Dutch students grow green home from Detroit blight

Three architecture students are turning an abandoned home into an energy-efficent model for the community

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — Three architecture students from the Netherlands are on a mission to fight climate change, and they plan to do so by rehabbing a blighted, vacant home in the heart of the city.

The 23-year-olds graduated from the Technological University of Delft last year and decided to put their knowledge to use by designing an affordable, energy-efficient home that serves as a teaching tool and supports a family. They finalized their design after purchasing a Detroit house last May and exploring the neighbors’ needs.

“Our main goal is to fight climate change by making sustainable housing accessible for everyone,” said Bob Hendrikx. “...Who’s fighting against climate change? Only the people that can afford these systems. We want to show that it’s actually really easy and doesn’t always have to be expensive or state of the art. But it can also be low budget and do it yourself.”

Hendrikx and his friends, Ronen Dan and Domink Lukkes, couldn’t afford to buy a house in the Netherlands, so they started looking abroad and stumbled on Detroit as part of a search for “shrinking cities.”

“You can buy these kind of houses for $1,000 ... in the Netherlands, we don’t have that,” said Hendrikx, standing outside the house at 1995 Ford Street that they purchased from the Detroit Land Bank Authority for a grand. They figure the former two-family house has sat vacant since 2008, as the last DTE Energy Co. bill was paid that year.

The windows and doors of the house were boarded up with plywood and glass shards littered the backyard. To any passerby, the decaying 1924 house next to a vacant lot and another abandoned home is an eyesore, but to the three students, it’s 2,000 square feet of opportunities for education and community engagement.

They established a nonprofit called the Motown Movement to raise funds for the $230,000 project. So far, they’ve received more than $31,000 through a Patronicity crowdfunding campaign. If they reach their $50,000 goal in more than a week, the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s Public Spaces & Community Places initiative will match the amount. Local organizations such as Midtown Detroit Inc., the Rotary Club of Detroit, Banyan Investments and real estate agency The Platform also donated a total of $25,500.

They raised the remaining amount in Holland through in-kind sponsorships. Since their tuition was largely covered by the government, they bought the house with a low-interest student loan.

A model home

Gathered inside the dark duplex — recently swept and free of asbestos — the enthusiastic trio explain that each floor serves a purpose.

The ground floor will host workshops to teach visitors how to implement sustainable housing practices in their homes, such as weatherstripping doors to seal air leaks.

Pointing to a wall between two bedrooms, Lukkes said it will be removed so the area becomes a makerspace where visitors make the systems they learn about. A glass floor will allow people in the basement to observe the tinkerers above.

From top to bottom, the brick house will be fitted with energy-efficient features: solar panels, a greenroof, windmill, insulation, double-pane windows and a graywater system to flush the toilet with used water from the shower and rainwater collected on the roof.

“It goes through a filter to rule out any possible danger,” Dan assured.

The cost ranges from $10 to $1,000 to install these features, which can help a homeowner save money, Hendrikx said.

“We want to give people the idea that there are so many possibilities you can do to apply in your own home,” he said.

The students said they won’t know how much energy and money the home will save until it’s finished. The savings, Dan said, are difficult to project.

“We do not have the exact number yet because we don’t have much precedence we can base our research on. Most factors are not easy to calculate,” said Dan, listing variables such as draft and radiation through the windows.

Once they return to the Netherlands, a property manager they hired will take care of maintenance, and Lawrence Technological University students will continually test the home to gauge its energy efficiency.

However, Dan said one feature is certain: The solar panels will cover the electrical bill. While he acknowledged solar panels are on the more expensive side, they still plan to install them.

“We believe with prices dropping and efficiency rising, they will be common in the future,” he said.

Besides having 40,000 vacant homes to choose from in the Land Bank, the students decided Detroit was an ideal city for the project because many residents struggle with high energy bills, partly due to the age of homes and the way they were constructed with little insulation.

“In the Netherlands, the circumstances are less extreme than here, so we can make a bigger impact here,” Lukkes said.

The basement will host a resource center with computers, Wi-Fi, books and tutors for students attending New Paradigm Glazer Academy across the street.

Herbert Dannard, who’s lived in the neighborhood his whole life, will manage the center. The 56-year-old said he’s seen the area “go through a transition” since 1960.

