Gentler side of demolition: Deconstructors take houses apart, stick by stick
In Southeast Portland’s Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood, an old house is coming undone.
Wooden shingles scream as they’re pried away from the house’s exterior. Workers wearing protective suits stack the shingles inside rubber garbage cans and haul them to the open dumpster on the street, which is being filled systematically, like a stack of Jenga blocks.
Inside, the house is revealing its secrets. Gone is the plaster and lath, uncovering the old-growth tongue-and-groove ceiling boards, the unusual interior lap sheathing, the unexpected 2-by-3 framing and the 1-by-12 underflooring. Eventually, these pieces will end up in tables, chairs or other houses.
This is what city officials, green builders and property owners call deconstruction – the careful, piece-by-piece dismantling of a structure so its pieces can be salvaged, rather than sent to a landfill.
The city of Portland is trying to encourage property owners to deconstruct, rather than demolish, unwanted buildings. It is launching a public process intended to promote deconstruction and to help advocates explain the advantages of a slow demolition, rather than one carried out in a day or two by a single worker on a backhoe. The City Council will hear a report on the subject in June.
The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability promotes the virtues of deconstructionon its website, and Metro, the regional government, has set up an online brokerage called BoneyardNW, where property owners and contractors can buy and sell used building materials. A Portland-based, online information clearinghouse called the Reclamation Administration provides updates on reclamation and re-use developments and policies around the country.
When the Portland City Council convened recently to discuss how to amend its policy on home demolitions, several speakers touted deconstruction as a way to soften the changes sweeping Portland’s sought-after residential neighborhoods, where buyers are snapping up modest, older houses in order to replace them with a costlier one – or two or three.
The house just off Southeast Division Street in the Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood, or at least part of it, was built in 1899, according to public records. But it was in poor condition when Dave and Chloe Shanley of Southeast Portland decided to buy it. “In need of major repairs,” explained its 2013 for-sale listing, which specified cash-only offers would be accepted.
“There were code words,” said Dave Shanley. “It was not going to be feasible to renovate.”
It might have taken $100,000 or more to have restored the modest house, which was listed as having 1,139 square feet of living area. More likely it would have been bulldozed, 116 years of built history crumbling into a cloud of dust.
The Shanleys will build a contemporary house that is larger, at 2,458 square feet according to city records, but not out of scale with the rest of the close-in neighborhood. But first, they decided to have the old house deconstructed.
The deconstruction process, even though it involves a crew working about eight days, was “cost-competitive” said Dave Shanley, who said he and his wife wanted to do the right thing by the neighborhood and for the environment. Their builder, James Ray Arnold of JRA Green Building, got bids for deconstruction and for outright demolition. Some of the demo bids came in higher than the bids for deconstruction, Shanley said.
In the end, Arnold and the Shanleys hired Lovett Deconstruction, which bid $16,400 to disassemble the old house. The house’s old windows and doors will be donated, its boards and fixtures resold. Der Lovett, the company’s president, estimates that more than 80 percent – perhaps more than 90 percent – of the house will be recycled, rather than discarded. Revenue from the parts he can sell “makes our bid more competitive,” Lovett said.
Owners can also take tax credits when they donate materials to non-profits like Habitat’s ReStore or The ReBuilding Center, noted Shawn Wood, construction waste specialist at the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
Nobody seems to keep statistics on how many Portland houses are deconstructed rather than demolished, but Lovett’s deconstruction company, which employs 18, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The niche, in a city where demolitions are a common phenomenon, is big enough to support a small network of deconstructors, recyclers and salvagers. A Portland-area ecosystem has sprung up to help people dump old carpet pads, buy salvaged old growth boards, recycle composite shingles or otherwise participate in the secondary building market. Many of them are listed in Metro’s Constructive Salvage and Recycling Toolkit, a directory to such services.
Deconstruction is a necessary step in making a building site better than it was, said Arnold, the Shanleys’ builder. He said the new house on the Hosford-Abernethy site will be more energy-efficient, more durable and less toxic than the old house it’s replacing. But the new one can’t be built until the old one comes down. But those virtues are diminished if a house is bulldozed and tossed into a landfill.
“My philosophy is only to deconstruct,” he said.