This Old Recyclable House

by Jon MooallemThe New York Times Magazine
September 26th, 2008

This Old Recyclable House

1. THE WORST PART OF THE WHOLE PROJECT

Brad Guy started taking apart Cleveland a little after 8 o'clock on a Monday morning in June. Standing in the vandalized dining room of 6538 Lederer Avenue, he bent to the bottom of the wall and drove the end of a crowbar through the plaster with his hammer. He shimmied the bar behind the oak baseboard, feeling for nails. He was teaching his crew how to pry the wood loose without splitting it. Many of the workers who showed up that morning did not know what "deconstruction," as this kind of work is called, actually was. Some assumed it was another word for remodeling - not realizing, or maybe not allowing themselves to believe, that no bulldozer was coming, that they would be disassembling this house by hand, down to the foundation, one piece at a time. They watched Guy wrestle with the baseboard for a while. He put down the crowbar and picked up a heavier one. "This is some old nice work that they did," he said.

Guy is 49, with a round face and soft, nasal voice that's mostly monotone but rises unsurely at the end of sentences. (When he hollers, "Break time, 15 minutes," the worker next to him, thinking this is a question, will check her watch and say, "I guess so.") He was a dancer and choreography student before being lured into architecture and is now the president of the Building Materials Reuse Association, a nonprofit in Pittsburgh that supports the fledgling deconstruction industry. He has spent the last 14 years as a journeyman architectural academic, conducting meticulous studies on how to efficiently dismantle the American house to reuse its materials instead of just clobbering it with a backhoe and sweeping it into a landfill.

In that time, Guy has deconstructed about 30 buildings, from row houses in Philadelphia to a 9,000-square-foot Army warehouse at Fort Campbell, Ky., where attack helicopters flew overhead and artillery went off as he stood on the roof dissecting it. While many deconstructors have far more hands-on experience, he is gathering scrupulous data about the process and organizing it all into research papers and spreadsheets that he describes as "five miles long." Last year, he went back to school for a Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon. "I'm basically an office worker," he told me. He trained for this project in Cleveland with long walks and dumbbell exercises.

With the baseboard finally detached, Guy gave a quick lesson on how to twist out each nail. (Nearly 30 percent of a deconstruction job's total labor hours can be spent denailing wood; Guy knows this because he has walked around some job sites every 15 minutes, writing down what each person was doing.) Then he started on the wall itself. He drew back with a crowbar and gave it a round of good whacks. Some plaster flaked off, a patch about three feet wide. He picked up a flathead shovel. He wrenched its edge across the wall, scraping off the plaster. After about a minute, he lowered it. He was breathing hard. The clearing had barely doubled in size.

The house on Lederer Avenue was 2,000 square feet. It had 12 rooms on two floors, with front and back porches, a basement and an attic. All told, Guy estimated it was 300,000 pounds of stuff - all solidly conjoined by people who never considered that it might one day come down. "This is the worst part of the whole project," he told his crew. Then he lifted the shovel again and threw himself back into it.

2. THE GREATEST LOCATION IN THE NATION

The house at 6538 Lederer was built in 1900 on a quiet back street in the Slavic Village neighborhood of Cleveland. By the '50s, Slavic Village, named for the immigrants who came to work in its steel mills, had grown to 70,000 residents; Cleveland was billed as "the greatest location in the nation." Then, gradually, machines replaced men at the mills, and the laborers left.

Recently, Slavic Village has been a perpetual media symbol for the subprime mortgage fiasco, akin to what the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans became after Katrina. According to its city councilman, Tony Brancatelli, 1 of every 11 homes in the neighborhood is now empty. Many are bought and sold on eBay for as little as $5,000. Arson has been a problem, and in the two years since 6538 was boarded up, looters tore out its copper wiring and peeled off its aluminum siding as high as they could reach. A dead cat awaited Guy in an upstairs bedroom.

There are now 8,000 vacants in Cleveland. The city, ramping up condemnations, will spend $9 million demolishing 1,100 of them by the end of the year. It plans to continue at this clip indefinitely. The Cleveland Foundation, a well-endowed nonprofit, approached Guy to run a pilot study assessing the feasibility of deconstructing, or even partly deconstructing, some of those structures instead. What would end up being preserved, and what might be created in the process?

