Rebuilding Blocks

Original design created by architect Marlon Blackwell for the New Orleans Biloxi Model Home project. // Rendering courtesy of Open Architecture Network

When Wesam Johnes describes Detroit, he highlights the positive elements that were beginning to align — new casinos, major sporting events, the relocation of Quicken Loans’ headquarters downtown. Then a spate of misfortunes overshadowed the encouraging narrative.

“All the good things that have happened in the last 15 years have been put on halt,” says Johnes, a Pulte Homes designer.

The non-profit organization, founded in 1999, links more than 80 global chapters with 4,500-plus design professionals, who volunteer their services to underserved communities.

After Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans chapter sponsored the Biloxi Model Home program, which paired families who had lost their homes with design professionals, working together to rebuild affordable and sustainable housing. And the Big Easy is a good example for Detroit, Lohnes says.

“There’s a soul there,” Johnes says, describing Detroit, where he has done most of his research. “There’s something there that needs to be awakened.”

When he stumbled upon the AFH Web site, Johnes immediately saw its potential. But when he clicked on the link for the local chapter, it led to a blank page; the Detroit branch had been defunct since 2007. After sharing his findings with Lauren Opalewski, a fellow student he met at Pulte, the two began filing paperwork to revive the chapter.

“The reason I got into architecture [was] to leave my footprint somewhere,” Johnes says. “I’m not a doctor. I can’t come up with the cure for cancer.

“I wanted to bring a chapter of Architecture for Humanity [to] Detroit because it would allow me the chance to help a city the only way I know how, and that’s through architecture.”

Johnes and Opalewski are recruiting a wide range of business professionals, with the goal of completing their first project within a year. Their initial plans are modest: a classroom redesign or cleaning up a green space to convert it into a community garden. Long term, Johnes wants the organization to be self-sustaining.

“Architecture has the ability to define who we are and who we can become,” he says. “[Architecture] is in our environment, our neighborhoods, our communities, our parks, our schools, and our homes.”