Building Green In Ann Arbor

It's more than fitting that a city given the nickname "Tree Town" so many years ago has grown into a model for how to go green when it comes to construction and remodeling. There are so many instances of true green building in Ann Arbor that if there were a Green Tour of Homes, the map would be spotted with must-see houses across the city's landscape -- places big and small, near downtown and out of the way, places that have preserved space, saved water, conserved energy, used light and nature to their fullest effect and employed a smorgasbord of methods for making sure a home or business doesn't suck the environment of precious resources and bank accounts of equally precious dollars.

Even the University of Michigan, with projects like A Zero Waste Basketball Game (held last weekend) and one of the strongest eco-minded policies in building and purchasing in the country, would also be worth a look-see on such a tour.

Michael Klement, owner of Architectural Resource in Ann Arbor and a leading thinker in the field of sustainable remodeling and building, would probably be the tour guide. His company, founded in 1991, is behind many of the projects that have shined the green light on the city by earning top honors -- including highly respected LEED certifications from the U.S. Green Building Council. These are projects getting the city notice around the country.

"Oh yeah, you bet, there could be a great tour," Klement says. "These projects are throughout the city. What's neat about the projects we've put together, each LEED project, is they're completely different. One is a traditional Ann Arbor carpenter style, the other a contemporary, raging modern home. The third is a comfy craftsman style look. The fourth, which will be Michigan's fourth and Ann Arbor's fourth (platinum LEED) whole house remodel, is a Zen contemporary. "Each is different in style. That's what's so exciting."

Klement and other Ann Arbor architects, builders, and designers, including Meadowlark Builders, AC3 Architects and JS Vig (which has opened a green think tank called Project Green), along with professors at the University of Michigan, have all contributed to Ann Arbor's green rap.

An academic approach

Terry Alexander, executive director of U-M's Office of Campus Sustainability, says the university is in a position to be a forward thinking leader in the field of sustainability.  "Ann Arbor is very progressive when it comes to doing things for the environment," Alexander says. "So that's part of the battle when it comes to convincing people to change things."

Of course, the changes are not only about saving energy, land and resources, but also about saving money. "It all goes hand in hand," he says.

The goal for U-M is to be recognized as a world class leader in sustainability, he claims. With that in mind, Planet Blue was launched earlier this year. Planet Blue and the Office of Campus Sustainability outline goals and design approaches that will make the campus of maize and blue one of the greenest around.

The approaches are common, and not. Take the cars and buses on campus. They run on electricity, ethanol, or biodiesel. The buses that transport thousands of passengers each day are also run on alternative fuel. As gasoline powered cars are taken out of service, they'll be replaced with electric vehicles.

In a more creative approach, sports fans are being asked to jump into the game. On Saturday (Dec. 4) basketball spectators were asked to place their garbage in designated recycling containers instead of the usual trash cans as part of the Zero Waste Basketball Game.

In the campus offices at the business and finance department, employees are being asked to monitor and limit, if possible, the use of water, printers and copiers, lights, cleaning products, and to hold green meetings.

Numerous campus buildings are being changed to meet the highest energy standards, and all new construction must meet LEED silver standards. University officials realized many projects were meeting the standards anyway, but without the official designation.

And when it comes to building or buying things, contractors and vendors are being required to meet specific green guidelines that amount to "one of the strongest conservation policies in the country," Alexander says.


Some people call them pioneers, says Doug Selby, who co-owns Meadowlark with Kirk Brandon, but he believes he and builders like him are employing ideas about green construction that were introduced as much as 30 years ago.

"We're really the second wave," claims Selby, whose company is one of the largest home remodelers in the state. "Unlike the true pioneers, we are seeing a massive change in thinking and education and awareness."

Klement has worked on projects with Selby and is also witness to the change toward green construction, brought about in part by Ann Arbor's success stories. "I would say that Ann Arbor is definitely blazing trails in remodeling and home building and in green building in particular," Klement says.

