The Bird House

Architect and family turn diamond-in-the-rough into next chapter nature oasis
The remodeled dining room of Brad and Becke Shiel. Photo by David Sparks.

Brad and Becke Shiel wanted a change. They were ready for the next chapter in their lives. Despite loving their Eastown existence for the last 20+ years, their children would soon be leaving the nest and Becke wanted some elbow room. Brad was thinking of going on his own career-wise so they would need space for his Ambient Architecture office, too. They found a great diamond-in-the-rough at 3508 Bird Avenue, right across the road from Provin Trails on 4 Mile Rd. in Northeast Grand Rapids. It was perfect! 

Their youngest child had only a year left of high school and the timing was right. More right than they had thought, even, for the moment after moving into the basement to begin the renovation, Covid hit. So, they got to “commune with” their sons and work on transforming the house together. 

Timing was impeccable for them as they even had things ordered before the supply chain was interrupted by pandemic pandemonium. Their experience in togetherness and working with their “village” to get it accomplished brings smiles to their faces as they recall the renovation. 

I was so aware of my luck that evening, looking at the warmth of creating a home again– one that fits someone so perfectly– and, as Becke noted when visiting her long-lost art of potting, it allows her and Brad to grow again, individually. That sentiment seems to fill the home with love…and laughter. Mostly from the Bird. You see, when they moved to Bird Avenue, they brought their son’s bird Herbie with them. 

Herbie loves to mimic whatever is going on in the house. You laugh, Herbie laughs, too. And sometimes it’s fairly apparent that she’s laughing, not with, but AT you! 

Who knows? She could be laughing at all the birds outside, appearing so close through the home’s giant wall-sized windows. Because she is inside and there is such a wonderful feeling inside this house. 

The large open windows create a cross breeze, which emphasizes the lofty, airy quality of the house. Looking out over their lawn to the trees a short distance ahead, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that this house perched at the edge of the forest was fashioned straight from the heart of two love birds who had built their own nest.

We spoke a bit about the idea of a “Forever Home” when considering the amount of time, thought, effort, cost, etc. that goes into such a transformation. Becke pointed out, “Is anything really forever?” This led to us debunking the idea of the “Forever Home” and settling on the “Next Chapter” home; a place where couples can find themselves again after the children leave the nest; where Brad and Becke will welcome their adult children to visit with their own children, and they will all commune with nature. 

Quite the opposite of what happens in the wild, where the mama bird tosses the baby bird out of the nest for good, Brad and Becke have created a nest to bring the baby birds into.

At the end of our visit, I perused their book of “before and after” pictures. I asked them if they feel like they have reached the point where they consider the home finished. 

“Do you feel it’s finished?” I asked. 

They said, “It’s done but not finished.” 

I said, “It’s finished but never done.” 

The now one-year-young Ambient Architecture Birdhouse is enjoying its new perch on Bird Avenue and Brad and Becke are in for new adventures. 

Build Your Own ‘Bird’ House

Just for fun, I looked up “Building a Birdhouse” and it was amazing how the same commonsensical tips that go into building a house for our feathered friends apply to building a home for humans. 

Build a house for a specific bird. Think: Goldilocks– not too big, not too small. More so, think of yourself and your own needs. Make sure the openings are just right to be hospitable, and not too big to let in enemies. Openings in the form of giant windows overlooking the woodsy landscape, for example.

Use the proper materials. In Brad and Becke’s case, use Red Cedar two ways. Rough, for the outside, and smooth for the inside. Same rich coloring, evoking an episode of Mad Men, where they go to their imaginary cabins…just, YUM! I learned the trick they used, during Covid, with their young adult sons at home, they devised putting large pieces of red cedar all across the ceiling with no nails. And guess who got to hold them up until the glue set?


Build a box that will stay dry and warm. Kind of a “Duh” when it comes to building with an architect, but in addition to the obvious heating and cooling, consider the warm feelings that the home can give you.

Provide ventilation. Man, the breeze the evening I visited was just gorgeous. Letting nature come in while taking it in visually can really be transcendent.

Do not add perches. In fact, they took down the large deck for the previously mentioned window effect. 

Be sure the young birds can leave the nest. This is where we people depart from this comparison chart and change it to… Redo the basement so young adult children can come home to visit! Be sure to leave room for a pottery studio or yoga retreat or, whatever your older, adult, post-kid heart desires!

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