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Breaking down deconstruction: What Detroit gained from dismantling instead of destroying

March 31, 2014

Deconstructed Building

SpringHill 10-31-13 (16)

It might not be immediately obvious, but in the rubble and decay of vacant, dilapidated properties — those that are so far deteriorated, they’ve been slated for demolition — there is much value to be found.

That’s where deconstruction comes into the picture.

Deconstruction is the process of salvaging the structural components of a blighted building to be sold and reused.  Anything from hardwood floors to shingles can be removed and repurposed, with positive environmental and economic impacts.

In Wayne County, Michigan, the Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) worked with a group of nonprofit and for-profit partners — EcoWorksDelta Institute, The Greening of DetroitSouthwest SolutionsABC DemolitionSER-Metro Jobs — to deconstruct and/or demolish dozens of properties.

The initiative had a triple-bottom line positive impact on the area, improving the community economically, environmentally, and socially.

We spoke with Ann Leen, Deputy Director of Community Development at EDGE, to learn more about EDGE’s deconstruction work. Here’s what she had to say:


What is deconstruction, and what are the benefits and drawbacks of deconstruction compared to traditional demolition?

Rough deconstruction refers to the removal of all of a building’s structural components. The unique thing about deconstruction is that, instead of removing the components one piece at a time, it’s done in large sections.

While each section is large enough to speed up the process of removing the structure, sections are still small enough to be transported to a dismantling site by flatbed. The deconstruction process is not as fast as standard demolition. From start to finish, deconstruction typically takes three days – including transportation of salvaged materials to dismantling site.

Deconstruction offers Wayne County many benefits. These benefits include but are not limited to:
• Workforce development (in this case, the creation of 100 jobs)
• Revenue opportunities on the sale of reclaimed materials
• Additional revenue creates an opportunity to fund additional deconstruction projects
• Taking a green approach to blight elimination by recycling salvageable materials rather than filling landfills

Deconstruction’s largest challenges are, ultimately, time and money. While the deconstruction costs are subsidized, in most cases, it is still more costly than demolition. Site selection can certainly offset deconstructions costs, but the site selection process is very time consuming. In situations where mass quantities of structures need to be demolished in a short period of time, going the deconstruction route can be challenging.

Deconstruction has to be a community effort. In Wayne County, we were extremely fortunate to have a workforce available to us through our partner agencies and a Department of Labor grant, Pathways out of Poverty. This certainly aids our efforts because we did not have to ramp-up our own workforce.

It is important to be willing to go either direction once a site is selected. If a property seems deconstruction ready, it may end up burned or damaged and need to be demolished. Our model was a hybrid and we understood that the “type” of demolition would ultimately be determined by time and the status of the property.

While government plays a critical role, the roles of nonprofit workforce development agencies and local stakeholders (CDCs, etc.) cannot be overlooked. They are key to the success of these programs. This is one of those efforts that cannot be done alone. We were only successful because of the collaboration.

Bellevue Inventory 11-12-13 (3)EDGE’s NSP3 deconstruction project is a workforce development project. Can you describe the types of skills employees learn?

Ultimately, it was our intention to create sustainable job opportunities. Many deconstruction workers have gone on to full-time employment with construction, asbestos or demolition companies as a result of the employment opportunity.

Employees were trained by our nonprofit partners. They received MIOSHA and First Aid/CPR training and National Career Readiness Certificates. They were also extended the opportunity to receive college credit from Henry Ford Community College.

Supportive services were also offered. They were essential and added significant human capital elements to the original training program’s impact. These steps toward self-sufficiency led to employment readiness and success in the NSP3 deconstruction program. The program also saw more people managing household budgets, healthy credit scores and a reduced dependence on government services.

SpringHill 11-02-13 (6)How are you able mitigate environmental impact through deconstruction?

We mitigated environmental impacts by focusing on recycling and reusing materials in an effort to reduce how much material we send to landfills. We were also diligent about environmental protocol as it relates to asbestos and lead. This was achieved by certifying deconstruction and asbestos contractors prior to hiring them. We worked closely with our funding entity to verify that all protocols were followed. Additionally, we spread the site selection across five communities in an effort to mitigate the impact.

A few interesting facts about deconstruction:

Using conventional practices, the demolition of an average home can produce as much as 100 tons of debris, nearly all of which is usually sent to a landfill. Using the deconstruction techniques learned in the program, participants were able to divert 90 tons of debris from landfills per deconstruction project. They also saved 1,260 Million Metric British Thermal Units (MMBTUs) of embodied fossil fuel energy per deconstruction project.

In addition to diverting waste materials from landfills, deconstruction techniques taught through the program also contribute to pollution reduction and the reduction of greenhouse gases in particular. When materials are recycled instead of put into a landfill, it reduces pollution created via manufacturing. Reusing wood preserves forests and their air filtering capacity. According to calculations provided by WARM, deconstruction projects from DGWS training resulted in the equivalent of:
• A reduction of 147,420 lbs of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air.
• Removing the air pollution created by 12.25 cars on the road for a year.
• An air pollution reduction produced from 15.20 acres of forest.

HT 11434 Nagel 11-12-13 (13) (1)Is there anything particularly about the Detroit area’s housing stock that lends itself to deconstruction?

Detroit has a rich history and that can be seen in the housing materials we are trying to save. Bricks and wood particularly are incredibly valuable in these homes and it would be awful to see them end up in landfills.

Site selection is key to the success of deconstruction. It is important to select areas in neighborhoods where community members will remain engaged and will keep an eye on properties. This will reduce vandalism and burned materials, which can make this process challenging.

With the success of this program, what are the plans for the future?

Our partner agencies have been instrumental in this success and have exhibited capacity to continue. We are currently working with community partners to identify need and housing stock that will lend itself to deconstruction. We are very hopeful about continued programming. Financing these programs will be the next step.

All Photos are Provided by Wayne County EDGE

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