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Revision as of 11:05, 2 May 2011 by Peggy Brennan (Talk | contribs) (General Questions)

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General Questions

(from e-mail to Jordan Schremm of Broward County, Fl)

What is the target audience of this project? The target audience is really any one who wants to live and work more sustainably, but we do have a focus on the people who will be renting business space from us, and the Midtown area of Detroit. We will be renting business and workshop space to people who have green business ideas (or who are currently working in a green business). We would like to provide them with green space to work in, help them with their business plans, help them find funding sources, etc. But we also will be actively working to help the community around us (and the online community) live greener lives through workshops, events and our urban sustainability library.

What financial or social benefits are expected from this development? We are a for-profit group, although any of the profits we make will go back into the business. We hope to be catalysts to support green businesses who will grow in the building then finally move on into the community.

Could I have some background information on your group? A small group of us from southeast Michigan started working in the area of environmental sustainability in 2005 with the development of a group called 'Great Lakes Green Initiative'. We met every Tuesday morning at our kitchen table in Troy, MI, and began the process of a deep dive into learning about sustainability, and in the process greatly changed the way we lived. One idea that sprang from this group was a green demonstration center (which eventually morphed into a green business incubator). We wanted to locate this center close to universities so we could take advantage of the student population. We ended up in Midtown, Detroit, close to Wayne State University and the College for Creative Studies. We bought the building in 2008 and met for 2 years before undertaking construction on our building. We will be finishing up construction some time in June of this year.

What are some of your biggest construction projects? We are in the middle of one construction project, and that is to do a green and historic renovation of our building at 4444 Second in Detroit. We are making the building into a net-zero energy building (it produces as much energy as it uses), and we are reusing most of the materials for construction instead of buying new. Please go to our construction page to see our latest work. The reason we are also doing a historic renovation is that the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, as it is a former Model T show room.

What is your plan for the project called “Green Alley”? The Green Alley was constructed last summer. We basically took an alley in Detroit, removed all of the cement, repaired the water main and sewers underneath the ground, laid a foundation of brick, some pavement, permeable pavers and gardens, and planted native Michigan plants in the gardens. The idea is to allow the water that falls in the alley to be absorbed into the water table and not go down the storm sewers (where it will co-mingle with the raw sewage during strong rain events and spill out into the lakes and streams). For more information, see our green alley page.

Why did you guys start this company? See my answer to the 3rd question. But also, we had college-age children and had concerns about job availability in Michigan, and thought we'd like to do something about it. Also, my husband became interested in the environmental movement around 2002, after retiring and serving on some boards, including the River Raisin Institute in Monroe that has an environmental focus. He also read a number of influential books at that time, including 'The Great Work' by Thomas Berry, which encourages our generation to pursue our 'great work,' which he feels is to reconcile to effects of the industrial revolution with it's effects on the planet. I joined him in this work right after I finished a Masters of Library Science, intending to some of the knowledge management work.

(from e-mail to Charlie Croom of Yale University)

1. Where did the funding for the project come from? If possible, do you have a breakdown of the estimated budget (initial purchase and renovation costs)? The funding came from my husband and me. The building cost $500,000 and the estimated cost of renovation is about $1,000,000.

2. I see that you had hundreds of people work on the building, were most of these unpaid volunteers from the community or are they standard contractors? What was the general reaction when you first approached them? We have a couple hundred people volunteer their time on this project, mostly in design meetings. When it came to construction, we hired crews to do the work. The volunteers came to us, not vice-versa.

3. This is obviously a very unique project in terms of the driving force behind it. It's very rare to see a non-commercial building such as yours which puts so much effort into being green. Why was this so important to your project? The building is a demonstration center, of sorts, for green ideas. Part of this is our background: In 2005 we started a group called Great Lakes Green Initiative where a small group of us met around our kitchen table every Tuesday from 10-12 and slowly learned about changing our lives to reflect a more sustainable lifestyle (rain gardens, geothermal heating and cooling, etc). This building is an outgrowth of that group. In addition, the plan for the building is to become a green business incubator, so naturally we want to work in a green building.

