MODErn Living

If our homes say anything about us then some Metro Detroiters have an awful lot to tell --at least more than the standard issue bungalows that dot our urban neighborhoods.

As part of a reoccurring series metromode is profiling three distinct houses that employ cutting-edge architecture and design. These homes either standout amongst their neighbors, are much friendlier to the environment or employ modern concepts on style, space and decor. They are the homes that brave conservative criticism and push the envelope of how we define the homefront.

"A lot of people don't have the wherewithal to have a custom-built home," says Arthur "Art" Smith, a member of the Detroit chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "It takes a special individual to take it to the next step so it reflects their personality and lifestyle. That makes it unique. That's what makes it a show stopper of a home."

Bungalow chic

It's easy to make a stately Victorian look trendy. It's easy to make a downtown loft look trendy. Marc Elie makes it look easy to turn a bungalow trendy.

But the average passerby probably wouldn't notice. The Royal Oak veterinarian's neighborhood is dominated by stereotypical post WWII bungalows, where the major distinguishing feature is whether or not it sports a brick facade. The street is very emblematic of old Royal Oak and the exterior of Elie's home blends in perfectly.

However, stepping inside is akin to walking into an ad for a downtown loft. The home is dominated by light pastel colors, trendy furniture and contemporary interior design, creating a near perfect fusion of old and new Royal Oak. A loft hidden at the end of a cul-de-sac.

"What we've created is a great sense of space and a great sense of privacy, which is remarkable," Elie says.

And none of it would have happened without his mother, Angie. Elie moved back to Metro Detroit in 2002 to take care of his ailing mother. As she moved into her 80s and became frailer, it became clear that she would have to move in with her son. To accommodate this, Elie renovated the 1,100 square foot home and built a 600-square-foot addition (designed by Royal Oak-based FX Architecture) for her last year.

The original south end of the home is where Elie lives, while the new northern wing was built for his mother. The kitchen and adjacent courtyard connect the two spaces, giving each person privacy, easy access to the other and an open space for their 15-year-old wire-haired fox terrier George to roam.

"It gives her a great sense of independence and reduces her daily stress level," Elie says.

It also strikes an intriguing balance between employing modern design down to the square light switches while respecting the house's old school influences. The inside is dominated by details reserved for new construction condos, such as the white carrera marble tiles in the kitchen and bathroom and sleek silver door handles that have no place inside any other bungalow.

However, the art throughout the house has a much more classic feel. A detail that would seem jarring on the surface next to contemporary design, but blends surprisingly well with the light green, beige and blue colors on the walls. As does Elie's childhood dresser, which he refinished and put in a place of honor front and center in the living room.

The basement's original entertainment area (complete with well-placed bar and booth) is kept largely the same on purpose. It now serves as a play place for the Elies extended family young and old. And a home for a mother who beams with pride when talking about her son, their home and everything he does for his family.

"I think he did a beautiful job," Angie says.

Green in a maize-and-blue town

While Elie's house fits in with its neighborhood, the home of Tom McMurtrie, Genia Service and their son Gary stands in glaring contrast to an old farm house next door on Ann Arbor's near north side, which is filled with early 20th Century homes.

"We like it," McMurtrie says. "We like the way it looks. Frankly, it wasn't a priority to blend in with the neighborhood. But it's not distasteful."

While the rest of the neighborhood houses have peaked roofs and planked siding the McMurtrie/Service home is square with a nearly flat roof and wrapped in old barn siding at human level and silver steel above that. From the outside, it's a house that can turn heads and inflame tempers. It's the type of home that's disowned by neighbors in the beginning but eventually becomes an neighborhood icon.

And the house's innovative design goes beyond good looks. The McMurtrie/Service family wanted a home that was as environmentally friendly --from its design to the systems it employs. A notion that's hardly surprising given that McMurtrie runs the city's recycling program.

Built on a thin, unused infill lot, the house's construction avoided the typical debris issue that accompany the razing of a preexisting structure. More interesting is how McMurtrie built his house around a tree, creating a courtyard that makes it and other foliage the center of attention.  

