A man elevated by crane works on the roof of a partially deconstructed house.
The Rebuilding Center

After Portland banned demolition of its oldest homes, it forged a path for women and people of color to find higher-paying work in the trades.

When Portland officials debated banning demolition for old homes in 2016, opponents shared one concern: There might not be enough people trained in deconstruction to keep up with demand.

Compared to demolition, deconstruction is tough, hands-on, time-consuming work. But the city opted to require it for homes built before 1916, citing it as a more sustainable alternative that would allow for quality building materials to be salvaged and reused. Now, the city sees another benefit to its decision: job opportunities.

Working with the Building Materials and Reuse Association, a Chicago-based national nonprofit with a mission to “advance the recovery, reuse, and recycling of building materials,” city officials put together a free workforce training program targeting women, people of color, and others who may face higher barriers to entering work in the trades. With higher-paying job opportunities in the construction and carpentry industries, the city hopes the deconstruction skills taught in the program can serve as stepping stones to career advancement for trainees.

The Rebuilding Center

So far, Portland is the only city to mandate deconstruction for some homes, though other cities have used deconstruction training as an avenue to employment and community development. Revive Pontiac, an architectural salvage training program in Pontiac, Michigan, paid 10 jobless or underemployed trainees to salvage tax-foreclosed properties that would later be demolished. In addition to learning deconstruction skills and asbestos- and lead-safe work practices, participants could earn other certifications, such as CPR and first aid, that might help them in the future.

Oakland had a similar training program that set an earlier precedent by training low-income, high-risk youth—specifically targeting high school drop-outs, single mothers, and welfare recipients between ages 18 and 29—as they dismantled buildings at the Harbor Transportation Center. The scale of Oakland’s project was ultimately too large to efficiently deconstruct all the buildings, but 110 of the 150 participants found employment after completing it.

Portland’s program this spring has also succeeded in that regard: when CityLab spoke with Shawn Wood, the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s Construction Waste Specialist, a few weeks after the 12-day training, more than half of the 15 participants had secured jobs with certified local deconstruction companies.  

The recent workforce training was intensive and hands-on. Originally, Wood says, the plan was for the students to spend every Monday of the training in a classroom setting, but after one day in the classroom and one day in the field, they voted unanimously not to go back to the classroom.

“It was an early testament to their interest in doing hands-on work, not sitting behind a desk,” Wood says. “The wall of the house became the whiteboard, with charts and graphs and statistics and techniques written on it. They had chairs out in the living room of one of the houses they were taking down, and that became the classroom.”

The students worked on three sites, deconstructing one house completely and doing partial work—taking out fixtures, removing plaster and flooring—on the others. At the end of the 12-day training, each student took a one-on-one skills assessment, demonstrating to an instructor how to remove flooring without damaging the tongue and groove, for example, or how to safely remove a window and keep it from breaking. Every student passed.

The Rebuilding Center

Savannah Stigen discovered deconstruction through a seven-week Oregon Tradeswomen pre-apprenticeship program, which also complements classroom instruction with field work. During the program Stigen spent a day working on a deconstruction site, and says that’s when she “caught the bug.”

“I had no idea deconstruction even existed,” Stigen says. “I was working a dead-end job. I had know idea what kind of trade I wanted to get into.” When she heard later about the deconstruction training, she said her first thought was “perfect. Sign me up.” When CityLab spoke with Stigen, she was on her lunch break at a deconstruction site with Lovett Deconstruction, where she secured a job before the training even started.

“I’m good at problem solving. I like working with my hands… I like that every job is different,” she says. “I love the sustainability of it. I love the idea that these old houses might be being taken down, but they’re being taken down properly and the materials are living on in another way.” She says the work is mentally engaging, with tasks like “figuring out what’s the best way to remove what from the kitchen first and then work backwards from how it was built.”

Similarly, Nora Sackett graduated from college a year ago and also went through the Oregon Tradeswomen pre-apprenticeship program and the deconstruction training back to back. She chose deconstruction “as a stepping stone to working in residential carpentry,” she says, in order to get hands-on training and learn how houses are put together before finding work in residential carpentry and homebuilding.

Her father was a carpenter and a welder, and she says growing up around his work made a job in the trades “not feel totally unattainable” despite the fact that the field is dominated by men. “The trades are definitely a boys’ club,” she says. “That’s why programs like the deconstruction training and Oregon Tradeswomen are really important.”

On May 17, Portland’s Deconstruction Advisory Group presented a status report to the city council on the first six months since the deconstruction ordinance took effect. The group recommended changing the ordinance to cover more homes, requiring deconstruction for homes built as late as 1926. The council accepted the report, but has not yet voted on the recommendation.

Wood says the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability will work this summer to better understand the full impact of the current ordinance and its effect on the market, and then make a judgement as to whether 1926 is the ideal year to set as the threshold, or whether they should go further. “Even though 1926 is only a decade difference,” Wood says, “it would represent over half of all house demo permits. So it’s a significant step.”

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