The Green Garage Hopes To Incubate Urban Sustainability in Detroit

11/23/11Follow @XconomyDET

For months, we watched the renovations and wondered what the heck they were turning that building a few doors down from the Bronx bar into. A Whole Foods, someone said. A bike shop, the construction worker lounging outside the building two summers ago told me confidently. Finally, we divined a name from the sign posted on the door facing the newly landscaped alley telling UPS how to handle deliveries: the Green Garage. “Oh yeah,” my boyfriend told me. “I heard it’s gonna be, like, a hippie mechanic joint.”

It turns out the Green Garage is not a boutique grocery store, bike shop, or a counter-culture mechanic—it’s workshop and office space available for rental by those who are developing cleantech business ideas.

“We want to work with businesses on their true development,” says Peggy Brennan, who, with her husband Tom, purchased the space and led a group of 200 volunteers in its design and development. “We’re looking for the core of what makes a business unique, viable, and good for the environment and economy.”

Acknowledging that most young businesses suffer from a lack of resources, connections, and funding, the Green Garage hopes to serve as a starting point, providing guidance with business plans, funding sources, and community connections. Once the businesses are established, the idea is that they will move out of the garage and into the Detroit business environment. The Green Garage also has a library dedicated to urban sustainability that’s available to the public for check out, and Brennan says anyone interested in urban sustainability can walk in and ask for help.

“Above all, we’re looking for people who want to work with others rather than in isolation, and that have a willingness to do what it takes to work in a green environment,” Brennan adds.

And what an impressive environment Green Garage is. The first thing one notices upon walking in is the welcoming scent of fresh-cut wood, and that’s because (the mostly reclaimed) wood is everywhere: a wall is made from pieces of scrap wood that was designed by a student from the College for Creative Studies, desks are made of fallen urban walnut trees, and the flooring came from an old popcorn factory. Look closely at the rails on the staircase—they’ve been repurposed from old gas and steam pipes. Desks, chairs, and doors have been salvaged from shuttered Detroit Public School buildings; the marble in the bathrooms is from the building designer’s garage. (The bathrooms are impressive enough from a design standpoint, but then Brennan mentions that they built a separate shower room to encourage people to use non-motorized transportation whenever possible and you see the true beauty of 200 people having a voice in the design of a building.)

But the Green Garage isn’t just lovely asthetically, the Brennans have also transformed the former Model T showroom and sundry goods warehouse into a net zero energy building. Instead of pouring environmentally unfriendly concrete to level the floors, they spent upward of seven months hand leveling it. There are 10 solar thermal panels on the roof, which will soon be joined by a garden and containers to collect rainwater. Hot water courses through the floorboards, providing radiant heat, while tight insulation ensures that the Green Garage will stay cool in the summer. (Even the insulation was reclaimed and trucked to Detroit from the East coast.)

The Brennans came to the Green Garage project after careers as an engineer at Accenture (him) and stay-at-home motherhood and library science (her). Peggy describes Tom as an “idea generator” who kicked off his environmental activism by serving on a couple of boards, then becoming deeply involved in efforts to clean up the River Raisin. “The Great Work” by Thomas Berry was very influential to both, and it led to them forming the Great Lakes Green Initiative, the collective of volunteers who started out meeting around a kitchen table to work together on changing their lifestyles to become more eco-friendly. That group grew into the team of 200 who eventually developed and designed the Green Garage.

“We just thought it would be interesting to set up a green demonstration center,” Brennan says.

Initially, the group looked for locations in Ann Arbor, because being near a university was a priority. But then the group began wondering what a green demonstration project would look like in Detroit, and the Brennans purchased the first building they were shown—the former Model T showroom at 4444 2nd Ave.

The Green Garage opened a few months ago, and already has two businesses, New Solutions and Final Five Productions, renting space. At full capacity, the Green Garage is expected to house 15 businesses, though Brennan says plans are always subject to change.

“I always tell people to please understand that they don’t need to do it all at once,” Brennan says. “We spent 25 years doing traditional work. Things evolve. It’s a process, and if you plan it too strongly, you can be disappointed.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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