Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Vote now!

The next Dwelling on Waste project - Spencer's Art House - in Flint, MI needs your help.

Spencer's Art House and Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association are in the running for $5 million in grants. Awards are determined by public vote, so take 30 seconds to cast your votes and share with friends:

Chase Bank users can cast an additional vote here: chase.com/chasegiving

The pitch:

What was known in the late 1800’s as the carriage capitol of the country and in the 1950’s as a bustling automotive city, Flint is now transformed again. The collapse of the automotive industry has led to a severe economic decline, with sprawl, depopulation, and abandonment quickly following. The number one most desirable city to live in has become one of the most violent in the country in a matter of just 50 years.

Decentralization of city centers is becoming a more pervasive issue throughout the world. Abandonment. Depreciated property values. Arson. Drug trade. Loss of morale and of community. With economic decline almost across the board, people are finding themselves ill-equipped to upkeep their homes and their communities.

The Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association is collaborating with the Flint Public Art Project to renovate an abandoned home in the city’s oldest neighborhood as a community space – using an imaginative rebuilding process. Led by architect Andrew Perkins, we are working with prominent artists, local businesses and non-profits, and city officials to reimagine the historic Spencer’s Mortuary as a community center and art space. Steps from a Native American burial ground, blocks from the birthplace of the American auto industry, and halfway between two universities, Spencer’s Art House will become a beacon of this re-emerging city.

We want this process to be as environmentally friendly as it is socially responsible, so every effort is being made to use as many recycled and reclaimed materials as possible. Working together with local demolition companies we can keep material costs low and more debris out of the landfills. Funds from Chase Community Giving will go toward some of these major renovation tasks, as well as installing renewable energy systems and sponsoring some of the many public workshops expected in the coming months.

With your help, Spencer’s will become a model for revitalization which is accessible to cities globally. The goal is not just to rebuild the community, but to progressively reinvent it as one which is socially, environmentally, and financially sustainable while hanging on to all of its historic significance, charm and beauty.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Flint Public Art Project

Stephen Zacks, journalist in NYC turned producer/curator of the Flint Public Art Project, has offered to commission us for another house in Flint, MI.

FPAP just received a $250,000 grant from ArtPlace to re-envision the urbanism of Flint via a series of art and design projects focusing on social engagement. Collaboration between artists, designers, architects, urbanists, local businesses, and the community will seek to "contribute new sources of inspiration to the local culture, attract revenue to small businesses, draw activity to disused sites, support community organizations, and reinforce connections to the metropolitan, regional, and global economy" (Zacks).

The house in question is 520 University Ave, formerly known as Spencer's Funeral Home, which faces (among other things) catastrophic roof damage. I'll be heading to Flint next week to begin a 5-6 month live-work renovation (and Matt shortly thereafter, on a part-time basis). The aim is to convert this long-abandoned structure into something of an artists' collaborative, eventually obtaining a Certificate of Occupancy.

Posts here will be farther and fewer as attention is shifted elsewhere, but will still occur as projects happen at Southampton. Follow the blogs below for development of Dwelling on Waste: Flint.


Friday, July 6, 2012

The West Wing

After some downtime taking care of other end-of-the-semester tasks and a number of other ventures we've been able to get back to work on the house.

In uncanny timing, three letters from the city arrived the day after our 'final' presentation of the work. After eight months of dodging city officials, we've now been cited for lead paint, damaged roofing, cracked windows, and most ironically "trash/debris in the yard." We think he means our building materials, benches, and landscaping work.

In compliance we've begun to keep atop weeding and trimming more heavily, and hide some of the less typical sights from street view. We've also been made to remove the wood-burning stove which sustained us through the winter. Disconnecting the chimney pipe and moving the stove to the other side of the room is simple enough. And leaving the top part of the chimney exposed at the ceiling actually creates a point of ventilation for the now warm summer temperatures. In the meantime we'll be keeping our eye out for a stove more convincing of UL certification.

As we start to branch to other projects, we need to wrap up a few things at Southampton before our temporary leave. The tire foundation is not yet waterproof, which for now is not a major issue. But if the earth within them takes in a lot of moisture now, they're liable to freeze and expand in the winter, which can undo a lot of the rebuilding we've done. The original wall above it (on the weathered west side of the house) is also one of the most damaged in the house.

Shingles, faux brick, furring strips, wood siding, thick vertical boards and a window are removed...by hand in about an hour. After creating some temporary support set away from the wall we're able to get to the very top of the tire wall for the first time to run plastic and a more stable floor-wall construction.

With new a new top plate and base plate laid, the replacement wall is set up using old 2x4's stripped from another renovation on the West side. Thin 1/4" plywood is the only material we have to sheath the studs, which is far thinner than usual. We double layer and offset it for added strength. And instead of trimming the length of the second layer, we take advantage of its flexibility. The wall is skirted out to keep water from building up at the conjunction of the tires and wood.

