Mon December 10, 2007
Buffalo Group Recycles Houses
By Joyce Kryszak
Buffalo, NY – Every year, cities across the country spend millions of dollars tearing down condemned houses and hauling away tons of debris to landfills. But progressive engineers and community activists have found a way to reverse that wasteful process.
A demolition method called "deconstruction" uses human power instead of the wrecking ball to preserve and reuse everything from floor joists to the kitchen sink. In this report filed for the "Environment Report," Joyce Kryszak puts on her hard hat and takes us to one deconstruction site.
This is not your typical demolition site. There are no wrecking balls or back hoes carting away splinters of this once grand two-story home. Instead there are walls, lying everywhere, and workers are taking them apart.
A neat stack of harvested hemlock beams grows on the vacant lot next door. There are cabinets and doors, books, furniture, and dishes scattered all around them. There's even a pile of dusty wine bottles retrieved from the cellar.
Deconstruction technician John Markle is covered in the dirt and grime of the one hundred year-old colonial. That's because he's taking this house apart with his bare hands.
"Yeah, you won't see a wrecking ball on our job site, but you will see a telescopic forklift," said Markle. "And as you can see right there, we cut the house literally into big pieces, and just take it apart, piece by piece."
Markle does have some help. A crew of seven is busy carefully lifting off walls, pulling apart beams and setting aside the spoils of their painstaking work. With a standard demolition, about fifteen tons of usable building materials and supplies would have gone to a landfill. Instead the materials are resold to builders, and at a discount to low-income families so they can make repairs to their own homes.
Dave Bennink is a deconstruction consultant from Seattle. He's spent the last fourteen years teaching communities this sustainable method. Bennink loves his job.
"We're creating jobs, we're keeping things out of landfill, we're saving energy, saving resources and we're helping low-income families," said Bennink. "I mean, how could you not like it every day."
And he said the idea is slowly catching on. Bennick has clients in 21 states. Some of them are private developers. Some are local governments. Right now, he's working in Buffalo, New York. He said when city officials learn they can deconstruct a house for about the same cost as a demolition, in about the same time, the idea sells itself.
"I think they're looking to make responsible choices, but they're still looking to make good decisions with the taxpayers money. So, when I can offer them both, I think that's more and more appealing."
But sometimes a good idea needs a push. Michael Gainer is a former teacher and community activist who needed little convincing. He sought out Bennink to help his city get a deconstruction not-for profit business started.
Gainer is pretty young and strong, but he's still struggling to open the huge overhead door that's slipped off its tracks. This warehouse is where they keep all their salvage that's stored and sold. And there's plenty to choose from -hundreds of doors, windows, lumber, sinks and tubs.
And all of that from only a few months in the deconstruction business. The not-for profit has already salvaged several houses on private contracts and has contracts with the city to deconstruct about a dozen houses that were slated for demolition. And all with little to no start-up money.
Gainer said they've gotten a few grants, but so far they haven't seen a dime. They keep going with contracts and proceeds from sales.
He pauses from telling story to pull back a hair that's strayed from his pony tail. His bandaged fingers leave a smudge of dirt on his face. Gainer says the work isn't easy, but he was eager to dig in.
You know you gotta' get out there and do it though. You gotta' do the work," said Gainer. "You know, we talked about this for a year and I was about going bonkers, because I said, I'm tired of talking about stuff. Let's just go to work and get it done."
Gainer is even more eager about the impact on the community. They've trained and hired five, full time employees, a few part-timers, and are paying them all a living wage. They get full medical coverage too, including the volunteers who pitch in. Gainer said it's possible because they're not just throwing away resources.
"I was looking at wasteful expenditure of a hundred to two hundred million dollars in a city to throw things in a landfill, and I'm like, this doesn't make any sense," said Gainer. " My goal is to divert money from wasteful demolition and put young people to work, improving their community."
But Gainer said he'd really prefer not to take apart houses. His crew spruces up and boards up abandoned houses that could still be saved. And he said that if someone comes along who has the vision to rehab it, they'll help with that too.
The Buffalo Reuse warehouse is now located at 298 Northampton. People can contact the group for more information about buying used materials, or to make a tax deductable donation if they have unwanted salvage from their own renovations. The web address is http://www.buffaloreuse.wnymedia.net
Click the "listen" icon above to hear Joyce Kryszak's story now or use your podcasting software to download it to your computer or iPod.