Young Architects Buy Detroit Home for $500, Turn It into Design Lab

The Motor City has 33,529 vacant houses. To most of the country, that’s 33,529 reasons to wring its hands over What To Do About Detroit. To architects, it’s a gold mine.

Detroit design lab home


The Motor City has 33,529 vacant houses. To most of the country, that’s
33,529 reasons to wring its hands over What To Do About Detroit. To
architects, it’s a gold mine.

Detroit design lab house

Five research
fellows from the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture
and Urban Planning transformed an abandoned house in Hamtramck (which
is basically Detroit
into their very own lab rat. The recent architecture grads gave it new stairs, walls, glazing, rooms — the works. But it wasn’t some heroic attempt to
build shelter for down and outs, which a lot of architecture schools are into these days. It was a pure design exercise — one aimed at
rethinking the conventions of a single-family home — and it shows how
much creativity you can draw from the great arsenal of Detroit’s ruins.

The fellows bought the house at a foreclosure
auction for a whopping $500. It was literally a shell — no doors, no
windows, no electricity, no plumbing, no stairs. There she is. What a beaut!


This is Thomas Moran’s Tables and Chairs. They’re actually meant
to double as a display case and stairs:

Meredith Miller gave the building a fancy new door. You
can adjust it depending on how much privacy you want. Here’s the indoor

And the outdoor view:


Abrons manipulated basic construction materials to turn the most boring
parts of a house — floors, walls, ceilings — into a work of art.

In About-Face, Rosalyne
Shieh cut a huge diagonal swath through the house, inserted
fabric-wrapped stairs, and topped it off with a bubble skylight. There’s
a blighted property next door, but once it’s torn down, the staircase
will afford pleasant new views of the neighborhood.


Catie Newell stuck almost a thousand glass tubes (which look a lot like
crack pipes) in the house’s garage for her
project Weatherization
(top and below). According to U of M’s Web site, it
“utilizes the typical mediator of glass in an unusual configuration
allowing for an altered understanding of volume and exchange.” That’s architecture-speak for “It does cool things
with light.”


The house has been passed on to a Hamtramck design collective, which will take on further architectural “interventions.” It’s refreshing to see this sort of thing in a
city practically defined by its failures (cars, crime,
RoboCop 3). We’ve all heard the phrase “design loves a depression.” By
that logic, Detroit should be a design utopia. And it’s had its
moments. See examples here and here.

But the city’s hemorrhaging people. The population has skinnied
down from 1.85 million residents in 1950 to 951,270 in 2000 (a figure
expected to slip further in the 2010 Census). So even though the landscape’s
perfectly suited to a creative surge, the talent pool would rather create elsewhere. Who can blame them? Detroit, as we all know too
well, doesn’t do utopia.

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D