The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

Stopping the Demolition Derby

Much is written about housing starts, which add to the nation’s housing stock. But rarely do we hear about the houses that leave the rolls, never to be occupied again.

Between 2011 and 2013 (the last time the federal government took count), nearly 1.6 million housing units were lost for various reasons. But that number was offset by the addition of 1.84 million new units, for a net gain of more than 250,000.

That’s far from the nearly 1 million new households that formed during that period, but that’s a story for another day. Right now, let’s concentrate on the housing units that went away.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, demolitions and fire took out 30% of the units that were lost. The rest were moved, reconfigured into larger or smaller units, used for nonresidential purposes or otherwise became uninhabitable.

Let’s concentrate on those lost through demolition. The National Association of Home Builders reports that in 2017, 58,600 houses were removed from their lots to make way for newer, almost always larger, houses. Many of them were obsolete places that nobody wanted, and the land under most was probably more valuable than the houses themselves. But instead of being demolished, at least some could have been deconstructed: taken apart systematically so their parts could be reused.

“Many of these older homes have components that still have valuable life,” says Michelle Diller. She manages the NAHB’s sustainability and green building program, and is leading the charge for what she calls “un-building.”

Brick can last 100 years or longer, according to the NAHB, as can wood flooring, stone, concrete and cast iron pipes. Copper gutters and downspouts last 50 years or longer; ditto for kitchen cabinets.

What if builders stripped out the good stuff -- cabinetry, doors, windows, bathroom fixtures, hardwood floors -- before bulldozing old dwellings? Then those materials could be used in remodeling jobs, incorporated into new construction, or sold.

Not only would builders save (or make) money, they could avoid the cost of transporting and disposing of the materials. Or maybe they’d earn points that help them certify new construction as energy-efficient.

Toward that end, a few jurisdictions require that certain houses be deconstructed rather than turned asunder. Some places offer expedited permitting for the houses that take their place, and others won’t accept demolition materials at their landfills.

The Environmental Protection Agency convened a forum two years ago on the life-cycle approach to sustainably managing building materials, and has produced a tool to help builders and cities determine whether deconstruction is feasible. But to date, only a few cities and a handful of builders have taken up the gauntlet.

In 2016, two years before the EPA conference, Portland, Oregon, became the first jurisdiction in the country to adopt an ordinance requiring anyone seeking to demolish a house built prior to 1916 to fully deconstruct the structure instead. To date, according to the city, a third of the 240 demo permits issued fell under the ordinance, resulting in more than 2 million pounds of materials salvaged for reuse.

Starting this year, Portland has upped the threshold to houses built before 1940. Milwaukee passed a similar ordinance in 2018 for houses built prior to 1929, but stayed the rule’s effective date until March 1 of this year. And Palo Alto, California, where 44% of what goes into its landfills comes from construction and demolition projects, will outlaw demolitions altogether beginning July 1.

Meanwhile, builder Troy Johns of Urban NW Homes, who works mostly in downtown Portland, figures he’s done nearly a dozen deconstructions. Much of what he’s saved -- “the pretty stuff,” he says, like moldings, bathtubs and millwork -- has been repurposed into dozens of new houses.

A lot of the old-growth studs are either sold or given to Johns’ “lumber guy,” who turns the wood into tables, chairs and shutters Johns buys back to use in his replacement houses. Any doors with character are also saved, cleaned up and reused.

The effort is not financially feasible in and of itself. But a tax rebate offered by the city, plus the points earned toward Johns’ all-important green building certification, make it worthwhile, he says. That, and the fact the repurposed materials enhance the saleability of his new houses.

“People are conscious of what we’re doing,” he says, “Few others are doing it. It takes a lot of time and effort, but it is very satisfying. It sets us apart.”

Meanwhile, in Fort Worth, Texas, Don Ferrier of Ferrier Custom Homes says preservation is one of his core values, and has been since his Scottish stonemason great-granddaddy began building houses in the early 1900s. Ferrier did his first deconstruction in the late ‘90s, saving the studs and hardwood floor from a remodeling project and reusing them elsewhere in the house.

“Every time we do a remodel, we talk about this with the owners,” says Ferrier, who’s done 30 or so deconstructions. He says that “80% of them come to us because they are interested in sustainability.”

He repurposes “anything that makes sense -- windows, doors, solid surface countertops, light fixtures” -- and donates things he can’t use to Habitat for Humanity. “We try not to throw anything in the dumpster.”

Typically, it’s a more expensive process, Ferrier admits. Taking up flooring, stripping it and refinishing it isn’t cheap. But 70% of his clients opt in.