Detroit is a long-standing symbol of innovation in America, especially in the production of automobiles, music, and, at one point in history, airplanes. It has, correspondingly, been called the Motor City, Motown, and the Cradle of Democracy. Over the last half-century, racial tension, urban migration, and disinvestment have shifted the city’s identity, causing it to become a symbol of post-industrial America and the attendant urban deterioration. Together, these elements render Detroit’s more recent nickname—the Renaissance City—tragically ironic.
Fortunately, recent years have been much kinder to Detroit, typified by significant reinvestment in its borders, a marked influx of residents and businesses to the city, and a shifting of interest from the photogenic and compelling decay of the city’s past life to a landscape of innovation. Areas all over the city are witnessing not only new development, but an infusion of well-conceived creative work by highly-decorated practitioners from around the globe. They include a stunning downtown tower by SHoP and the first US-based project by Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects. Even though the city’s recent designation as a UNESCO City of Design (the first US city to claim this designation) and the city’s central position within the 2016 Venice Biennale show this interest is, at times, international in scale, a great deal of Detroit’s innovation is happening on a much less publicized, grass-roots level. This year marks a culmination of sorts, as several projects by Detroit-area designers will be completed. Individually, they point the way to new forms of architectural practice. As a set, they illustrate that the city that once pioneered new forms of automotive production might be turning its collective attention to architecture.
New Products, New Approaches
For many reasons, the common shipping container has attracted the architectural imagination over the last two decades. Although architects too often ignore the obvious and fundamental misalignment between these containers and well-formed architecture, their ubiquity, strength, economy and ready-made modularity has proven a seductive call—attracting a multitude of practitioners to try their hand at incorporating this element into their works, with varying degrees of success.
A diverse team of artists, architects, and students in Detroit have recently completed a project that adds significant insight to this conversation. Anchored by partnerships with the Build Institute, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Groundswell Design, Ponyride, Western International High School and Lawrence Technological University, this container-based development functions less as a traditional project and more as a physical sketch through which the team might explore the uses of public space within the city of Detroit and create meaningful collaborations with residents and community members. It also demonstrates how designers might leverage the unique assets of containers to realize cheaper, more changeable, and more responsive public space.
Although it currently features spaces to accommodate local retailers, restaurants, and bars, the nature of the construction permits a great deal of elasticity. Through this, the designers intend to allow residents to offer insight and, over time, change the nature of this public space. This programmatic elasticity is matched with similar flexibility in form and arrangement. Rather than force containers to abide by the norms of practice, this group allowed their unique nature to forge new forms of practice and, eventually, architecture. Steve Coy, Detroit-based visual artist and co-lead for the project, intends to use the lessons learned from this work to push the conversation forward. It is highly likely that others will join in the dialogue.
One such group is Three Squared, Inc, a Detroit-based team of architects, engineers, designers, and construction managers. This team is developing the construction infrastructure necessary to leverage the potential of the common shipping container and reframe architectural production. Like the previous project, their work is not about the final artifact, but the process that supports its realization. Focusing on the process of architectural production has allowed Three Squared, Inc to streamline the construction process. From flanges engineered to perfectly align containers as they are lowered into place, to patented doorway reinforcement methodologies to protect against thermal bridging, Three Squared’s innovation is all about production. A simplification of a single detail has dramatic effects on cost and efficiency of thousands of openings on dozens of projects. Tools used by fabricators, types of welds, rust prevention methods, and even the paint have a massive impact on large-scale production—making construction a game of supply chain management.
In this context, Three Squared’s built work is best understood as a series of studies—proofs of concept that allow them to better understand the system they intend to design. Their Detroit-based model home, constructed of nine containers stacked three high, serves as a testing ground for many of Three Squared’s innovative processes. It is here that this group pioneered approaches to address extreme weather conditions, to smartly utilize various steel types and reinforcement to reduce fabrication time, and to expand the types of cladding suitable for this form of construction. This year, Three Squared will realize its most ambitious study to date, a 24-unit apartment complex in Columbus, Ohio, constructed of 54 containers. The modified containers, which have already been set-in-place, took only five days to erect. Tradespeople can now finish their work as if it were a typical construction type—an arrangement that saves time in the schedule. Once completed, Cargominium will be the largest container-built apartment complex in the United States and a compelling proof of concept.