Lastly, it's covered with spare roofing felt until we can add a more resistant siding material.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Ecological v. Ego-logical

We overheard some criticism the other day: "I don't get it. There isn't really anything new about this."
And generally they're right. After fighting off the natural urge to argue that it is indeed new, I think it best to respond more nimbly. So a few counter-questions:

What does being "new" have to do with creating productive, meaningful, and responsible architecture? This urgency among us to constantly be creating anew what often is not broken; What good does it bring? A deviation from need, humility, and civic duty. The Moai of Easter Island are a perfect example. Labor- and material-intensive statues everywhere one looks, each one larger than the previous. They suggest a cultural battle for dominance which quickly leads to a collapsing civilization  unable to organize or feed itself.

This isn't to say that innovation should be halted, but rather that 'new' shouldn't exist only for new's sake. And having the knowledge of all those who have done these things before us - these things which are highly resourceful, effective, attainable, and sustainable - we might inquire why they aren't a more prevalent entity. This thesis directly seeks to call attention to that which is old, plain, and obvious: waste. It's the overlooking of all of this material that we find incredible. There is much to learn from primitive ways of working and living which is regularly overlooked in our so-called developed society. So what's new here?

A recognition of the flexibility in materials so regularly overlooked. A movement past professional and social taboos. Spaces which not only address cultural circumstances on a very intimate level but which establish a new aesthetic which at once modest and stimulating.

Buffalo isn't a part of a third world country. The house and our own lives are embedded within a modern culture of readily available water and energy and iPhones and a culture which practices a life very different from our own. How our mediated way of living begins to insert itself into this pervasive culture becomes part of the challenge and part of the intrigue.

Our work may be seen as a sort of exaggeration – a critique of consumerism and the indifference to waste which has become the norm, of the sterility and preciousness of “high design.” If the responsibility of the architect is to situate material among context, the challenge is not to achieve a trashless space, but more flexible aesthetic and functional criteria to embed it in. Waste isn’t something to be shunned, but an underutilized resource capable of far more than we generally like to admit – not only a driver of ecological systems and financial accessibility, but an instigator of new breeds of architecture.

And that's not to say that "high design" is bad or shouldn't exist or is entirely selfish. Rather, that with a billion squatters currently in the world and billions of others who haven't reached the bliss all-marble furniture and LED facades, the amount of time, energy, and investment (and education) that goes into such projects is disproportional to our current needs.

"Innovative architecture," Googled

Kowloon Walled City

We don’t seek to redefine the profession of architecture – but to realign it with some of the more fundamental human necessities and desires which spawned the profession – and do to so in a way that is not only retrospective, but sensitive to the current cultural and economic climate. We seek to provoke a way of practicing, way of thinking, way of life – that we hope can become a more prominent figure in architectural practice.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Matt and I have been accepted into Rice University's next publication of PLAT journal, Scapegoat Journal, and are discussing publication via Metropolis and The New York Times. We've also been invited to work on another house in Flint, Michigan, as part of the Flint Public Art Project: http://www.flintpublicartproject.com/

We're also working on our own publication which will cover the past 8 months in more depth. To ground our own work we'd like to get a stronger understanding of the broader context. The proposal is a 2 month research trip, hitting up places such as Fresh Kills landfill, to the artistic rehabilitations of declining neighborhoods in Detroit, to self-sufficient vigilantes in California, to the culturally rich but dire city of New Orleans. While I do this Matt will be holding down the fort in Buffalo, where we'll join up again afterward to compile a more comprehensive statement about our work and potential implications for the future.

  • Cleveland, OH - Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative
  • Detroit, MI - Architectural Salvage Warehouse
  • Detroit, MI - Design 99 + Power House
  • Detroit, MI - Imagination Station
  • Detroit, MI - The Heidelberg Project (outdoor art project - abandonment turned artists' colony)

  • Chicago, IL - Lowercase Collective
  • Portland, OR - Communitecture

  • Portland, OR - The ReBuilding Center
  • Lagunitas, CA - David Hoffman
  • San Diego, CA - Estudio Teddy Cruz 
  • Colorado Desert, CA - Slab City (decommissioned and uncontrolled site-turned squatting and camping grounds)
  • Taos, New Mexico - Earthship Biotecture/Mike Reynolds (passive solar houses made of natural and recycled materials)

  • Huntsville, TX - Phoenix Commotion/Dan Phillips (Eco-friendly homes for low-income families)
  • Houston, TX - John Milkovisch
  • New Orleans, LA - Eric Kugler
  • New York, NY - Fresh Kills landfill (one of the largest landfills [and man-made structures] in the world, now under development as "Freshkills Park")

  • New York, NY - ABC No Rio (community center/activist collaborative)
  • New York, NY - The Hole (ghost town between Brooklyn and Queens)
  • Boston, MA - Ze-gen, Inc. (renewable energy company - gasification)

But this can't happen without help. Check out the Kickstarter campaign and its sweet rewards:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

He Who Lives in a Glass House

...keeps his stones for the french drain behind the tire foundation.

The southern facade is replaced with a collage of found wood-frame windows, and the gallery-like pathways around the "basement" are finished off with railings (topped with waterbed bumpers, for comfort). The wall opens up the space visually, and physically with a glass door - a more private entrance, and continuity with the ever developing backyard.

