Living Green in the D

This is the first in a monthly series in which Model D will explore green thinking in the Motor City.

In a city lacking even curbside recycling, let alone a citywide "green plan" (i.e., Chicago or Portland), it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees when it comes to sustainable development. After all, it sometimes seems like any development at all (think big box) is lauded and applauded — which is quite understandable.

But this very vacuum — as dictated by the laws of physics — has created opportunity. And Detroiters, intrepid as always, have found unique, creative, and often uncharted ways to fill that vacuum.

This is the first in a series of articles in which Model D will look at those who are filling the void, and bringing green thinking to the Motor City.

Man with a plan

Jacob Corvidae has a vision that ranges from the personal — like his choice to raise his family in North Corktown — to citywide — namely, his work with WARM Training Center.

Corvidae, like many of his activist peers, subscribes to the mantra that the personal is political and to that end hosts monthly gatherings at his crib, charmingly named The Crow's Nest. A few of the many projects — all in various stages of execution — nurtured at these EcoVillage Potlucks include Motor City CarShare, Detroit Co-Housing and the new monthly Corktown Garden Market. His home also serves as the Detroit drop-off/pick-up point for Maple Creek Farm's community supported agriculture program, an organic co-op located in the Thumb that provides its members with fresh produce weekly from spring through fall.

Starting from this foundation, it is no surprise that Corvidae isn't the type to work a typical cash-oriented 9-to-5. His job as Green Programs Manager at WARM Training Center means that he works to promote "green" building in Detroit, a challenge considering the numerous incentives already necessary to make development happen at all in this still-imperfect market.
Energy efficient is affordable

WARM's mission is to promote affordable, sustainable housing. It provides education to both the public and development-minded organizations. "Our history and base is as a community development organization, which is excellent in (getting us into) grassroots, on-the-street-programming," he says. Or in other words: Those who have done now teach.

In 2005, WARM provided energy efficiency classes to more than 3,000 people — primarily low income — in the Detroit area, arming individuals with solid information that empowers them to make small changes to their homes that make big impacts. "There are more than 'green' reasons (to do this)," Corvidae stresses. "There is a social impact, like in preventing homelessness, and giving people more money for medical bills, better housing and higher education."

Through a partnership with United Way's Non-Profit Facility Center, WARM also provides other nonprofit organizations with sustainability audits that advise these often cash-strapped entities how to renovate their buildings — or build new ones — with an eye towards healthier indoor air quality and more renewable energy systems, as well as on the use of practices and materials that are better for the environment. This program, geared towards service-providers such as group homes and homeless shelters, aims to help organizations spend their already-limited operating funds on better things than costly utility bills.

One success story is involves JARC, an organization located in Farmington Hills that provides assistance to developmentally disabled individuals and the organizations that help them. When JARC implemented the recommendations of a WARM sustainability audit, the organization saved $30,000 on utility bills in one year — enough to hire a new staff person. "It's that much more capacity to fulfill their mission, and it allows them to provide better services to their constituents," Corvidae says.

WARM is also stretching beyond its grassroots roots to provide technical assistance to builders and the general public, no matter their income level, to educate them about the advantages of green building and energy efficient homes. This can be tough, as any and all energy efficient measures in Michigan are currently voluntary, but they can also be valuable, he says. "Granite countertops are not the only thing to look for in a house! Energy efficiency can affect (a house's) durability and resale value."

Ever an optimist, Corvidae does not point a finger at the state's building code, which currently ranks 10th from the bottom nationally in terms of energy code requirements. Instead he focuses on spreading knowledge. "The information is out there, we're not inventing this information. The key is finding good programs to inspire people to use this information."

Would incentives entice a bottom-line builder to go green? Corvidae believes so, but only in the short term. "You can't rely on incentives. Financial incentives get it moving, but there needs to be a much wider marketing campaign to get the word out. (People) understand value. Once consumers are demanding it, builders will need to meet that demand — and not just commercial developers, but lenders, realtors and architects."

The big green picture

WARM's task is not an easy one, in part because many Detroiters need to get basic needs met first, Corvidae says. "You have to deal with starvation before air quality. (Basic need) preempts a lot of this work, which is why Detroit has not made more progress on this." But — here's where the vacuum theory comes in — he also sees this as an "opportunity to do it better."

More affluent cities have already made bigger strides towards true sustainability, but Corvidae says Detroit will have the benefit of learning from their decades of trial and error. "There is a notion that sometimes, to come in a little later is better (because you get to use) newer technology. In a similar way, Detroit can build a sustainable city for the 21st Century. In redeveloping, in rebuilding, we can mold a vision that takes advantage of wasteland and build sustainable communities instead of recreating suburbs that are already an outdated mode."

Corvidae's basic mantra of sustainable building for the masses is an inspiring one: "There is a myth, a perception, in the general public that environmental sustainability is an elite luxury — and you see this borne out around the country. We have an opportunity to apply these same concepts in a more diverse working class set of cultures and environment. Detroit can be a great proving ground for how sustainability need not be an elite upper class luxury — that it can be built into all levels of society."

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Habitat for Humanity Homes in the Core City Neighborhood are Energy Star Certified

Jacob Corvidae

Solar Panel, Flooring and Insulation Samples at WARM

Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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