by Chris Killian
The blades of a small wind turbine above the WARM Training Center on Michigan Avenue in Southwest Detroit whirl violently, seeming to struggle in the stiff breeze that’s blowing from the northwest.
Jacob Corvidae comes to the front door and opens it with a whoosh. The 1992 Kalamazoo College graduate is wearing a vintage three-piece suit and a pair of slightly scuffed dress shoes. An earring hangs from the lobe of each ear, under a mop of rusty colored, curly hair, cropped close at the sides. Corvidae is 41, but the youthful exuberance he has for his work makes him seem half that age. His smile could have brightened the sunless sky over the Motor City on this mid-April afternoon.
Corvidae sits at a long table in a conference room inside WARM, a non-profit launched in 1981 that promotes the development of sustainable, energy-efficient homes and communities through education, training and outreach programs. Small sections of flexible solar panels and samples of diverse types of insulation are tucked into display cases along the wall, next to a decommissioned wind turbine.
But WARM’s real work—and Corvidae’s as well—takes place outside the walls of the agency’s humble headquarters.
Corvidae, who oversees WARM’s technical assistance division, has been involved in community development and collaboration in Detroit, his hometown, since 1997. He consults with cities and agencies that want to become more energy efficient, and he brings municipalities—some of which don’t have a great track record of cooperation with each other—together to develop comprehensive strategies to boost their green energy portfolios and increase energy efficiency among their residents, especially among those who are poor.
Recently, Corvidae, working with WARM’s Better Buildings for Michigan program, got the cities of Detroit, Grand Rapids, and several other municipalities and school systems together to agree on a strategy to retrofit buildings and homes with measures to increase energy efficiency. Seeing the merits of the program, the U.S. Department of Energy helped launch it with a $30 million grant.
“We need to get away from ‘either/or’ thinking and embrace ‘both’ or ‘and/or’ thinking when it comes to energy efficiency,” Corvidae says. “We need cooperation. It’s imperative.”
Green technologies are a hot-button issue these days, mostly due to the politically polarizing issue of climate change. Though a firm believer in the evidence for climate change, Corvidae wastes no energy bickering over whether humans are causing the earth to warm at a dangerous rate. Wind turbines and solar panels are wonderful technologies that are continually improving, he says, and retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient is where those seeking to create more sustainable communities get the most bang for the buck. A prime example of his “both/and” approach.
And it’s a social justice issue as well.
The average American household spends about 4 percent of its annual income on utilities, Corvidae says. Low-income households, however, can spend up to 25 percent of their yearly income on energy costs. Helping poor families become more energy efficient isn’t just good from an environmental sustainability standpoint, it helps keep people in their homes.
“I don’t try to convince someone who is skeptical about climate change that it’s happening,” Corvidae says. “There are things that we can all agree on. Energy efficiency makes sense to everyone. It saves money, it conserves our shared resources. It just makes sense. Every year the state of Michigan sends $25 billion out of state for energy costs. If we could keep just a fraction of that money here, it would be an ongoing stimulus program. Think about that!”
Corvidae has been making connections between people and policies since his days at K, a place, he says, that encourages students to connect the seemingly unconnected. The anthropology and sociology major remembers an epiphany one term when the content of advanced math, painting, and Marxism overlapped in a way that deepened his insights into all. That, he says, was an unplanned collaborative learning experience that he’s never forgot.
“It blew my mind,” he adds. “That was the thing about K, you never knew what to expect, but it was always interesting. I learned things beyond what was being taught in class. I don’t know if it was intentional, but it happened.
“Learning how to learn is sometimes more important than what you learn.”
Detroit, the Phoenix
Be it high unemployment, massive amounts of blight, or a debt-riddled city government, it’s not news that Motown has been sailing into stiff headwinds for decades, and national media outlets and squawking pundits have been picking and prodding the city ever since. If there was ever a protective cover over the city, it
"People live here because they love something."was torn off a long time ago, leaving the city bare and exposed. But in spite of its challenges, Detroit has nothing to be ashamed about, says Jacob Corvidae ’92. The city is real, in your face, a wide-open field fertilized with sincerity and ready to grow any great idea.
“Some people have asked me why I don’t do my work in Portland or Seattle, places where progress may be more likely,” Corivdae says. “But I tell them, yes, it’s hard to do this work in Detroit. But because of the challenges we see here, the solutions we come up with will be able to be used anywhere. And that is one way that Detroit can change the world.”
Corvidae hops in his red 2001 Volkswagen Golf, powered by biodiesel (he’s making the switch to used vegetable oil soon) and negotiates through Detroit’s twisting network of streets and highways before pulling into a warehouse where WARM is partnering with Focus: HOPE, a Detroit nonprofit organization, on a program where lumber rescued from demolished homes is restored. The sound of mechanical sanders fills the air with buzzing and clouds of golden sawdust billow around Focus:HOPE workers, their faces obscured with masks to filter the air.
The program creates jobs and saves the still-useful lumber—some of it more than 100 years old—from being thrown away. It’s an example, Corvidae says, of collaboration and how creating energy efficient, sustainable communities is much more than simply swapping out traditional light bulbs for compact fluorescent ones. Here, the unemployed get work, blight is reduced, and rare lumber from old growth forests is reclaimed, saving natural resources.
“People used to say that you lived in Detroit because you were born here or you were crazy,” he says. “Now, we say people live here because they love something. It might be the largest community of people in the country who want to be somewhere. I do. I want to be here.”
Photo 1 – Jacob Corvidae ’92, caulk gun in hand, stands on an old railway track on Detroit’s southwest side. WARM, the nonprofit for which he works, seeks to increase energy efficiency at homes in the city.
Photo 2 – Corvidae works with Focus:HOPE workers who are de-nailing 100-year-old lumber recovered from demolished homes in the city of Detroit.
Photo 3 – Corvidae stands in front of stacks of refurbished lumber recovered from demolished homes and saved from the landfill.