Guy estimates that maybe as few as 300 homes were fully deconstructed in America last year. At first glance, it almost seems like a satire of our escalating mania for greenness: first we're scrubbing labels off bottles and sorting them into recycling bins beside the house; then we're recycling the house. There is a calculus to any salvage. Even a demolition contractor might spend time skimming antique fixtures from a house before razing it if that material looks valuable enough to stake the extra labor costs; the architectural-salvage industry has specialized in such recovery for decades. But there is a point of diminishing returns, and it's that point deconstructors are compelled to barrel straight past. "We're taking the wood, the toilets, the glass," says Rick Denhart, an industry veteran who is now deconstructing homes damaged by Katrina in New Orleans with the N.G.O. Mercy Corps. "It's not just the fancy stuff you see on the front porch. It's the two-by-fours holding the walls up." Depending on what is there to be salvaged and how easily the architecture can be taken apart, deconstructing a particular house can end up costing twice as much as demolishing it. At times, the process is unapologetically unprofitable. Denhart says that he has reclaimed more than 98 percent of certain structures. This involves scouring out the insulation and bagging it for resale like cotton candy.

Still, there is a compelling ethic behind deconstruction, one challenging our very standards of profitability and prodding us to rethink how we use all the different kinds of capital we have - from the resources built into a given house to the people who have built a community around it. Guy is not oblivious to how crazy his work looks. (Over dinner one night in Cleveland, he told me, "You're asking me these questions, and I'm like, Wow, I don't have any good answers for you that don't make this sound just nutty.") But it looks that way within a certain framework of circumstances and values, some of which may gradually be changing. Builders now scramble to earn the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification points by landfilling less and using reclaimed materials in new constructions. The Environmental Protection Agency has steadily financed Guy's research, and he recently received a call from Cooking Light magazine asking about minimizing waste during kitchen remodeling. "It's still crazy," Guy said, "but it's on the edge of not crazy now."

A quarter of a million homes are demolished annually, according to the E.P.A., liberating some 1.2 billion board feet of reusable lumber alone. For the most part, this wood has been trucked out to a landfill and buried. Remodeling actually ends up generating more than one and a half times the amount of debris every year that demolishing homes does. (America generates a total of 160 million tons of construction and demolition debris every year, 60 percent of which is landfilled.) The Stanford archaeologist William Rathje, who spent decades excavating landfills, has estimated that construction and demolition debris, together with paper, account for "well over half" of what America throws out. He called it one of a few "big-ticket items" in the waste stream actually worthy of the debates we have over merely "symbolic targets" like disposable diapers.

At the same time, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, new construction consumes 60 percent of all materials used in the nation's economy every year, excluding food and fuel. Few of those resources are renewable. Older homes are among the last repositories of old-growth timber, like heart pine or cypress, and keeping even the most mundane building materials in circulation at the end of a house's life preserves their "embodied energy" (the energy expended producing and shipping natural resources in the first place) instead of drawing new resources to replace them.

"This is a manufacturing process," Guy told me. "That's the way you should look at this. We are making building materials." In fact, the aim of deconstruction has always been more socioeconomic than environmental: employing local people to harvest a stock of low-cost materials so that lower-income homeowners and rental landlords in the same area can afford to maintain their properties. Denhart talks about houses as being part of a community's collective history and wealth. Deconstruction maintains and redistributes that wealth. "The community is really taking care of itself," he says. "It's protecting its identity." Moreover, a study Guy wrote with two environmental engineers uncovered an empirical argument for keeping those materials local: on average, shipping them more than 20 miles away for resale can cancel out any energy conserved by reclaiming them.

Guy has spent years refining such oblique cost-benefit analyses in his research and, more recently, in projects in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Boston, trying to expand our criteria for efficiency beyond sheer speed. Because when it comes to speed, deconstruction will get trounced by demolition every time. Building owners who choose deconstruction can, however, very regularly make up the difference in costs by donating the salvaged materials to one of more than 900 nonprofit, secondhand building-supply stores across the country, like Habitat for Humanity's ReStores. Owners then take a federal tax deduction for their value. One of Guy's first projects showed that after that tax deduction the average cost of deconstructing six homes around Gainesville, Fla., was 37 percent less than the average cost of demolition. On one house, deconstruction beat demolition by $8,000.

