Blog: Patrick McCauley

Patrick McCauley is a lifelong resident of the Ann Arbor area, having grown up in Salem and Superior Townships.  He has worked on older and historic homes most of his life with his family's house painting business, Mike McCauley and Sons Painting. Following his graduation from the University of Michigan in 2000, he played in multiple rock bands around Detroit and Ann Arbor while continuing to work in the family business.

In the last ten years he has bought and restored three neglected historic homes in Ann Arbor. He has been active in the local historic preservation community since 1998, volunteering at the Cobblestone Farm Museum, the Kempf House Museum, the Ann Arbor Historical Foundation,  and serving as chair of the 4th and 5th Avenue Historic District Study Committee. Currently he is vice-chair of the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission and serves on the Historic District Commission Awards Committee.

Along with co-author Susan Wineberg, he is in the process of writing a book on Ann Arbor's historic buildings, which is due to be published in 2012.  

He lives on the north side of Ann Arbor in a small historic home with his wife Andrea Kinney and their three cat children.

Patrick McCauley - Most Recent Posts:

Post 3: Old Buildings Aren't Throwaways!

"Green" seems to be the hip word of the moment, and probably the only people you won't hear using it are the Republican presidential candidates (but that's the subject for another blog).  We need to face the fact that the planet is in trouble with dwindling resources, rising temperatures and sea level, and a growing population demanding more resources.  As Americans, we are the biggest consumers of energy and resources in the world, so we need to lead the way and change our lifestyle if we're ever going to put a dent in the environmental problems that we face.  We need to use fewer resources and leave a smaller carbon footprint. This is one of the main reasons why I am a historic preservationist. You don't have to be an environmentalist to realize just how wasteful it is to tear down a building and throw it in a landfill, and you don't have to be a historic preservationist to realize that something more than a collection of wood and bricks is lost every time a historic building meets the wrecking ball.  The way we approach the use of our older and historic buildings is just one symptom of our wasteful, disposable lifestyle, and one huge way that we can start doing the right thing for the environment is to STOP THROWING AWAY OUR OLD BUILDINGS!!!  

So how wasteful are we when it comes to the buildings we throw away?  The EPA estimates that 245,000 residential buildings are torn down every year in the United States, along with another 44,000 commercial buildings.  That's a lot of buildings!  I suspect that some were "beyond repair", but I would be willing to bet that most were just in the way of so-called "progress".  Construction, rehabilitation and demolition of buildings accounts for 136 million tons of waste per year in the U.S., which is nearly 40% of the solid waste we throw out.  A breakdown of this figure shows that 48%, or sixty-five million tons, is from demolishing buildings; 44%, or sixty million tons, is from renovations of existing buildings, and another 8% comes from the construction of new buildings.  According to the National Association of Home Builders, the construction of a new 2,000 square foot home results in 8,000 pounds of waste that usually ends up in a landfill.  

These statistics don't even take into account the energy that is used in the harvesting and manufacturing of the materials that go into new buildings, as well as the construction of the new building.  This is what is called "embodied energy".  The average house contains roughly 700 MBTUs of embodied energy per square foot.  So, a 2,000 square foot house would contain 1,400,000 MBTUs of embodied energy, or the equivalent of about 12,174 gallons of gas.  You can see where I'm going with this...a house that is already built has already used these resources.  A new house, no matter how "green" it is, will require more logging and mining of natural resources, and more manufacturing to turn these resources into building materials.  This all takes energy and it all leaves a larger carbon footprint.

Being a house painter and home restorer gives me an interesting perspective on the benefits of older and historic houses and the materials they are made of.   I get to see a house's problems up close and personal, often while on top of a 40-foot ladder. The "old growth" wood contained in a pre-1950s house was not only cut down long ago (so we've already paid most of the environmental costs associated with the harvesting of this wood), but it's also much denser and rot resistant and can withstand more neglect and harsh weather than the soft, low-density wood contained in newer buildings.  In other words, these buildings will last a lot longer than a new McMansion.  The durability of a building and its constituent parts over the long term (I'm talking 50 years or more) is rarely a consideration in the construction of new homes.  If it were, the windows wouldn't be made of plastic.

