June 8, 2016

Preservation, Business, and Sustainability Mark Detroit’s Green Garage

  • By: Dedria H. Barker
Green Garage Logo

photo by: Jason Tester Futures/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Detroit's Green Garage was an abandoned 1920s building until it was turned into a new center for sustainable business.

Often overlooked in the core of the city of Detroit is an array of impressive cultural and commercial buildings constructed nearly a century ago. One of those 1920s buildings, called the Green Garage, is escaping obscurity in the 21st century on the wings of a sustainable rehabilitation undertaken by Tom and Peggy Brennan.

Tom’s interest in sustainability began with his membership on the board of the River Raisin Institute in Monroe, Michigan, which seeks to develop, revitalize, or preserve sustainable systems of living. When Tom retired from property management consulting in 2001, he asked his wife to join him in studying sustainability. Peggy was studying library science at the time; she thought a project of their own would give her flexibility for their family.

In the fall of 2005, they formed the Great Lakes Green Initiative, a sustainability study group. A dozen or so people met weekly in the Brennans' home. A monthly evening meeting, also in their home, attracted up to three dozen people from all over, Peggy said, but many from their church. Their study led to wanting to establish a green demonstration project. The Brennans wanted a building near a university so students could participate in the live laboratory. They were looking in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, until a friend pointed to midtown Detroit.

There they found 4444 Second Avenue, just a few city blocks south of Wayne State University. Their mission: save the National Register-listed building, create a business incubator within it, and operate it in a sustainable manner.

In regular use since its construction in 1920, the building’s first tenant was Ames Built Sales Corp., which operated an automobile showroom there. The longest-running tenant was Kanners & Patrize Shoe Co., which wholesaled leather and other supplies to more than two hundred shoe repair shops and cobblers operating in the city. The Brennans purchased the building on December 31, 2007.

Green Garage Interior

photo by: Michelle and Chris Gerard

The Brennan family bought the Green Garage to save the National Register-listed gem and to create a home for sustainable businesses.

“We tried not to bring anything new into the building,” Peggy said. For example, the insurer behind Kanners & Patrize Shoe Co. had required the windows be bricked-in to prevent vandalism. The Brennans removed those bricks and turned them into a low wall in the back hall of the building.

The couple also used repurposed material to construct a handsome indoor greenhouse that serves as a foyer. The walls are made of window frames discarded from a power plant refurbishment. (The Brennans were on a bike ride when they spied the frames in a pile and begged to have them.) All told, the rehabilitation generated only two dumpsters’ worth of refuse.

The renovation highlighted the original architectural theme found in the bowstring shape of the original exterior window transom fanlights and in the original bowstring-truss ceiling joist. (Bowstring trusses are used to support large open spaces with no supporting columns in the middle.) Though they seem like new, the massive timbers of the Green Garage trusses—concealed by a drop ceiling for eight decades—were revealed for the first time in the renovation.

The Brennans took advantage of the bowstring truss to create collaborative open workspace. There are no offices with ceiling-to-floor walls and doors. At the Green Garage, the tenants are called businesses-in-residence. Their workspaces have five-foot-tall office walls, and some have no walls at all. Some “offices” are a chair at one of three conference-size tables. A place at the table rents for fifty dollars a month.

Why the low prices? There is no rush for the Green Garage’s fifty small businesses and nonprofit organizations (the largest employs seven people) to get going earning money. The businesses ranging from food and media to real estate and immigrant services are encouraged by a slow-growth philosophy to develop their ideas and plans before launching.

“Collaborative open work space appeals to young entrepreneurs,” says building/community manager Matt Piper. “It’s an opportunity to build skills. They don’t want to be siloed-off. They want exposure to different ideas and different ways of working.”

Community is an integral part of the business model. Community activities include a walk each Wednesday, a sustainable business leadership forum on Thursdays, and a brown-bag luncheon program and building tour (both open to the public) every Friday. One program example is “Dogs in Detroit,” a door-to-door educational effort to encourage homeowners to not chain their watch dogs to fences.

Since the building reopened in 2012 after renovation, conservation has been emphasized and measured. The standards are borrowed from a variety of sources, including the New York City Mayor’s Office on Environmental Coordination and the U.S. Department of Energy Federal Office Building Water Efficiency Report.

Green Garage Trusses

photo by: Michelle and Chris Gerard

Renovation of the Green Garage was intended to bring back the original design, including the forgotten original bowstring-truss ceiling joist.

Green Garage Entrance

photo by: Michelle and Chris Gerard

Fifty small businesses and non-profits call the Green Garage home. Low rent is a help to these professional idealists.

In the back hall of the Green Garage, a tally of the pounds of trash produced per month is kept on a white board. On the Green Garage web site, energy-use graphs show spikes during peak months that—not unpredictably—span the cold and drab Michigan winters.

Natural light comes through solatubes, which are small diameter skylights covered with lenses of magnifying glass. Other conservation efforts include a robust recycling program as well as composting to feed the worms in the roof-top garden.

“It was a complex, multi-year thought process,” Peggy said of their project. Once a dream, now a reality, the Green Garage model of business shows that with patience, sharing, and community, profit can be built with restored faith in place.

By: Dedria H. Barker

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