“Everything was based on education and the community coming together, and all of that is lost,” he said.

As a result, he decided to form a resource center where people without computers could apply for jobs and access the internet.

He met the students while seeking a space and found their project was a perfect match. While Dannard said he’s never held a job and doesn’t have a degree, he’s motivated by the “dire need” to help neighbors.

“You don’t have to have a degree to help someone,” he said. “I had a burning desire in my heart.”

A self-sustaining vision

Besides free tutoring from Wayne State University students, elementary kids will have a chance to maintain an urban garden in the adjacent vacant lot.

The Greening of Detroit, a nonprofit that has planted 1,500 community gardens in the city over 12 years, will provide the tools and volunteers to jumpstart the garden that will supply fruits and vegetables for the neighborhood.

Trish Hubbell, Greening of Detroit director of community and public relations, attended a Motown Movement public meeting and noticed the students are not just parachuting in from across the world to plant a garden and rehab a house.

“What impressed me about the Dutch students is that they’re really interested in engaging the community and making sure that what they’re envisioning is also what the community wants and what will be helpful to them,” Hubbell said.

The project also has a giveback component, as a family that lost its home to foreclosure will live on the second floor. Their low-income rent will cover costs to maintain the home after the students leave in July.

The point, Hendrikx said, is to make the house self-sustaining through low gas, electric and water usage as well as nonprofits overseeing programming.

“We don’t want to be the Dutch guys coming in, doing their thing, leaving (and the house is) falling apart,” he said. “The best thing that could happen is that they forget us because all the partners, everybody is so involved.”

One partner, Focus:HOPE, helped the students find the house located in Hope Village, 107 blocks surrounding the nonprofit being uplifted as part of a 20-year initiative.

“The goal is that by 2031, 100 percent of residents of the Hope Village will be educationally well prepared, economically self-sufficient (and) living in a safe and supportive environment,” said Debbie Fisher, director of the Hope Village Initiative.

Hope Village is one of the city’s first two “eco districts” — a program spearheaded by the nonprofit EcoWorks to encourage Detroit neighborhoods to “go green.”

“What we’re trying to do with Eco-D is help neighborhood groups strive to do sustainable development, whether that’s stormwater projects or energy-efficiency projects or renewable energy projects,” said Allison Harris, EcoWorks director of strategic community initiatives, adding the Motown Movement house will be a powerful example of how to do sustainable development.

“This is a pretty blighted property that’s going to become a point of pride for the neighborhood,” she said.

Fisher said the neighbors have expressed interest in the project, especially if it helps them learn how to save money on bills and avoid “energy poverty,” which is a “real issue” in the neighborhood.

“When you’re living in an older home in a climate like we have in Michigan,” Fisher said, “a big portion of your budget may end up going on energy, and it may actually be taking money away from the things you need to feed your family or to buy your prescriptions.”

Dannard, who lives three blocks from the house, said his energy bill runs $350-$400 a month, and as of two weeks ago, his utilities were cut off.

“There’s no way I’ll be able to pay the bill with what my income is,” he said.

Based on his research, Lukkes said many neighborhood residents can’t afford their bills.

“People have been telling us, ‘Sometimes my heating bill is higher than my rent,’ ” he said.

“A lot of people, they don’t care about climate change because their problems are way bigger than we could ever expect,” Hendrikx added. “So that’s why it’s very important to also say to them ‘this is how you can reduce (your) bills’ because then they will listen.”

Construction began on Monday, and the students plan to finish the house by mid-June. After making national news in the Netherlands, they attracted a team of eight who joined them in the U.S. They’re all staying in a house they rented in the North End.

“We’re one big happy family,” Hendrikx joked.

If their concept succeeds, they plan to replicate the model in more Detroit neighborhoods.

Though they originally considered cities such as New Orleans, Dan said they visited Detroit first, and the choice was clear.

“We felt we could do something here,” said Dan, smiling.

Their four trips in the last year also proved all the horror stories wrong.

“We heard all these negative stories about Detroit, about the decay, about the poverty, criminality, drugs, et cetera, but ... we’re actually really amazed by the spirit of Detroit, by the people willing to fight for it,” Hendrikx said.