When Detroit-based developer Bedrock approached Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects to design four anchor buildings at each corner of City Modern, an 8.4-acre redevelopment in the Motor City’s historic, but once-blighted Brush Park neighborhood, the design firm saw an opportunity to help spur change. “Architecture,” says founder and design principal Lorcan O’Herlihy, FAIA, “is a social act—meaning that you bring social agency to all your work.” This philosophy, he continues, unifies the work created by LOHA.
The Los Angeles– and Detroit-based practice researched the city’s material palette to ensure each “building was responding to the context and the culture of where it was designed,” O’Herlihy says. The four buildings will feature a different material: wood, brick, metal, and fiber cement.
Wood—specifically cedar—clads John R 2660, the first of LOHA’s four buildings to be completed. Sourced from Canada and the Pacific Northwest, the western red cedar boards are tongue-and-groove 1x4s, oriented vertically. On upper-story walls, 1.5-inch stainless steel screws secure the boards through the tongues into 1.5-inch horizontal girts, which also hold 1.5 inches of polyisocyanurate foam. The lower podium level is insulated with 2.5 inches of mineral wool and uses 2.5-inch girts. Altogether, the six-story building exterior uses 98,000 lineal feet of cedar boards; the finish continues into the building’s street-level lobby, which features another 7,600 lineal feet of vertical cedar boards.
A semi-transparent, oil-based, and solvent-borne sealer finishes the wood. Cedar can have upwards of a 30-year life, O’Herlihy says: “You just have to maintain it, like a car. We worked with the client to establish a maintenance program to make sure that [the cedar] would have a wonderful look for years to come.” LOHA’s recommendations include inspecting the base of the siding for moisture damage every winter; and cleaning the siding with a stiff bristle brush and reapplying sealant as needed, or at least every two years.
From its inception, the City Modern project aimed to bring modern design to the neighborhood, according to Melissa Dittmer, AIA, chief design officer and senior vice president at Bedrock’s Office of Urban Strategy and Innovation. In its own response to the city’s original request for proposal, Bedrock avowed to “celebrate Detroit’s design legacy and celebrate the historic aspects of the neighborhood, but also utilize contemporary and modern design.”
“What you get with our project, which has now been in the planning, design, and construction process for almost six years, is a unique blend of architectural styles that respond to that historic context of the remaining historic structures within the neighborhood, but illustrate it in forward-looking modern architecture,” Dittmer says.
“[C]ities grow incrementally,” O’Herlihy says. “And one must be able to keep and restore and renovate buildings, but also to add new.”
To build out the entire development with low-rise townhomes and duplexes, Bedrock developed form-based standards that respected the setbacks and massing of proximate residences. “We [integrated] the existing datums of the historic homes, rooflines, and porch lines ... into the architecture,” Dittmer says.
For example, while John R 2660 does reach six stories at its highest point, it also respects the horizontal datum established by a recently restored 19th-century brick Victorian mansion across the street, dropping down to three stories on that elevation.
Detroit has guidelines for the historic district that Bedrock followed in the creation of its base guidelines, notes Bedrock senior communications director Tom Goulding. “However,” he adds, “preserving the building’s heritage was extremely important to Bedrock, so we went above and beyond those simple guidelines with a much more comprehensive set of rules.”
Where the building steps from six to three stories, LOHA seized the opportunity to activate the roofs, creating a terrace that faces the restored brick Victorian mansion and will communicate visually with rooftop patios on other forthcoming buildings in the development, Dittmer says. These buildings include townhomes designed by Studio Dwell; duplexes designed by Merge Architects; apartment buildings by Hamilton Anderson Associates; and historic residential restorations by Christian Hurttienne Architects.
Collectively, the design firms pushed for the creation of a public mews that cuts through the City Modern development. The ground-level pedestrian space will visually reinforce the rooftop terraces. “We had this integrated public space system at the ground floor level,” Dittmer says, “and then we started creating similar connections of spaces up at the rooftop level.”
Views from an upper-story townhome might include the rooftop terrace of a LOHA apartment building and a view corridor over the rooftop terrace of an HAA apartment building. “You have an overlapping series of ground floor public spaces up to quasi-public spaces,” Dittmer explains. “It gives this nice overall system of community connection and a visual connection into the neighborhood and downtown.”
Eventually, Bedrock hopes that its public spaces and pocket parks will integrate into greenways that will be constructed in neighboring developments as more of Brush Park and its surroundings redevelop, Dittmer says: “We did not want to do a private public space that was only accessible to the residents that live there.”
While working on the City Modern development plan, Bedrock held more than 60 community meetings and approximately 25 meetings with civic agencies, Dittmer says. During these meetings, the company would explain the style of modern architecture and respond to attendee feedback. With more than 100 properties in downtown Detroit and 18,000 local employees, “we are here to be long-term community members,” Dittmer says. “We don’t develop something and then walk away. We develop something and then remain community stakeholders.”