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Portland Does Away With Demolition for Its Oldest Homes

As single-family homes make way for multi-unit condos, those built before 1916 must be deconstructed rather than demolished.

Rebuilding Center

In the midst of a building boom, the oldest houses in Portland, Oregon, are getting a new lease on life—even if they’re being ripped apart in the process.

For years, the mix of a growing population and limited room to build have taken their toll on the city’s housing landscape, with the number of demolitions skyrocketing to make way for new buildings.

Preservationists and local media have called it an epidemic. Not only have homes been leveled, but valuable materials inside—often including Victorian trimmings, vintage fixtures, bricks, glass, and old-growth Douglas fir—have gone to waste. On top of that, the demolition process is a jarring disruption to neighborhoods, with enormous and visible environmental consequences. Amid growing pressure from some neighborhood groups dismayed at the waste and wreckage they saw in their communities, city officials found an alternative: mandating deconstruction, rather than demolition, for homes built before 1916.

Though it’s more expensive and time-consuming, deconstruction is a neater, quieter affair, the rewards of which include not only water savings and cleaner air, but also heaps of desirable, reusable material. That’s part of the reason deconstruction—the careful dismantling of a building, rather than its destruction—has received favorable treatment in cities including Seattle, which speeds up the permit process for deconstruction projects, and Baltimore, which sees it as a tool for workforce development. Portland, however, is the first U.S. city to require deconstruction by code.

“It’s going to change the world,” says Sara Badiali, a member of the Deconstruction Advisory Group that helped to draft the code changes and creator of the blog Reclamation Administration.

Last year, Portland saw about 320 removals of single-family homes, says Alisa Kane, the green building manager in the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. This year is on track to well exceed that. Kane estimates that fewer than a tenth of those homes were fully deconstructed in 2015. Under the new code, a third of them would have been.

The large portion of pre-1916 homes stood out to the Deconstruction Advisory Group (contractors, preservationists, and neighborhood advocates who were asked to advise the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability) as a good range to focus on. Requiring only these homes to be deconstructed would be a sizable first step without overwhelming the capacity of the deconstruction workforce in Portland. Kane calls it “a balanced but bold bite.”

Some members of the advisory group are optimistic that in future years the change will be expanded to include houses built after 1916 as well. In the initial phases of planning, Kane says the group examined the buildings that were being demolished, looking at where they were located, how old they were, and what size they tended to be. As they began to circle around these data points, trends emerged.

The older homes were in specific areas, because as Portland grew, it expanded outward in rings—the houses that ring the central city tend to be much older than those farther out. From a market perspective, Kane says the materials in these older houses are especially desirable.

“They have a lot of great old fixtures, clawfoot tubs, old beautiful doors, and then the lumber inside their walls—that’s our old-growth forest,” she says. “Right now there’s a huge demand for that wood for reuse... As you drive out to the coast, you see the clear cuts that have happened over time. Those are our forests in our homes.”

Dismantling a home carefully enough that its components can be reused is a more intricate process than demolition. It takes longer and requires more labor in place of machinery. At first glance, the labor costs make deconstruction more expensive than demolition. In most cases, though, the tax benefits more than pay for deconstruction—the value of salvaged materials, which can be donated for tax credit or saved for reuse in later projects, is typically thousands of dollars greater than the cost difference between deconstruction and demolition.

“When you don’t have to use energy to create a project, you’re just harvesting, it’s almost like free money,” Badiali says. “By simply dismantling something, you’re creating a product. You’re adding value.”

Many newer homes, however, were built with demolition in mind. Their sinks, hardware, and lighting fixtures may be salvageable, but their walls are not. Scott Yelton, a manager at Lovett Deconstruction, sees this first hand in his work.

“The newer houses are glued together, stapled, nailed ten times every square inch,” he says. “They’re really hard to take apart.” The work is dangerous, full of jagged edges in a constantly changing environment. But it is also incredibly educational. Many deconstruction workers start out in the trades. Yelton says deconstruction gives them an on-the-job education that can’t be found anywhere else. “You learn all the right ways and all the wrong ways that things are built… you can’t teach that in a workshop.”

He hopes, ultimately, that the deconstruction movement leads not only to more widespread deconstruction and material reuse, but to a paradigm shift. “We need to plan for the end use, too,” he says. “Maybe we shouldn’t go for all these mastics and glue and pressed OSB boards. Think about reusing something 30, 40, 50 years down the road.”

By requiring deconstruction for older homes, Portland pushes an alternative option into the mainstream, and challenges longstanding models of construction and development. Deconstruction is an intervention in the cycle of destruction and replacement that has reshaped cities around the world.

The change was controversial. There was pushback from residents who say the new rule doesn’t go far enough, and also from builders and developers who fear mandatory deconstruction will overwhelm the industry and lead to delays.

"If you don't have sufficient number of firms and workers, but you're mandated to deconstruct a home, you'll be on a waitlist," Paul Grove, director of government relations for the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland, told The Oregonian.

Yelton tells the story of his first full-house job, taking down a home from ceiling to studs:

We were about half an hour in, setting up our perimeter, and a neighbor came over. She was so upset, saying “how can you take this house down?” The house was falling apart. It was slip-shod together, over 100 years old, super dangerous and rickety and built how you should not built a house. But she had memories, grand memories, who lived there and what it was. It had been an aquarium, a corner store, and a residence, and she’d been there for a while. We listened, and we talked, and we told her what we were doing. Really talked about the repurposing and recycling and reinventing of the material and we won her over.

At the end of the job, she baked the crew a cake—and in return, they gave her a door that matched her own house, for old time’s sake.

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