The Green Garage

An old Model T showroom in Detroit becomes a community lab for sustainable solutions

On a street still bearing the scars of the 1967 riots, in a city battered by blight and demolition, Tom and Peggy Brennan are changing the world—one sustainable step at a time.

In 2005, the Brennans and a group of friends in Troy, Mich., began meeting to discuss green technologies and responsible environmental stewardship. Their Great Lakes Green Initiative took off, quickly becoming a forum for shared discoveries—from the benefits of lowering water consumption to comprehensive approaches to reducing junk mail. "We all wanted to explore sustainability," Peggy Brennan explains, "to talk about how to lead more sustainable lives and make dramatic changes while contributing to our community." Within two years, group members decided that they needed a laboratory where they could put their green ideas into action.

The Brennans and their friends agreed that it would be ideal to locate close to a university. "That way we could take on students and interns and promote good thesis topics," Peggy says. By the fall of 2007, they'd found a vacant 1920 warehouse near Wayne State University in Detroit's Midtown neighborhood. Once a Model T showroom, later a garage, and eventually a shoe repair supply facility, the building on Second Avenue reflected the history of Detroit—from the period when automobile manufacturing dominated the city's economy to the era of the riots, when the owners could only secure insurance by bricking up the windows. The Brennans purchased the warehouse and announced the creation of the Green Garage, a building and a community dedicated to exploring sustainability. "This is our Scottsdale. It's what we bought instead of moving to a gated community somewhere," Peggy says. "It's where we can show the benefits of a green, historic renovation and incubate new green businesses to enhance Detroit's future."

From the beginning, the Green Garage was a cooperative venture. Working groups focused on key decisions: Could the garage be restored as a net zero building—one that generated enough renewable energy to meet all its own energy needs? Was there a way to manage water consumption and reduce runoff from an adjacent alley? Was landscaping with native plants a practical and affordable option?

In keeping with their sustainability focus, organizers committed to an ambitious construction goal. They would strive to retain 90 percent of material during restoration, recycle everything from steam pipes to flooring, then find new and productive uses for leftover items. The working groups also agreed that at least 50 percent of any new material would come from the waste stream. "We were not going to buy new wood, for example, if we could find perfectly good wood available on Craigslist," Peggy says.

This spring, after more than a year of construction (and only two dumpsters of refuse), the Green Garage will open. Tom Brennan says the results have already exceeded even his high expectations. Thanks to 19 inches of insulation in the walls and 30 inches above the ceiling, the building is phenomenally efficient. Solar panels on a 1960s-era annex will heat the water that flows through a radiant system in the garage floor. According to the most recent estimates, the cost of heating the 11,000-square-foot building for an entire year will total just $279. Crews reused nearly every item removed during construction: The bricks that once covered the windows now form a low wall around a workshop, and panes from those windows illuminate a greenhouse. Local artists reworked the steam pipes, which were redundant but too utilitarian to toss, into an elegant staircase. The pipes and salvaged wood are an integral part of the revitalized building. Detroit's first green alley has been fully planted and now runs for 220 feet alongside the garage, vastly reducing runoff that would normally flow into sewers.

Tom describes the completed garage as a "green business incubator … a physical presence that demonstrates how green ideas are also good ideas." In the 1920 portion of the building, the Brennans will rent space to tenants who are operating or hoping to launch green businesses. They will help renters secure funding and provide advice on making businesses more efficient. Peggy, who recently completed her master's degree in library science, will operate an urban sustainability library inside the garage. "The information we've compiled is not for the privileged," she says, "but for everyone. We want to share what we've learned with this community and help residents do research—for free."

With the project completed, the most surprising revelation may be financial. The Brennans learned that reconstructing the historic building and making it highly energy efficient cost no more than estimates for razing the structure and building new. "People so often say that it costs more to restore," Peggy says, "and it's just not true. Now we have the numbers to prove it."

 Her husband emphasizes that the Green Garage is more than a proving ground, and much more than one fortunate couple's hobby. "This is a story about 150 people collaborating on a dream," Tom says. "It's about all of us offering a skill or a gift that focuses on the future. We are holding the door open and hoping that everyone who's interested will come inside."

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