And yet in Cleveland the drawback of deconstruction that Guy was always trying to compensate for - that it takes two weeks and a dozen wage earners to do what a piece of hydraulic machinery accomplishes before lunch - was actually a selling point. The Cleveland Foundation was attracted to deconstruction as a way to provide jobs and job training in a county where unemployment is high and 5,000 ex-offenders surge out of prison every year. As a concept, at least, it fit nicely into the city's effort to become a cradle for sustainable industries and green-collar jobs.

The city contributed $19,000 to Guy's pilot project, the cost of demolishing the two condemned houses he would now deconstruct. The Cleveland Foundation agreed to cover the ultimate difference in cost. As the project got under way, the city, the foundation and its nonprofit partners were all committed to taking a close look at the results and exploring what subsidies or incentives might be put in place to stimulate a new, local industry. No one seemed to have any concrete ideas of how exactly they might go forward. But they floored Guy with their enthusiasm. He had never experienced such openness outside of famously green cities like Portland or San Francisco.

Guy's job, then, was to make those two houses disappear as quickly and cheaply as he could. He was the unlikely hammering man in a straightforward John Henry story of man versus backhoe. He had four weeks.

3. SPEED, SPEED, SPEED!

"It would take me a day," Michael Taylor, executive director of the National Demolition Association, told me when I asked how he would bring down a house like 6538. Understand, he said, America's demolition industry does $4.5 billion of business with only 22,000 employees. Machines do most of the work, and they work fast.

At 6538, Taylor would bring in a backhoe and "ride the building down." Or else he would beat it to the ground with the front of a track loader. Then he would drive over the debris to compact it. He would do that 12, maybe 14 times. ("Keep crunching it up, Jon, crunching it up!" he said.) Once the wreckage was hauled away, he would plow through what was left of the foundation, filling the basement with the rubble. Then, Taylor said, he would truck in some dirt, plant some grass and go home: "And it returns to like it was when the Native Americans lived there in 1640."

The demolition industry has identified 14 recyclable building materials, he told me, but it only recycles three in any real volume: concrete, metal and wood. Moreover, a contractor will only bother separating these materials when demolishing large buildings, where there's enough volume to make doing so pay. With a typical wood-frame house, a contractor will usually just bring it down as quickly as possible, then throw out the splintered consequences all at once. "It's speed, speed, speed," Taylor explained.

Speed has obsessed the demolition industry for at least 80 years. Citing rising real estate prices, a 1930 New York Times article explained that "the demand for speed in house wrecking" was transforming the business. Until then, men would generally swarm into a building, cleave its pieces apart and send many of them down to the prospectors and resellers congregating around the job site. Historically, significant volumes of building materials have always been discarded or abandoned. But in his fine book "Rubble," Jeff Byles notes that up to this point there was a lucrative-enough salvage market in place that wreckers regularly paid building owners, not the other way around. By 1930, however, the industry titan Albert Volk's men no longer had the time for cleaning and reselling bricks. Bathtubs that used to resell for $25 each, Volk said, were now being smashed up and sent "sail[ing] out through the Narrows on Father Knickerbocker's trash-carrying scows to find a well-earned rest at the bottom of the sea."

Wrecking balls, then bulldozers, then hydraulic backhoes assumed their roles. The wages of workers who took apart buildings and sorted material rose, while tipping fees - the cost of simply landfilling unsorted material - stayed relatively the same. The calculus of salvage shifted. Soon hand-wrecking and large-scale salvage survived only in a few pockets of the country.

Lawrence Larner started in the wrecking trade during its twilight in Boston, in 1962, as a member of what is now the last remaining Building Wreckers local in the country, Local 1421. Larner says that he and three other men would dismantle a three-story, three-family home in a week. "We'd go in and take the hardwood floors on the top," he told me, "we'd take the milled plank underneath the floor and the timbers under that" - funneling the debris down two "dirt holes," or chutes, they cut clear through the house.

