This Detroit House Is Being Turned Into A Living Model Of Cost-Saving Sustainable Design

Motown Movement will help residents find affordable ways to retrofit their houses and save energy (and cash).

Instead of going to grad school like most of their classmates, three architecture students in the Netherlands bought a house in Detroit when they graduated. Their goal: to turn the rundown home into a living demonstration of low-cost, DIY techniques that neighbors can use to make their own homes more sustainable.


“We wanted to really build something instead of just drawing,” says 22-year-old Ronen Dan, one of the students behind the project, called the Motown Movement. The students had learned about Detroit in classes about shrinking cities, and then visited in the summer of 2015. “The state it was in was much worse than we thought, but the people were much more positive.”

They saw multiple examples of sustainable hacks, such as reuse of materials from abandoned houses, and urban farms planted in vacant lots. But they also realized that many people were missing out on affordable ways to retrofit houses.

“We thought we should create a sustainable example,” Dan says. The house, a two-family home, will be turned into a training center on the first floor, where anyone can come see how a heat pump works, or take a workshop on how to install insulation to reduce energy use as much as 70%. (A family that lost their home through foreclosure will be given the second floor.)

The roof will be covered in solar panels and plants; a graywater system will collect rain for flushing toilets and watering a community garden in the front yard. A septic tank will turn sewage into biogas and fertilizer. The students even want to experiment with connecting the house to waste heat from nearby industry.

“We’re making a menu of different things people can do,” says Dan. “For example, we’ll have three different kinds of windows. Most of it will be do-it-yourself.” Most supplies will be the kind of thing it’s possible to buy at Home Depot; everything will be available in the Detroit area. The students are partnering with local organizations to share the project with the community.

Though some of the techniques, such as better insulation, are particularly applicable for Detroit’s housing stock, the students say the project can easily be adapted for other locations. “That’s why we’re using a wide range of techniques and simple methods,” says Dominik Lukkes, one of the students. “We want to try to make it adaptable for every climate zone or every country . . . we’re trying to make it as universal as possible.”


They’re also working with their university, Delft University of Technology, to try to create a master’s program for other students to do the same thing in cities around the world.

“Lots of people don’t know that they can do this with their homes,” says Lukkes. “By building the home together with people, it creates this big thing around it, so people can learn that this is so easy to do, and can be low cost.”

Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it’s interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.