The house also employs passive solar energy, meaning it's built so the sun helps keep it warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Similarly, its windows are strategically placed to maximize natural light throughout the structure. For example, windows at the top of walls allow sunlight to shine into a bathroom in the center of the building.

A high efficiency boiler provides heat through a radiant floor while sliding insulated indoor shutters on the windows help keep heat in (or out, depending on the weather). The shutters also supply the family with some much-needed privacy. A "whole house fan" on the wall next to the floating staircase to the second floor acts as an air conditioner in the summer while using a fraction of the energy.

"With this you open the window, turn on the fan and whole house cools," McMurtrie says. "It moves the air quite quickly."

The family's living space is designed just as efficiently. Closets along the entryway ramp (the house is handicap accessible) are twice as deep to accommodate two rows of hangers comfortably for winter and summer coats depending on the season. A bench lifts up for shoe storage and serves as step to higher shelves. All of this is in front of a workbench and sink built into some of the closets.

Storage is carefully built into the home so there is little-to-no wasted space. In many cases multi-color minimalist cabinets also serve as walls, blending in easily with their surroundings.

"My requirements for the house were handicap accessible, low maintenance and lots of storage," Service says. "We didn't want siding that needs to be painted."

The rustic barn planks and rust-resistance steel siding serve that purpose well. It also blends in well with the second floor back deck that overlooks the surrounding neighborhood (the way a high-rise condo might).

Achieving simplicity is, admittedly, pretty complicated but the family of three sees the effort as more than worth it. It is the home they will live in every day.

"It makes it much easier to live," McMurtrie says. "There is less clutter and it's a more efficient use of space that you can do so much more with."

Hard steel

Parks usually define a neighborhood, serving as a key place for the community to gather. That would be the case for Birmingham's Barnum Park ...if it wasn't for one home overlooking it. The house just southwest of downtown stands out so much from its Victorian neighbors that passersby can't help but to stand up and take notice.

"It's one of those houses that people either love or hate," says Mark Nickita, president of the ArchiveDS architecture firm and a member of the Birmingham Planning Board. "But they always notice."

Which is just what the owner wanted, according to the home's architect Arthur "Art" Smith. He notes that while Birmingham has a progressive culture it is quite conservative and provincial when it comes to its architecture. The owner Paul Wolf, whom Smith says is a "hoot," wanted to make a few waves in that culture with his splashy 1992 home.

Wolf, who is in the steel business, commissioned what he calls a "hard-edged, clean, minimalist home." A house that changes or breaks the perception of what a house should or shouldn't be.

"He said, 'I don’t want anything in the house to be soft or warm," Smith says. "I want it to be clean, crisp and hard."

And Wolf got it in spades. The home, a sight to behold but a difficult sell at $1.295 million (and on the market for a year), is essentially a grey rectangle sliced diagonally by a curtain wall of windows. If architecture had a modern art masterpiece category, this would be in it.

And that's just the outside. The interior, according to Smith, has a floor made of black granite, chrome plated steps, steel hand rails, a galvanized aluminum fire place and a 700-gallon fish tank. It's accentuated with colors like black, silver and gun metal grey. Even what little wood is in the home is painted black to give it a harder look.

The furniture is built in the fashion of the automotive industry. The master bedroom flooring is made of black rubber roofing reminiscent of tires under a bed headboard that has an iguana tank built into it. It goes well with the concrete couch and a sink made like a stainless steel spear and a basement built out like a commercial gym.

"Those pieces are more like art work than furniture," Smith says. "This is a house built for a guy with roots in Detroit and it's reflected in the product he sells."

Now aren't you just dying to get a peek?

Jon Zemke is the editor of metromode's Development News and a Detroit-based freelance writer. His previous feature for 'mode was One Farmington.


Marc Elie's living room

Exterior of Marc Elie's home

Marc Elie

Tom McMurtrie and Genia Service's exterior of home

Gary, Tom McMurtrie and Genia Service's son, enjoys the open floor plan

Recycled barn planks used as siding

Front entrance to Paul Wolf's home

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni