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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Art Prize 2010: '10 Simply Salvage


published: December 22nd, 2010

“People are like kids going to see Santa Claus when they come by,” Brent Ahmicasaube said. His Art Prize entry is a fantasy with curved walls, peaked dormers, and a fairy-tale roof. The house, made almost entirely of salvaged materials, draws people to it like a magnet, and they can’t wait to get inside. A carpenter/craftsman by trade, and owner of Heritage Craftsmen, 37-year old Ahmicasaube is a soft-spoken man who describes what it takes to turn cast off materials into an organic whole. For him Art Prize has served as the vehicle for a personal quest to build small. He has learned to step back and let the design happen. The footprint of the house was planned, but his ideas were not exact. “If it feels right, I know it’s right,” he said, “and I find that very liberating.” (Find more information to your right in Related Items)

Ahmicasaube built the almost 200-square-foot floor first. The original diagonal design of the 1.25 inch maple tongue and groove floor featured three natural planks alternating with three in a dark stain. A large tarp protected newly laid floor, but that night rain from an unexpected storm leaked through the covering and badly warped some of the planks, more dark ones than light. He almost gave up, but decided to allow the accident to determine the outcome.

The resulting two dark planks with four light ones, which Brent believes creates a better design, remind him of the dark lines found in Native American pottery. The curved walls are whimsical, but made the building much more difficult. Structurally it was a challenge, a test, one of the hardest parts of the building.

The Gothic windows are like feathers. Discovered next to a dumpster near the Fulton St. Market; he paid $20 for all of them. They created themselves once he realized they should be turned upside down. The curved window by the front door came from a former landlady. He already had one in place, but he knew this one was just perfect for the space.

A small wood stove from a candy store in Manistee sits in a corner. What looks, at first glance, like a fold-down ironing board is a table. There is a kerosene two-burner range, and an old iron washtub serves as a sink. The privy, with a carved half-moon on the old plank door, has a copper-lined wooden barrel mounted above the relatively new porcelain seat below. Rainwater will fill the barrel for flushes.

On moving day the finished house was maneuvered onto a flatbed truck that slowly made its way down Lake Dr. and Fulton St. past astonished drivers who honked their horns and pedestrians who waved. Finally, watched by a crowd of well-wishers and the curious who had gathered on the sidewalks, a Gelock heavy-duty crane lifted the 10,000-pound structure and gently set it into place, in front of the Aveda School at 138 Commerce SW, ready for Art Prize.

On the first day of Art Prize a little girl jumped out of the line waiting to enter the house, climbed the porch stairs and announced to all, "This is my house!" Once inside she pointed, "That's my grandma's chair, and that's my grandpa's chair, and this is my chair," she claimed as she proudly sat down. The fairy tale quality of the house makes this child's reaction perfectly understandable. Brent said, "She got it. That's the test for me—when people get it."

An elderly woman, almost ninety-years old, walked in with tears in her eyes, "I lived in a house about this size and not much different when I was a girl," she told him. Another visitor remarked that he had just come from Goodwill on Division Ave. where he'd seen a bear rug that would be perfect. Brent gave him the required $14 and shortly, in its place on the floor, the bear completed the picture.

Time ran out on the planned Victorian-style porch. So the night before the plan changed. Tad Caswell, Brent's partner, knew about some boat masts. Not just any boat masts, these had appeared at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics on Stuart Bells' boat, which had participated in the star class. Bell’s certificate hangs on the wall next to the front door. The porch awning, which can be unrolled when needed, is, what else, a sail.

"What I enjoyed most about Art Prize," Brent admitted, "was when my work touched people. Nothing would make me happier than to spend the rest of my career building these for people who appreciate them whether they use them as a guesthouse, an office, studio, workshop, or personal space." If you missed seeing '10 Simply Salvage at ArtPrize, it currently resides in the parking lot of the Blackport Building on Diamond at Lake Drive.


Books Available from the Grand Rapids Public Library

  • Walker, Les. Tiny, Tiny Houses. Overlook Press, 1993
  • Zieger, Mimi. Tiny Houses. Rizzoli, 2009

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