Detroit is full of surprises. From the Mies-designed Lafayette Park to the currently disassembled Heidelberg Project, small enclaves throughout the city challenge the perceived image of a city that has lost 60 percent of its population in the last 50 years. Tapping into this potential of small community spaces, Edwin Chan and his Los Angeles–based design practice EC3 have recently completed True North Detroit, a half-acre live-work community.

Specifically designed to cater to Detroit’s growing creative population, True North comprises nine lightweight prefabricated Quonset huts in the Core City neighborhood about two and a half miles northwest of the downtown. Core City has not seen any significant construction in over 60 years, and the area surrounding the project mostly consists of vacant lots.

(Chris Miele)

“The majority of Detroit’s housing stock is either out of date or completely dilapidated,” Edwin Chan said. “Rather than being determined by ‘market demands,’ True North’s design is an inclusive and aspirational vision to create a new typology of affordable housing and to promote alternative, creative lifestyles in one of the world’s most iconic cities.”

The small complex of vaulted buildings is arranged in such a way as to provide access from the street and produce open outdoor communal spaces. Security, views, and privacy were also considered in the strategic orientation of each structure. The shape of the Quonset huts was also modified from the typical semicircular section to better serve the targeted residents.



(Chris Miele)

Elongated and heightened wall space was produced for hanging art for production and exhibition. Kitchens, bathrooms, and utilities were moved into a center “island” and built out of a durable polycarbonate. Translucent and transparent polycarbonate was also used throughout to provide generous light and extra security. Radiant concrete floors, finished plywood, and other inexpensive materials and construction methods help keep the spaces affordable. The apartments range from 475 to 1,600 square feet, all with a lofted space above the kitchen area that can be used as a bedroom or additional workspace.

Even before its completion early this summer, True North received an honorable mention in the 64th annual P/A Awards in the community category. Far from the massive developments happening in the city’s downtown, projects like True North attempt to add to the city in more elegant way. As such, True North is the first of an iterative plan designed by EC3 to build on another seven acres in the neighborhood. It would seem that it is unavoidable that Detroit is going to be a testing ground for architectural and urban innovation. Projects like True North will hopefully prove that this can be a positive, and truly progressive, experience for the city.

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