As in Volk's day 40 years earlier, each man used one tool only: a wrecker's adz, a heavy iron blade on a long wooden handle. "It took you about a year to become very proficient with the adz," Larner said. "It's a very hard tool to learn." The sharpened front was used for prying, and the blunt backside did the breaking. "That's why we were so efficient," he told me, since you never put the thing down. "You wouldn't be fooling around with pinch bars and hammers." The wreckers of Larner's local almost exclusively do asbestos removal now.

Hand-wrecking was also made even less cost-effective and necessary by the availability of new, cheaper building materials, like plywood and drywall, after World War II. Precut to standard sizes, they also allowed builders to throw up huge subdivisions, like the 17,000 homes of Levittown, N.Y., much more rapidly. Houses could now be fit together in assembly-line-like processes by unskilled laborers.

Two changes had happened simultaneously: wreckers were replaced by machines, and builders were reduced to cogs in one. The modern house is now made of stuff less worth saving and torn down in a way that makes saving it a hassle. This is a triumph from a certain perspective - one bent on minimizing labor but able to run through a glut of resources less stingily. But what if we are entering an era in which people are the overabundant resource and certain materials are precious again? Then, despite how it sounds, we might start to see dignity in the idea of Clevelanders stripping their ruined communities for parts. We might see it as profitable, restorative - like a W.P.A. project in reverse: a monumental taking down of what has been built to reclaim the energy and value locked away there.

"The only constant is change," Guy told me. Cities sprawl and contract. Old structures are torn down to clear space for modern ones. The average American moves more than 11 times in a lifetime. The average American house is only 32 years old, Guy said. "Clearly there are a whole bunch of things we should be doing better," he said. "The bottom line is, we demolish the hell out of our country."

4. THE OPPOSITE OF BARN RAISING

Guy's crew of three women and four men fanned out that first morning to harvest 6538 Lederer's windows, doors and moldings, battling screws stripped decades ago by some careless do-it-yourselfer or cemented under generations of varnish and grime. There was a lot of unsure improvisation, putting down one tool and trying another.

On the back porch, two men pried at opposite sides of a six-paned window. (They were hired through a program that trains public-housing residents for green-collar jobs; others came via Hard Hatted Women, a nonprofit preparing women for construction work with technical training, math classes and weight lifting.) The men shattered one pane. Then they split the wooden frame. "Hit it more," one told the other. By the time they got it free, it was worthless and had to be thrown out. It would be another full day before one of these men pulled a co-worker aside and asked her: "What exactly is deconstruction? What's going to be left when we finish this?" When she told him there would be nothing left, he still didn't believe her, so he asked around.

Working faster or more innovatively lowers labor costs and amasses more valuable salvage, bringing deconstruction's bottom line closer to that of demolition. But ultimately, how cost-effective the process can be hinges on a slew of symbiotic circumstances outside a crew's control. A foundational one is the cost of just throwing the house out - the tipping fees at local landfills that dictate the cost of demolition. In the past 10 years, tipping fees in much of the country have risen as construction and demolition landfills have reached capacity or been surrounded by housing developments and closed. A wave of state and local legislation has also begun restricting the volume sent to those landfills or banned certain fill like concrete, asphalt or brick outright. These and other mandates can help spur economies of scale in the recycling of previously unworthwhile materials, absorbing more of what deconstructors wind up with that isn't readily reusable and further lowering their disposal costs. Before Cleveland, Guy did a project in Boston where tipping fees are about $130 a ton, among the highest anywhere in the country. There, he found, hand-disassembling 60 percent of a typical house cost virtually the same amount as dumping that same portion of it into a landfill. The value of the salvaged goods you ended up with would be almost pure profit.

One of the country's most successful deconstruction outfits, the ReBuilding Center, has capitalized on high tipping fees and other favorable conditions in Portland, Ore. Now entering its 11th year, it attracts enough work - about 200 jobs a year - to retain three full-time crews. The ReBuilding Center does lower-volume "skims" before remodels and will fully deconstruct about 30 homes this year. Consequently, its crews have become astoundingly proficient; four people can take down a single-family home in as little as a week. ("I'm told we're the fastest," says Shane Endicott, the executive director.) It routinely recoups as much as 85 percent of a house's materials for reuse and has hit upon ways to recycle most of the remainder. The old-growth Douglas fir that Portland's houses are rich with is regraded and resold, while water-wasting old toilets are sent to be ground up for roadbeds.