New Tools, New Practices
The makeLab™ is a modest digital fabrication laboratory housed within the College of Architecture and Design at Lawrence Technological University. It was established by James Stevens, an Associate Professor of Architecture at the college, as a response to emerging technologies. Stevens also saw the need for students, faculty, and practitioners to fully engage in the design, fabrication, and realization of architecture and design projects. This modesty is rooted in the lab’s method of working in what Professor Stevens defined in his 2015 publication as the Digital Vernacular. Through the makeLab™, faculty, students, and the community engage in teaching, research, and outreach simultaneously, with a dedicated focus on the relationship between emerging digital toolsets and their impact on the design and construction process.
Through this work, the makeLab™ has developed a strong relationship with the creative business community of Detroit, working directly with entrepreneurial and creative businesses in this region to provide architecture, design and fabrication services. Past projects include a moveable and sound-attenuating conference room for TPM and a self-sponsored structure built solely out of plywood sheets. These projects were digitally-fabricated primarily with a small, student-built CNC tool, and assembled with hand tools. This year, the makeLab™ has built a custom ceramic 3D-printer and is using it to develop parametrically derived ceramic masonry units. Once completed, it will provide the makeLab with the evidence it requires to more fully implement full-scale ceramic wall construction from self-built digital tools.
Other partnerships between Detroit-area academic units and the profession are realizing similarly-minded work. These initiatives are supported by a range of informal and formal networks, such as those found within entities like Omni Corp and the Detroit Center for Design and Technology (DCDT). DCDT is the public presence of LTU College of Architecture and Design’s transdisciplinary programs on the Woodward Corridor. The DCDT works to act as an inclusive platform to advance Detroit’s educational, economic, and engagement efforts with regard to design, technology, and social innovation. Current initiatives supported by the DCDT are the Urban Manufacturing Alliance Report, UNESCO City of Design designation and the STEM+Design educational outreach efforts. Although not as developed as the makeLab, these works point to a sympathetic direction within architectural practice.
New Processes, New Architectures
Post-bubble, many neighborhoods in the Detroit region, like much of America, have seen the appraised values of properties decrease markedly, resulting in a sharp decrease in public and private investment. This, combined with stagnant income for many American families, has created an increased demand for rental properties within our urban cores. And with increased demand comes increased prices. As a result, in areas like Detroit, renters can expect to pay three times more per month than homeowners on housing—a situation that forces families to spend well over half their modest income on housing and leaving precious little for food, heat and other essentials. This serves to further depress housing values in many neighborhoods, making new development unthinkable.
Although unfortunate, this arrangement makes sense. After all, if new homes built using traditional means of construction will cost well over $100 per square foot only to value at less than $55 per square foot upon completion, only those entities who can accept this loss will enter into development. Groups supported by donations and with a mission to help, such as Habitat for Humanity, may develop a few homes, but profit-based entities will not. Nor will banks, which makes home ownership a distant possibility, even for those families with enough funds for a down payment.
Two soon-to-be-completed homes question this arrangement. Realized in partnership with Lawrence Technological University, the Ford Foundation, the International Design Clinic, and various Detroit-area businesses, local developers and citizens, these homes leverage the intelligence and efficiency found within various industries (many of which are completely unrelated to housing production) to effectively re-invent the housing delivery process. The process itself is the result of years of research and a growing partnership between students and faculty, builders, real estate agents, appraisers and production centers. The research and resulting work attempts to strategically overlap ancient and emerging techniques of simulation, fabrication, and assembly to make housing production more economically viable, culturally relevant and socially responsive.
It is important to note that the process inspired by this effort does not propose a new technology. Rather it strategically overlaps existing techniques and technologies in order to cut in half the time and money associated with housing construction, while increasing the value—in financial, environmental and social terminology.
This spring, Scott Shall, founding director of the International Design Clinic and a faculty member in the Department of Architecture at LTU, will work with various Detroit-area partners to produce the first two of what will become many homes. As the techniques utilized rely heavily upon components and approaches attached to digital fabrication, the intelligence earned through these constructions will be immediately embedded into the process, to the benefit of every home produced thereafter. It, like the techniques of automotive production that inspired it, will thus become smarter over time—a fitting tribute to the city in which it was founded.
Although these projects individually lack the scale and notoriety of other works happening in Detroit, when viewed together they become much more compelling. As a set, they indicate that Detroit is not confining itself to the reinvention of automobiles or music. Detroit is quite interested in redefining the manner in which we realize architecture and, transitively, our cities. Fitting, for an area of the country bearing the moniker Renaissance City.