My house, which was built in 1845, is a great example of the durability of older houses.  It was termite  infested, had water coming into the basement, the gutters weren't working, and it hadn't been painted in a long while.  Basically, it was seriously neglected for the last decade or more. With further research into the house's history, I found out that it had always been in pretty bad shape.  The tax assessment from 1963 lists the house as being in "Fair" condition and the assessment from 1944 lists it in "35%" or "poor condition".  I even found a picture of the house taken in about 1900, and it was looking pretty rough back then!   The more recent termite, carpenter ant, and water damage wasn't enough to bring the place down because it's timber framed in old growth white oak.  These materials could never be replicated today because of cost and scarcity of this type of timber.  Sure, the way this house was constructed led to environmental degradation back then, but that's the point.  The damage was done then and doesn't have to be repeated today.  I take additional comfort in the fact that all of the wood was cut by hand and by a water-powered saw mill back in 1845.  Talk about "green", renewable energy!  Ha!

A frequent complaint about old houses is that they are inefficient, but should they be replaced with "green" buildings (you know, to save the planet and whatnot...see the stats above)?  Old houses can certainly be energy hogs, but they don't have to be.  A great example that has inspired historic preservationists and environmentalists alike in our community is the work of Matt and Kelly Grocoff, who live in the Old West Side Historic District. They have set out to make their 100+ year old house into the oldest "net zero" house in America.  This home actually produces more energy than it consumes!  I'm pretty sure the 3,000+ square foot "green" house around the corner from me doesn't do this, and the Grocoffs didn't have to tear down an existing 19th-century house to accomplish their goals like my neighbor did!  Basic things like insulation were the obvious place to start on a house like this, but they went further.  Solar panels on the roof, geothermal wells in the yard for energy efficient heating and cooling, motion censors on the lights to turn them off when you leave the room, and water-saving fixtures in the bathrooms.  The Grocoffs even repaired their original wood windows with new weatherstripping and storm windows to create greater efficiency.  Their original windows should last another 100 years or more with proper maintenance, and will be just as efficient as a more modern windows.  Best of all, they're repairable, unlike most replacement windows which will just end up in a landfill someday very soon when they stop working. The Grocoffs' work was all done while preserving the original and historic fabric of the interior and exterior of the house.  This month they were honored by the city of Ann Arbor Historic District Commission as the "Preservation Project of the Year" at our annual awards ceremony.

Rehabilitating and restoring our older and historic homes and neighborhoods is not going to save the planet alone, but it does go a long way toward creating a more sustainable model of living.  In Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and the rest of Washtenaw County, we are blessed to have intact neighborhoods that are filled with wonderful and beautiful historic buildings.  Let's restore these buildings and make them more efficient and livable before we put new "green" buildings in their place.  Instead of replacing things like windows, doors, and siding because they're old, we need to start repairing and reusing.  If a house part is "beyond repair", look into replacing it with more environmentally friendly salvage from places such as the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store, Materials Unlimited, or the Ann Arbor Reuse Center, rather than buying new. Can we afford to do otherwise? Not in the long run, especially with billions of people in the developing world yearning to live our middle class lifestyle.  It's just not sustainable.  We need to finally realize that the greenest building is the one that is already built.


Post 2: Historic Neighborhoods, NIMBYs, and the Fleeing Young Professionals

Apparently there is a huge divide between what the "young professionals" want for the city of Ann Arbor, and what the older, more established residents (old professionals???) want.  I've read it in Concentrate and I've heard our city leaders express it too.  Who knew?  I thought that we lived in the most hip, vibrant, diverse, and economically prosperous city in Michigan?!!  Ann Arbor is always ranked as one of the top places to live in America.  We're the home of cutting edge start-up companies, great bars and restaurants, interesting shops and galleries, the Art Fair, and of course the University of Michigan, and all of the arts, music, sports and jobs that come with it.  I keep thinking, who wouldn't want to live here?!!  It seems like there's a little bit for everybody.  I keep hearing about the importance of attracting "young professionals" with more urban density in our city and state as a way of reversing our dismal economic fortunes.  While I'm sure that attracting "young professionals" is a good thing, I'm not sure if more urban density is what is going to attract them.  If you build a bunch of dense, urban lofts, will they really come to live here?  Is a vibrant, urban lifestyle really what is lacking in Ann Arbor?  If so, I wasn't aware of it.

