Blog: Peggy Brennan

Peggy Brennan and her husband Tom are owners of the Green Garage in midtown Detroit. The Green Garage is a former Model T showroom that is undergoing a historic and green renovation, and will become a green business incubator. Construction began last fall and it will be open for business in September of 2010.

Peggy has a Masters Degree in Speech Pathology and worked in that capacity until staying home full-time to raise three children. 25 years later, she went back to school and received a Masters Degree in Library and Information Science. She works as knowledge manager at the Green Garage, managing the website, blog, and social networking accounts. In addition, she manages the website and blog for another group she and Tom are part of, the Great Lakes Green Initiative. She is also archiving material from a Catholic community that details their progression in the post-Vatican II era on a site called frjack.org.

Peggy and Tom live in Troy and are parents of three grown children, Molly, Maureen and Tom, all of whom, they are happy to report, still reside in Michigan.
Peggy Brennan - Most Recent Posts:

Post 4: Locating a Project in Detroit

I had mentioned in an earlier post that this project was not originally intended for Detroit, but Ann Arbor. In our initial discussions with others, however, we kept hearing the same thing: this project belongs in Detroit. It didn't take us long to agree. Once we made the decision to begin looking for buildings in Detroit, we heard from a number of other voices questioning our decision, concerned, perhaps legitimately, about doing business in Detroit.

We heard vague references to inefficiency, graft, lack of leadership. But we felt we could manage whatever came our way. Tom has decades of experience in business running large projects, and manages a number of properties located in a variety of settings. We know about inefficiencies and poor management. All of it requires patience and persistence. We knew there would be a learning curve, but decided to take the plunge anyway. And so far, so good.

One of our first contacts in Detroit was John Linardos and Dan Scarsella of Motor City Brewing Works, right around the corner from us. Right from the start, they were supportive of our project. They are our model of community. They immediately connected us with others who might be able to help us with the building or the alley. They also have a finger on the pulse of whatever is happening in Midtown, helping us understand the cycle of activity. Every Wednesday, they host an art show for the community at their bar. I can't think of a suburban bar that is so community oriented.

One of the people we met through John and Dan is Sue Mosey of the University Cultural Center Association. Sue was one of the first people over to hear our ideas, and has been behind us ever since. She found the funding for the Green Alley, and is the main force behind the North Cass Community Garden, a wonderful community vegetable garden which we participated in this year.

Once we bought the building and began meeting there, one of our goals was to get to know the neighbors and let them know what was happening in our building. So Tom Bradley and I spent many afternoons going from building to building, introducing ourselves and bringing cookies (never hurts). We met the delightful women of the Spiral Collective: Dell and Sharon Pryor of Tulani Rose and Janet Jones of Source Booksellers. Right around the corner, we were introduced to the women behind Avalon Bakery, Jackie Victor and Ann Perrault, a wonderful hub of activity in the area. Claire Nelson and her husband Francis Grunow operate a local boutique, The Bureau of Urban Living, and have been huge supporters.

Maria Gonzalez of Wayne State's School of Library and Information Science, caught us one day while we were outside picking weeds and, and after a short discussion, formed a relationship which has led to us working with some of her students this fall to help us design our sustainable urban library. Finally, our neighbor, Tighe O'Meara, a Wayne State police officer, has watched over our building and called us if something needed attention. All of these people, and many more, have embraced us and our project, offering to do whatever they can to help.

I'll have to admit that we were both surprised and delighted that we found such a welcoming, supportive community surrounding us. More surprising has been our experience working with the city of Detroit. This past week we received the permits to begin construction on our building and the alley. The permit for the building was in our hands just 1½ weeks after we turned in our plans. Keep in mind that there were 25 pages of plans detailing every aspect of the building design and operations. Some items, such as our geo-solar hybrid heating and cooling system, they don't see every day, which makes the speed of approval all the more astonishing. We never encountered an unreasonable question or unnecessary delay.

This is a story that needs to be told about Detroit: welcoming community and well-functioning city departments. Spread the word. And don't forget the cookies. 

Post 3: The Green Garage's Deep Dig into Sustainability

We have just begun the remodeling of our building after nine months of design work, followed by three months of gathering our learning into comprehensible plans. We are doing both a historic and green renovation - historic because the building is on the National Registry of Historic Buildings, and green because this is the great work we intend to do.
 
Many people have asked us whether we are seeking LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, and we tend to surprise them by saying that our goal is not to seek certifications, but to simply do what is right for this place at this time. LEED certification is fine as far as it goes, but it falls short of our definition of sustainability. Achieving certification via a point system has its flaws. According to LEED standards, you can build an 8,000-square-foot energy-efficient home for two people and still be certified. For us, that is not sustainable.

Another significant flaw in the system is a failure to follow the operations of the building year after year to see if the energy goals are being met, or if the building's occupants are developing more sustainable habits.
We tell people, then, that we are going beyond LEED. We're learning about THIS building, THIS site, THIS Detroit environment, and shaping our design accordingly. We are looking for the most sustainable answer that makes sense. And, for us, how the building functions and how the people use it will be equally important. We're digging deep. Let me give you one example.

Our goal has been to make this building a net zero energy building, meaning that we have to produce as much energy as we consume. Instead of going directly to solar panels and wind turbines to add capacity, we first looked at reducing the energy need by utilizing passive design elements. We studied our daylight opportunities. We developed a wind rose to show air flow around the building. We looked at where the water was flowing, and in which direction. We designed a Super Insulated Building Envelope that will make our walls 18 inches thick. Our window design will provide 80% of the interior lighting with natural daylight. By using passive design elements, we found, using energy modeling techniques, that we could reduce the heating load for the building by 90%. For the remaining 10%, we're using solar panels to heat water that will be pumped beneath our floor. As a final resort, we are installing a geothermal system that will activate only in off-peak times (evenings), because we don't want to be part of a plan that causes another power plant to be built. All of this has been integrated to flow together.

