Architecture that makes a difference

Walden Straights

With the Walden Straits project, student Ryan Grabow found a unique way of addressing a number of issues, as well as encouraging an entrepreneurial approach to Detroit’s underutilized housing stock.  In fact, while innovative in a number of ways, Ryan’s project was novel within the studio for truly turning what some might label as ‘problems’ into ‘opportunities’.

Photograph by Ryan Grabow

What Ryan observed was that given the economic hardships present in the city of Detroit in the spring of 2010, two apparently unrelated phenomenon were present.  First of all, a number of skilled tradesmen were out of work, meaning that a tremendous pool of talent was going untapped.  Furthermore, some of these individuals were finding themselves losing their homes without sufficient work to maintain a reasonable standard of living.  Secondly, the drop in population in the city of Detroit has led to an abundance of empty residential properties.  While many of these properties have been stripped of valuable items and materials for sale to salvage companies, a number of them can be acquired relatively inexpensively, and – with the proper skills and tools – be restored into safe, adequate housing.

Preliminary sketch of cart

Given that squatting by the homeless in abandoned structures is not uncommon, Ryan was struck with the idea that homeless and/or underemployed skilled workers could engage in a form of ‘productive squatting’, enabling underutilized labor to create and maintain capital.  Towards this end, Ryan sought to enable the physical inhabitation and rehabilitation of abandoned structures by providing basic living necessities and tool and material transportation.  In his analysis of the necessary processes to rehabilitate an empty home, he determined that the first step was to establish security, and make the building visibly occupied.  Next, the ‘productive squatter’ would need to establish and connect the basic utilities required by the house.  With the utilities in place, the ‘resident’ could establish and efficiency apartment within the home, which would provide them with a base of operations for the final phase, which would be the expansive work needed to bring the house into code compliance and market worthiness.

It was at this point that Ryan’s inherent inventiveness came into play.  By scouring the ‘free’ section of Craig’s list, Ryan was able to acquire an abundance of materials which he used to create the centerpiece of his final project.  The final result was a bicycle-drawn cart which could be used to transport building materials from supply point to the resident, without benefit of a vehicle.  Not only that, the cart itself disassembled, revealing itself to be a collection of tools and supplies necessary to establish a base camp in an empty house.  As he presented his project, Ryan demonstrated how a door used as part of the transport mechanism transformed into a work table, and then into an enclosed bed.  Parts of the cart’s frame connected to form a workable ladder for use in the rehabilitative work.

Demonstration of 'cart to tools' by Ryan Grabow

While the exact configuration of the cart would be dictated by the available materials, and therefore would not be something which could be mass produced to one design, Ryan demonstrated a model for invention which could be used and modified in a number of ways, limited only by the ingenuity of the participant.

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