There's a hundred year-old manufacturing building on Detroit's near east side not unlike many on that side of town. Drive by it and one might have little idea that behind those old brick walls is a company at the forefront of a potential trendsetting technology.
What once was an automobile manufacturing plant a century ago is now home to Phoenix Haus
, a designer and builder of prefabricated building components for super-high efficiency homes.
Phoenix Haus subscribes to the Passive House approach of high energy efficiency building design and construction. This means that the building envelopes are super insulated, air-tight, consider the angle of the sun, and have high standards of ventilation. By pre-fabricating the components at their Detroit warehouse and then shipping the products to the construction site, Phoenix Haus is able to keep prices down and the technology more attractive.
Of course prefabricated building envelopes weren't invented yesterday. But it's a construction method yet to be embraced in the United States, and especially the Midwest, says Bill McDonald, founder and principal of Phoenix Haus. It can, however, be found all over Europe.
But McDonald thinks that Detroit is primed for their style of building and is considering a parcel in the city, perhaps Corktown, where they can construct one of their homes as a demonstration of the finished product.
"Pre-fab is the answer," says McDonald. "There's a ton of companies looking into this mindset. There's a ton of pent-up demand for it. It's the next step.
"It's a level of innovation that hasn't existed in the housing industry in years," he adds. "We've been building houses like we have since the 1940s and 50s, basically. There've been a few changes here and there but it's basically the same theory. It's like building your car in the front lawn."
While pre-fab is important to McDonald, the ultimate goal is to make buildings as energy efficient as possible—pre-fabrication is simply the means by which Phoenix Haus can make it happen. By employing the Passive House method, net zero energy homes is that much more attainable. A net zero building is one that matches the energy it consumes by producing its own energy, typically through methods like super efficient insulation and solar power.
Phoenix Haus is a family business, owned and operated by the McDonald family of Saginaw. It was borne out of another family business, Cech Corp., founded in 1936. The mother, Hilde, who still runs Cech, is an investor and co-owner of Phoenix Haus. The son, Bill, started Phoenix in 2011. And Kate, his sister, recently joined on as project manager.
The McDonalds purchased the building at 1000 Mt. Elliott St. in 2015, renovating for both their offices and production facility. The high ceilings and open space give the office a contemporary feel—and that's not to mention Bill's drum kit, set up just outside his own office. They're excited about Detroit and their place in it, hoping to see the city be at the forefront of another industry yet again.
"Detroit has a manufacturing mindset," Bill says. "So the people we're looking to hire, CAD designers or the people working in the shop—the city lends itself well to that kind of manufacturing. We've got a good pool of people to hire from."
It's a mindset that started a century ago, in buildings like the one they currently occupy.
Quick Facts on Bill McDonald
Title: Principle of Passive Haus
Date of Opening: 2011
One interesting job held before Phoenix Haus: cafeteria dish washer, Marquette University
What's your favorite TED talk: Sir Ken Robinson (Education reform activist)
Favorite drummer: Patrick Carney of the Black Keys
Bill McDonald will be giving a TED Talk on the Passive House methodology at the TEDxDetroit event at the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit on Thursday, Oct. 6.