At Home in the Future: An Urban Warehouse Renovation

As two Chicago Art Institute professors create a living art project in an abandoned warehouse—a home much greater than the sum of its parts—they’ve collected a “complete set” of alternative energy technologies.

| May/June 2010

Frances Whitehead and Jim Elniski’s revamped warehouse home in Chicago houses an array of art and artifacts from around the world and is also a contemporary artist’s studio. Part Swiss Family Robinson tree house, part greenhouse and garden, the home integrates nearly every type of alternative energy technology available—thanks to a concept Frances coins “radical multifunctionality,” the ability to solve more than one problem at a time.

Living in a Rubik’s cube 

Jim considers their home “a moving Rubik’s cube” because the spaces constantly change their relationship to each other. Inside the simple square building, rooms shift in and out of each other and around a central interior courtyard. Above the front living area, a single bedroom and half bath float on a mezzanine. At the home’s core, an outdoor courtyard spills light into a hallway leading to the ground-floor studio. From Frances’ cool, concrete-floored workshop, a winding metal staircase leads upstairs to a small guest bedroom. Outside is a greenhouse, and beyond it an extensive roof garden surrounding sleek solar panels. An outdoor boardwalk overlooks the courtyard below and connects to Jim’s bright, airy studio. Above, sculptural wind turbines rise from the green roof.

“Once we figured out that there was going to be this circulation, we also became conscious of designing different climatic experiences, different light and space experiences,” Frances says. “Downstairs, it’s sonorous and private, cool and moist. Upstairs in summer, it’s sunny and bright. It’s like a trip to the Mediterranean. There are tomatoes and cacti, and it’s sunny and hot and windswept.”

Capturing the sun 

One of Frances and Jim’s motives for renovating a decades-old warehouse is to show that, with a little imagination, abandoned city buildings can be reused. In a neighborhood sitting between industrial and residential areas, their home demonstrates the elegance of reuse, the power of good design and the promise of new energy technology.

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