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Architecture

Art of life

A proposal for a 'power house'

MT Photos: Mitch Cope
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Published 9/17/2008

If money were granted our way, we would start a decentralized power network by purchasing several foreclosed homes around our house and turning them into mini power stations. Since the houses in our particular Detroit neighborhood — which borders Hamtramck's northern border and is sometimes referred to as "BanglaTown" or "NoHam" — are quite typical working-class homes for Detroit and Hamtramck, they provide the perfect small size (800-1,500 square feet) for experimentation. They would each be called a "power house" and their purpose would be to pump energy — both figuratively and literally — back into the neighborhood. Rather than viewing these vacant properties as economic, psychological and physical drains on the neighborhood, they could become community assets by providing much-needed community gathering points and cheap renewable power. These power houses would experiment with the "greenest" of energy sources — wind, solar, biomass. The name "power house" also indicates the need to increase security in these older Detroit homes by experimenting with "passive security systems" relying on high-tech, tough, elegant materials like hurricane glass, acrylic-and-steel doors instead of traditional security alarm services that can be a long-term expense, steel bars which are dangerous and ugly, or security gates that are ugly and also dangerous.

The immediate neighbors would participate in the renovations and installations of these technologies, making the reconstructions a kind of training ground for experimental and well-known sustainable construction techniques and designs. The power houses would also act as centers of design and cultural production by hosting workshops in architectural design and design basics during the construction. Emphasis would be placed on the multicultural aspect of our particular neighborhood, utilizing the styles and aesthetics unique to each culture within the neighborhood and then blended with what we understand as contemporary design. The opening-up of the design and construction process would be seen as public performances, always keeping in mind the way a house looks at each stage of the process and how workers interact with the house and the neighborhood. For example, if the house needed to be immediately boarded up before new windows arrived, the boarding-up process would become a temporary sculptural element doubling as a security feature. Or if a vacant lot or house simply needed to make itself known as not vacant, thousands of solar garden lights could be installed all over the lots, creating a solar star field, or all over the house, creating a star house. Furthermore, if the lights were then stolen, this would simply continue the star effect, but across a larger area, as these stolen solar lights would presumably show up throughout the area.

When the houses are complete, they would become residences for students, artists and temporary homes for families in transition, with the goal being always to mix the neighborhood up by bringing in new ideas from the outside world. The houses would serve as examples of the opportunity we have to buy cheap undesirable property and turn it into still cheap but extremely efficient, self-sustaining homes that not only produce enough power for their own consumption but at least one other neighboring house.

Currently we have one power house under construction, with the help of family members giving us the money for the initial purchase with the house costing $1,900 (from the bank) and two empty lots next to the house costing $3,000 (from an individual), with a grand total of $4,900. Since the house is currently off the grid with the help of the local scrappers, we decided it will never return to the grid, adding slowly the power we need as we go through solar and wind. We started a garden on the lots and have been painting and installing new (old) high-end insulated windows found for free on Craigslist, one of our major sources for materials. In the end the goal of the power house is to stay well below $100,000 in final construction and power materials and equipment. This scenario could be easily repeated and, in some cases, for even cheaper prices. This is why we think if relatively small amounts were granted our way, these "power houses" could easily grow into a "power network" and then a "power neighborhood."

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