11.08.2011

Deconstruction

I recently came across an article in the Washington Post about the demolition of foreclosed houses in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.  It is cheaper for the banks to tear down houses, at $7,500 each, then it is to take care of vacant properties that won't sell.  The accompanying pictures show backhoes clawing down the walls into neat piles of rubble.  A few photos show folks trying to salvage good material, collecting, tiles, woodwork, and scrap metal from the houses.


Back in Baltimore, my hometown, the same thing has been going on for years.  The issue of vacant row homes has been perennial, mentioned in mayoral races as far back as 1987.  Looking through the Baltimore Sun archives, the estimated number of abandoned houses varies widely, from 20-40,000.  Census data indicates that Baltimore has shed approximately 320,000 residents since a peak in 1950, an average of 5,333 people annually.  Assuming each row home housed four people, and half of the population loss was staying in row homes, that averages out to roughly 27,500 vacants -- right in the middle of the various estimates.  Over the years, programs have been initiated to try and cut down on the stock of empty homes, including loan programs, selling them at auction, and demolishing them.  


The Post article concentrates on the recent foreclosure phenomenon; Baltimore's issue is more complicated, with a much longer history.  Much of Baltimore's population decline has been classic white flight, as folks moved to the suburbs in search of better schools and jobs.  The decline and eventual failure of Bethlehem Steel, as well as a long-term decline in shipping, destroyed a lot of working-class jobs in the city.  People moved out.  Many of these issues come up in The Wire, the fascinating, novelistic HBO crime drama, set in Baltimore.  In season two, the main story line concerns trouble at the longshoreman's union, struggling for air in an era of globalized trade that requires deep-water ports.  In season four, vacant houses become burial grounds for victims of the drug war.  Throughout the series, cops, junkies, and hustlers use empty row homes to perform surveillance, shoot up, and hide drugs.


Some quality demolition a few blocks from my apartment.

This last fiction -- hiding murder victims in vacants -- directly addresses the main fear embedded in empty houses, that of the haunted home.  Politicians and residents alike worry about the arson, shooting galleries, vagrants, and crime brought on by abandoned properties.  Most have already been stripped of any metal worth anything at the scrap yard.
And that brings us full circle: these places may have lost their value as houses, but they are mines of raw material, full of lumber, bricks, tile, architectural woodwork, windows, toilets, and sinks.  All of these things have already been manufactured, at great cost in energy.  It takes a lot of time and equipment to cut down a tree, take it to the sawmill, cut it, kiln it, move to a store, then again to the job site.  


People tend to think about salvage in terms of the amount of work in takes to extract the wood or steel or whatever-it-is from a building.  The true equation should put that cost up against the cost of taking a tree out of a forest, or iron ore out of the ground.  Vacant, foreclosed, and abandoned properties are a massive source of raw material in this country. Yes, the stuff needs to be extracted and processed, but the amount of energy involved a fraction of the energy needed to create these materials from scratch.  Depending on the age of the building, those materials, especially wood, may be of a quality that you can't find anymore.  Old-growth timber is hard and dense, with tight rings and a century of air-drying that has gotten the warp out.  It was cut to different dimensions than modern timber, providing bigger pieces to work from.


The gate to Music Man's (Jimmy Lee Matthews) estate, in Greensboro, AL, by Butch Anthony and the Rural Studio.  A fine example of artistic reuse.
In my jobs here in Chicago, I have been working with salvaged material at ReBuilding Exchange and the Rebuild Foundation.  Each piece of wood needs attention -- careful inspection for nails and spare bits of metal, extra sanding, and frequent blade changes on equipment.  However, that extra work exposes a beautiful grain and time-worn patina that is hard to find these days.


Old wood has obvious aesthetic advantages when making furniture, but, someday, it needs to make the leap to being used in regular construction, replacing virgin dimensional lumber.  I think one day, necessity and economy might allow this to happen; in the meantime, building codes, prejudice, and labor costs are preventing widespread incorporation of salvage.  In the meantime, I'm happy to keep surfing the waste stream, riding as far as I can.   

1 comment:

  1. A great article about deconstruction in the Atlantic that I didn't find until after this post: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/housing/2011/11/another-reason-stop-building-new-homes-jobs/447/

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