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Bridging the Detroit divide

How people feel about Detroit seems to depend largely on where they are standing. Or so says Jana Cephas, who lived in that city for 12 years before moving to Boston to pursue a PhD at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 2007.

When Detroit comes up as a topic among designers, architects, planners and historians, Cephas says she hears a lot of talk “very focused on decline, decay and vacancy as Detroit’s ‘problem.’” However, according to Cephas, one of Detroit’s biggest challenges is not that it has vacancy but that experts do not see the latent potential in that vacancy.

“What is sustaining a lot of people in Detroit today is their ability to use vacancy as an advantage,” she says.

Concerned with the wide gap between residents’ and outsiders’ perceptions of vacancy in Detroit, Cephas has secured a $2,000 BSA Research in Architecture grant to investigate the issue further. By documenting how residents use vacancy for financial gain, she hopes to help designers better understand how to accommodate informal economies in their redevelopment plans.

Cephas certainly isn’t contesting that Detroit has fallen on hard times. The poorest city in the United States, Detroit suffers from a high unemployment rate, with 33 percent of its residents living in poverty. And although no official vacancy rate exists, Cephas estimates that it would be around 35 to 45 percent based on anecdotal evidence. “If you drive around the city, any given block will be almost half empty,” she says.

But what piques her curiosity is the many ways—often unsanctioned or illegal—in which Detroit residents have begun to use vacant space as income-generating infrastructure.

While city residents’ use of vacant lots for urban farming has garnered publicity nationwide, many other Detroit practices have evaded mainstream attention. These include squatting and building reclamation, architecturally inspired art auctions and events, intentional co-housing and cooperative communities, illicit utility restructuring, and more.

For example, both formal and informal building deconstruction crews working throughout Detroit have generated a significant amount of economic activity in recent years.

“It’s anti-architecture in a way,” explains Cephas. “Residents have found ways to recycle vacant buildings and to create mini-economies around that recycling. They literally deconstruct the buildings by hand—taking them apart, piece by piece—and sell the parts.”

According to Cephas, this has spawned numerous smaller recycling businesses that do everything from recycling copper pipes to breaking down wood shingles into wood pulp that’s turned into other products to cleaning 19th-century doorknobs and pulls for resale through antique shops. “The unbuilding process has become a re-economy in the city—but one that hasn’t been tracked so far,” she says.

To better understand this kind of renegade reuse, Cephas has found herself turning to research methodologies drawn from disciplines outside architecture, such as anthropology and sociology.

“Part of what makes researching this topic so very challenging is that these activities are difficult to quantify. The information does not live in an archive or database somewhere, and there’s no clear way to access it. In fact, it’s impossible to know what exactly is happening unless you are living in the city and see what’s going on,” explains Cephas. “So a lot of what I do involves walking around and talking to people.”

When she finishes her research project in December, Cephas hopes to publish a peer-reviewed paper exploring how informal economies can serve as a legitimate catalyst for sustainable community development.

“Hopefully, the paper will help other designers understand not just Detroit, but this condition of lower economic layers and levels in general,” says Cephas.

Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers science, nature, animal issues, travel, food and passionate people for acclaimed publications such as Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine, and the Boston Globe. Her website is

Scrapping together a much-needed primer

Architectural reuse certainly seems to capture the public’s imagination. When Public Architecture led the design team to build “ScrapHouse” in front of San Francisco’s City Hall in 2005, more than 10,000 people came to tour it during the four days it was open.

ScrapHouse, designed by Public Architecture. Photograph by Cesar Rubio.

Click image above to view slideshow.

“The house was made completely out of junk. Nails and screws were the only things that weren’t scrap,” says Liz Ogbu, associate design director at Public Architecture. “Even though it doesn’t exist anymore, ScrapHouse remains one of our more popular projects.”

Based on this success, Public Architecture was invited to collaborate on the development of a new community center and headquarters for the nonprofit Technology Access Foundation in King County, Washington. The hope was to again create a building prominently featuring salvaged materials, and Ogbu says the firm was “excited about exploring architectural reuse on a bigger scale and in something permanent.” With a commitment to ensuring that the reuse components wouldn’t be more expensive than conventional construction, Public Architecture kicked off the design process with project architect The Miller Hull Partnership.

However, the team quickly ran into roadblocks.

“One of things we found is that while the salvage market works OK for residential construction, it doesn’t work so great for commercial construction,” recalls Ogbu. “Although we’d done this kind of build on a smaller scale, it was like we were trying to reinvent the wheel.”

She found that she had to catch contractors just as they were undertaking an improvement project if she was to source salvaged commercial building materials at all. “For the most part, it is cheaper for contractors to take those materials to the dump and to pay the tipping fee than to find a place for them to go,” explains Ogbu. “And a lot of salvage businesses do not carry the scale needed for commercial projects because they don’t see a lot of those kinds of clients and can’t justify setting that kind of space aside for those materials.”

Ogbu says that compounding those problems was that it was difficult to find examples of how people had successfully used salvage at a commercial scale. “The information is out there but not in a format that’s easily accessible,” she says.

Ultimately, the Technology Access Foundation’s building was designed to include an exterior of salvaged-wood composite panels, a pedestrian bridge made from timber joists from a former public-housing project nearby, office partitions finished with salvaged fire hose instead of Sheetrock and salvaged wood flooring in the conference rooms. The project is scheduled to break ground this summer. Its challenging design process will have a legacy beyond the building itself, thanks to a $10,000 BSA Research in Architecture grant.

Ogbu, Brad Leibin and Cali Pfaff of Public Architecture, and several volunteers are using the BSA grant in conjunction with $15,000 from The Adobe Foundation to create the Design for Reuse Knowledge Exchange (, an online knowledge exchange providing insight on how material reuse can work at a commercial scale.

The web portal builds off the Design for Reuse Primer, an electronic publication that Public Architecture released last fall with the support of a USGBC research grant. The primer, which is now available online through this knowledge exchange, will be supplemented with more content over the coming year. This will include additional project case studies and profiles, knowledge-based essays from building professionals and local officials experienced in working with salvaged materials, and lists of resources.

“Material reuse seems foreign. No one really talks about how to spec it, and there’s no standardization,” she says. “But we can help make material reuse become as common as recycling by increasing the construction industry’s knowledge of how to handle both its opportunities and challenges.”

Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers science, nature, animal issues, travel, food and passionate people for acclaimed publications such as Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine, and the Boston Globe. Her website is

Top image: “ScrapHouse,” designed by Public Architecture. Photograph by Cesar Rubio.

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