Fables of the Deconstruction

By Chris Beck, a consultant and Preston Browning, a program manager for Mercy Corps, a humanitarian aid group (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 30/11/06):

WITH the midterm elections now over, Americans can refocus their energies on the country’s challenges, one of which remains the rebuilding of New Orleans. A simple next step in the city’s reconstruction would be to offer a viable alternative to demolition for the thousands of damaged houses.

Federal policy allows government cleanup funds to be used when a building is bulldozed and the remains are hauled off to the local dump. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local officials should also give homeowners the option of “deconstructing” their houses — that is, taking them apart piece by piece and then selling or salvaging the reusable building materials, such as floorboards, roof beams and fireplace mantles.

Deconstruction preserves our cultural heritage because historic building materials are reused and helps the environment because less debris is tossed into landfills. It also creates jobs by putting locals to work dismantling houses and marketing the salvaged materials.

We know deconstruction works. Over the past decade, communities across the country have established successful deconstruction programs.

In Portland, Ore., the ReBuilding Center has, since 1999, salvaged building materials from more than 600 construction sites and completely deconstructed more than 125 houses — that’s about 4.5 million pounds of materials that have been kept out of landfills each year. And by training and employing local workers, the nonprofit center has helped revive one of the city’s lower-income neighborhoods.

Deconstruction could work in New Orleans, too. As many as 30,000 homes may be demolished here; if just 2,000 of them were deconstructed, that would yield 6 million to 10 million feet of high-quality lumber, along with other usable materials, estimates G. Bradley Guy, president of the Building Materials Reuse Association. Simply demolishing and then disposing of those 2,000 houses would generate 312,000 cubic yards of debris — equivalent to a 10-story building covering an entire Manhattan block.

The environmental benefits of deconstruction are obvious and resonant. Bulldozing houses and then creating more landfills in the Mississippi River Delta to handle the debris will only further undermine the wetlands that are vital to New Orleans’s long-term survival.

The major objection raised about deconstruction is that it costs more than demolition. It’s true that not every building can be dismantled more cost-effectively than demolished, but the resale of valuable materials often offsets any higher labor costs. And with less debris, deconstruction saves contractors dumping fees that demolition can’t avoid.

In fact, the recent deconstruction of five New Orleans houses by Mercy Corps and a local group, Green Project, cost $6,000 to 10,000 per house — well within the range the federal government expects to reimburse contractors for demolition.

Of course, deconstruction does require more labor than demolition, but that’s one of its main benefits: it creates long-term, skilled jobs. Establishing a large-scale deconstruction industry to handle the enormous demand would be a potent economic development tool for a city so desperate for innovative sustainable businesses.

One potential success is emerging with a few of the city’s historic houses. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Mercy Corps and Global Green, along with local organizations like the Preservation Resource Center and the Green Project, are working with officials to finance the deconstruction of approximately 50 historically significant buildings so damaged they cannot be saved. This is a laudable first step.

Deconstruction can help fuel economic recovery in New Orleans, and a new federal policy embracing an alternative to demolition would be a bright spot in the city’s sluggish recovery.