The sight of Detroit’s thousands of neglected residential lots, spread across hundreds of sparsely occupied blocks, has become infamous, thanks to artists and the media. Now imagine these properties brimming with ripening figs, pistachios, mangoes, and citrus. In the winter.
This is the vision of Afterhouse, a project conceived by Abigail Murray and Steven Mankouche of the Ann Arbor, Mich.–based research and design collaborative Archolab. The process is simple and inexpensive: Repurpose the concrete foundation of a derelict house to build a sunken greenhouse that stays warm through solar heat gain and the insulation of the earth to grow subtropical crops.
Juror Mimi Love noted, “This is a clever and hopeful submission, considering the number of neighborhoods in Detroit with which nobody knows what to do but turn out the lights and walk away.”
The test site is an abandoned, fire-damaged house in Detroit, just north of the embedded city of Hamtramck. An insulated greenhouse shed will rise out of the existing 25-foot-square foundation. The south side of the shed’s gable roof will comprise transparent, twin-wall polycarbonate panels, supported by trusses built from standard 2x4s, steel strapping, pipe, and cable. The other half of the roof, as well as much of the building envelope, will comprise structural insulated panels (SIPs) donated by building supplier Insulspan. Hardwood cut-offs and slats donated by local sawmill Hardwoods of Michigan will become an exterior rainscreen and the interior decking, while reclaimed corrugated steel siding will clad the end walls.
Archolab strategically twisted the roof 30 degrees off the local street grid to orient due south. The structure’s base still fits the original foundation, so it is the walls that will take on irregular shapes. A similar twist-and-tweak operation could be performed on future Afterhouses, regardless of each lot’s orientation.
At the front of the building, “where the house meets the street,” says Mankouche, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, the team will establish a raised open-air planter for summer crops. Like a conventional porch, the elevated garden will function as a welcoming threshold, a protective fence, and a shading device. In the winter, the living screen of plants will vanish just when the greenhouse behind it requires direct sunlight.
“It’s very low tech, very inexpensive, but very clever,” juror Gerardo Salinas said. Because the house’s original foundation lies below the frostline, the greenhouse will never freeze, even though Detroit’s temperatures regularly dip below 32 F and Afterhouse has no mechanical heating system. Salinas also appreciated Archolab’s documentation of “the story behind the project,” which examined the changing demographics of the neighborhood. “The social impact it could have is incredible,” he said. Juror Bill Kreysler added, “This represents an extraordinary opportunity to rethink how we use our land and how we use our cities. And yet, the beneficiary of these ideas is not the kind of client that would normally come to a design firm.”
Serendipitously, the Afterhouse prototype sits next door to Burnside Farm, an urban farm and community garden. Farm founder and artist Kate Daughdrill liked the idea of Afterhouse—namely, its ability to extend her farm’s production through the winter—so much that Burnside Farm will own and operate the hothouse.
Demolition of the old house was completed in early July. The greenhouse is scheduled to open by winter—and not a moment too soon. In May, an official task force recommended that the city of Detroit demolish 40,000 dilapidated houses to stave off continuing blight. Archolab notes that the existing concrete foundations will be costly to remove and are in many cases intact—and just waiting for a new purpose, such as that offered by Afterhouse. —Gideon Fink Shapiro
Note: This article has been updated since first publication to note that the Afterhouse prototype is located in Detroit, and not in Hamtramck, Mich.