In with the old, out with the new: 'deconstruction' trend grows

Instead of building entirely new structures or completely demolishing old ones, companies are turning to deconstruction – taking apart blighted buildings and reusing or recycling salvegeable materials. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Downtown Baltimore has become a mixture of retrofitted and modern buildings, which can be seen in this January 13, 2015 photo. In the city, a new method of building is catching on – deconstruction. Instead of erecting entirely new structures, old buildings are being reused in a sustainable effort to fortify the city's history.

Inside Brick and Board’s downtown warehouse here, neat stacks of wooden planks stretch to the ceiling. On a recent summer day, a handful of men wearing pink respirators bend over woodworking machines in the back of the room. There’s a whirring sound in the air, and a smell of dust.

Many of the bricks, joists, beams, and floorboards being reconditioned to be sold once formed city rowhouses, which were carefully taken apart by Brick and Board’s sister organization, Details Deconstruction. “Every stick in here, we can tell you where it’s from,” said Max Pollock, the retailer’s director.

The two Baltimore enterprises address multiple problems at once. Details Deconstruction takes apart blighted buildings and salvages or recycles materials that are still valuable – a process called deconstruction. Brick and Board processes and sells reclaimed materials, saving them from the landfill. And both hire people with criminal records and prepare them for jobs in the construction industry.

City leaders in Baltimore and across the country want to promote deconstruction as a way to create entry-level construction jobs and reduce demolition waste. But the push has had mixed success, with some programs getting off the ground but others stalling as contractors remain unable to turn a profit.

It took Brick and Board and Details Deconstruction years to become financially sustainable, and they’re still vulnerable to policy changes – from the number of blighted buildings Baltimore officials want to tear down each year to the tax treatment of charitable donations.

The challenges haven’t dampened city leaders’ enthusiasm. Baltimore’s housing department has regularly solicited contractors for deconstruction work since 2014. The Milwaukee and Portland, Ore., city councils have passed ordinances that require developers who want to take down certain old buildings to deconstruct them, rather than demolish them.

“I’ve never seen so much attention going toward deconstruction and reuse as I’ve seen building up in the past year,” said Joe Connell, executive director of the Building Materials Reuse Association, a Great Cranberry Island, Maine-based nonprofit that promotes reuse and recycling of construction waste.

Jeff Carroll, vice president of Humanim – the Baltimore-based parent nonprofit of both Brick and Board and Details Deconstruction – says the deconstruction model isn’t easy to pull off. “I tell people that unless you’re well-financed, or you have strong commitments from organizations with deep pockets, you shouldn’t do it.”

A win-win in Baltimore 

Baltimore officials turned to deconstruction to address the city’s blight problem while creating more jobs.

Over 16,000 buildings in the city have been boarded up and abandoned. On some blocks in poor neighborhoods, the majority of rowhouses have fallen into disrepair.

Some of the vacant buildings are dangerous, with fallen-in roofs and moldering walls tainted with lead and asbestos. The city can’t afford to tear them all down at once, so officials prioritize ones that pose a risk to health and safety.

They also prioritize those that will hasten revitalization and boost the local economy – “that’s where deconstruction comes in,” said Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman.

It takes more workers to pry apart a building than to operate a wrecking ball. Although that makes deconstruction more expensive, creating additional jobs is appealing in a city where 23 percent of residents live in poverty.

Baltimore issued its first deconstruction contract in 2014, to Details Deconstruction. Dilapidated buildings aren’t good candidates for deconstruction, but many homes targeted for demolition in Baltimore have value. There have been about 200 deconstructions and 1,785 demolitions in the city since 2014, said the housing agency’s communications director, Tammy Hawley.

Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan supercharged Baltimore’s efforts to tear down blighted buildings in 2016, when, along with then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, he announced a plan to pump $93.5 million over four years into demolition and rehabilitation in the city.

