A Massive Metal “Caterpillar” Brings Eight Cost-Effective Apartments to Detroit

Prince Concepts slices up a prefab Quonset hut to create a series of light-filled dwellings.
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In Detroit’s Core City neighborhood, a new prefab Quonset hut hosts six apartments and two live/work spaces surrounded by a recently planted urban forest. Named Caterpillar after its long and slender shape, the gleaming 9,000-square-foot structure is the latest venture by Prince Concepts, a local real estate developer that has partnered with the city to develop roughly one hundred vacant properties in the district.

Manufactured by SteelMaster, the Quonset hut is a modular structure made from commercial-grade steel that can be assembled by a team of two to five people in a few days. Initially developed to provide military housing, the structures are known for their simple construction, strength, and versatility. In addition to Caterpillar, Prince Concepts has completed multiple large projects in Core City over the past few years, including True North in 2017, 5k in 2020, and Core City Park in 2019.

The urban woodland, which includes a mix of arborvitaes, river birches, and hornbeams, will provide a layer of privacy.

"We decided against complex floor plans, expensive materials, and a diversity of units," says Philip Kafka, president of Prince Concepts. "Instead, we utilized the Quonset hut, a simple, elegant, cost-effective prefabricated structure. This allowed us to reallocate our savings to spacious, thoughtful interiors that prioritize natural light, and to surround the structure with an urban woodland featuring over 150 trees." 

The developer created Caterpillar in collaboration with architect Ishtiaq Rafiuddin of UNDECORATED, Studio Detroit, and landscape architect Julie Bargmann of D.I.R.T. Studio. The team worked closely with Virginia-based company SteelMaster to modify a standard Quonset hut with custom details, including 36 openings on each side of the arched metal facade.

The trees are planted in a staggered pattern inspired by the sheet music for John Coltrane’s "A Love Supreme."

"Inspired by the magnificence of spiritual spaces with domes, we decided to use a semicircular-shaped hut," says Rafiuddin. "As a pure form, it offers the most space and volume with a ratio of a hut structure."

Translucent and transparent polycarbonate window panels punctuate the facade to flood the interior with natural light.

The apartments feature 23-foot-tall domed ceilings.

 "We arranged the apartments next to one another, similar to a sushi roll. Each apartment is a semicircular slice of space," says Rafiuddin. "Within each apartment, we employed an organizational strategy of utility versus ceremony. We placed a compact, inhabitable box in the middle of each apartment to house all of the services, such as the bathroom, shower, and kitchen."

The kitchen, dining area, and living room take up one half of the unit. 

A service core holds the bath and storage, separating the bedroom from the dining and living areas.

Tucked behind the kitchen is a bathroom that leads to the bedroom closet.

Skylights are installed above every shower.

The 192-foot-long, 46-foot-wide modular structure is divided into eight units that range from 750 square feet to 1,300 square feet. Caterpillar was completed in March 2021, and all of the units were fully leased before completion.

The designers took cues from Detroit’s "porch culture" to surround the hut with a wraparound raised deck.

Ramps lead up to a covered breezeway with arched cutouts that bisects the building.

"We took inspiration from the image of a UFO crash landing in a forest, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris—an otherworldly object anchoring a massive public promenade," explains the design team "The result is a sculptural monument with thoughtful interiors and an urban woodland that will be enjoyed by the neighborhood for generations to come." 

The pathways and public benches are made from terrazzo tiles salvaged from a previous development.

The orientation of the apartments allows residents to experience sunrise in the bedrooms and sunset in the living room.

A look at the hangar-like interior during construction.

Caterpillar floor plan

Caterpillar section


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