A Test Site for SmartSurfaces: The Power House
Image: Design 99

This year was iteration 3.0 of the experimental, multi-disciplinary class, SmartSurfaces, and its team of professors all agreed – it was time for a real world project.

Luckily, the Power House, an off-the-grid artist house in Detroit, had just the right mix of environmental and design problems for the students to address.

Each year, SmartSurfaces brings together students from Material Science and Engineering, Architecture and the School of Art & Design to build and design surfaces that are ‘smart’ – in other words, surfaces that can change and adapt to environments and information.

Power House owners Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert. Image: National Post, May 2009

It’s an ambitious, grant-funded course that provides student teams with $2000 each to develop cutting edge, challenging projects. It’s also a very popular course, with a packed waiting list of students every year.

Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope, the artists behind Design 99, bought the foreclosed house in 2009 for $1500 as a gesture of reclamation in their deteriorating Detroit neighborhood.

The dream behind the purchase was to create a test site for off-the-grid power production, public art and neighborhood regeneration. Media coverage from publications like the New York Times and Dwell magazine soon put the Power House on the art-culture map and people and funding began streaming in. The Power House soon became the anchor house for a kind of artists’ neighborhood, as artists from all over the world bought houses in the neighborhood or came to visit for short-term residencies.

Two years later, the house is still very much in process. As Gina describes it, the project is “an exercise in slowness.”

“We’re not developers on a timeline. The idea is to give artists a test space to work out ideas without constraint.”

Enter the SmartSurfaces class of 2011.

It’s now the end of the semester. And after an intense and complex process of team-building, studying the problems of the house and prototyping solutions, the students have traveled to Hamtramck to present their final projects to Gina Reichert. Their projects are meant to address the specific needs of the Power House, from water collection to neighborhood security.

Here’s a photo-tour of that day.


Arriving at the house via the A&D Maskell Express, students Natalie Smith and Rachel Meyers carry their project inside.
As a kind of announcement of their intentions, one of the first things that Gina and Mitch did was to paint and replace the deteriorating exterior of the house. The striped pastel siding became a kind of visual signature for the house, which immediately became a landmark presence in the neighborhood.
After painting the exterior, Gina and Mitch fixed the broken windows on the front of the house with this multi-colored window design. A play on security windows, but without the bars, it’s created from long acrylic strips left over from another artist's museum installation. Eventually, the panes will become shutters so that the windows can be opened.
A boat called the "Heartland Machine" is parked on the lawn of the house, a relic from one of Mitch and Gina’s projects. The couple made a road trip around the midwest with the boat in tow, asking people in local artist communities to help them build onto it along the way.
Across the street is another project that Mitch is involved in, the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop.
A street mirror on the corner creates a kind of totem outside the Power House while also playing with the theme of surveillance, bringing a positive and safe presence to the neighborhood.
Team WaterLilly gets their project ready for presentation.
Keenan Hurlin May and Lauren Vasey setting up their motion-activated "fence."
Team WaterLilly was the first to present. This team created a dramatic solution to the problem of water collection for a house that had no gutters. The 'flower' is attached to a rain barrel. The unit contains a humidity sensor and is designed to open to receive the rain when the humidity reaches 90%. The lilly also responds to motion, opening to provide shade for those nearby.
Gina Reichert owns the Power House with her husband Mitch Cope.
A close-up of the unfolding lilly rain barrel. In the background, a wind turbine helps power the house along with solar panels.
This is a rendering of the team’s ultimate vision—a patio or garden of "waterlillies" outside the house. The team on this project was Branden Clements, Lindsey Eldredge-Fox, Erika Lindsay, Justin Moyer, Dylan Box and Yun Tae Kim.
Students huddled together in an unheated attic during the presentations for Gina Reichert (far left).
Interlocking solar lighting devices from Team Dragon were especially designed for the house’s unique attic windows.
This cross-section shows how the sensors, solar panels and LED lights are wrapped in an outer layer of silicone for flexibility and portability.
Posing with the project, Team Dragon: Natalie Smith, Garret Huff, Ning Wang, Steven Griffiths, Stephanie Schutter and Rachel Meyers.
The power to run the projector for the day's presentations came from the house's solar- and wind-powered battery bank.
Max Shtein, Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, helps keep the student presentations from going over their time limits.
Student projects weren’t limited to Mitch and Gina’s house. Payton Spaller, Maria Galarza and Micaela McCabe create a self-contained radiant floor surface for Sarah Wagner & Jon Brumit who own another of the artist houses in the area. The mat is designed to help their two-year old son keep warm while playing on the floor. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough power in the house to demonstrate the radiant heat of the floor, which would have been welcome!
Payton Spaller shows Gina their portable radiant play surface, which also contains motion activated lights and sensors that respond to the placement of specially designed pillows.
Alexander Watanabe, Ted Teng and Jingyao Wu created a smart thermostat for the portable heaters that warm the house.
Modeled after the Nest Thermostat , but created for a home with no central heating, the device collects data for up to 2 years and predicts usage patterns.
As the winter light began to dim, the last team presented their project. Team SmartFence designed a friendly version of a security fence out of polycarbonate tubes.
The interactive 'fence' is armed with motion sensors which light up as people pass by. The sensors also collect data that is sent to a computer so Gina and Mitch would be able to monitor patterns and unusual activity.
From left: Ben Hagenhofer-Daniell, Kevin Wayne, Brian Muscat, Lauren Vasey, Keenan Hurlin May and Stephanie Nixon. Visit the SmartSurfaces site to learn more about the projects: http://smartsurfaces.net



John Marshall sums up the SmartSurfaces Power House experience this way:

SmartSurfaces is about dealing with assumptions - about yourself, other people and different working situations. We had been talking about the Power House for several weeks before the students actually visited it. This was intentional. Many of the students were quite shocked by it. I don't know what they expected from an off-the-grid house in Detroit but they certainly were surprised.

Another interesting aspect of this course is witnessing the students become conscious of the disciplinary preconceptions that they all have. Many students change the way they go about working after SmartSurfaces. In many ways the real impact of this experience has yet to come.”



Proud of you all from Brazil!!!! I agree that Smartsurface reaaly sahke the brain of all..students and who appreciate the results!!! Congratularions Johen and others!!!

Posted by Miriam Mirna Korolkovas on January 11, 2012





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