4. In the same vein, the design process was also very unique, bringing in outside consultants to meet with the core community designers. I've taken the liberty of calling this community-driven design. (if not just community design). What do you think the benefits of community-driven design are versus using a standard architecture firm? Are there any drawbacks? The biggest benefit is that you end up with a design that uniquely represents the best of a lot of talented minds. In addition, by the time the building opens we'll have a strong community that will move the business forward. The major drawback is probably time -- community work is a little slower than cranking design out alone. One thing I should mention -- my husband calls himself 'the bus driver' in that he leads the way for our work. In community work, it still helps to have a single vision that is providing the framework for the discussions.

5. What has been the hardest part of the renovation for you guys so far? I think the hardest part has been working with the current building community (contractors). We're doing some pretty leading-edge stuff, and it takes a special contractor to partner with us. While they are quite competent in their fields, they have not necessarily ever done exactly what we're looking for, so it requires quite a bit of time up front, meeting with them, to make sure we're all on the same page.

6. How do you think this project will affect the community around you, and how will it affect sustainable development in Detroit? We can already see how it has affected the community. I feel that it has given a lift to local businesses. Our building used to be used as a warehouse, for storage, and it used to be a hang out for the homeless and otherwise disenfranchised. Now it has trees, plants, beautiful windows, and most importantly, the traffic of the people who work there every day. In the long term, we're hoping that the people renting space from us will eventually take their businesses out into the city, making room for other businesses to come in. Since these are all green businesses, they will give a boost to Detroit's sustainable business environment. In addition, we are hoping to help our community learn from what we've done in a variety of ways - in particular, through our urban sustainability library (where we'll field questions about sustainable living and do up to 2 hours of research free of charge).

7. Why did you guys choose to make all the information public on the wiki? What are you hoping to accomplish through the site? My husband and I were greatly influenced by Wikipedia (and in fact attended one of their Wikimania conferences). Our philosophy is that information about sustainable living is a fundamental right for everyone, not something that is for the few who have the time and resources to do the research. Our goal is that we make all we've learned (and will continue to learn) clear and accessible to the public so they can benefit from our knowledge and begin making the changes we have made. And hopefully, we can learn from our visitors too.

8. I was wondering to what extent you think this project could be replicated throughout the Detroit community. Perhaps not with the same end goal, but the green construction ideas behind it? Everything we did in the building was done with the thought that it could be replicated in the Detroit community. We did the research for our project, but we're archiving the work so we can use it to be of help to others. In addition, we're setting up the Green Garage Labs so we can learn more about the building's performance and help others with questions about sustainability. For example, the labs just uploaded temp, humidity and light data taken from various points in the building, and will be continually adding data into perpetuity as the building moves through the seasons. Once we understand the performance of our building, it will help inform the advice we give to others in the community.

9. Similarly, if you had one piece of advice to give to another community group looking to build a sustainable building such as yours, what would it be? The best advice I would give is to take the time to do your research up front before beginning construction. We spent 2 years in design work - that's a lot of time! Also, you need to understand what you are trying to accomplish before beginning construction. We knew that we wanted a passive design, that we wanted to take it to a net-zero energy level, that we wanted to follow the 'living building' principles of Christopher Alexander, that we needed to meet our triple bottom line in each decision (environmental integrity, economic justice and community well-being), that we wanted to monitor the building's performance, and dozens of other things. I can say that since we began construction, we have kept true to all of the principles we set up in the beginning, and that's mainly because we spent so much time thinking about it.

10. Do you guys currently have any customers/renters lined up? And if so, what are their projects? We're opening in a beta period for 6 months with about 8 businesses starting up with us. Some of the businesses are people who have been volunteering with us all along (such as Kirsten Lyons, an intern who is bringing her Earth Central organic gardening business to the GG), and some are newcomers (such as Breeze Cab, a pedicab; or Jason's business, which will take lumber from deconstructed homes, fashion pieces of furniture from them, affix them with the address of the home, and send along a history of the residents of that home.)

Charlie, feel free to stop by if you're in town. Just let us know and we can make sure we're ready to meet you. We plan on opening June 15th. Please call if you have any other points you'd like me to follow up with. Thanks again for writing.

Peggy Brennan

Other Useful Material

  • PowerPoint: covers background of the project, history of the building, how we turned the building into a net-zero energy building, the importance of the community, links to our work. (on 2 of Peggy's computers)