Turning Detroit’s Abandoned Homes Into Greenhouses
A new kind of neighborhood regrowth
When Steven Mankouche first saw the house at 3347 Burnside Street in Detroit, in 2013, it was buckling and scarred with burn marks 1. An artist named Andy Malone, who lived nearby, had just purchased the lot for $500 and was hoping to find some way to bring it back to life. Mankouche, an architect, and his partner, Abigail Murray, a ceramicist 2, floated a proposal to do just that, by commandeering the house’s foundation and repurposing it as a sort of plant nursery.
The following year, a team set to work dismantling the empty house, and in 2015, a new frame went up 3. By the time I visited, in June of this year, a new exterior had taken shape, with a fluted-plastic roof and wood siding. Like the old walls, the siding was charred, but deliberately so, via shou sugi ban, a Japanese technique that singes wood to render it resistant to rot. Despite summer’s heat and humidity, the interior of the structure was temperate. Come winter, Mankouche told me, “it will be hot enough for plants, but not for people.”
That’s fitting, because the structure’s future inhabitants will include species that can’t usually weather Michigan winters, like fig trees 4 [see 7 ]. With the help of his design collaborative, archolab, Mankouche—a professor at the University of Michigan—is building a sunken greenhouse he calls Afterhouse 5, which he hopes will serve as a prototype for other projects across the city and beyond.
Two years after Detroit emerged from bankruptcy, its urban-farming scene is flourishing, with some 1,400 farms and community gardens spread across the city’s 139 square miles. Many local growers worry that they will be uprooted as the city woos development projects, and with them, much-needed taxes and jobs. But green spaces don’t have to be at odds with revitalization, says Maurice Cox, the city’s director of planning and development, who notes that farms and gardens are a key element of the Detroit Future City plan, a blueprint for diversifying local land use.
In some parts of the city, farms span entire blocks, conjuring an urban prairie. Afterhouse’s neighborhood, by contrast, remains densely populated. Rather than plunk down a building that was discordant, or turn the land into a meadow, Mankouche wanted a structure whose scale and shape would evoke the bungalow that was once there 6. “It doesn’t have this kind of massive, spaceship-like landing of something of a completely different scale,” he says.
With the help of local masons, Mankouche, Murray, and Malone preserved the house’s foundation, fortifying it with steel rebar 7. The team also recovered materials from demolition sites, enlisting an artisan at the ceramics studio Pewabic Pottery to concoct black, white, and blue glazes for salvaged bricks 8. The colors were selected with an eye toward modulating temperature: Due to the roof’s angle and the structure’s orientation, the sun will strike the black bricks only in winter, when the greenhouse needs extra heat. This and other passive-design elements are meant to keep the building insulated year-round. A neighbor—Kate Daughdrill, who runs Burnside Farm on the lot next door—will use the structure to extend her growing season.
Through an ongoing blight-eradication campaign, Detroit plans to raze 5,000 vandalized or dilapidated homes this year. Going forward, Afterhouse’s design could offer an alternative to full demolitions, which typically cost more than $12,000. (Demolition expenses include dismantling each foundation, treating lots for contaminants such as lead and asbestos, and hauling in fresh dirt and topsoil to stabilize the land.) Mankouche hopes that eventually, building foundations will be repurposed for uses beyond horticulture—for example, as skate parks, or pools, or root cellars. “There’s so much investment in these structures already,” he told me. “Concrete, human labor, plumbing, and memories. We can harness and harvest something from it.”