One Man’s Waste

By restoring abandoned buildings with found materials, Andrew Perkins is battling a culture of rampant consumerism and reckless waste—and creating some pretty cool spaces in the process 

Matthieu Bain (left) and Andrew Perkins in Spencer’s Art House, Flint, Mich.

Matthieu Bain (left) and Andrew Perkins in Spencer’s Art House, Flint, Mich. Photo: Ryan Garza

Perkins inside his UB thesis project on Buffalo’s East Side.

Perkins inside his UB thesis project on Buffalo’s East Side. Photo: Douglas Levere

Story by Sheryl James 

WHEN ANDREW PERKINS (MArch ’12, BS ’10) arrived in Flint to restore a dilapidated former mortuary in one of the most blighted neighborhoods of what is perhaps Michigan’s most distressed city, the first thing he did was put two padlocks on the front door. Still, within days, all his tools were stolen. The young architect took it in stride. After all, for his master’s thesis at UB, he had not only restored a vacant building on Buffalo’s troubled East Side, but also had lived in the house throughout the project. He wasn’t new to urban challenges.

“What I saw in Flint wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen in Buffalo or Detroit or even New York City,” says Perkins, now 26. “Every city has its share of vacancy and rough neighborhoods. I learned quickly in Buffalo that more often than not, those areas really aren’t bad once you get past the image, past the fear. That helped put things into perspective.”

Perkins’ perspective has been formed in part by his commitment to working in some of the dodgiest neighborhoods in the country, but also by his dedication to a small but emerging corner of his profession that is perhaps best termed “reclamation architecture”—with maybe a hint of “Occupy architecture” too.

First in Buffalo, and then in Flint, Perkins’ goal was the same: to restore an abandoned building using primarily leftover, discarded and recycled materials. A means of combatting the consumerist mentality that continually creates buildings, then leaves them to rot, this form of architecture is as much statement as science, more process than precision. It is also challenging work, to say the least. As Perkins wrote regarding his UB thesis project, a joint effort with fellow architecture student Matthieu Bain (MArch ’12, BS ’10):

We’ve had to tread—and oftentimes cross—very thin legal lines. We’ve put ourselves and our possessions into areas … known for being run down and rampant. We’ve endured discomforts far beyond the average (American) person’s tolerance of such things. There were moments of utter failure, of misery and of questionable sanity. The process is extremely labor intensive and requires a great deal of patience compared to modern means of construction.

Similarly, in Flint, Perkins worked for 20 months for virtually no pay in a building that had been vacant for 15 years. Outside, a liquor store a few yards away formed the hub of neighborhood activity. Inside, the only toilet was positioned in a room with gaping open windows; in the winter, it snowed inside as well as out.

PERKINS AND BAIN were first inspired to pursue this kind of work by one of their UB architecture professors, Dennis Maher. Maher’s adventures turning an abandoned Buffalo house into a sort of ever-changing sculptural landscape of found and reconfigured objects were documented in The New York Times, which noted Maher’s interest in “exploring the space between erasure and reconstruction.” It also observed that his girlfriend, overwhelmed by the “destabilizing” experience of living in an environment that is “constantly collecting and reforming,” eventually moved out.

Unlike Maher’s girlfriend, Perkins and Bain were jazzed by the idea of living-in-while-simultaneously-reconstructing an abandoned house using nothing but found objects. In the fall of 2011, they bought a small, one-story home on the East Side for $800 from the Buffalo Foreclosure auction and, despite a lack of heat, electricity and running water, promptly moved in.

Not everyone believed they could pull it off. “One adviser voiced his doubts that we could make it through winter without cheating, i.e., going to Home Depot to buy insulation,” says Perkins. “We always knew there was some shock factor to the idea. Doubt really just motivated us further.”

As described in a highly entertaining blog that Perkins kept throughout the process, titled “Dwelling on Waste,” the students threw themselves into the project, and didn’t cheat. In an Oct. 18, 2011, post called “House Warming,” written shortly after they moved in, Perkins noted:

Without an established heat source, the house isn’t much warmer than outside. We have to rely on our own body heat to keep us warm, so we opt to create a sort of “tent” using the solar pool cover we recovered several weeks ago. … The thousands of air pockets in this material will act as an insulating barrier to help keep our sleeping shelter warm, and its large size is easily able to create an enclosed space.

Though they eventually inherited a wood-burning stove from a friend of a friend, insulation remained a problem, as a Jan. 24, 2012, post, titled “Keeping Warm,” makes clear:

Scraps of rigid insulation in varying sizes, colors and origins are used as a first defense. These aren’t as prone to water damage as bad insulation is, and can withstand any leaks that our quick roof patching failed to catch. A few $3 cans of expandable foam seal the cracks and go a long way in keeping heat from escaping. With the largely airtight seal established, the fiberglass insulation is packed in with lathing strips until a “finish” surface can be applied.

