Retired Architect Makes Creative Use of the City’s Homemakers Program

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NEWS_1203_House1Eleanor Scott

From the street, the beige vinyl-sided house appears a little taller and a little narrower than the other modest bungalows on the block. The house’s traditional elements blend in with the neighboring houses; a pitched roof for shedding rain and a shaded front porch are practical features in Tennessee’s subtropical climate. But asymmetrical windows hint at the interior’s non-traditional design.

Michael Kaplan, a retired architect and former University of Tennessee professor, designed and built this unique home for himself in the South Knoxville neighborhood of Vestal through the Homemakers Program, a city program associated with basic, cheaply-built houses for low-income residents. His house represents the intersection of a high-concept design with the small budget and limited materials of a public program.

Just inside the front door, a small vestibule with a low ceiling leads to the sunny bathroom, spacious storage closet, and washer and dryer concealed behind closet doors. A few steps into the house, the ceiling opens up.

Except for the small bedroom, the 1,100-square-foot house is an open plan. The upstairs loft is a music room/study that extends partially over the first floor, leaving the living room with a high vaulted ceiling.  The kitchen opens into the living room while the overhanging loft gives it definition as a separate space. The tiny bedroom tucked into the back of the house is warmly lit with windows on two sides and a ceiling of Douglas fir and exposed yellow pine beams. 

A balcony overlooks the south-facing backyard, which slopes down to a little stream bordering the back of the property. A large maple shades the house in summer.

The white walls and clean boxy angles of the interior result in a uncluttered, modern look while exposed wooden supports reveal a rustic frankness of construction. The upright piano, mid-century end tables, worn Persian rugs, and other furnishings represent a mix of periods and styles, personal objects acquired over a lifetime.

Kaplan grew up in New York City, apart, he says, from a culture of home-ownership. His parents never owned the place they lived in, and for a city boy, that aspect of the American Dream was off his radar. Kaplan moved around, working as an architect in New York, living in Israel for a while, and designing vernacular buildings for the Peace Corps. In 1997 Kaplan retired after a 13-year stint teaching architecture at UT.

Making his current status of homeowner rather unlikely, Kaplan, an outspoken socialist, does not believe that individual home-ownership is the best model, preferring co-op style housing. Nevertheless, with ties to friends, community, and a small 3-D photography business, Kaplan found himself wanting to set up permanent residence in Knoxville, and thus, house shopping. He looked at a lot of houses, but was unsatisfied.

“You’re an architect,” his friends said, “Maybe you should design your own house.”

The city’s Homemakers Program has its origins in Project Proud, a program launched in 1987 to transfer “substandard” lots and houses in Mechanicsville to low-income buyers, or non-profits offering low-income housing. In 1995, City Council expanded the program, seeking a wider range of buyers to rehabilitate problem properties, some acquired through the Blighted Properties Ordinance. Community Development Director Becky Wade says 13 properties were sold through the Homemakers Program this year; five are pending approval.

One day, browsing the Homemakers website, Kaplan saw a listing for a 50’ x 150’ city lot 2 miles from downtown in South Knoxville. He did a drive-by and liked the neighborhood.

NEWS_1203_MichaelKaplanEleanor Scott

“I thought Vestal was a reasonable place to live,” he says.

As a man in his 70s, Kaplan was impressed with the livability of the area. He was pleased to find a grocery store, pharmacy, post office, library, several restaurants, a thrift store, and an antique mall all within walking distance.

The Homemakers Program uses a patchwork of funding sources to facilitate the purchase of properties, and some of them come with requirements. The city had acquired the Vestal lot using money from the federally-funded (and now defunct) HOPE 3 program, so the buyer had to qualify as low-income. In this case, the vetting process also included the ability to get a mortgage and having not owned a house in the past three years. With a life dedicated to pursuits other than acquiring wealth, and a retiree’s income, Kaplan qualified. 

The city usually provides house plans from which Homemaker participants can choose. Kaplan was unsatisfied with the standard house plans’ compartmentalized rooms and few windows. Their cookie-cutter nature did not take into account site specifics like slopes, trees, neighboring buildings, or other factors that affect sunlight or ventilation. Due to Kaplan’s background in architecture, the city permitted him to design his own house.

The first plan he submitted included hardwood floors, Hardiplank siding, two bathrooms, stairs to a full basement, and was wildly over budget. The city of Knoxville’s Community Development Department rejected the plan and both parties became discouraged about the feasibility of the project.

“Then I woke up one morning and said, ‘Hey, I’m an architect, I’ve been doing this all my life. I know how to do this,’” Kaplan says.

Kaplan contacted his city councilman at the time, Nick Della Volpe, who explained which design elements were problematic. Kaplan redesigned the house, sacrificing some features to bring the budget under $119,000. Now the house plan had only one bathroom, no stairs to the basement, linoleum-like tile flooring, vinyl windows and siding, and low-end appliances. The bid came back under budget. With the issues solved, the house was built by High Oaks Construction in four months. The entire process, from Kaplan’s first contact with the city to completion of the house, took from December 2011 to May 2014.

“[The city] took the risk of doing something they hadn’t done before,” Kaplan says. “In the end, everyone was pleased with the outcome and the house has become a showpiece for what is possible within the constraints of a public program.”

Could his project set a precedent for more architecturally inventive houses to be facilitated by the Homemakers Program?

“We were glad to be able to work with Mr. Kaplan. The federal regulations were met and he was able to build a unique and functional home,” Wade says. “His situation was not typical but if a similar situation came along, we would be happy to work with a buyer.”

Right now, the Homemakers site lists about 40 available parcels located in the neighborhoods of Five Points, Lonsdale, and North and East Knoxville. The cheapest listing is an irregularly-shaped wooded lot, roughly 18′ x 131′ on Parham Street for $525. The most expensive listing (at $36,000) is a large city lot just north of Tazewell Pike with a two-story farmhouse lacking air conditioning and heat.

NEWS_1203_House2Eleanor Scott

Kaplan was able to preserve some unique features that align with his political philosophy and world view—namely, American-made materials and energy-efficient heating and cooling methods.

“I only had to use air-conditioning three times last summer. There are lots of windows, I can get terrific cross-ventilation. It’s quite comfortable,” he says.

Due to Kaplan’s aversion to fracking, the house uses no natural gas, instead relying on an electric duct-less heating system and well-insulated floors and walls.

“It’s a very tight house,” Kaplan says, “The house orients south, so I can take advantage of the sunshine in the winter, which we are doing right now.”

Kaplan brings out the scale model of his house that he built during the design process. The roof is removable, and all the rooms are visible like a modernist doll house. On the living room carpet, he orients the small house to face the same direction as the big house, demonstrating how he could predict the way the sunlight would fall into the rooms. The model house sits in a shaft of afternoon light shining through the balcony door. Inside the model living room, a tiny shaft of light, an exact replica, falls through the tiny balcony door.

Kaplan does not expect his neighborhood to gentrify, and does not expect to resell his house at a profit. His plan is to live in and enjoy the home he made for himself through the city’s program.

“I think it’s a great program, Kaplan says. “The outcome was really positive. I have a house that not only was affordable, but it’s really uplifting, it’s wonderful living here. To me, it’s a great house.”

Corrected: A previous version of this story incorrectly referenced Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation instead of the city of Knoxville Community Development Department. We also asked if future houses could be financed through the Homemakers Program rather than facilitated; the program does not directly finance houses.

Eleanor Scott's Possum City explores our urban forests, gardens, and wild places, celebrating the small lives thriving there. A freelance writer and columnist, she also maintains the Parkridge Butterfly Meadow in East Knoxville.

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