Abrons and Miller: Producing New Structures from Old Materials

Two Taubman College architecture professors are challenging, and changing, public views about the usefulness of throwaways and castoffs generated by today’s consumer-driven society.

Rather than sending plastic waste, household rummage, and construction debris to landfills, Associate Professors Ellie Abrons and Meredith Miller are repurposing these spent materials for use in architectural models and exhibitions as well as full-scale, client-based building projects.

Their architecture practice, T+E+A+M, is a four-person collaboration with two other Taubman College associate professors, Thom Moran and Adam Fure.

“Our approach to materiality is unique,” Abrons explains. “We reuse existing materials and disassemble and reassemble building components to produce innovative designs for new architectural spaces or structures.”

Incorporating timeworn bricks, glass, and concrete in a new assembly not only retains traces of the value, use, and history of the original material or building. Reuse also creates new cultural associations, meanings, and appearances, according to Miller.

“Reframing the original content and combining it with something new fosters a kind of dialog rather than a clear resolution between the old and new,” she explains.

Abrons and Miller have applied their material reuse and reassembly approach in several model installations and exhibition projects, which have earned T+E+A+M acclaim among other designers.

Before delving into a project, T+E+A+M carefully considers the impact of strategic design decisions and material usage on the environment, people, and their surroundings.

“Detroit Reassembly Plant” was part of the U.S. Pavilion exhibition at the 2016 Venice Biennale.

“Rather than building everything brand new, we believe it is more sustainable to incorporate existing materials and components in a project,” Miller says. “We try to do this in a way that explores new aesthetic possibilities.”

T+E+A+M’s first experimental project, “Detroit Reassembly Plant,” reimagined Detroit’s vacant Packard automobile assembly plant as a research and development park. The designers combined concrete, brick, and other rubble recovered from the former factory buildings with waste plastic to produce a new architectural material for their transformative reconstruction.

In their “Rummage” project, they created futuristic urban spaces using strategically placed piles of discarded household items and Craigslist clutter.

For “Ghostbox,” the design team proposed disassembling and reassembling shuttered big-box retail stores to provide a staging area for individual dwellings and open-air civic spaces.

They continued their research on reassembly and fabrication techniques by imbedding reclaimed construction debris in heated polymeric plastic to make free-standing marble-like columns for their “Clastic Order” project.

Technology also plays a major role in T+E+A+M’s architectural work. For “Living Picture,” they incorporated digital imagery into materials and architecture to produce a three-dimensional recreation of a historic outdoor theater on its original site.

In addition to digital materiality, T+E+A+M is exploring technological innovations in construction processes and energy efficiency as a way to manage resource consumption and costs.

Now, Miller and Abrons and their partners are applying the design ideas, open-minded approach, and architectural lessons learned from their early experimental work to actual full-scale building projects in the Detroit area.

“Living Picture” won the 2017 Adrian Smith Prize from the Ragdale Ring, hosted by the Ragdale artists’ residency in Lake Forest, Illinois.

“Our practice is in a transitional moment between working primarily on installation and exhibition scale speculative projects to focusing more on client-based built work,” Abrons says.

“It has been exciting to think about translating and scaling up ideas we were exploring in models and other architectural representations, images, and drawings,” she adds. “But it also has been challenging to find ways to bring those concepts forth into the world as built projects.”

Recently, T+E+A+M was commissioned to renovate a historic brick retail building located near downtown Detroit. Rather than simply repairing or replacing damaged components to preserve the building in its original state, the design team proposed transforming it into a more free-flowing, multiuse architectural structure by layering materials and reconfiguring spaces.

“We are constructing an entirely new building envelope inside the original exterior brick wall to create an outdoor courtyard in between,” Miller explains. “We also plan to introduce more contemporary building products that are far different from the construction materials used 150 years ago.”

T+E+A+M is currently working on a new housing project in Detroit and recently completed the design for phase one of the multi-family development, which will break ground in spring 2021.

“We are trying to find a way to build affordably by challenging some of the conventions of standard building practice and construction techniques,” Abrons says. “We want to provide amenities, such as cross-ventilation and daylighting, as well as high-quality indoor and outdoor living spaces with a limited budget.”

As more client-based projects move through the pipeline, Miller and Abrons, along with Moran and Fure, plan to continue the close collaboration, collective authorship, and common language that have defined their design and aesthetic work.

Incorporating new thinking is also a key to their success.

“It is important to us, and to the process, that we continue to learn and respond to what’s going on in the world,” Miller says. “As educators, we do that by teaching courses at Taubman College and learning right along with our students.”

In October 2020, Abrons and Miller used technology developed at Taubman College to do a virtual walkthrough of their projects as part of the Cooper Union’s lecture series. View the presentation here.