"100 Houses" Interview with Interlochen Public Radio

Apr 17, 2024

In this episode of Fresh Coast Creatives, Max Howard visits Michael Karr’s North45 architecture studio in Petoskey.

A lot of artists want to leave behind some kind of legacy – a work with their unique fingerprint on it. But Michael Karr has a plan for what he’ll leave behind: 100 Homes. He figures it will take him 25 years.

“There's something incredibly exciting to be able to like, hey, could I spend my life basically doing something that – if I do it well – it will outlive myself.” said Karr.

Karr is the architect and owner of the design studio North45 Architecture. I met Karr at his office, which he designed and had built to replace the old carriage house behind his home in Petoskey. The studio is modern but warm – a small but tall building. Through the huge glass door, you can see the meeting space where Michael greets clients. Behind that is a ladder up into his actual workspace. The wood that lines the front of the building, that makes up the ladder, and the table we have our interview at were all reclaimed from the carriage house this studio replaced.

“I've got this tagline for my company – simple, honest, unapologetically modern architecture, “ said Karr. “And so, the unapologetically modern is kind of like, Hey, I'm not trying to pretend that this was built 100 years ago. I'm going to respect the history, but all the detailing is going to be modern. Karr compares what he does to being a singer.

“I think as an artist, you should know who you are and what you do,’ said Karr. “There's not many singers that say, well, today, I'll sing country, but tomorrow, I'm going to sing opera, and then maybe the next day, I'll sing rock.”

Karr found his way into architecture through a drafting class he took almost by chance in Mount Pleasant. “You know I always looked up to my older brother. He took a high school drafting class. And so just basically kind of, out of curiosity, older brother did it as a sophomore in high school, you know, I gave it a shot,” said Karr.

Soon he was sold.

“When it's all said and done, you know, What do you spend your life doing?’ said Karr. “There's not many things in this world that are more permanent than a well loved house.”

Karr later went to graduate school at the University of Michigan and after that he worked for the Payette architectural firm out in Boston. Payette designs hospitals and university buildings. Michael showed me some pictures of projects from his time at the firm – one was a marketing photo for a science lab they just built where Karr stood in as a scientist.

Back in Michigan, Karr launched his company, North45. That was in 2017.

He had this idea you can see on his website, the 100 Homes project. He assigns each on a number as he counts down.

“I only do about four projects a year and so twenty-five years left to work with four projects a year – that's 100 houses. That will be my life's work,” said Karr. “At the end of the day, I want to go look back at those 100 houses and say – hey, I did the best I could. Here's what I left behind.” 

With each new house, Karr gets to put more of his own unique designs into the home. “The first commission I may have done up in the upper nineties might have been quite traditional. In the mid-nineties, they’re starting to get a few more modern touches. It's kind of like a gradual progression to where I want to be,” said Karr.

Karr said he is fortunate to work in such a beautiful part of the country. He pulled out the architectural drawing for house #87.

It’s modern with its mix of sawn cedar and distressed metal siding and is built into the slope of a hill overlooking a wooded ravine – and beyond that Lake Michigan.

“If I've got a site that's got, you know, 300 feet of Lake Michigan frontage with rolling sand dunes, my job is to basically just take advantage of that, “said Karr. “The architecture should just try not to mess that up.”

Karr is currently on house #83. He should finish his last home around 2042.