Building design was part of the work, but we spent a substantial amount of time developing a transportation plan, looking at food management, examining how water would be used, and countless other areas of functionality. So perhaps we could become LEED certified. Maybe we will. But right now we're doing the work we need to do, and for now, that's enough.
 

Post 2: The Role of Community at the Green Garage

In my last post, I mentioned that we are developing three things at the Green Garage: a building, a business and a community. The people who rent space from us will not just be viewed as renters, but as part of a cooperative community. And we intend for the community to stretch far beyond our physical walls. In fact, this has already begun.

We have just finished the design phase of our building project, and we would not have arrived at this point without 40-plus dedicated volunteers who believed in the project and came week after week to participate in design sessions. People from all walks of life, from engineers and architects to students, arrived at our doorstep asking how they could help. Our only requirement, we told each one, is that they do what they love to do. And they took us up on the offer.

One day, I was sitting in on a net zero energy design session (not my area of interest, but I was writing a report on it). I began drifting off, only to snap back to attention when one of the engineers, with tears in her eyes, told the group how excited she was to participate in something so deeply meaningful to her. She had found her sweet spot.

Community is equally important as we enter the construction phase. When we hired the various contractors, we warned them that this would not be your typical job. First, they needed to participate in a series of community meetings before construction began, getting to know the design people and, most importantly, the other contractors they would be working with. As we finished off the details of the design, they all had an opportunity to discuss possible problems with each other, before the first swing of the hammer. In addition, we are asking each contractor, in addition to members of the original design team, to meet every Friday for lunch and participate in a weekly review to make sure we are keeping true to our design.

We are also asking that they continue to work with us long-term as we monitor the building's functioning, to see if it matches our expectations, and then to help us make adjustments if it does not. Their roles are so inclusive and interactive that we thought the term ' contractor' was insufficient, so we are calling them our 'building community.'

Once the building is open for business, we plan on running it like a cooperative. One of the major faults of current green design (like LEED certification) is that no one monitors the building and the practices inside once it is up and running. You may achieve LEED certification upon opening, but the people inside may continue wasteful habits (like adjusting the thermostat). So we will be asking tenants to be partners with us to allow the building to reach its full potential. They may need to open and shut windows, depending on outside conditions. They may need to shut off overhead lights and use task lights. They may need to adjust the way they bring food into and out of the building. In short, we'll be looking for clients who want to work cooperatively with others for the good of the whole.

One more example of our community emphasis is the Green Alley project. We plan on turning the alley just south of our building into a pedestrian-friendly greenway, lined with Michigan native plants that will not only beautify the alley but also absorb much of the rainfall. This project was community based from the start. We needed the approval of all of the residents and businesses to proceed. We are developing a collective trash/recycling center. Most importantly, we want this to be a place where people will want to gather and learn from each other.


Post 1: Inspiration Behind the Green Garage



When you hear us speak of the Green Garage, we're really referring to three things: a building, a business and a community. The building is located in Midtown, at 4444 Second, and originated as a Model T showroom in 1920. It will undergo a historic and green renovation beginning in September 2009.

It will become a business incubator providing rental space to those wishing to start green businesses. It also is home to a community of people dedicated to a sustainable future in Detroit. Tom and I bought this building in December of 2007 with a real commitment to develop a sustainability center in Detroit, but with many of the details still to be determined. Let me explain how we arrived there.

Our initial inspiration was the IHM (Immaculate Heart of Mary) Community in Monroe. In the late 1990s, they had taken the courageous step of doing a green renovation of their Motherhouse and used this project to do what they do best: teach. We took one of their tours around 2004, and were impressed with their thoughtfulness and dedication. The fact that this is a group of limited means made their accomplishment all the more impressive. At about the same time, Tom read a couple of books that greatly influenced his thinking. The first, The Great Work, by Thomas Berry, is a call for us to move from being a destructive force on the earth to a more benign presence. Berry terms this the 'Great Work' of our generation. The second book was by Margaret Wheatley, called Turning to One Another. Wheatley's book emphasizes the power of a community when its citizens discover what they care about and join in conversation to effect change.

With all this in mind, and with Tom recently retired from Accenture, we began a series of weekly conversations dedicated to living more sustainable lives, and called our group Great Lakes Green Initiative. We are entering our fifth season of meetings this month. We have done a deep dive into topics such as water, energy use, rain barrels, and organic foods, and have begun changing our own habits and ecological footprints.

Our initial plans for the Great Lakes Green Initiative included not only a discussion series, but also some sort of demonstration center to share our growing knowledge and promote further learning amongst others and ourselves. A couple of years ago we began looking for a building or a site, initially in Ann Arbor. As we discussed our plans with various people, many suggested that we consider locating the project in Detroit. The IHM Community, once again providing thoughtful guidance, was a great proponent of a Detroit base. So we started looking and the first building we saw, close to the Wayne State campus, was the one we bought.

In the winter of 2008, we initiated a series of discussions over a few months that helped us define our philosophical foundations. It is clear now, for example, that any decision made at the Green Garage will have to meet three criteria: environmental integrity, economic justice, and community well-being. From the spring of 2008 to the present, we have met with up to 40 volunteers who have generously shared their time and talents and have helped shape our building design, energy use, landscaping, business plan, and sense of community. More on the role of community in my next post.

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