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The multi-year journey to make a concrete Yamasaki building net zero energy

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EcoWorks has embarked on a green renovation of its unique office building. But it’s been more challenging than expected.

A long, one-story concrete building with a zigzag roof.
The EcoWorks headquarters on 7 Mile Road, designed by Minoru Yamasaki.
Photos courtesy of EcoWorks

In 2017, EcoWorks spent months scouting buildings across Detroit for a new headquarters. The sustainable development nonprofit needed a new location to centralize its three offices, but was having trouble finding the right place.

Then someone on its staff spotted, of all places, an article in Curbed Detroit about a Minoru Yamasaki–designed building on 7 Mile Road in the Berg-Lahser neighborhood that was up for auction. The size and design were right, but the organization had little time to deliberate if it wanted to get the building.

EcoWorks put in an offer for $450,000 and, in a matter of days, was under contract to own an aesthetically unique building designed by one of the region’s most important architects.

“It seemed like a steal at the time,” Justin Schott, EcoWorks executive director, says. “It was pretty much move in ready, and came with 20 offices and a tenant.”

Being an organization that supports sustainable building design and development, it wanted to give a similar treatment at its own offices. But it somehow managed to find one of the more challenging buildings for a green conversion.

Designed for the American Concrete Institute in 1958, the approximately 4,000-square-foot office was meant to showcase the many uses of concrete in construction. It’s got a fascinating cantilevered zigzag roof, ornamental casts at both ends which break up light, textured ridges on the interior walls, and other striking design features. A roughly 6,400-square-foot addition was built a decade later.

A hallway with carpeted floors and natural blue light coming from repeating square skylights.
The long hallway with concrete walls inside the EcoWorks headquarters.
Courtesy of EcoWorks

Concrete retains temperature fairly well, but the building’s high design means that there’s little flexibility in insulating the walls or replacing the oddly shaped windows with double or triple pane glass. “This is a great space for staff and it’s inspiring,” Schott says. “But we’ve struck out on the envelope.”

Worse yet, the building still has its original mechanicals, which Schott describes as a “mess.” A longtime maintenance specialist manages to keep it working most of the time—though the air conditioner did go out last summer resulting consecutive days of near 100 temperatures inside the building.

EcoWorks has gotten quotes for around $50,000 just to remove the mechanicals. To replace them could exceed the cost of the building itself.

But that hasn’t deterred EcoWorks. Despite these challenges, it has the ambitious goal of being net zero energy by 2025.

In the meantime, it’s taken on important but more manageable tasks. It did a complete LED retrofit of all 271 lightbulbs. When replacing the roof, it added better insulation and a “sure-white” covering to reflect more sunlight. Later, it installed a rooftop solar array.

EcoWorks estimates savings—with rebates and reduced energy costs—of around $12,500 and at least 100,000 fewer pounds of CO2 emissions per year. Already, Schott says they can cover 70 percent of their energy output in the winter and close to all of it in the summer.

Though not directly related to net zero energy, it successfully funded a $50,000 Patronicity campaign (and got a matching $50,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Growth Corporation) to build out stormwater infrastructure. Construction will start this summer on two rain gardens that should be able to hold all the rainwater onsite and provide a big drainage credit from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. It will also be used as a community gathering space.

Around a dozen people mingle on benches or chairs in a yard with lots of planters and trees.
Rendering of the large rain garden behind the building.
Detroit Collaborative Design Center

At some point, EcoWorks would also like to build other green activations—like EV charging stations, bike racks, and improved bus stops—and eventually replace the mechanicals with a much more energy friendly variable refrigerant flow HVAC system.

Schott says they have no regrets about the decision to buy the Yamasaki building, if only because of the amount of learning the organization has done in just two years time. EcoWorks now has a much better grasp of the kinds of financing tools—credits, rebates, loans—and contractors available to get the work done.

With all this hard-earned knowledge and extensive documentation, it’s able to do its own work better and share that learning with other nonprofits and small businesses.

And in the end, Schott is confident EcoWorks can get there. “If we’re asking others to step up and make similar bold commitments, we need something to stand on,” he says. “Now we recognize that you can’t just flip a switch overnight. But also that it can be done.”