University professor collaborates in Detroit greenhouse project that could incite new growth

Tuesday, October 25, 2016 - 3:36pm

On Burnside Street in Detroit, just northwest of Hamtramck, a greenhouse collaborative project utilizing old abandoned houses is only a few short steps away from completion.

By the time winter sets in, the small neighborhood greenhouse, named Afterhouse, will be warm enough to grow fruits and other plants that otherwise wouldn’t otherwise be able to flourish in cold Michigan weather.

The project was the brainchild of Abigail Murray, a ceramist and Ann Arbor resident who has had experience with community gardening and other design projects similar to this greenhouse.

“I had read about Walipinis, which are theses underground greenhouses in the Andes, and they grow things like bananas at crazy high altitudes and crazy high temperatures,” she said. “I think a lot of gardeners in Michigan get depressed when winter comes and wish that they could grow for longer and extend their growing season.”

Project co-collaborator Steven Mankouche, Murray's husband and an associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, said the greenhouse was inspired by a love of gardening. But now that it’s nearing its completion, the potential for more greenhouses in Detroit has become apparent.

“The project never started as us wanting to help people; we started the project as wanting to see if this idea would work,” he said. “While I think it does, I hate to talk about the project as if we are out there to help people and as if that were the mission of the work, which is not the case.”

The greenhouse plan was conceived of in 2009, according to the couple, but it took a few years for them to find the right house for the project. An additional year of fundraising after the house on Burnside Street was chosen and the plans were laid out in 2013 was also necessary for the project to launch.

“We wanted to find an abandoned house that was fire damaged and could not be saved,” he said. “We wanted the house to be in a neighborhood that wasn’t a fringe neighborhood with not much around it; we wanted it to be in a neighborhood where people lived but that was still struggling.”

Mankouche said the neighborhood, informally called by the primarily Bangladeshi residents “Banglatown,” seemed to be a good fit because there was still what he referred to as a “neighborhood fabric” intact in the area despite the burned and derelict houses scattered amongst the houses of the residents.

Now the project is coming close to a conclusion, with several final steps remaining. The last touches include installing stairs that will lead to the sunken lower level of the greenhouse, which was completed last week, and bringing in and spreading soil. Mankouche said after soil is spread inside Afterhouse, it will be ready for the first round of planting. Some of the first plants will include small trees that require warmer temperatures that are not available during Detroit winters, including bananas, olives and pomegranates.

Mankouche said the house is roughly 600 square feet with a completely open interior. The sunken base is approximately five feet below ground level.

“We removed the house from the foundation up, and in that process of demolition we salvaged all the structural lumber from the house,” he said. “We were left with the bare foundation wall, which was concrete block wall, which required a lot of repair work.”

Murray said an underlying concern within the project was building a lasting infrastructure in the area and finding residents that would continue to use the final product well after it reached completion.

“One of the things that was always really important to us when we were looking for a site and looking for the right partner to work with or give it to was that it would be useful and wouldn’t just be another thing that’s falling down,” she said. “We will help maintain it over the next couple of years to make sure that everything is working and to troubleshoot problems.”

As of right now, Afterhouse will primarily be used by Burnside Farms, the community garden that operates across the street from the greenhouse. The garden will use the greenhouse to extend its growing season through the winter. Mankouche said he thinks that the greenhouse can give back to the community by enabling the farm to continue growing throughout the winter that it can give to members of the neighborhood.

Burnside Farms could not be reached for comment.

Murray said from her experience working with members of the “Banglatown” community, there's high potential for growth in community gardening.

“There are a lot of structures that can be repurposed that way, and there are a lot of people who are using gardening and growing their food to empower people,” she said. “If you live in a place where fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t that easy to come by, they are easy to come by in your backyard.”

Mankouche also noted that the small size of the Afterhouse design helps it fit into the neighborhood, and the approach that they’ve taken — demolishing the house but retaining the original foundation — allows for a variety of different community-oriented designs to be incorporated into future projects, such as residential scale swimming pools or skate parks.

On top of potential for other uses, Mankouche said the completed Afterhouse is not necessarily the final product and that the maintenance of the original foundation means that the structure could be repurposed again for something else.

“It allows for a future for the house,” he said. “It’s like putting a cap on the house; there’s nothing that would stop someone from converting Afterhouse back into a house again.”

“I think that it can have a very positive effect on the neighborhoods and the reason is because it’s not a big structure, it pretty much replaces a house unlike, let’s say, a large greenhouse and things of that nature, and so just because of its residential scale and the fact that it is in the location of a house itself, it tends to have a different type of rapport as a piece of architecture than a piece of art would,” he said.

University alum Travis Williams worked with Stephen and Murray on the Afterhouse project through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. He has volunteered throughout the entire project, including during the initial design phases, and despite graduating this past spring, plans to help until the project is completed.

A native Detroiter, Williams said he was excited by the idea of working on a project that would revitalize a home that had been completely abandoned and left to break down among the houses of residents in the neighborhood.

“The way it served as an intermediary between blighted out homes and new home owners, I was delighted to work on it,” he said. “Seeing it go from a dilapidated home that was firebombed and complete desolation to seeing what we could deconstruct and salvage and completely rebuild it to a whole new design and use, it’s been enlightening.”

An aspiring architect, Williams said working on the project has helped him understand how to bring in community input to influence design and planning, as well as the role that communities themselves play in efforts to rebuild the houses and neighborhoods around them.

“(Steven) was more receptive and took more of a participatory role from the community itself and the people that it would actually house and serve, and listened to their thoughts,” he said. “That was a very big teachable moment, where it showed me the role that communities can play in their own reinvention, and have to play in their reimagining.”

Mankouche said since the project is nearing completion, he is interested in reaching out to other communities and working with others on similar projects in the future, though he said he does not want to be the one who build them anymore.

The couple believes the precedent set by the project has the potential to change the approach that the city of Detroit takes to demolishing old and broken houses. Beyond the risks and technical knowledge required to safely demolish a house, Mankouche said it is feasible for communities to come together to construct new buildings using old foundations in the way that Afterhouse does.

“I think it absolutely is a project that can be done by smaller communities,” he said, mentioning that several people from the immediate neighborhood surrounding the Afterhouse project volunteered time to help build the structure.

To demolish and rebuild the house cost Murray and Mankouche approximately $5,000 in total, a process they contracted out. According to an article written by The Atlantic, it costs the city of Detroit roughly $12,000 to fully demolish a derelict house, which includes removing the foundation and filling in the hole in the ground that is left behind.

Both Mankouche and Murray noted that one obstacle relevant to demolition projects for both the city of Detroit and the Afterhouse project is that without the proper permits for renovation, the city doesn’t allow for partial demolition. This means that to reduce costs by saving the foundation of houses, Detroit would have to take a remodeling approach, rather than demolition. 

“If the city changed the ordinance in such a way that one was allowed to demolish and leave the existing first floor intact, because all these houses are platform framed, you could then go about it quite safely and give time to the community to go about rebuilding a house,” Mankouche said.