As tear-down projects have grown in number, Details Deconstruction has remained a major contractor. But it’s taken years to make the deconstruction and workforce program financially sustainable. “The first full year, we took a beating,” Mr. Carroll said. The second year, they broke even – but only after philanthropic contributions.

To bid competitively for city contracts, the nonprofit must sell salvaged materials to offset its costs. Today, hip coffee shops, wealthy homeowners, and condo developers snap up Brick and Board materials, but Mr. Pollock said he had to hustle to develop that market.

Deconstruction ordinances gain popularity 

Portland officials embraced deconstruction not because the city had too many vacant buildings but because the housing market was booming.

Around 2010, developers began tearing down historic homes at a furious pace to build larger, pricier properties. “We started seeing houses coming down almost at the rate of one a day,” said Alisa Kane, Portland’s green building manager.

Under pressure from a community group upset about hasty demolitions spreading dust laced with lead and other toxins, the city council in 2016 passed a deconstruction ordinance based on recommendations from its sustainability team and an advisory group.

Portland’s ordinance requires developers to deconstruct homes or duplexes that are designated historic or were built in 1916 or earlier. It’s intended to curb contaminants, reduce waste, and give new life to historic architecture and wood that otherwise would be thrown away.

In 2017 Milwaukee followed with an ordinance of its own. The city now requires homes and small apartment dwellings that are designated historic or were built before 1930 to be deconstructed, rather than demolished.

Both ordinances allow contractors to apply for an exemption if a building is structurally unsafe or so damaged that there’s little to salvage. Buildings that can’t be deconstructed can be demolished.

But while the Portland ordinance has been a success, the Milwaukee effort has run into trouble. As in Baltimore, Milwaukee has acquired many boarded-up homes in need of removal. About 175 city-owned homes are subject to the deconstruction ordinance, according to the city Department of Neighborhood Services.

Seven months after the ordinance went into effect, the city has yet to receive a deconstruction bid it can accept. Some demolitions of buildings not covered by the ordinance have taken place, however.

“We knew the bids were going to come in higher. We were surprised by how much higher,” said Alderman Robert Bauman, who wrote the ordinance.

Milwaukee had tested small deconstruction projects successfully, partnering with organizations that – like Details Deconstruction – employed people with criminal records. But those partners relied on federal housing funds that don’t stretch to cover all the projects under the ordinance, Mr. Bauman said.

Contractors aren’t factoring sales of salvaged materials into their bids, which has driven the cost up, he said. They’re also struggling to find workers. Meanwhile, aldermen face pressure from residents to remove blighted buildings as soon as possible.

“Whether the program will succeed is, frankly, still up in the air,” Bauman said, adding, “I’m still optimistic.”

Travis Blomberg, executive director of the Milwaukee nonprofit WasteCap Resource Solutions, one of the city’s certified deconstruction contractors, said city leaders tried to do too much, too fast. “We ran before we could walk.”

The city Department of Neighborhood Services is now holding meetings with its deconstruction advisory group – which includes demolition contractors, community groups, and workforce development partners – to develop suggestions for improving the ordinance, said Christina Klose, communications coordinator for the department.

Portland’s relatively uncontroversial ordinance has fared better, partly because the targeted homes are in good shape and partly because the city planned ahead. Officials chose 1916 as a cutoff date, Ms. Kane said, because they calculated it would cover a small enough group of homes for the city’s nascent deconstruction industry to handle.

Kane said officials organized a three-day deconstruction training program that certified eight contractors before the ordinance went into effect. They followed up with a two-week workforce training program a few months later.

It also helped that earlier this year Portland passed lead and asbestos abatement rules that made demolition more expensive – and deconstruction, therefore, more cost-competitive. Deconstruction costs have also fallen as the market for contractors and competition between them have grown, she said.

“What we’ve seen now is people opting to do deconstruction when they don’t have to. And that, to me, is the biggest sign of success,” Kane said. In the first year after the ordinance, a quarter of the 318 demolition permits issued by the city were for deconstruction.

This story was reported by Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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