Wikipedia defines a "young professional" as "a young person not in school who is employed in a profession or white-collar occupation." I would like to think of myself as one of these "young professionals".  I'm college educated, have a good paying job, and I'm relatively young (though now that I'm 33 years old, I may be considered a "youngish professional").  I guess the only difference between myself and these other "young professionals" is that I didn't leave the state of Michigan following college.  Adding it up in my head right now, I would say that just over half of my good friends from high school and college left Michigan following their graduation from college.  This seems to line up with the statistics for the state as a whole.  I suppose the reason they left the state is what our elected leaders are worried about.  A small number of my friends wanted to live in a big city like Chicago or New York.   Some left because they just wanted to get away from home and see something new.  However, the majority left because they found jobs in other states.  

Is it our lack of a hip, dense, urban lifestyle that has been causing young people to leave the state, or is it our decade-long recession caused primarily by the decline of the auto industry?  If you guessed it is our lack of a hip, dense, and urban lifestyle, you're wrong.  This might be the case in Troy or Canton, but in my opinion, Ann Arbor already has everything a "young professional" could want, including low unemployment, modestly priced houses, good city services, wonderful parks, and a beautiful and lively downtown.

Of all of the people I know that might be considered "young professionals", I've only known one that has lived in an urban loft or high rise.  Ironically, he and his girlfriend just moved to California because of a job change.  Every other "young professional" that I know lives in a house, with a yard, in a semi-dense urban neighborhood...by choice!  Even my friends that have moved to Chicago live in houses with yards and gardens.  Perhaps I'm just not rubbing elbows with enough of these young, hip, urban professionals?  With that in mind, I asked my twin brother how many "young professionals" he knows who live in dense, urban housing like lofts or highrises?  He lives in Detroit, is quite a bit "hipper" than I, and is more in touch with what kind of housing the "young professionals" of Detroit, Ferndale and Royal Oak are choosing.  Out of the hundred or so 20-and 30-somethings he knows in the Detroit area, he could think of only three or four that live in urban style lofts or highrises.  "Most people want a yard and a garden" was his response.  

No doubt there are plenty of "young professionals" who do want to live in lofts and highrises in the downtown core of our cites.  This is good news for downtown Ann Arbor and for these young urban dwellers, as there are many of these types of buildings that have already been built and/or renovated downtown, with more in the pipeline.  Problems arise when developers and our city leaders propose to tear down portions of near-downtown neighborhoods to build dense urban developments that belong downtown, not near-downtown.  This is when the sparks really start to fly!  

The neighbors opposing these oversized developments have been called NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard), which is fitting because they literally don't want a giant highrise in the backyards of their modest houses!  Who can blame them?  If I lived in one of these near-downtown neighborhoods, invested my financial resources into my house, and invested my time and effort into making one of these neighborhoods a great place to live, I would raise "holy hell" if Heritage Row or The Moravian were proposed for my block.  This attitude is not anti-development – it is anti-dense development where it doesn't belong.  The battle over the Moravian and Heritage Row projects has been fierce because they simply don't belong in near-downtown neighborhoods.  This is in stark contrast to the recent proposal for the downtown Zaragon Place II on William Street, which was highly popular, even among NIMBYs like myself.

Another reason I'm skeptical of these dense urban developments is that Ann Arbor is basically a company town.  As of January, the University of Michigan employed 26,241 people and the U of M Medical Center employed another 21,271 people.  The next two largest employers on the list are Trinity Health, with 7,257 employees, and the Ann Arbor Public Schools, with 2,659 employees.  Additionally, as of the fall of 2010, the University of Michigan enrolled 41,924 students.  This doesn't take anything away from the great start-ups and smaller companies in town who are undoubtedly in search of talented "young professionals" for their workforce.  I'm just pointing out the fact that the economics of Ann Arbor and the county are driven primarily by the U of M, as are the types of buildings being proposed for downtown and near-downtown.  So, when these large developments are being marketed to the community as a way of attracting "young professionals" to our downtown and near-downtown neighborhoods, we should be very skeptical.  Most of them are being built as private dorms to house the 41,924 rowdy students who need a place to live and drink.  Besides, how many "young professionals" who are making $35,000-$40,000 a year can afford a $500,000 loft or a $1,000 per-bedroom, per-month apartment?  You'd need to be a college student from a wealthy family to afford that!