Perkins and Bain worked eight months on the house, earning high marks from Department of Architecture chair Omar Khan. Two years later, Khan still views the project as “one of the clearest and most prescient architectural responses to our current housing dilemma.” Stephen Zacks, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based journalist and critic of architecture and design, who had been invited by Maher to review the project, was equally impressed, citing the “poetry” in their “very moving presentation” and the “level of commitment … to engaging in a hands-on and personal way with their time.”

Zacks, a Flint native, is the executive director of his hometown’s Flint Public Art Project (FPAP), a local community initiative. FPAP’s mission, according to the project website, is to “activate disused structures, connect people and places, inspire residents to imagine new uses, and amplify the emerging identity of the city.”

By 2012, FPAP had won grants for several projects. One entailed finding a way to reuse the dilapidated mortuary in Flint’s Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood, a run-down area full of once-handsome, mid- to late-1800s and early-1900s homes.

While in Buffalo, Zacks broached the idea of Perkins and Bain working on the mortuary. They jumped at the chance, and in July of 2012, Perkins moved to Flint to become the FPAP resident architect, with Bain on board to work part time. Perkins figured it would be a five- to six-month stint.

FORMERLY KNOWN AS Spencer’s Funeral Home, the building occupying 520 University Ave. was built in 1910; initial appearances suggested to Perkins that its decline began soon thereafter. There was “catastrophic roof damage,” he observed in his blog. Debris filled the home’s interior. There was little paint left on its outer cedar shingle siding. The foundation was crumbling.

The goal of the project, which by then had been dubbed Spencer’s Art House, was to create a community center and art space. Three months into the project, Bain married and moved to the Boston area. He continued to lend support as he could, but it became largely Perkins’ show.

Timothy Monahan, a licensed builder and construction professional as well as a Carriage Town homeowner and former president of the Carriage Town Neighborhood Association, worked often with Perkins, and soon became the young architect’s biggest fan.

“His ability to get materials was just amazing,” Monahan says. “He literally took 2-by-4s and built these engineered trusses with a very specific bow. The city has since certified them for structural components.”

On another occasion, Perkins heard a bowling alley was being demolished and rushed to help remove the debris. “He found these massive tongue-in-groove redwood boards,” Monahan recalls admiringly. They can now be seen beneath the house’s front windows.

During a recent tour, Monahan pointed to other progress: the rebuilt and reglazed front windows; the new basement-level brick wall; stacks of high-grade, laminated beams and large glass panes, both waiting for use.

Then there is the pizza oven, which Perkins built in what was formerly a room on the back of the house (the roof had long since collapsed). The oven was intended to encourage development of the area between houses as community space, and eventually become an amphitheater built with discarded steel pipe from a former General Motors plant, old bicycle wheels and other items.

Potlucks, community workshops, art exhibits, performances and film screenings took place in that space, pizzas baking all the while, as the reclamation project continued. Before long, Perkins became something of a favorite son in the neighborhood for his vision and enthusiasm, his sense of fun, and, above all, his hard work.

Meanwhile, Perkins warmed to the locals, homeless and otherwise. “It didn’t take long to realize they were all harmless,” he says. “They were clearly used to being looked down upon, but it’s amazing how good-natured people tend to be. All you have to do is lift that curtain and say, ‘Hello.’”

By September 2013, Perkins and volunteers had, among other accomplishments, replaced the cracked parking lot, fixed about 50 of the house’s 66 windows and replaced some outdoor siding.

But shortly thereafter, the project, which had been bumping along from grant to grant, ran out of money. Though additional grant applications were filed, there was an even bigger problem: Perkins, who had college loans to pay off and mounting daily expenses, couldn’t afford to stay in Flint any longer. In December 2013, he reluctantly left the city to take a job in Baltimore, Md.

The departure, as Perkins told the local newspaper, was “bittersweet.” On the other hand, it seems his 20 months in Flint had profound and lasting effects, both on himself and on the neighborhood he left behind.

As for himself, says Perkins, “I got the opportunity to dabble in a lot of things, from laying brick and writing grants to speaking at conferences and organizing large-scale artistic productions. There’s an extraordinary amount of effort that goes into these types of things. It’s humbling, and has taught me to engage others—regardless of their status, appearance or profession—with a little more respect and patience.”

As for the neighborhood, Zacks says Perkins’ dedication has sparked not only a commitment to finish Spencer’s Art House, but also a new plan to rehabilitate an old brick neighborhood fire station into a brewery.

Most important, says Monahan, “He left us with a vision that is so cool, we can’t let go of it.”

Scenes from a Reclamation:

Sheryl James is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist based outside of Detroit, Mich.