Up from the ashes: House vacant for 12 years gets second life as one of greenest residences in Ann Arbor
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With his Urban Ashes business, owner Paul Hickman gives a second life to dead or dying things, making fine wood picture frames from city trees headed for the wood chipper.
So it made sense that when it came time to buy a house, Hickman would salvage a structure that was in its death throes, to rescue a home ready for the wrecking ball.
The 1949 mid-century modern ranch house on at 2115 Newport Road was ahead of its time: The low-slung home with deep overhangs and vertical skylights (called clerestory windows) created a Prairie-style look. Its floors captured heat from the sun that came through the ample windows and radiant floor heat warmed the house.
But time and neglect took its toll. The house had been abandoned for more than a decade, left to the raccoons and other urban critters, damaged by a leaking roof and filled floor to ceiling with clutter.
With architect Michael Klement, principal of Architectural Resources, and Doug Selby, owner of Meadowlark Building, Hickman is building an environmentally friendly house that uses old hemlock barn wood from a Michigan farm for the exterior siding, the old vinyl siding for the garage and the wormy wood from a distressed maple tree next to the house for the floors and trim.
The in-progress renovation will be featured during a free Visible Green Home/Behind the Drywall tour Saturday and Sunday. The tour is open to the public.
“I commend Paul for rescuing this house,” said Selby. “It’s always a challenge getting a house to net-zero (where it produces more energy than it uses). To do that to a house that was in this bad of shape is double-challenging. He could have picked an easier house, but went for the challenge.”
It was the horizontal lines of the house that first attracted Hickman to the house. Inside, it was the abundant light, he said.
And it was the house’s colorful history: World-renowned pianist and University of Michigan music professor Benning Dexter built the house and lived in it until 1970. The new owner, also a university professor, was a hoarder, and eventually fell ill and was moved to a care facility. She had no family, and the house sat vacant for 12 years. “The house was going back to nature. It was going feral,” Hickman said. “A car, full of stuff, sat in the driveway for 12 years, embedded three inches in the asphalt.”
After the woman died, the two-bedroom house was sold and neighbors thought that it would be razed, Hickman said. Instead, a Canton man cleared out the debris, tore down some rotting walls, installed laminate flooring and placed it on the market.
That’s when Hickman and his wife, Marcy, found it. There was still much work to do: Make it energy efficient and LEED certified, reconfigure space for a third bedroom and family room, replace the laminate floors with real wood and add a root cellar. And the vinyl siding had to go, Hickman said. “I couldn’t live in a house with vinyl siding.”
Work began last spring and Hickman hopes it will be finished in February. It will be one of only a handful of net-zero energy houses in Ann Arbor. Hickman will also seek LEED Platinum certification.
The house has been stripped down to its sheeting: The exterior vinyl siding was removed and will be replaced by the barn wood which will be charred in a process called shou sugi ban, an ancient Japanese siding technique that preserves the wood for as long as 80 years.
A detached straw bale 525-square-foot office and studio will be built and will hold the 42 solar panels that will generate energy for the site.
Because it sits on a concrete slab with no insulation, the house oozes heat. An energy audit found the temperature on the exterior of the house at 55 degrees on a 30-degree day. A three-foot trench was dug around the base of the house, and closed cell soy-based foam was packed in. Dimple board was installed as a second barrier, Klement said. Dense-packed cellulose insulation was installed between the walls and exterior, along with 2-inch rigid foam insulation that had been rescued from an old school building.
Hickman said the house came with many hurdles: The concrete slab, the water damage, a flat roof, the lack of a third bedroom, the vinyl siding. “It all gave me pause,” he said. But he figured to tear down the old house and build a new one would have cost 30 percent to 40 percent more, he said. “And I would have lost the whole story, as convoluted and crazy as it is.”
For more information or to make reservations for the tour, go to www.behindthedrywall.com or www.visiblegreenhome.com. Or call 734-619-8024. Tour attendees Saturday and Sunday are urged to dress warmly (the house doesn't have heat), avoid loose clothing and wear sturdy shoes.
Janet Miller is a freelance reporter for AnnArbor.com.