5000 Grand River Avenue had certainly seen better days, when Philip Kafka and his real estate development firm Prince Concepts acquired the building. Formerly a meat shop and butcher training facility (among other things over the years), the squat 1950s two-storey building had sat empty and abandoned since the late-1990s, and the years of neglect were evident. To many, it would have been a straightforward teardown and rebuild-from-scratch-scenario, but to Kafka and frequent collaborator Ishtiaq Rafiuddin, founder of local architectural design studio Undecorated, it was an opportunity to transform the derelict into the desirable — something the two share a special knack for.
“It’s so easy to build new in an empty lot, but demolishing doesn’t sit right with us,” says Rafiuddin, who has partnered with Kafka on a number of adaptive reuse and community-strengthening projects throughout Detroit’s Core City neighbourhood (including turning a former radiator repair shop into the now-closed Magnet restaurant). “These spaces have identities that can’t be recreated with new architecture; they have an embodied energy. Why waste that?”
The initial plan was to convert the 1,254-square-metre post-war commercial warehouse into a mixed-use building comprised of eight private apartments, three studio/work ateliers and one small retail kiosk. But to make these interior spaces attractive and liveable, they would need copious amounts of natural light and fresh air — elements the current state of the structure seriously lacked. To achieve this, the two decided that rusted-out and crumbling portions of the steel roof would be removed and three differently sized rectangular voids would be inserted into the volume to create open-aired internal courtyards. While still in the preparation phase, another past collaborator joined the team to help reconfigure the spaces — landscape architect Julie Bergmann of D.I.R.T. Studio.
The concrete floor of each opened-up section was carefully saw-cut out, and the chunks, in a range of sizes and thicknesses, were set to the side for future use. “It was a candy store of concrete,” Bergmann says of the rugged material that she turned into pavers, seating and tables inside the courtyard; well-worn and with a beautiful terrazzo-like look, it was “common sense to reinstate what was taken out,” she continues.
Considering the three exposed plots as “concentrated glades or clearings similar to those in a forest,” each with its own personality, the landscape designer brought in plantings with a primordial feel, namely ancient and young Gingko trees, primitive mosses and ancient ferns. Lined with windows and glass doors on each level, the new clearings became instant spots of tranquillity for the future tenants of the building.
But by this time, who those tenants would be had changed. Enter the fourth collaborator on this thoughtful adaptation — Christian Unverzagt and his team at M1DTW Architects, whose client Bloomscape was looking for a new headquarters for its direct-to-consumer greenhouse delivery business. Having toured a few of Kafka’s other properties, the developer decided to show them 5000 Grand River and its future use changed course.
Working within this essentially raw shell, Unverzagt set about configuring the interior architecture and design using methodically planned vertical elements. “We created spaces that were inverse to the courtyards, adding solid volumes to the space,” says Unverzagt. Crisp white walls and metal scaffolding delineate sectors for all manner of working styles and functions, from offices, meeting rooms and lounges to breakout spaces and even wellness zones. Adding an element of softness, ripstop nylon curtains in bold hues were used to carve out more areas; the fabric “walls” can be opened and closed to create privacy and to let light through.
To furnish the office, Unverzagt commissioned bespoke pieces from local metalworkers and carpenters to both celebrate the city’s rich industrial past and present and to contribute to the community during the pandemic closures. Complementing the custom pieces is a curated collection of contemporary furniture and lighting that adds a dose of colour and comfort throughout.
“The spaces are flexible and can be adapted for future users,” he says of the finished design. And in fact, Bloomscape has moved on and a creative ad agency now occupies 5000 Grand River, making the dynamic workspace its own and undoubtedly taking full advantage of the light-filled and well-considered interior, one that respects the past while also looking to the future.
A collaborative effort transforms a rundown building into a flexible workspace centred around three internal courtyards.