How a Developer Transforms Farm I Storage
On a half-vacant block a few miles from downtown Detroit lies a shameless oddity. Nearly 200 feet long and 23 feet high, it is a half cylinder of shiny metal surrounded by trees. Built from a military-style Quonset hut and immersed in the decaying remains of a residential neighborhood, this alien-looking arched steel structure is perhaps the most unexpected new apartment building in the world.
Double The caterpillar, the steel structure is an eight-unit windowed residential building, with crisp white interior spaces and ceiling heights that fetch less than most other newer apartments in the city. Its basic architecture is the Quonset Hut, the prefabricated, quick-to-build utility structure originally developed by the United States Navy during World War II. Today, cabins are generally used for storage on farms. In Detroit, however, the low-cost Quonset cabin is being redesigned as a residential structure of the future.
The Caterpillar was developed by Philip Kafka, a real estate investor and developer who has now built several simple Quonset-hut-based residences in Detroit. The huts themselves came straight from a manufacturer, and their ease of construction helped keep the cost of the project much lower than traditional buildings – the Caterpillar cost only $ 1.5 million. With simple interiors and an emphasis on outdoor space, these projects are Kafka’s attempt to inject affordable yet well-designed buildings into the city.
“I call what we do Home Depot Architecture,” Kafka says. “It’s about knowing how to use the materials from The Home Depot and create good architecture.”
Originally from Texas, Kafka previously ran a successful advertising company in New York City and began traveling to Detroit to seek investment opportunities in 2012. The city’s abundance of vacant land and a renewed interest in urban life led him to start developing real estate. Through his company, Prince ConceptsSince then, Kafka has bought land and built unique projects in Detroit.
His first project, The True North, has been a success. A set of nine rental apartments and duplexes built using Quonset cabins and oriented around a shared open space, the project opened in 2017 and quickly won architecture award. It has been fully occupied since. As Kafka acquired more land in the city, he began to look for other opportunities to use the Quonset hut. Down the street from True North, he combined seven vacant residential lots to create the backdrop for what would become the Caterpillar.
Each of the eight units occupies a portion of the lodge, with areas ranging from 750 to 1,350 square feet. Their interiors are almost identical, with two large open spaces at each end interspersed with a plywood-based central core that contains the bathroom, closet, and kitchen. Insulated with spray foam to withstand the cold Detroit winters and coated in crisp white, each unit’s 23-foot dome ceiling is sliced with at least 12 windows.
“You get a sunrise view in your bedroom and a sunset view in your living room. It was intentional. It’s all about light, this project, ”says Kafka. “The real benefit is not that the Quonset hut allows me to build a project at such a low cost, it’s that it allows me to give people very high quality space at a reasonable price.
Transforming a utility storage hut into a bright apartment wasn’t easy. Ishtiaq Rafiuddin, the architect of the project, says he must have collaborated with the manufacturer of the hut, SteelMaster, to understand how to drill holes for windows without compromising structural integrity. Together with the company’s engineers, Rafiuddin was able to design the windows so that none of the apartments were dark or cavernous. “There is a lot of gravity. You have the impression of being in a cathedral, ”he says. “Offering this quality of space to the average residential tenant is an incredible idea for me.”
Equally important to Kafka is quality outdoor space. He hired landscape architect Julie Bargmann to DIRT Studio to design the space surrounding the cabin, and its design includes a grove of 150 trees all around the building, which is also enveloped by a common front and rear deck.
“Developers play with equipment, fixtures, faucets and that sort of thing, but they don’t play with space,” Kafka says. “Detroit was a great opportunity because the purchase price of your land is so low, you have room to experiment and you have room to be very generous to the people who occupy your property.”
The Caterpillar was completed earlier this year, and Kafka says it was fully leased even before construction was complete. With low construction costs and rents that he says are 30% lower per square foot than in other booming areas of the city, the Quonset hut approach offers an affordable alternative.
Although the area now has two projects based on the Quonset hut, Kafka does not focus on a single architectural idea. “Even though there are a lot of nuances and opportunities to making Quonset huts in different ways, I don’t want this neighborhood to just become the Quonset hut district,” he says.
At least not in Detroit. He has another Quonset hut project in the works in Texas.