The good news is we can have it both ways.  In our new developments downtown, we need to encourage density and build taller buildings where appropriate and possible, and hope that professionals of all ages will choose to live downtown.  At the same time, we need to protect the parts of our downtown that are already great, as well as our existing near-downtown neighborhoods.  I think that if we really want keep our community lively and prosperous, we need to continue to ensure that it's a great place to live for everyone.  

When I look at my own Northside Ann Arbor neighborhood, the formula for what makes our city a great place seems to be working.  There will always be bumps in the road, such as the proposed mixed-use development called Broadway Village, which will hopefully be built someday soon, though I'm not holding my breath!  In my neighborhood, there are contemporary urban style apartments in a wonderful reuse of the Suzuki Building on Pontiac Trail, as well as townhouse-style condos on Maiden Lane.  The university keeps adding jobs at the Kellogg Eye Center and Mott Children's Hospital.  Surrounding these high-density developments are wonderful neighborhoods with tree lined streets and beautiful older homes, including the newly protected Broadway Historic District, not to mention Ann Arbor's most forward-looking accomplishments – our amazing urban parks!  Argo Park, Bandemer Park, and the Huron River, along with my personal favorite, the Bird Hills Nature Area, are an oasis in a sea of cars and people.  

In addition, my neighbors are exactly the types of people Ann Arbor needs to attract!  There are so many "young professionals" that live near my house who are choosing to put down roots and start families in the city.  These new families fit in seamlessly with the older residents, some of whom have been here for over 50 years, as well as the multitude of students who are only renting for a year at a time.  This mix is what makes Ann Arbor a vibrant and exciting place to live.  Some change is inevitable, but here in Ann Arbor, we don't need to reinvent the wheel.  We're rolling along just fine.


Post 1: What's the Difference Between Vermont and Michigan?

I love to travel around the United States and since meeting my wife Andrea, I've been traveling a whole lot more.  We love going to places we've never been before, and we love getting there via the state highways and back roads.  It's a great way to see how people really live and what these towns that are off the beaten path are really like. The more I travel around the country, and the more I explore Washtenaw County and the rest of the state, it's becoming clearer and clearer how important local historic districts are in maintaining what is great in our respective communities.  When my wife and I are stopping in or just driving through various towns, you can tell right away which ones have local historic districts and which ones don't.  Guess which ones look more prosperous and inviting?

Among the general public (and even among our elected leaders) there seems to be a lack of understanding as to how local historic districts work and what the point of them really is.  Basically, in local historic districts, "permanent" changes to historic or "contributing" buildings within the district are regulated by a board or commission that interprets the local preservation ordinance.  Here in Ann Arbor, our Historic District Commission is appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council.  The job of this commission is to interpret the city's historic preservation ordinance and follow the Secretary of the Interior's standards for historic preservation (http://www.cr.nps.gov/hps/tps/standguide/ ) as they relate to the individual cases before the commission.  

Different historic districts have different standards they follow.  For instance, the Ypsilanti Historic District and the Corktown Historic District in Detroit regulate the colors you can paint your building, but Ann Arbor's Historic District Commission does not.  The key word in "local historic district" is "local".  State and National Register Historic Districts are purely honorary titles that don't regulate changes to a designated building. Only a local historic district can do this.  This way, there are no outside groups or organizations regulating your community. It's all under the control of the citizens and their local government.

For me, the main difference between communities that have local historic districts and those that don't is the idea of a collective focus.  Communities that establish local historic districts have determined that preserving historic buildings and their character-defining features is in the public interest, and contributes to the character, feel, and economic prosperity of the community.  Ann Arbor's Main Street is a great example of this collective focus.  All of the changes made to the buildings on Main Street over the last 20 years have been made through the lens of the local historic district.  Renovations and restorations of old buildings have all had to follow the standards of the preservation ordinance, and it's hard to argue with the end result.  A coherent and charming streetscape has been created, and the bustling and dynamic business blocks have been maintained.  It's hard to imagine that people once thought (and often still think) that it's a better idea to raze these beautiful, brick, business blocks and replace them with new buildings, or worst of all, parking lots!  
"Character" is a hard thing to create in a community.  While certain new developments around the country have tried to replicate the timelessness of historic streetscapes with "new urban" developments, it's hard to top the authentic, romantic, and often quirky character of a streetscape that has developed over the last 175 years, like Ann Arbor's Main Street.  