Eight tons of material now move through the ReBuilding Center's store every day. This is the highest volume of any secondhand building-supply store in North America. Such stores usually sell their reclaimed materials for 50 percent or less of the price of new ones. And as tastes change, those goods are not only cheaper than what's on offer at Home Depot but often seen as more attractive, distinctive or durable. "We have people that show up in brand new Mercedeses and Escalades," Endicott says, "and they're having us load a beat up radiator into the trunk." Of course the presence of such wealthy homeowners is another local asset contributing to the company's success. They are able to pay deconstruction's higher upfront cost and sometimes even excited to do it, relishing the greenness of it all. "They're all wrapped together in a kind of synergistic way," Guy told me. "You need some kind of legislative or legal incentives, some kind of market conditions, a willing populace and leadership with a few champions."

Still, all Guy had to work with in Cleveland was houses. All the other infrastructure would have to grow together, starting from scratch in a less-than-ideal environment. Tipping fees are extremely low in the area, hovering around $30 a ton. "That was one big signal that, Wow, this is going to be tough," he said. "Because waste is cheap."

Everywhere he went, he seemed to be asking everyone to operate just a little outside their comfort zones. The city had a modest Habitat for Humanity ReStore, but Guy had to talk it into reselling reclaimed lumber for the first time. To prove the demand was there, he drove around Ohio touring half a dozen of the state's ReStores. One shop, in Wooster, told him that it has customers coming not only from Cleveland, more than a hour away, but from 14 other counties too.

Guy's crew was being asked to stretch most of all. As the first week wore on, the workers still didn't seem to internalize the totality of their job - that "the whole house means the whole house," as Guy put it. On walls stripped nearly to their framing lumber, small plots of plaster and wallpaper hung on for days. Worse, the team as a whole was working far less efficiently and aggressively than he expected, and a couple of crew members seemed almost defiantly unmotivated at times. "Everything here is something - it's waste or it's salvage - and we're dealing with it," Guy told the group one morning with what, in his limited range, passed for sternness. On Day 4, he showed up at 5:45 a.m. and started prepping for the day's work himself. "I keep thinking that if there were eight of me, maybe it would be getting done," he told me. "But then I think, There's no way I'd want to work with eight of me."

He planned to break into 6538's roof that afternoon, a full day behind schedule. Starting to dismantle the roof carried psychological weight. It motivated you. It was around that point that a house weakened; it stopped looking like a house - something big and impenetrable - and started challenging you to pry it apart.

Guy would "panelize" the roof. Standing in the basket of a diesel-powered lift, he would make two cuts down the length of one side with a saw, carving a rectangular section 8 or 10 feet across. This panel, weighing more than half a ton, would fall with a thud onto the attic floor and lie flat. The crew could then easily gather around, disassembling and denailing its red-pine skeleton. When they were done, Guy would make the next cut, letting the next panel drop, and so on until the entire roof had toppled and dispersed into parts, like the opposite of a barn raising. He was in the attic, hammering together some support braces, when the mayor arrived.

The Cleveland Foundation had arranged for Mayor Frank Jackson to tour the site, a level of interest so early in the process that greatly encouraged Guy but also, frankly, totally flummoxed him. ("Try to ignore him as best you can and don't hurt him" was all he could say to his crew that morning.) Jackson and his entourage toured the house in borrowed hard hats and then assembled at the foot of the driveway where the mayor made a series of approving but cautious statements to the media: the three-man camera crew the Cleveland Foundation hired to make some sort of video about the project - and me.

"It's no longer a luxury to talk about things that are environmentally sound or recycling - it's really a necessity now," Jackson offered. And then, "I believe everything old is not bad." "Nothing works unless you institutionalize it," he said at one point, later adding: "Deconstruction is the right way to go. It does, however, have to become more efficient and cost-effective" if it is going to join demolition as "the way we do business." And there, really, was deconstruction's quandary: things that don't work yet rarely get institutionalized.

