It was a clear fall day when I drove through a dense suburban neighborhood toeing the border of Detroit and Hamtramck, Mich., to check on the first prototype of Afterhouse, one of ARCHITECT’s 2014 R+D Award winners. Rows of near identical early- to mid-20th-century blue-collar bungalows filled each block, but it was easy to spot 3347 Burnside Ave. It was the only site in the vicinity with new construction activity—a fact that has drawn curious neighbors—and the neighboring Burnside Farm is also a visual outlier, a mash-up of six lots that have been converted into a verdant community garden overseen by a bungalow-cum-farmhouse.
Afterhouse is an experimental model conceived by Ann Arbor, Mich.–based research and design collaborative Archolab to repurpose abandoned houses that, for reasons such as fire or neglect, cannot be salvaged for human occupancy. Detroit has no shortage of such properties; the city slated 3,400 former homes for demolition in 2014, according to Archolab.
Archolab’s Steven Mankouche, who’s also an associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, and Abigail Murray, an artist, are capitalizing on Detroit’s budding urban farm movement, one of many grassroots efforts to revitalize the city. Along with a cast of local neighbors-, artists-, and students-turned-builders, they want to reuse the concrete foundations of these structures—an energy-intensive building component to place as well as to demolish—as a starting point to build walipinis, or underground greenhouses that can operate year-round.
Along with the repurposed foundation, the team plans to use donated and scrap structural insulated panels (SIPs) to insulate the foundation and floor, do-it-yourself trusses for structural framework, double-walled polycarbonate panels for roofing, and scrap hardwood cut-offs for a rainscreen. If successful, Afterhouse will give Burnside Farm a plot that could support citrus, olive, and fig trees and other tropical plants not often associated with Michigan.
Demolition of the site’s existing structure—a fire-ravaged house abandoned years prior—was initially slated for completion in early July. A local crew was hired for the demo, but due to unexpected existing conditions, the process of hand-salvaging materials such as the lumber, and scheduling issues, the process took longer than the anticipated few weeks. Cleaning the existing foundation floor and walls took additional time, as did puzzling together the donated SIP cut-offs along the structure perimeter.
Mankouche says that the goal now is to frame and temporarily close-in the Afterhouse for the winter. Though the initial plan was to bestow the greenhouse to Burnside Farm this year, Archolab is resigned to resuming construction next spring. After all, overcoming obstacles has a big and often serendipitous role in the R+D process.
Read more about the Afterhouse concept in our R+D Awards article or hear Mankouche speak about Archolab’s work on Tuesday, Oct. 14, at the 2014 Reinvention conference, organized by ARCHITECT’s sister publication Residential Architect.