When I travel to a different community, I like to try to guess where the historic district begins and ends.  It's usually pretty clear no matter where you are in America, from Salem, Massachusetts to Portland, Oregon.  Local historic districts can't force an owner to restore their historic building, so the process of revitalization and restoration can take time.  In the case of Main Street and the Old West Side, the historic character of these areas gets stronger and stronger with each passing year, as aluminum or asbestos siding is removed, historic details are restored, and the pride in the neighborhood and its individual character grows.  

One of my favorite historic places to see the difference between a local historic district and a standard neighborhood in Washtenaw County is the city of Ypsilanti.  As you drive into Ypsilanti on Washtenaw Avenue, pay attention to your surroundings.  When you pass the Water Tower, you'll be surrounded by student housing in various states of disrepair.  Many of these amazing historic houses have been "remuddled" or "F.U.B.A.R.ed" as I like to say (look it up).  Then you get to Hamilton Street, which is the beginning of the local historic district.  Most of these properties are also student rentals, but the overall feel of the neighborhood changes from one of blight and disrepair to one of charming streetscapes and beautifully maintained houses.  Then you hit Huron Street, and then Depot Town, and the effectiveness of the local historic district becomes even clearer.  Again, the historic district can't force people to restore their buildings, but it's a process that builds a stronger and more beautiful community over time.  Like similar towns in Michigan, Ypsilanti has a long way to go after being battered by de-industrialization and suburban sprawl.  Its historic district has given redevelopment a focus, has fostered civic pride in the community, and helped to preserve the beautiful buildings that make Ypsilanti a unique destination.

While every neighborhood or town can't be a historic district, many of Michigan's larger cities have done a pretty good job of preserving their history and character with their local historic districts.  One place where we haven't done a very good job is the preservation of our rural areas and our small towns and villages.  Washtenaw County has had some success in the preservation of green space, and a number of rural houses have been designated as individual historic districts, but many small towns and rural areas are quickly losing their historic and rural character through "remuddling" and poor land use. Driving through the rural towns and farm country of our state, you can see the great potential for many of these places, yet the individual and historic character is quickly eroding.  In many cases, the individual and historic character of these small towns could be the starting point for redevelopment and future prosperity.  

It's interesting to compare the rural areas of Vermont (which is one of the most rural states in the U.S.) with the rural areas of Washtenaw County and Michigan.  

When my wife and I are driving through a small Michigan town that has seen better days, I always say, "If this town were in Vermont, it would be the most charming town ever!"  The difference between Vermont and Michigan is that Vermont has tried to protect these small towns and villages and the rural character of the state through its 100+ local historic districts.  Many of these historic districts are tiny villages with perhaps 10 houses, while others are long stretches of rural roads known as "rural historic districts" that preserve not only the architecture, but the farm land and barns too.  These small towns in Vermont have become havens for artists and tourists, and though some are in the middle of nowhere, they don't look abandoned and isolated – they look prosperous!  Michigan could learn a thing or two from this.  As our machine shops and factories close up in our small towns, we need to think of new ways to attract economic growth to these communities.  The preservation of historic architecture and "character", and the tourism and culture that it attracts is one way that we can grow and prosper in the more rural parts of our state.  Vermont may have the mountains, but we have all the lakes!  Let's give the tourists one more reason to visit our more rural and remote towns!

I think that many of our local leaders and planners have forgotten that historic preservationists were the original "smart growth" advocates and urban pioneers.  Back in the 1960s and 1970s, they were some of the first people to reject the suburban sprawl model of growth, and encourage the redevelopment and restoration of our urban core and near-downtown neighborhoods.  Here in Ann Arbor, historic preservationists were fighting against the demolition of our downtown core when people were advocating its redevelopment into a more suburban model to compete with the strip malls with loads of parking just outside of town.  

Today it's clear that those who were advocating the preservation of our historic downtowns and near-downtown neighborhoods were on the right side of history.  With each passing year, Michigan's local historic districts look better and better, while the historic character and charm of our neighborhoods that aren't designated continues to decline.  To put it simply, they look like the types of places where people want to live!  Give it another 20 years and we'll see which neighborhoods have the higher property values and are the more desirable places to live.  I'd put my money on the local historic districts.

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