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If you’ve driven near the Lodge Freeway in Midtown recently, you may have noticed an intriguing sight: newly built homes with metal roofs, solar panels and geometrical forms lining both sides of 4th Street.
These are the EcoHomes, an experiment in contemporary home design in an area — and city — that has had very little single-family infill. They’re also “net-zero ready,” meaning it’s feasible to create an in-home renewable energy system depending on a homeowner’s willingness and energy consumption.
Given that all the homes, all priced over $500,000, sold out earlier this year, the experiment seems to have been a success.
“We thought there would be people out there who care about energy usage and wanted a single-family home,” said Sue Mosey, executive director of Midtown Detroit, Inc., which developed the project. “And that did end up being something a lot of people cared about.”
Designing for sustainability
In 2013, as Paul Urbanek was accepting an award for best in low-budget design from AIA (American Institute of Architects) Michigan, he was approached by Mosey.
“She said, ‘That’s what I need in Midtown,’” Urbanek, vice president and corporate design director of the architecture firm SmithGroup, recalled.
Midtown, with medium density, is one of the few neighborhoods in Detroit where condos and apartments exceed single-family home supply. Mosey saw demand for a product that wasn’t there.
But there was one problem: SmithGroup doesn’t do single-family home design. So Urbanek assumed that would be the end of the discussion.
“But if you’ve ever met Sue, you know it’s quite hard to tell her no,” Urbanek said.
Mosey persisted, even calling Urbanek while he was on an anniversary trip with his wife in Spain. While the project was out of the ordinary for the internationally renowned firm — which was once the Detroit-based Smith, Hinchman & Grylls — Urbanek was intrigued by the idea and wanted to make it work.
In the end, Urbanek decided to take on the project as pro-bono work, which SmithGroup occasionally does for nonprofits, by holding a design competition for the younger architects and engineers in his office. Mosey chose her favorite among five designs.
SmithGroup wanted to make sustainability a core feature of the project. So all the homes have solar panels and metal roofs, which are individually sloped to maximize exposure to the sun. Each home has an efficient thermal envelope that’s well sealed and insulated to minimize air leakage. While homeowners can opt for a gas line, they’re designed for exclusively electrical appliances. There’s also a laundry list of sustainable and energy efficient items: low-VOC paints, low-flow toilets, low-emissivity window glazing (which helps keep internal temperature consistent), LED fixtures, rain barrels, programmable thermostats — to name a few.
Another important element of the design was aesthetics, which certainly stand out from the EcoHomes’ Victorian neighbors on 4th Street. “We weren’t trying to replicate a 1920s home,” Urbanek said. “We wanted to make them look new and refreshing and a little different — because they are.”
But their size does fit the neighborhood. They’re all two stories, two to three bedrooms, and between 1,400 to 1,800 square feet. The homes are close together on narrow lots, and all have a large covered porch with the goal of creating a community atmosphere.
“We were really concerned that the scale of the houses fit in with all the other buildings there,” Mosey said. “It’s a very small section of the neighborhood, and we wanted to make sure anything we did wasn’t overscaled or created any kind of traffic or be of concern to the neighbors.”
The product has proven popular despite costing a premium price by Detroit housing market standards. EcoHomes sold for between $510,000 to $700,000 and were highly customizable. According to selling agent Sabra Sanzotta, owner and broker of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices The Loft Warehouse, some buyers even added up to $200,000 worth of additional features. (One home is also rented to a family at 80% of the area median income.)
And while the sustainable features may have enticed some, Sanzotta found it wasn’t the biggest selling point. “People craved the benefits of single-family living in this part of town,” she said. “Having a private entrance, a small backyard, a garage. But also a home that’s not so big that they’re a maintenance headache. They’re right-sized for homeownership.”
That was true even prior to a period of skyrocketing demand for single-family homes brought on by the pandemic. All but three EcoHomes were sold more than a year ago.
Sanzotta describes the buyers as “racially and professionally diverse.” There are some empty nesters who chose to downsize, some young millennial couples and some urban enthusiasts who really wanted to live in Midtown.
That last description fits Ken and Barbara Firestone. The couple moved from Maryland into an EcoHome just before the pandemic began. A retired photojournalist and computer scientist, Ken Firestone got a degree in urban planning as a kind of “third career,” he said. Three years ago on a visit to Detroit, he stayed at the sustainably-minded El Moore Lodge on 2nd Avenue and fell in love with the city and neighborhood.
“I liked the direction Detroit was going in and the attitudes of residents,” Firestone said. “I decided along the way that I wanted to be in the city as opposed to the nearby suburbs.”
Not everything has been perfect: the landscaping isn’t complete and the home, at their energy usage, isn’t net-zero. Also, the pandemic has prevented them from taking advantage of everything the neighborhood offers, including getting to know his new neighbors well. Despite these issues, Firestone is still quite positive about the project.
“Overall, I’m extremely happy with the house,” he said. “I’m glad we bought it and glad to be here with it.”
Urbanek, SmithGroup’s corporate design director, said they didn’t really model the EcoHomes after other developments. But given the success of this one, it may be a model for others.
“I think there will be others that come behind us,” Mosey said. “More single-family, sustainable, smaller houses. People will see there is a demand for this type of home and others will build them.”
Sanzotta agreed. “More of this would be great to see from developers,” she said. “If they build it, we’ll definitely be able to sell it.”