It's not just a boast. Ann Arbor has several firsts under its belt when it comes to true green building. It was the first city in Michigan to complete a LEED-certified home and has gone on to top the list in similar construction. LEED is currently the top merit badge when it comes to standards for eco-minded building.

In June, Ann Arbor was a stop on the U.S. Green Building Council and Sierra Club's Cool City roving tour of cities. The Cool City event attracted visitors to the city to learn about some of the ground-breaking projects that had contributed to making Ann Arbor the nationwide leader in platinum LEED certified homes.

"Here we are, our humble little Midwest city right in the middle of the Rust Belt, a declining auto city, all the woes and everything else and we're leading the nation in green building homes...per capita," says Klement. "We're awfully proud of that."

Ann Arbor's standout homes also earned green cred when two local homes were used as illustrations of the not-so-big house movement in Sarah Susanka's latest book, The Not So Big Remodel.

Klement, who moved from California to Ann Arbor in 1977, travels the country, sharing his expertise and Ann Arbor's successes. He also brings home the innovations and new thinking from the places he visits. Having worked in architecture since 1983 and owned Architectural Resource since 1991, the 51-year-old has a staff of six. Next week, he speaks at a green building conference in Portland and Bend, Ore.

"Michigan's first LEED platinum whole house remodel is the basis for one of my presentations," he says. "There's this whole big thrust with looking with a fresh eye at how we do what we do...motivated by the need to have a healthy living environment, a need to reduce our impact on the planet, and a need to address energy consumption."

A shift in thinking

It's happening as consumers become more enlightened to the benefits of going green, consumers who are becoming comfortable with the terms "low E", "dual flush", "geothermal heating and cooling", "U factor", and "insulated concrete".

Selby has seen a significant change in public awareness. "Five to six years ago people would say "Huh?" It was more of a struggle to explain the benefits of green building," the MSU grad explains. "Now the questions are about the nuts and bolts."

The message that it's actually a good investment, not just a philosophical or ethical approach, is getting through, he says, especially in Ann Arbor, where there are highly educated people, people with disposable income, and people with high LOHAS - Lifestyles of Health And Sustainability.

"It's a good environment where people understand the benefits," Selby adds. "Like so many things, they're ahead on the coasts, but we are definitely holding our own. The great thing about Ann Arbor is its history of caring about the environment."

Selby's projects are among the green standouts in the city. And nearby in Saline, his solar house with its potential to require "very near zero net energy," has generated a lot of ink – always a good thing for a growing company.

Only seven years old, Meadowlark has a staff of 10 in its office and another 18 in the field, having added two positions just this last year. "The company we have has allowed us to do research, to understand the best practices and have access to the best information,” says Selby. “That has allowed us to add to the conversation about how to do things right."

That conversation isn't confined to just Tree Town. Within Michigan, a competition over who's greener has been percolating between Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor.  And the challenge is serious, with Grand Rapids recently completing construction on the first LEED certified art museum in the country, aggressively developing bike lanes, and claiming that, per capita, it has the most square footage under LEED certification.

"The whole Grand Rapids vs. Ann Arbor has been kind of cool...It's made Michigan a good center for this industry," Selby says.

Klement agrees that the competition helps both cities. "It can help. The more sustainability is a part of the conversation, the more it becomes the norm. That's good for the entire state," he says. "Our intent is that the term green building becomes obsolete...That all building will be green."
Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer with a drafty, 1929-era home that begs for energy upgrades every winter. Her previous article was

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Except where noted all photos by Doug Coombe

Doug Selby in front of the LEED platinum and gold certified Spring Street Duplex

Michael Klements in the offices of Architectural Resources

The LEED certified Nautilus House by Architectural Resources and Meadowlark Builders - photo by Jim Haefner

LEED certified Spring Street Duplex - photo by Jim Haefner

Michael Klements in the offices of Architectural Resources

Doug Selby in the Meadowlark Builders office

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