The Back Porch: Detroit Rises from the Ashes

July 02, 2014
July/August 2014
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2014 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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On the flight home from ACI’s 2014 National Home Performance Conference, I read Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy. It’s a gritty, sad story about the decline of one the greatest U.S. industrial cities. It was fitting that ACI’s conference was held in Detroit–thanks to the growth of the auto and wartime industries in the early 20th century, Detroit was the birthplace of the U.S. middle class. But according to LeDuff, Detroit, which “once led the nation in homeownership, is now a foreclosure capital.”

Recent studies show that approximately 80,000 homes in Detroit are so badly deteriorated that they must be demolished to prevent further neighborhood blight. Detroit is on the front lines of both the housing crisis and efforts to rebuild new energy-efficient industries. And with a new influx of young entrepreneurs to Detroit, oddly enough, there is a housing shortage near the city core.

DSC01549
Tom White
is publisher of Home Energy magazine. He restores historic homes in his free time. (Kate Henke)

I took time out while I was in Detroit to meet one of the young people who are restoring its blighted historic homes. Tim Dingman is a cofounder of Rebirth Realty, an initiative to restore abandoned Detroit homes for Venture for America (VFA) fellows. Tim moved to Detroit in 2012 to participate in VFA’s program of placing college grads at start-ups in economically troubled cities. Tim got placed at Accio Energy, a wind power company in southeast Michigan, but he works with other VFA fellows on Rebirth Realty in his free time and on weekends.

I met Tim at a vacant boarded-up house in Detroit’s Virginia Park Historic District. This Rebirth Realty house is a beautiful, three-story, 100-year-old brick home located on a corner lot. Directly across the street was a home of similar size and vintage with new cars parked out front, but on the opposite corners were a vacant hospital and a vacant lot, and many homes on the street were boarded up and/or falling down.

TWhite_Detroit
Rebirth Realty home (left), part of the Virginia Park Historic District in Detroit, Michigan. (Tom White)

Tim’s house is an imposing structure, built with lots of interesting brickwork, angled bay windows, beautiful tile floors, stone windowsills and capitals. Luckily, Tim’s roofing contractor had just replaced the roofs, so we kept dry during our tour. I was impressed to see the original 2-inch-thick front door, opening into a small foyer, which in turn opened into a large hallway and parlor. The house strippers had taken the gas lines and ripped apart the window casings to remove the iron counterweights. We walked down into the full-height, below- grade basement. It was very cold, but clean and dry. Matt Grocoff, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based green-building advocate who joined me on the tour, pointed out that in summer the high windows at grade level would traditionally have been left open to allow the cold air to rise through, and cool, the home, exiting out the third-story windows.

We went up the wide, oak-paneled main stairwell to the large second-floor bedrooms. One outer brick wall had been exposed, due to a leak in the old slate roof. The missing plaster and lath had been affixed to vertical furring strips, which were nailed into thin wood strips inserted in between the courses of brick. There had been only a 1-inch gap between the interior side of the brick and the outside of the lath and plaster. We debated how best to insulate the brick wall and agreed that Tim should not use any material that would absorb the moisture coming in through the brick. (See “Internal Insulation of Masonry Walls”, on pg. 36 of this issue to learn more best practices).

The motto of Motown is “We Hope for Better Things: It Shall Rise from the Ashes.” I left Tim and returned to the ACI meeting with a lot of hope for better things in Detroit, and other cities on the front lines of America’s housing crisis.

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