Bricks are layed dry over the rough concrete floor of the lower space - partly for aesthetic and not having anything better do with them for now, and partly because this back room still isn't 100% watertight. The bricks create a kind of raised platform where small amounts of water can drain to the ground pipe in the corner without puddling up.

In preparation for the big crowd of people that would be the post-thesis review celebration, we've had to clean up and organize the other materials we've amassed. With the woodwall gone, this living space has to be readdressed. Some pallets form a partition, and arms are attached on one side to act as a lumber rack. This not only gets our materials out of the weather, but organizes them and acts as a promenade to constantly remind us of our stock.

The other space this creates is something more of a leisure space, with books organized in the gaps of the pallets and light pouring through the double window.

So that our window wall doesn't look out to a mound of disorganized "junk," everything is organized and purposed. The bits of vegetable gardening we've begun guide the development of this material garden - piles of heavy timber to frame pathways, propane tanks as bench supports, TV's and tubs as table legs, tires as display for plywood and plywood as display for tires...

...and a #1 outhouse made from an old autoshop sign, plastic light diffusers, pallets, and shutters:

Very little of this would have been possible without tremendous support from a number of people. Thanks to everyone on this list, probably a handful of others, and to everyone who came down for last week's open house (and special thanks to Sharon Li and Colleen Perkins for setting an amazing spread of food).

Next? Dealing with inspectors, with the responsibilities of home ownership when getting a job means leaving Buffalo, and putting together these past 8 months into a book.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Thursday, April 19, 2012


The hoards of stuff that has accrued needs to be dealt with. As a first reaction, the piles are separated according to material - smaller piles. Many of these objects have no direct immediate use. But their storage might suggest some spatial arrangement in itself.

Pathways, fences, garden boundaries, seating, and tables - the materials are sorted and given some temporal substance - a kind of functional display while they await a more specific re-purposing.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Rubber Foundation

The tire foundation - a technique adopted from Earthship designs - requires about 300 pounds of dirt to be packed into each tire. The tires are a kind of permanent formwork for the dirt and act as giant masonry units, staggered by course. Labor is intensive, but materials are available and the process primitive.

Shoveling, pushing, punching, more shoveling, sledgehammering.The tires plump up to extraordinary sizes and feel like rock upon completion.

To prevent the water issues that the previous wall had we install a french drain from some scavenged pipe and bits of crushed rubble. Ideally we should have at least 6 inches of this above the pipe for good drainage, but are short on rubble. Breaking up more blocks is tiresome and what we feel is a poor use of a solid building material.

Down the street, on a lot where a building once stood many years ago, is a small mound of asphalt. It's hard to guess how many years it's been sitting there, situated very visibly on the corner of the block. In smaller pieces it is perfect for drainage material. So we proceed to clean up the lot while waterproofing our new foundation - another win-win scenario.

Seventy-four tires. Twenty-two thousand pounds of dirt. Thanks to more of our helpers: Lu, Anthony, Connor, Jared, Joe, and Chris.

The room now largely stabilized, we can begin more generous alterations to it. A new walkway forms atop the tire wall, eventually leading to new access to the backyard.

ARC 699 - Advanced Sledgehammering

The west retaining wall in the backroom continues to slowly sag inward. It's unlikely that it would collapse in the next months, but is perhaps the single most problematic thing from keeping the house from getting off the demolition list.

Many of the blocks come out by hand or a few light swings of a hammer - testament to its frailty. What sits behind is a very poorly placed concrete strip footing, about 12" thick and 24" deep. The mass, luckily, is broken in half which puts it into very manageable (.....) 2-ton sections.

After lifting and bracing the ends of the beam that used to sit on the footing, it can be removed. It has an intimidating head start - its mass hanging, leaning toward us held back only by the friction of the soil. It's already been heaved from the expanding and contracting ground - not having been placed below the frost line. After deciding which of us would cut off his limbs to escape for help should it fall, we pick up our sledgehammers and start to get it out.

A day and one bottle of ibuprofen later, the mass is out of the dirt wall and on the basement floor, still in considerably massive pieces. Special thanks to Wade, Tim, Dylan, Greg, and Will for their help in breaking them up and hurling them out.

Each subtraction we make from the structure comes with some uncertainty. We are dumbstruck as to how the house continues to hold itself up as we remove what are supposed to be the main supports. Old, neglected, decrepit; It's far tougher than it seems.

Still, its resilience is only temporary. We need to rebuild the retaining wall and resupport the wooden wall above it. There are few materials that we can use to recreate this; Concrete is unavailable and environmentally damaging. Blocks are possible, but fairly sparse, and would require a number of other materials not readily available: mortar, reinforcement bar, reinforcement grout.

What are available in great abundance are tires. Nearly every abandoned lot carries several and some with mounds of fifty or more. Not only are they available, but they're environmental and visual blight. This is where we're able to act symbiotically, giving new life to otherwise detrimental matter.

So begins the restructuring of our house on waste.