Re: Deconstruction

Brenda Platt (
Thu, 22 Apr 1999 10:41:40 +0000

Kivi Leroux and I sent a draft or our report "Deconstruction:
SalvagingToday's Buildings for Tomorrow's Sustainable Communities,"
which focuses on deconstruction activities to Bill Turley and about 15
deconstruction practitioners for peer review. He sent in a long critique
which we reviewed. I also engaged him in dialogue. Kivi Leroux and I
made changes according to some of the points he made. But he also made
points that we did not think appropriate.

For example, Turley felt that because the economy was at 'full
employment' there was no need to train inner city residents. In fact,
estimates indicate that as many as 50% of low-income residents of US
inner cities may be un- or under-employed. (See, Barrons, 24 February
l997.) Further, the construction industry and unions need trained
workers to meet the demand for current construction orders. (See, New
York Times, 10 April l999.) What better way to help the environment and
the economy by linking those who need jobs the most with an expanding
industry that needs workers.

I served as general contractor for a deconstruction demonstration
project in Hartford where we demonstrated that private sector firms
could train public housing residents through deconstruction at union
level wages and benefits and still be cost effective and profitable.
Training and placement costs were less than $6,000 per worker (as
compared to $15,000 which is a government target). The workers also
became partners in a joint-venture company that now is getting contracts
for demolition throughout the city, which, like many US cities, is
plagued by abandoned buildings that impede economic development.

We focused on public housing because HUD is spending perhaps $2 billion
to demolish public housing units in every major city in the US. Since
the money will be spent anyway, we advised that the money be spent in
ways that maximize economic growth in the communities where the
buildings are located. In other words, let's combine the people, the
buildings and the capital to make positive economic and social change.
We also help the environment by reusing building materials and avoiding
extraction of virgin materials and all the attenuating pollution. The
Hartford project is oriented toward family reunification. Good wages and
benefits, business ownership and home ownership (based on mortgages
arranged for the workers by local banks) are all part of a holistic
incentives package for those who can and want to move forward with their
lives. One worker actually deconstructed a unit that he grew up in. He
told us. "I grew up without a father, but this deconstruction project is
allowing me to be a homemaker and father to my children."

The local union provided two weeks of safety and skill training before
the on-site deconstruction training began. The city helped by its
willingness to deconstruct other buildings and to use recovered material
in new construction projects.

Our report stressed the need to integrate deconstruction with demolition
for maximum cost effectiveness. This practice is now standard among the
firms that do deconstruction. Pavitra Crimmel of Beyond Waste, Inc.,
Santa Rosa, points out that she only bids deconstruction projects with
traditional demolition companies as partners.

Our report also stresses that deconstruction is not new. In fact the
company that was involved in the Hartford project is a substantial one
with 600 workers and over 75 years of experience. The company principal
started working for his grandfather as a deconstruction worker. The
company sold the materials they recovered. The company's headquarters
are in a building with a foundation built from recovered materials.

We further stressed the need for proper timing, and provided examples of
how a few cities are introducing ways to make sure that time is
available for deconstruction.

The project in Hartford helped families and helped the private firm
expand its market range. So deconstruction looks good in reality as well
as on paper. This year we will get even more data and experience with
deconstruction of public housing and abandoned buildings. HUD's HOPE VI
program is now encouraging deconstruction projects. Further, the HOPE VI
program administrators are going to emphasize Section 3 and Community
Supportive Service requirements which have long been ignored by planners
and contractors. These provisions call for maximum feasible use of HUD
resources in the communities where HUD projects take place. Further,
President Clinton has asked for a $50 million program focused on
abandoned buildings and community development through deconstruction.

When you go to Oakland or Minneapolis you can see deconstruction working
in the real world of military building take downs and private home take
downs, respectively. The community deconstruction groups in the Oakland
area are now investing in value-added manufacturing from the several
hundred thousand board foot of lumber they are recovering annually.
Military base deconstruction should get a boost from the Department of
Defense's new mandate to reduce solid waste generation from bases by 40%
by 2005. The Green Institute in Minneapolis has pioneered in getting tax
benefits for people who deconstruct their homes and donate the materials
to a non-profit resale outlet. In Gainesville, the University of Florida
Construction and Environment Program deconstructed 4 small homes at a
cost of less than $2 per square foot. This compares with about $3 per
square foot for traditional demolition.

Deconstruction is a reality. We feel that it will expand rapidly as it
meets environmental, economic and social needs of the inner city.

Turley says that there are a lot more points to be made. Let him make
them. But he should be specific. His comments to date are ideological
and general, with a bias that only private business can do the job
properly. He resents that there is something new happening. That local
government, contractors and public housing residents are doing something
new and creative. He feels that traditional demolition contractors are
threatened by competition with 'government grants'. The government
grants are for specific changes that improve the conditions of families
and communities. Traditional contractors who make the effort to work in
joint ventures with community groups and housing authorities have been
well rewarded. The same 'government grants' when they do not go to
deconstruction projects, go to companies that blow up the buildings,
cart the residue to landfills and leave the community with nothing.
Deconstruction plugs this hemorrhaging of wealth from our poor
communities. I would ask Turley why he thinks that a contract for
demolition is valid but a contract for deconstruction is a no good
'government grant'.

Mostly, Turley forgets that economics is an abstract science. We have to
create categories to help explain reality. When reality changes---such
as new rules requiring deconstruction or recycling or minimum recycled
content---our economic categories have to catch up to reality.
Deconstruction appears to be in that time warp where our abstract notion
of economics has yet to catch up to the reality of deconstruction. For
example, in a conversation with HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo on
deconstruction, ILSR identified the need for a holistic evaluation of
deconstruction, not a $ per square foot comparison. He agreed with our
estimate that one person trained and placed in a high wage/good benefits
could be valued at $10,000. Thus if deconstruction training costs more
than $3 per square foot, deconstruction could still meet the bottom
line. In the Hartford project, nine workers were trained and placed in
union jobs with full benefits. They are on a direct track for
journeyman/woman status; within two years the workers will earn $16.15
per hour plus $10 per hour in health, retirement and other benefits.

Recall that in the l980's industry said we could not recycle more than
10% of the waste stream. In the l990's industry said we could not
recycle more than 25%. According to the latest Biocycle State of
Recycling Report the country is at 31% at this time. By changing rules
we change the market place. The rules cities and federal agencies are
making with regard to deconstruction are in the same recent tradition
wherein we changed the rules of solid waste management to spur
recycling. New rules for deconstruction are changing the market to
reflect this human and social need.

Kivi Leroux and I welcome careful review of our booklet,
"Deconstruction: Salvaging Today's Buildings for Tomorrow's Sustainable
Communities." We would like to hear from you.

Neil Seldman
Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Brenda A. Platt
Institute for Local Self-Reliance
2425 18th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
Ph (202) 232-4108 fax (202) 332-0463
Web: <>