Modern Yet Historic, Vintage Yet Sustainable
The clean lines, flat planes, massive windows, and natural elements of Ann Arbor's Modern houses are the perfect compliment to the city's rolling hills and robust tree canopy. Their architects were experimenting with innovative design principles and materials that maximized their use of the natural surroundings while creating simple and comfortable living spaces. Constructed primarily between 1945 and 1970, by a prolific group of U of M professors and visiting architects, these homes represent some of the best Modern residential design in the country.
Now approaching sixty years old, they have reached an age when historic preservationists not only consider them historic, but also pivotal to Michigan's leading role in the Modern design movement. Unfortunately, many have also reached an age when the experimental building methods and untested new materials incorporated into their design have begun to fail or no longer meet our energy efficiency standards. As homeowners begin to do more to address their home's energy use, preservationists urge them to proceed with caution; to consider how the home can be made more efficient without compromising its original design and how that can be done without wasting existing materials.
As Jim and Linda Elert of Ann Arbor learned, when you happen to own a high-style Modern home designed by a well-known local architect for a well-known local physicist, those principles become even more imperative, but also require a little more creative thinking to apply.
An experiment in design
The couple bought their house in the Ann Arbor Hills neighborhood this past spring having no idea it was so well known. "It's so funny, because I had never even heard of mid-century modern. But we looked at the house and we just loved it," says Linda. It wasn't until the Elerts were introduced to a local Modern preservation group, A2 Modern (http://a2modern.org/), that they began to understand how much the community values this house.
Local architect, Robert Metcalf
designed the house for Dr. and Mrs. H. Richard Crane in 1954. Dr. Crane was an award winning physicist at U of M who is best known for the creation of the Racetrack Synchrotron, an early type of particle accelerator. Metcalf later became dean of U of M's School of Architecture. He designed more than 78 houses in Ann Arbor, including his own home in Ann Arbor Hills where he still lives. The Crane house was Metcalf's first commission.
Although the house has remained largely intact over the years, when the Elert's moved in it had been on the market for several years and had renters living there in between. It needed to be spruced up, but the Elert's also wanted to incorporate some energy saving measures. A friend recommended architect, Craig Borum of Ply Architecture
. Little did they know that Borum, a professor at U of M's School of Architecture, had become an expert on Metcalf's work. Borum had already spent two years studying the architect's drawings to understand the style and the innovations Metcalf is now known for.
"I started using those drawings for a course that I teach at U of M to graduate students which looks at…the integration of mechanical and structural systems and materials selections as well as issues of sustainability and siting. And his work is a great example of how to do that." Borum used Metcalf's early projects to understand the limitations of the technology at the time and to explore how construction and building standards have shifted since then.
Nestled into a hillside with a large lawn and abundant trees, the two-story, flat-roofed house is meant to look and feel like an organic outgrowth of the hillside, set apart only by its clean lines and flat planes. Its wide bands of massive windows and sliding doors, vertical wood siding, and earth-toned brick foundation are characteristic of the style and of Metcalf's work in general.
Along with these natural elements, Metcalf incorporated passive solar design elements that inherently make the house more energy efficient. Metcalf, Borum says, treated his commissions like experiments, and a number were about exploring things like orientations and siting.
The house is oriented so that the roof's wide eaves shade against the sun in the summer but still allow light and warmth into the second floor living areas when the sun is lower in the winter. In addition, the floor, which consists of a concrete slab that sits between steel joists and cork floors, absorbs the winter sun's heat and warms the house. That heat supplements the furnace, which pushes hot air into the space between the basement ceiling and second floor and also heats the concrete slab, acting similar to a radiant floor system.
Updating the modern
Despite Metcalf's intentions to create a minimal, transparent, connection to the outside, the original, custom-made windows had uninsulated glass and thin aluminum frames. As a result, they allowed for heat and cold transfer, when hot air from the inside or cold air from the outside escapes through the glass and frames. Because the minimal, thin windows and frames are a key element to the houses' aesthetic, the Elerts were committed to finding a way to improve their efficiency without compromising Metcalf's design. Adding storms or replacing the windows with something commercially available would have made the windows too thick, and most likely would not have met quality and longevity standards.
Surprisingly to both the Elerts and Borum, the original window manufacturer, Peterson Architectural Products of Lakeport, Michigan, is still in business. The company was able to replace the original windows and sliding doors using insulated glass and identical, but improved frames.
"So it basically replicates the original look but now it's a much more energy efficient solution," says Borum.
Although the Elerts have yet to experience the new windows in cold weather, Linda says she has already noticed a difference. "Oh they are so great, I just love the windows. They work better and they insulate better… In this heat you can open those windows when its cool at night and close them in the morning and really, they do an amazing job. I'm sure they'll do the same in the wintertime."
The Elerts also contracted with local restoration specialists, West Side Builders
. So far, they have installed the windows and completed a few other projects, including refinishing the original cork floors. "I didn't even know cork could be refinished," says Linda. "But they're beautiful."
A question remains whether or not the Elerts will modify the house's existing heating system. Since they have yet to live through a winter in the house, they worry the system will not adequately heat the basement area, which contains the main entrance and two bedrooms originally used by the Cranes' children. Any new heat system will require a creative solution that they will have to address after their first winter in the house.
A new white roof is also on their to-do list. The original was a standard, built-up roof covered in gravel that was later replaced by asphalt. The new white roof will help keep the house cool in the summer by reflecting the sun's heat instead of absorbing it in the way dark roofing materials do, but will remain consistent with the original light-colored gravel covering.
The house continues to surprise its new owners as they learn more and more about Metcalf, who happens to be a neighbor and frequent guest, and about innovative ways to bring the house back to life.
"I just love that house. Its just so much fun to live in and so beautiful and so simple," says Linda. All it needs is a little cautious modernizing.
Denise McGeen is a Detroit-based editor for two statewide Issue Media Group projects that address transportation and energy efficiency.
All photos by Doug Coombe