Green Garage Aims to Incubate Sustainability-Focused Businesses in Detroit

People’s interests evolve over the course of a lifetime, and right now the Motor City is benefiting from a tide of creative efforts to grant a second chance to a city once left for dead. That’s what’s led a Troy couple to put together a business incubator aimed at nurturing what it calls “triple bottom line” companies from an historic Detroit building being renovated as an environmentally friendly, net zero-energy showpiece.

The Green Garage is taking shape in a 12,000 square-foot former showroom for Model T-based automobiles in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood. The owners are aiming to open for business in September.

“I’m completely surprised at how many people have been attracted to this project,” said Peggy Brennan, who owns the incubator with her husband, Tom. “I had absolutely no idea that something that was somewhat casual for us at first turned into a serious interest. We’ve had more than 200 people volunteer their time and effort here.”

The Brennans say Green Garage is three things: the building, which dates to 1920 and was previously used as a warehouse; the green-business incubator; and a community of like-minded people who meet regularly in the building to discuss how to live sustainably.

Peggy Brennan, co-owner of the Green Garage, stands on a staircase made from scraps of reclaimed wood and pipes. The Brennans say the facility reused 90 percent of the materials salvaged from the former warehouse.

“Most people cannot live the way we live and have the Earth sustain itself,” Brennan said. “Americans consume 5 to 7 planets worth of resources to sustain themselves.”

The ambitious building design walks the talk through a variety of innovative green-energy renovations:

  • Various crews have retrofitted the high-ceilinged structure as a passive building, made to collect or reject solar energy depending upon the season, through features like solar tube skylights and heavy insulation. Brennan says these changes will reduce the need for heating or cooling by as much as 85 percent.
  • Solar thermal panels on the roof, which is painted white to refract sunlight and heat, heat water in two storage tanks, which feed the water through a radiant floor heating system.
  • A complicated Altherma heat pump will serve as a backup source for heating during sunless winter days but also help supply cool air in summers.
  • Crews have also completed what they call the Green Alley, an adjacent alley retrofitted with permeable paver bricks and deep-rooted plants to encourage rainwater to percolate into the water table, rather than wash off into storm sewers.

Brennan says the incubator aims to open with between five and eight startup businesses renting space and eventually house 15 businesses. Tenants must be focused on the “triple bottom line” of environmental integrity, economic justice and community well being.

So far, examples of enlisted startups include the bicycle taxi service Breezecab, a business that aims to turn restaurant grease into biofuel, an organic landscaping and gardening operation and Mend, which plans to make furniture using materials reclaimed from abandoned homes.

The Green Alley runs between the Green Garage building and the back of the Motor City Brewing Works.

Jason Peet, the entrepreneur behind Mend, said he became interested in the history of homes slated to be demolished through his involvement in redevelopment projects in Midtown. The idea is to research the history of each home and its previous inhabitants and find ways to capture that history in individual pieces.

“I started thinking of the problem of the number of homes being demolished,” Peet said. “I have an interest in seeing the material saved from landfills…but the history of the home is certainly of more interest to me.”

For the Brennans, the idea for Green Garage grew from years of involvement in the River Raisin Institute and the Great Lakes Green Initiative, which Peggy said met at the couple’s kitchen table each week for five years. Tom is a civil engineer and a former senior partner at Accenture, a consulting firm. Peggy, who has a master’s degree in library sciences, plans to run the garage’s urban sustainability library.

“I think it was a concern of ours that our children, who have graduated from college now, were having a hard time finding work in Michigan,” she said. “We saw that as a need in Detroit.

“I think we just felt that we had something to offer at this stage in our lives. We thought that we had backgrounds that could help.”

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