To the outsider, it can be easy to miss what’s happening in Detroit. The things most people tend to see – and focus on – are the abandoned buildings that still stick out and feel entirely out of place in this proud city. But in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood, anchored by institutions such as Avalon International Breads, a wonderful revitalization is occurring.
In a nod to the Detroit of old, nowhere in Midtown is this more evident than in a former Model T showroom on Second Avenue. Within this unassuming building – listed on the National Register of Historic Places – the husband and wife team of Tom and Peggy Brennan have developed the city’s first green demonstration center for the surrounding community. Welcome to Green Garage Detroit.
This net-zero energy building is the product of years of research into environmental sustainability by the Brennans, and its purpose is not only to showcase the couple’s learnings but also provide office space and library resources for local businesses practicing a triple-bottom line business model (i.e. a responsibility to people, the planet and profits). The center opened its doors this past October after a four-year planning process, in which the Brennans invited the local community to participate in the redesign of the showroom.
“It was amazing,” Peggy recalls during a recent visit to the Green Garage. “We had two years worth of design sessions that were generally a semester-long, and we had close to 200 people volunteer during that time. We had groups that were focused on things such as how to make this into a net-zero energy building, how we were going to manage materials within the building and how we were going to deal with water and the gardens.”
After harnessing the enthusiasm and expertise of the surrounding community, the Brennans then hired an architect to implement the plans, which were approved by the city within seven business days. “The normal turnaround takes months,” Peggy says. “We were so impressed by how the city worked with us.”
The couple spent the next two years implementing the plans, and they self-imposed an ambitious green goal along the way. “We said we were going to repurpose 90 percent of what was in the building, back into the building,” Peggy explains. “And for things coming into the building, we set a goal of 70 percent of it to come from the U.S. waste stream, and we met that goal.” By the end of the lengthy destruction and reconstruction process, they only ended up filling one and a half dumpster’s worth of waste.
Taking a tour around the facility, it’s not immediately apparent where all of the repurposed materials have been applied, and that’s the whole point. The center is a stunning testament to the aesthetic and functional possibilities of re-using materials and minimizing waste, from the attractive stairway made out of old steam and gas pipe to the stunning front wall made entirely of discarded wood scraps. The center even boasts a lovely greenhouse made entirely from repurposed wood from its previous life as a Model T showroom.
And while the Brennans view Green Garage Detroit as a resource and model for the community to learn more about sustainability, they are careful not to impose their own green practices on anyone. “The person across the street has their own responsibility, and I’m not personally trying to affect them and say that ours is better,” Tom reflects. “The change that we’re offering is by being accountable. If all we do is be accountable to the planet and be planetary citizens, then I trust people to do their own thinking and research.”
With support from the surrounding community, Green Garage is a pretty ideal place to start the learning process.