Building in green

Mar 31, 1999 at 12:00 am

George Cronvich never considered himself an environmentalist. The housing development director for Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation swears his wife is the one who recycles, for instance. He never paid attention to such things. Until his most recent project, that is.

The seven-story Architects Building in Detroit’s Cass Corridor, constructed in 1924, was once home to many of the city’s most prestigious architecture and engineering firms. But now, the CCNDC, a nonprofit community development corporation, has turned the former commercial site into 27 units of affordable housing for low-income residents.

While the organization has renovated several buildings in the corridor for the same purpose, the Architects Building is its most unusual project to date: It’s completely environmentally friendly. Initiated with a grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Solid Waste Alternatives Program, the project is the corporation’s first environmentally sustainable redevelopment project.

But even as Cronvich and his staff put final touches on a traditional low-income housing project across the street, he insists it will not be the last.

"We did do the buildings across (the street) the more standard way. No longer," Cronvich says. "On all our other buildings we’re going to incorporate a number of these features that we used."

Those features include several techniques that are part of a growing building philosophy commonly referred to as "environmentally sustainable development" or "green design."

"A green building is one where the quality of both the indoor and outdoor environment have been considered and protected during its design, construction, use and maintenance," explains Ramsey Zimmerman, green building project manager for Recycle Ann Arbor. It operates the ReUse Center, a clearinghouse for used home items and building materials in Ann Arbor.

"The construction industry is a significant user of materials and energy," Zimmerman continues. "If you reduce the amount of materials and energy used in construction, you can reduce the impact on the environment."

The CCNDC took Zimmerman’s credo to heart in its renovations of the Architects Building.

Demolition and construction materials were sorted and recycled. The drywall, ceiling and basement floor tiles, steel studs, carpeting, even the exterior benches and parking space bumpers, were all made from recycled materials such as newspaper, soft drink bottles, tires and glass.

The windows utilize energy-efficient double-paned glass and the wood used in the building was harvested from managed-growth forests. A portion of the building’s original baseboard was also reused.

The heating and cooling systems, which are energy efficient as well, are also more expensive. Cronvich says installing higher cost items required him to abandon the traditional developer’s approach of using the most inexpensive fixtures that work. In the end, however, he says the items will pay off as they will keep heating and cooling expenses down.

"You spend a little bit more up front on those items, but for us, in order to keep our rents affordable we need to keep the operating costs down. So this will certainly pay for itself, probably within three years," he reasons.

Besides, the CCNDC was able to take advantage of historic preservation tax credits because the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Green techniques can also be incorporated into smaller projects, says the ReUse Center’s Zimmerman. The center recently completed what Zimmerman calls a model en-house – a permanent exhibit showcasing green design and construction techniques.

Creating your own en-house is easier than you might think, Zimmerman observes. Reusing materials – purchasing that new kitchen table secondhand, for instance – is one simple environmentally sound move.

Using organic cleaning products and materials with recycled content are others.

And if you picture a thoroughly green home as one made out of straw and mud or with large solar panels looking as if they had landed on the roof, think again.

"If you built an en-house and you looked at it from the street it would look just like any other house, but it might look a little nicer," insists Zimmerman.

The home would have large picture windows and several trees to make use of maximum lighting and shade. The lawn would look natural, rather than like AstroTurf. The environmentally sound construction materials – siding made from recycled aluminum or lumber made from recycled plastic and sawdust, for instance – would resemble traditional building materials and be just as sturdy, if not more so. And a wide range of environmentally sound building materials are produced and sold locally.

But building an en-house is more about attitude than attributes, says Zimmerman.

"There’s no magic to green building. Anyone can design an en-house," he says. "It’s really more just a way of thinking, a way of going about it."

For CCNDC’s Cronvich, it will be the way of going about it from here on out.

"We’ve learned that this is the way to do it for the future. Keep things going sustainable. Sustainable for the environment, sustainable operating sense to keep our rents affordable," Cronvich enthuses. "For us, that’s truly sustainable."

Building a green classroom

For a large-scale green building project to be successful, it should have a point person working with the various contractors and engineers to oversee their design materials and techniques, says Peter Reppe, a graduate student in the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.

As his graduate assistantship, Reppe is overseeing the renovation and expansion of the university’s 80,000-square-foot Dana Building, where the school is housed.

Because environmental sustainability became an issue for the building only after planning for its renovation had begun, Reppe says the "Greening of Dana," as the project is dubbed, has hit some snags.

"I guess that’s one of the big lessons. If you don’t have anyone that’s full-time committed to it or (who) works with the planners in their office, it’s just a lot of follow-up and creating twice as much work, because you’re trying to change science that they’re used to," he says.

In addition to the use of salvaged and recycled materials, the Greening of Dana incorporates several energy-saving devices, such as skylights and daylight sensors.

Reppe and others working on the project plan to initiate an education program so that those using the building can achieve maximum energy conservation and, says Reppe, "learn from the building about the relationships between our daily behavior and our environment."