Passive greenhouse project brings hope to Detroit neighborhood


In a Detroit neighborhood shared by Bangladeshi, Polish immigrants, longtime African-American residents and young artists, something is happening.

Neighbors come out of their houses to watch, and even to help.

“I didn’t think it would be so powerful,” U-M’s Steven Mankouche says of the Archolab-Afterhouse project he and his partner, artist Abigail Murray, are leading. Its goal is to repurpose a burned-out house as a semi-subterranean, passive geothermal greenhouse that will serve the neighborhood.

The project won’t be complete until spring. But the activity at 3347 Burnside Street, just north of Hamtramck, already creates excitement among residents — and hope.

“They see people fixing up houses, painting, but nobody here builds something new. I think it shows a certain investment, a commitment to the place,” says Mankouche, associate professor of architecture, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

In contrast to urban agriculture projects that require lots of space, Afterhouse is discreet, almost hidden, because it maintains the scale of the original house. Further, the growing climate in the house does not require the expense of active heating in the winter or cooling in the summer.

“We see Afterhouse as a provocative/proactive response to blight and community grown food,” Mankouche says.

The Afterhouse project got underway last spring, as project volunteers began demolishing the house by hand. (Photo by Ali Lapetina)

Chance Heath, a second-year Taubman graduate student, says architects traditionally take a hands-off approach to projects: They create designs offsite and pass them on to builders on the street. Not here. “There’s something I find really valuable with this project. I have the ability to do hands-on work, and my work is valued.”

Minutes after Heath first laid eyes on the site, he and Mankouche were designing and building a rack to hold reclaimed, repurposed wood for later use. “We found a scrap of paper and started doing sketches, both Steven and I, and we started working,” he says.

Hand demolition work began last spring. Soon, neighbors were coming by to ask questions — often in foreign languages — and offering advice or tools. They’ve even helped with the work. Willie, an African-American neighbor and mason, happened by at the perfect time one Sunday.

Travis Williams, senior architecture major from Detroit, hammers nails into reclaimed wood from the former home. The wood is being repurposed as a frame for the passive greenhouse. (Photo by Ali Lapetina)

“We had never experienced pouring concrete from a ready mix truck. He said you have to add two gallons of water to make sure it flows right. He suddenly shows up and basically helps direct the entire operation,” Mankouche says.

A Bangladeshi man picked up a trowel and helped smooth the cement being poured into foundation blocks. Meanwhile, a Domino’s Pizza restaurant contributed $500 “Pizzavestment” in free pizza over several weeks, to share among project workers.

The cement-steadied foundation now serves as the base for an upright frame of repurposed structural lumber. The sturdy wood studs were salvaged from the 1920s home, then de-nailed this past summer. Plans call for covering the frame with clear polycarbonate plastic sheeting this fall, among other finishing touches. The basement will be filled with dirt for planting. Current floor drains are perfect to serve the greenhouse project, Mankouche says.

“The idea is to grow crops in a climate comparable to a northern Mediterranean climate. Olive trees, pomegranates, rosemary, certain citrus, kiwi, pistachio — we may try mangoes,” he says.

From Milan to the Motor City

As a boy in Milan, Italy, Mankouche had a passion for taking photos of the buildings around him. He decided to study architecture — but not just the classic architecture he knew in Europe. His studies took him to Japan, where he also learned to appreciate bare, concrete lines found in contemporary architecture.

“I like the idea of being able to form environments,” he says.

Mankouche and Murray, in 2009 attended a fundraiser promoting hoop houses where they met someone that had visited some Peruvian subterranean passive solar greenhouses. On their way home that night, Murray suggested they build one.

“She said we should look into constructing one in Detroit where there are so many abandoned foundations,” Mankouche said. That night the project was born.

Their Archolab group, which oversees Afterhouse, raised $14,838 through Hatchfund, a non-profit, crowd-source funding organization. The pitch to backers described the project as one in where students and faculty would collaborate with artists and urban farmers. The goal is to have a positive impact on a small Detroit community.

Steven Mankouche, associate professor of architecture, stands behind a wood frame erected along the former basement of the home on Burnside, as students work below. The basement will hold earth and be the growing area for numerous plants, come spring. (Photo by Ali Lapetina)

To get the project underway this past spring, the group also won $7,500 through a joint U.S. Department of Economic Development-Michigan State University Regional Economic Innovation grant, Taubman College seed funding as well as support from Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program students. They include Travis Williams, senior architecture major from Detroit. Williams had worked on a previous project with Mankouche, and sought to join the Afterhouse project.

Sunday in the ‘D’

In a charcoal-colored T-shirt speckled with sawdust under the Sunday sun, Williams reaches toward a nearby sawhorse. He hands a repurposed wood plank to Jonathan Sturt, a Taubman College lecturer who also works on the project. Sturt guides the wood into the jagged, chop saw blade. A stream of sawdust shoots into the air. The portable chop saw sits in the street, yards from a dead end. An orange extension cord trails from a nearby garage to the saw.

“After it’s a house, what then?” Williams asks. “Being a native Detroiter, the most important aspect for me is the opportunity to tackle a major problem which is blight, and also connecting it to use in the neighborhood. And also, people here can see some progress being made.”

A dirt-streaked green wheelbarrow rests tilted in shade near the sidewalk. A broken cinderblock bakes in the sun. Mankouche and Murray work in the street as their son Ezra, 2, plays in Kate Daughdrill’s sun-drenched garden, growing up to the sidewalk.

Daughdrill, also an artist, owns the Afterhouse property and supports the project, which in turn supports her neighborhood produce-growing Burnside Farm project. She will oversee Afterhouse once building and planting are completed.

Eddie Sachs, a Taubman College senior and Detroit native who grew up near the project site, joined at the beginning as a UROP student. He contributed in the design phase as well as fundraising, publicity and designing the website. He also learned how to secure permits and negotiate.

He says a standout moment came at a conference, when attendees approached the Archolab group to congratulate them on the project. “It was a pretty surreal moment. That’s when I realized that what we were doing was actually much bigger in scale and can make a big difference,” Sachs says.

Other project collaborators include Michael Palmer, lead collections specialist at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. He has suggested trying a dwarf variety pomegranate, and how to prepare the greenhouse as a growing space.

Mankouche says planting is scheduled for spring.


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