By midafternoon, Guy was on the roof while the crew denailed the white-oak floorboards stacking up in the backyard with pneumatic Nail Kickers, a reverse nail gun, one of the few specialized deconstruction tools on the market. All week a group of neighbors had watched as the peculiar operation at the end of their block progressed and didn't progress. Most had done some construction work, and they now stood in a puzzled huddle, looking up at Guy as he tried to pry a narrow opening in the roof before panelizing it. He was roped into the lift, straddling the peak of a dormer, scraping at the shingles with a short-handled shovel. "What's he doing with that little-bitty roofing shovel?" one of the men said. "He'll be all day with that."

Among them was Robert Middlebrooks, a widower living in a foreclosed home next door. (A judge, he said, ordered him to stay when the mortgage company didn't show up in court.) Last fall, Middlebrooks's son, a truck driver, was shot and killed across the street. A few months later, Middlebrooks had two toes amputated after a fall. He had taken to standing at the curb in front of 6538 most mornings, holding a pair of black work gloves just in case Guy was hiring. Now he stared at the roof and the small man sitting on it, throwing scraps of shingle and sheet metal to the ground. "It's amazing what muscle can do," Middlebrooks said.

5. BREAKING OUT

Guy ran out of time. He came down sunburned and frustrated, failing to drop the first panel of the roof. The crew went home. But an hour later, Guy was in the attic, hunched under the slanted wall of the dormer. He couldn't let himself leave that night with 6538's roof unbroken. "I should be embarrassed," he said. Then he picked up his tool - a wrecker's adz special-ordered from a company in Boston - and went to work.

The following week, with 6538 still standing but reduced to a gutted, one-story box, Guy's crew would move on to the pilot project's second house. There, Guy stopped holding back. He rolled out some of the more complicated, time-saving deconstruction techniques that he had worried were "too chaotic" for his inexperienced crew. He started on the roof almost immediately, dropping two panels at a time, one on top of the other like playing cards. His workers cut two chutes through the house to funnel debris. They attacked the interior walls differently. "I started thinking, I just need to deconstruct these things myself," he said. One day, while chipping away at the roof of that house with his shovel, he watched a backhoe roll in and swiftly wipe out the house behind it - another empty foreclosure.

In the end, Guy's crew of novices would take about twice as long to bring down the two houses as would typically be expected in a deconstruction job. And they would salvage far less, irreparably harming the bottom line of the pilot study. Still, they reclaimed cabinets with lead-filigreed doors, 108-year-old oak flooring, mammoth joists of old-growth pine that had run for 24 feet along the width of the second house. "There is no question," Guy later reported to the Cleveland Foundation, that there was enough value squirreled away in such houses to more than recoup the extra labor costs of deconstructing them - if, that is, Cleveland cultivated a "better-prepared and -motivated work force." Applying data from his previous studies, he projected that even a modestly more adept crew could have diverted about 76 percent of each house from a landfill, salvaging more than $20,000 of materials in all.

Back in the attic of 6538 that evening, after everyone had left, Guy pierced the dormer's slanted wall with his wrecker's adz. He wedged it wherever he could and wrenched it back, again and again. Guy huffed under his dust mask. Slowly, boards came off.

A stench of tar and sweat built up and, occasionally, as he freed a piece and flung it aside, a sheet of black soot dumped out of the house like a solid object: 80 years of stored-up Cleveland air pollution, Guy had explained, back to the Depression-era belches of Slavic Village's steel mills.

Guy ate away at the frame. But even as the wallboards started to disappear, five layers of roofing - shingles, tiles and copper flashing piled up over the life of the house and now legible like tree rings - hung in place behind them. He struggled to roll forward the mass of roofing, pushing it down and out of the way. It was like trying to ball up a phone book.

Eventually he shoved the roofing down to the gutter where it hung off the house in a gnarled wad. He started to pry off the last cedar planks. It was close to 8 o'clock, but there was still plenty of daylight. He could see it. The dormer was a balcony now.

Jon Mooallem, a contributing writer, last wrote for the magazine about guerrilla gardeners.

A version of this article appeared in print on September 28, 2008, on page MM58 of the New York edition.


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