FERNDALE, MICH., IS A NEIGHBORHOOD of 100-year-old houses, mostly bungalows with coved ceilings, plaster walls, and gabled roofs. It offers a small downtown with vintage-clothing shops, ethnic restaurants, and alternative music and is one of Detroit's most welcoming 'burbs for gays.
Now, Ferndale is also home to an innovative new residential project. The recently completed structures are boxy, geometric houses with the open spaces, industrial materials, and tall ceilings characteristic of urban lofts.
SOMETHING DIFFERENT Architect Robert Miller and builders Scott Wright and Steve Ruszkowski didn't set out to create loftlike houses; they just wanted to create something different, something that would blend in with the neighborhood but also offer dash and flair not yet seen in these parts.
Apparently, they've hit on a winning idea: All three of the 1,700-square-foot, two-story homes sold before they were finished, at prices higher than those of comparable homes. (The highest comparable price tag in this part of Ferndale last year was $220,000; these three sold for $250,000 to $267,000 in a severely depressed real estate market.) They're so popular, says Wright, that as many as 20 people stop by on weekends to snap pictures of the unique abodes.
“This town was founded on being different,” says Miller. “This was all about doing something different. I get calls about it all the time. Builders want to buy the plans. I won't sell because it's not about plunking them down all over Ferndale.”
When the city put five lots up for sale in a location bordering an industrial part of town, Miller decided to bid on the project. (The city used two of the lots for a live/work project at the end of the street.) Living next door to the properties, he didn't want to see cookie-cutter white vinyl boxes thrown up with glaring garages out front.
So Miller and Wright, who is also a Ferndale resident and builds loftlike homes in other neighborhoods with Ruszkowski, put together a proposal. Both Miller and Wright are members of the design committee for Ferndale's Downtown Development Authority, and their original concept grabbed city planners' attention, even though their bid was the highest.
The three homes are a buffer between an industrial strip to the east and the traditional bungalow neighborhood to the west, and their style includes details from both worlds. While Wright and Ruszkowski were attracted to the hard-edged materials of industrial buildings, Miller called on his childhood in rural Indiana. They used barn-metal siding on portions of the exteriors, created porches of poured concrete with steel I-beams for posts, and left the foundations raw, exposed above grade. Part of each roof is corrugated steel, with the rest comprising typical residential asphalt shingles.
Because they wanted the houses to fit in with the neighborhood, the construction team used traditional gables to temper the steep roofs. Also, the houses aren't set far back from the street. Inside, the layouts are as open as possible, with as few defined spaces as the team could manage.
Each house has 53 windows and ventilates like a wind tunnel, providing plenty of fresh air and natural light. Many of the windows are high, so the very-close neighbors can't look directly in, but those who live here enjoy views of treetops, night stars, and blue skies.