A Workspace with a Heart: A look at Detroit’s sustainability leader
Sustainability and economic growth do not have to be contradictory. With the right infrastructure and leadership, reducing a business’s carbon footprint can be quite inexpensive. In Detroit, the Green Garage leads by example, proving that sustainability is not at the expense of economic growth. This shared workspace houses 50 businesses and non-profits all engaged in the community that seek to improve the lives for all Detroiters. The Green Garage consumes approximately 1/10th of the energy compared to, on average, other office building of its size. Located in Midtown, one of the city’s main urban renewal hotspots, the Green Garage paves the way for the most innovative advancements in sustainability and highlights the importance of an inclusive working community.
Last summer, I had about as good of an internship opportunity as possible — one which would make anyone jealous. Even though I wasn’t coding for Google and making $20,000 a month or advising the president on foreign policy, I was a part of a work-community that cared about issues beyond its four walls. I worked for Fresh Corner Café, a food business focused on improving Detroiters’ access to healthy and affordable food, which is housed in the Green Garage.
My work with Fresh Corner, along with everyone else in the Green Garage, positively impacts the lives of Detroiters. Rather than ignoring lifelong residents’ voices and concerns at the expense of selfish gain, the Green Garage’s many businesses listen and cater to them. There is an omnipresent commitment to the future of Detroit, one that will be better for everyone.
It’s astounding how dreary and soul-sucking some office spaces can be. With unflattering fluorescent lights and crusty carpets, it’s no surprise why many people dread going into work. If workers must spend 40 hours a week in the same place, it only makes sense to put forth the resources to create a more livable and aesthetically pleasing environment. The Green Garage is an archetype for livable office spaces, but not in a douchey tech-startup kind of way with ping pong tables and flashy colors. It’s understated and beautiful, including lots of natural lighting and gorgeous wood floors and ceilings.
Everyone entering the building is warmly greeted by Manager Matt Piper. He grew up just northeast of the city in Harrison Township and later attended Wayne State University, receiving both a bachelor’s and master’s degree there. Since then, he has lived in Detroit for ten years. Piper firmly believes that other businesses can do their part in becoming more sustainable.
“We are an extreme case of people who have worked hard to reduce the impact of our activity, but everyone can do something,” Piper said. “Certainly, people can consider installing more energy efficient windows, better recycling, and a composting plant.”
The Green Garage features a zero-waste recycling system in which very little is actually thrown out. Its extensive composting system supports an urban ecosystem around the building. A lot more goes into the Green Garage’s environmental efficiency, however.
“Our heating system is a solar thermal system that doesn’t generate electricity, but heats up 5,000 gallons of water that is then pumped through tubes under the floor,” he said. “The heat then rises.”
In 2013-2014, the Green Garage spent about $3,100 on electricity, which is shockingly less than the average cost of an office building of its size: $28,000. The main factor of the Green Garage’s sustainability is its thick insulation.
“The best thing you can do is insulate the building really well and reduce the demand for heating and cooling. Our insulation is so thick that it takes longer to change the thermal properties of the building,” Piper said.
The Green Garage is unlike other shared workspaces. In lieu of closed offices, the building features an open work environment in which businesses operate all in one place separated by small dividers. In the back of the building are more private conference rooms. This design, according to Piper, was inspired by Christopher Alexander’s book “Pattern Language.”
“The key insight is that a building should have a progression of public to private space. When you walk in, it is most public. We want it to be non-hierarchal where cross-pollination and information sharing happen naturally, and the open-plan facilitates that. You get to know your neighbors.”
Piper emphasized the importance of the Green Garage’s tightknit and inclusive community, and I can attest to this. The building offers more than just an incubator for professionals.
“In a time where things seem to be so divided, it feels special that we’re bucking that trend and finding ways to be accepting and welcoming to one another,” he said. “We have a place where people of all different backgrounds come together to work and be intentional about the fact that they accept one another. We start everything with the idea that we are more than just an office building and find ways to help people grow.”
Regarding the city’s future, Piper remained optimistic.
“I think that we are one of many leaders looking toward a more sustainable future for Detroit There are a lot of other people that speak our language and think along the same lines,” Piper said. “We are a place where the future leaders of Detroit are getting started.”
The Green Garage represents the potential for positive social impact in the city. If the resources are there, there truly is no reason not to increase sustainability. With an emphasis on community, the Green Garage is a place where professionals all look forward to work rather dreading it. My time working here opened my eyes to the potential for improved work spaces more similar to a home rather than a typical office. And, I was fortunate enough to call the Green Garage my home for two months.