009, when it was a shell of itself with collapsing floors and pigeons as its only residents.

One of the El Moore's apartments

The Brennans are no strangers to running a triple bottom line business. Their first, the Green Garage, is an office building located just blocks from the El Moore that utilizes the same business approach. Both meet certain financial expectations, in addition to social and environmental ones. (For more on the Green Garage, read this article from Model D)

They started by making the El Moore as energy efficient as possible. Ten-inch super-insulated walls. Triple E glass. Geothermal heating and cooling. The first commercial cistern in Detroit, used for recycling rainwater. 42 solar panels that provide two months worth of energy per year. Scores of repurposed materials. Robust composting practices.

The features installed at the El Moore, originally built in 1898, have worked so well that the Brennans had to dial it back a bit. In the building's first winter, residents and guests complained that the building was too hot. Mitsubishi, the manufacturer of the geothermal HVAC system, flew in a team to Detroit to address the issue and create a new "off" setting. Typical buildings don't need their HVAC systems engineered to be off, but there's not much typical about the El Moore.

Rooftop solar panels

"Can you imagine being in a building, when it's about between 15 and 20 degrees outside, and some units need cooling?" asks Brennan. "We're then taking heat out of that unit to heat a different part of the building, so it operates more efficiently."

It's not just its exceptionally low energy output that makes the El Moore unique. The mixed-use nature of the building, 12 residential units and 11 hotel units, offers residents and guests plenty of opportunities to interact with one another. The hotel's location in an apartment building in the middle of a neighborhood allows them to also interact with nearby neighbors. Guests have easy access to people, and therefore ample opportunities to learn about the city.

There's also a diversity of residents. Four generations of Detroiters live at the El Moore, ages two to 70. Brennan was adamant about constructing an elevator shaft on the side of the building, saying it wouldn't be worth saving the building if it wasn't accessible to all, extra costs be damned.

View from the El Moore

The El Moore is tall for Midtown. All that height, five stories to be exact, offers stunning views of the city and its surrounding communities, from the downtown skyline to the Ambassador bridge. Even the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn is visible from the El Moore's roof.

These views are available from the four attractive rooftop cabins that incorporate materials reclaimed from the construction site—re-purposed wood, door knobs, lathe, and more.

Jason Peet, manager of the El Moore lodge and residences"One part of sustainability that we really, truly believe in is not coming from design first, but seeing how the materials lend to the design," says Jason Peet, manager of the El Moore lodge and residences. "All the wood that you see in the cabins is not there because we designed it to have re-claimed wood walls and went out and found it. It's because we had the wood and built out of it."

To further increase neighborhood synergy, the Brennans are currently redeveloping a lot adjacent to the El Moore into a park that will be open to the community and used, in part, to teach neighborhood children different aspects of sustainability.

The El Moore is another in a growing list of sustainable projects in which the Brennans are taking part. In doing so, they're demonstrating that not only are these developments environmentally sustainable and socially aware, but also economically viable. It's not pie-in-the-sky thinking—the Brennans are proving that these projects work.

"We have these extreme weather patterns now and, if you don't have a thermal envelope on your building that can withstand climate change, you have instability in your business," says Brennan. "Either you're going to have to pay those energy bills or your residents will...It's hugely practical.”

And sustainable, too.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.
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