A House, A Home
The little house on Donald Place exemplifies Habitat Kent County’s work in Wealthy Heights.
When Habitat for Humanity Kent County came into its life, the little two-story house was a sad thing in need of rescue. It sat abandoned, uncared for and slowly crumbling for 30-plus years. The only people it hosted were those who broke in seeking shelter from the cold. Still, the 120-year-old home stood, valiantly holding itself together and waiting. In 2010, the wait paid off.
The house on Donald Place has the privilege of being the first home Habitat Kent rehabbed in Wealthy Heights. All aspects of the house’s makeover were planned and discussed with the city, the Historical Preservation Commission and the State Historical Preservation Office before anyone picked up a hammer. Every detail had to be approved, down to where vents could be placed and what color paint could be used.
Because the house had fire damage, the Historical Preservation Commission allowed the wood siding to be removed. However, it could not be replaced with Habitat’s preferred vinyl siding, which didn't meet the commission’s standards. Not wanting to saddle new homeowners with the regular maintenance required by wood siding, Habitat created a new exterior of fiber cement siding. Now, the house appears to be wearing wood, but it’s much better protected against the sometimes harsh weather conditions of western Michigan. Also protected is the back porch, which previously lacked a covering. Volunteers built one to match the gable of the existing roof, a charming addition that looks as though it’s always been there.
Stepping inside the house, you may notice unusually deep window sills and doorframes, the result of a creative and industrious workaround by a Habitat affiliate determined to properly seal and insulate the house. The affiliate’s preferred foam insulation could not be sprayed inside the walls, as it would stick to the original historic framework. So the house got a new interior wall all the way around that could be sprayed with the insulation required for maximum energy efficiency.
The house’s windows are long and narrow, especially in one of the former upstairs bedrooms. This doesn’t comply with modern building codes, which require bedrooms to have a window large enough for access by emergency personnel. Since preservation guidelines prohibit changes to windows and doors, the master bedroom is now on the first floor and upstairs has office space.
The house is so much happier these days. Certified LEED Gold, it is warm in the Michigan winters and cool in the summer. Its bravery — and success — in being Habitat Kent’s first drastic rehab no doubt provides hope and reassurance for the many other houses still awaiting rescue. It’s a lovely home, with cheerful colors and sturdy walls to welcome Habitat homeowners David Atem, his wife Truphosah and their children, Alakiir, Joseph and Naima. For David, who fled Sudan in 1991 and lived as a refugee in Uganda and Kenya before coming to the United States in 2000, it’s a chance to give his kids the safe childhood he never had.
They are as happy to have Donald Place as it is to have them. “There are a lot of things that we can do now as family,” David says. “Simply, we can now sit around the dinner table as one family, pray together and eat together.”
A vital part of the renewed neighborhood, the house provides water to the community garden now thriving next door. Upstairs, the office overlooks that garden, and in the afternoon, the sun comes in through a long, narrow window. -Megan Frank