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Peggy Brennan Headshot

From Model Ts to Green Start-ups

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I'm sitting in a beautiful 1920s-era building in Midtown Detroit, a former Model T showroom, that two years ago was an unsightly warehouse. In two years' time it has been transformed into a net-zero energy building that houses green start-up businesses. I'm in a small meeting room that's filled with natural light, typing this on an old refinished teacher's desk that has come from the U.S. waste stream, sipping a cup of organic, fair-trade coffee. And yet I remember our winter in the warehouse two years ago, making plans for this building and wearing as many layers of clothing as possible to fend off the ever-present chill of an inadequately heated, dark cave. The transformation of our building -- 4444 Second -- in Midtown Detroit from cave to an energy-efficient co-working community space called the Green Garage has been a fascinating one. Let me take you back a few years.

Projects like this often start with a change in one's life, and in our case this proves true. My husband, Tom, retired from a management consulting career in 2001, and after some thinking and reading, decided that he'd like to work in the area of environmental sustainability. What that entailed wasn't entirely clear, but I agreed to join him on the journey. Our decision sparked interest among some of our friends, and our little group spent five years meeting every Tuesday morning from 10-12 at our kitchen table learning how to change our lifestyles in a more sustainable way. Into our lives came rain gardens, compost pails, dual-flush toilets, organic foods, rain barrels. We spent long periods of time studying things like transportation, gardening, water and energy. You could say that in five years we earned a self-taught 'master's' in sustainability.

At some point in our discussions, we decided that it would be interesting to develop some sort of green demonstration center. We wanted to locate it close to a university, and immediately Ann Arbor came to mind. So we spent a year scouting locations for our 'green' center in AA. During this time, a number of voices whispered in our ears: How about Detroit? To be honest, we hadn't thought about Detroit, but the more we considered it, the more it made sense. We centered on Midtown, as it is the home of Wayne State University. Our building is the first we saw. We fell in love with it. Even though it was squat and ugly, with bricked-in windows and weeds protruding from the foundation, the openness of the space was wonderful (remember, Model Ts had once had a home there), and a trip to the mezzanine revealed that above the plaster drop ceiling were magnificent bow trusses that crossed the rounded ceiling. We were sold.

Once we bought the building, we sat with friends inside on some chairs we had retrieved from a dumpster and said: Now what? It wasn't long before we began another set of discussions, this time centered on things such as net-zero energy, materials, gardens, green businesses, water, and daylighting. We studied a book called A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, taking his 'living building' philosophies to heart and changing our designs based on his 'patterns.' We ended up in these discussions for about one and a half years, and as word of our project spread among the Detroit community, we ended up including over 200 volunteers in the conversations.

Finally, in the fall of 2009, after our engineering plans were approved by the city and our designs were approved by the Detroit Historic Commission, we began the deconstruction process, followed by the beginning of our construction just a couple of months later. Fast forward two years, and we now sit in a beautiful, net-zero energy former Model T showroom, and how many people can say that?