EcoWorks Detroit embarks on a green renovation of its Minoru Yamasaki office building on 7 Mile Road


In 2017, EcoWorks spent months looking for new headquarters in buildings across Detroit. The sustainable development nonprofit needed a new location to centralize their three offices, but struggled to find the right location.

Then someone on his staff in Curbed Detroit discovered an article about a building designed by Minoru Yamasaki on 7 Mile Road in the Berg-Lahser neighborhood that was about to be auctioned. The size and design were right, but the organization had little time to consider whether to keep the building.

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

“It seemed like a bargain at the time,” says Justin Schott, Executive Director of EcoWorks. “It was pretty much ready to move into and came with 20 offices and one tenant.”

As an organization that supports sustainable building design and development, they wanted to do similar treatment in their own offices. But somehow he managed to find one of the more challenging buildings for a green conversion.

The approximately 4,000 square meter office was designed in 1958 for the American Concrete Institute and was intended to demonstrate the many possible uses of concrete in construction. It has an intriguing cantilevered zigzag roof, decorative casts on either end that break up the light, textured ribs on the interior walls, and other eye-catching design features. A decade later, an approximately 6,400 square meter extension was built.

The long corridor with concrete walls in the EcoWorks headquarters. Courtesy of EcoWorks

Concrete holds the temperature pretty well, but the building’s tall design means there’s little flexibility to insulate the walls or replace the unusually shaped windows with double or triple glazing. “This is a great place for employees and inspiring,” says Schott. “But we crossed out the envelope.”

Worse, the building still has its original mechanics, which Schott calls “chaos”. A long-time maintenance specialist manages to keep going most of the time – even though the air conditioning failed last summer, resulting in consecutive days with almost 100 temperatures inside the building.

EcoWorks received offers for around $ 50,000 just to remove the mechanics. A replacement could exceed the cost of the building itself.

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

In the meantime, important but manageable tasks are taken over. All 271 light bulbs were completely LED retrofitted. When the roof was replaced, better insulation and a “safe white” cover were added to reflect more sunlight. Later a solar system was installed on the roof.

EcoWorks estimates the savings – with discounts and reduced energy costs – at around $ 12,500 and at least £ 100,000 less CO2 emissions per year. Schott already says that they can cover 70 percent of their energy expenditure in winter and almost everything in summer.

While not directly related to net zero energy, it successfully funded a $ 50,000 patronage campaign (and received a corresponding $ 50,000 grant from Michigan Economic Growth Corporation) to build rainwater infrastructure. Construction of two rain gardens will begin this summer, which should be able to hold all of the rainwater on site and provide a large drainage credit from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. It is also used as a common room.

Around a dozen people mingle on benches or chairs in a garden with lots of planters and trees.

Representation of the large rain garden behind the building. Detroit Collaborative Design Center

At some point, EcoWorks also wants to build other eco-friendly activations – like EV charging stations, bike racks, and improved bus stops – and eventually replace the mechanics with a much more energy-friendly HVAC system with variable refrigerant flow.

Schott says they don’t regret the decision to buy the Yamasaki building, if only because of the learning curve the organization put in in just two years. EcoWorks now has a much better understanding of the types of funding tools – loans, discounts, credits – and contractors that are available to get the job done.

With all this hard-earned knowledge and extensive documentation, they can do their own job better and share that learning with other nonprofits and small businesses.

And in the end, Schott is confident that EcoWorks can get there. “When we ask others to get involved and make similar bold commitments, we need something to stand on,” he says. “Now we realize that you can’t just flip a switch overnight. But also that it is possible. “


Dusty Kennedy