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

  • The efficient kitchen features small appliances that help maximize space. The peonies are from the flower garden Frances planted at the church next door using cuttings from their former home.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • The solar-powered greenhouse adjacent to the roof garden provides a warm, sunny spot for reading on a cool day.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • Shade-loving plants fill the atrium garden.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • The roof garden tucks in and around the solar arrays.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • Chive blossoms soak up the sun in front of the solar panels.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • Homeowners Jim Elniski and Frances Whitehead
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • Frances Whitehead and Jim Elniski’s Chicago warehouse-turned-home is filled with artwork, antiques and oddities they have collected during world travels or inherited from family.
    Illustration By Andrej Galins
  • Jim’s studio includes sculptures, drums, yoga ropes and work from a recent community-based art project.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • Frances’ work space takes on forms of a science lab, an architect’s studio and an urban planning office.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • The staircase leads to the guest bedroom.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • The interior’s stacked layout allows spaciousness within a small footprint. The outdoor walkway just visible on the right is made with recycled plastic and connects Jim’s studio with the guest bedroom, greenhouse and roof gardens.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • Frances Whitehead and Jim Elniski’s Chicago warehouse-turned-home is filled with artwork, antiques and oddities they have collected during world travels or inherited from family.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • A zoned heating system helps Jim and Frances reduce energy use. The greenhouse is metered separately from the rest of the house.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • Frances tends rooftop herbs.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • The urban infill site’s proximity to neighbors and businesses ensures Frances and Jim stay connected with the local community. Jim says the visible solar arrays and wind turbines help engage neighbors and passersby, who stop to ask about their rooftop “sculptures.”
    Photo By Barry Rustin

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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