A Detroit artist couple tried their hand at home c...

A Detroit artist couple tried their hand at home construction, and the results are quietly stunning

The “Hygienic Dress League” couple’s first build in North Corktown faced obstacles, but they finally finished a one-of-a-kind home.

A contemporary home built in Detroit's North Corktown neighborhood by artist couple Steve and Dorota Coy

Credit: Chris Gerard

There are only a handful of contemporary single-family homes in Detroit. So when one is built, it tends to stand out. 

That’s certainly true for 2811 Cochrane Street, despite the fact that the house doesn’t have any dramatic features on its face. If anything, with its simple materials and plain color palette, it seems unremarkable at first glance. Yet it somehow manages to exude a sense of high design. 

The North Corktown home was built by Dorota and Steve Coy, artists who are best known for their conceptual project the Hygienic Dress League. For a couple with no previous background in home building, the end result is impressive. 

The Coys had previously renovated and sold two homes when property values in Detroit were lower. This time, they wanted a place for themselves and their growing family, but could no longer afford what was for sale in their favored neighborhoods. Instead, they decided to build a new home and bought the lot on Cochrane Street from the Detroit Land Bank for $18,500 in 2018.

But right from the start, things didn’t go as planned. “The Land Bank sold us the parcel based on our house proposal,” Dorota Coy said. “And we now realize why — it was probably the worst parcel of land you could buy in North Corktown.”

Credit: Chris Gerard

The Land Bank required the Coys to renovate an old goat barn on the lot, which also had the foundation from the original house, playground equipment and even a boat. It cost them $30,000 just to clear the lot. 

Then they got back estimates from builders and contractors for their design. The whole home could run them as much $500,000. But their budget was only $150,000. And construction loans are notoriously hard to come by in Detroit.

Credit: Chris Gerard

So they had to do as much of the work as possible themselves, over a couple of years, when they had time. And they were ultimately forced to sell it to get the balance back. 

“Short of some radical decisions about color and design, we made every decision about the house as if we were going to live there and keep it,” Steve Coy said.

Credit: Chris Gerard

Everything about the property is pleasant without being ostentatious. Minimal, but inviting. The single-story home has an almost austere all-black cladding and long, gable roof reminiscent of a farmhouse. 

But inside, numerous sliding doors and windows admit an abundance of light. This effect is heightened by the bleached floors, white surfaces, open plan and 1,000 square feet of deck space that helps bring the outside in. The goat barn, also well lit, was converted into a multi-purpose garage space that could be used for a studio, greenhouse or storage. 

It’s more sustainable than your average house, too. There’s no plastic or treated wood, and it has a metal roof that will last 100 years. 

Credit: Chris Gerard

Though they didn’t end up building their personal dream home, they may have stumbled on a model for new home construction in Detroit. “Can you build a beautiful bespoke home that’s not outrageously priced?” Steve Coy said.

Affordability, however, is a relative term. The home went up for sale in mid-November for $399,900. It got an offer almost immediately and closed last week. For a well designed 1,400-square-foot home with an extra flex space in a neighborhood where prices have climbed in recent years, that’s not too surprising, but it is out of the price range for most Detroiters.

Credit: Chris Gerard

They estimate that this home cost around $300,000 — including purchasing the lot and the worth of their own substantial labor. But the Coys want to build more and find ways to build cheaper (and hopefully not spend $30,000 on excavation). There may be other efficiencies to be found at scale, with different materials, or design modifications.

“If we do more, we can do more,” Dorota Coy said. 

As artists and collaborators, it’s not surprising that the Coys’ imaginations are running wild with ideas for adobe huts made of mud, glass swimming pools, clover yards, trees incorporated into buildings and more. They’re already planning their next few houses; one of which will be their “dream” home.

Hopefully, they’ll find a way to do more. 

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.