Deconstruction Economy

Above:  Some of the 12,100 pounds (22,000 board feet) of lumber deconstructed from 319 Marcellus Street.

Current thinking and policy in Central NY, as in most communities around the United States, is to demolish abandoned, deteriorating homes as a form of economic & community development. These homes draw crime, devalue neighborhoods, and develop into safety & fire risks, so deciding to remove such properties is understandable. How it’s done, however, literally means the world.

Our community, right now, is outlaying $1.2 Million Dollars to demolish about 67 of the City’s approximately 1,360 abandoned, deteriorating homes. The City is actively seeking additional funds to demolish more properties.  Though most believe that vacant lots create fewer financial burdens than deteriorating homes, cities still must maintain and ensure the safety of these properties, incurring costs that almost never are repaid by absentee landlords. So even after paying to landfill millions of pounds of valuable resources, creating more landfills at ever-higher costs, and erasing neighborhood fabrics of unique cultural and ecological history, this vacant real estate imposes substantial costs on cities and the consequences of fire, crime and safety risks on neighborhood residents and citizens.

Deconstruction, alternatively, is a key strategy for cities to become ‘Carbon Neutral’ (that is, functionally preserve the preexisting carbon cycling of the surrounding living system), preserve the basis on which all life depends (ecosystem services), and develop inherently local, resilient economies. For example, the deconstruction of 319 Marcellus Street preserved 86% of the home’s 213,000 pounds of resources while employing 20 people for four days.  Based on the proof of concept of 319 Marcellus Street, demolishing 127 homes would:

  • Landfill 23,070,502.5 pounds (11,535.25 tons) of high-quality building materials and unique architectural elements at a cost of $484,480 dollars
  • Miss the opportunity to generate about $235,915 in wages and inherently local jobs that can’t be outsourced or relocated to other communities

 

It is indisputable that demolition invests public money to, essentially, create more landfills, cut more forests, and further degrade already imperiled natural communities while employing as few people as possible (studies indicate that deconstruction can create up to 19 jobs for every 1 for demolition). If instead we invested that same $2.2 Million Dollars to create a “deconstruction infrastructure” and local economy, and set an easily achievable goal to deconstruct 127 homes in the City of Syracuse, the benefits would approximately be to:

  • Reduce resource flows to landfills from 11,535.25 tons to 1,706 tons, saving $412,828 in landfill fees (at current landfill rates).
  • Recapture $321,390.01 in salvaged building materials and unique architectural elements (assuming a 50% discount from ‘new’ materials, a substantial economic subsidy for local residents).
  • Create at least $250,000 in inherently local business income & wages (approximately 58,000 man-hours of work) paying a living wage (not including related businesses like metal salvage and wood recycling).  This does not include amounts for salvage of the foundations, a key service for demolition contractors to continue providing.

 

By leveraging stimulus funding that must be immediately spent, the community can create a durable, inherently local deconstruction infrastructure & economy based on returning value to the local community.  If we leveraged the $2.2 Million Dollars to instead build a self-sufficient deconstruction market & economy, and committed to deconstruct 1,000 houses, the benefits would be to:

  • Create $2,373,110 dollars in high-quality salvaged wood, metal, and unique architectural elements (a conservative estimate)
  • Divert 175,638,000 pounds (87,819 tons) of resources from landfills, at a savings of $4,390,950 in landfill tipping fees (at $50 per ton)
  • Generate roughly $450,000 in wages and local business (not including the interconnected businesses such as metal salvage and wood recycling).

 

Deconstruction is a key element in transforming communities ‘carbon-neutral,’ or as we’d define it, becoming a key functional force to preserve the carbon cycle of the Holocene.  By mimicking the ecosystem function of decomposition and natural law of Reciprocity, deconstruction is multi-dimensional in benefit. The shape of the deconstruction infrastructure itself generates certain essential functions.

For example, by preserving 12,100 pounds of lumber at 319 Marcellus, the total change in greenhouse gas emissions was -39 MTCO2E (versus landfilling).

The above numbers are both conservative and partial in describing the benefits of deconstruction.  They don’t include the value of ecosystem services preserved, of the forests and ecological communities that we don’t have to clear cut, harvest, mine or bulldoze, or the value of the timber’s stored carbon (wood products, by weight, are approximately 49% carbon).

One of our recent LEED for Homes projects also served as a living research project to test the economic viability of deconstruction.  LEED for Homes is the nation’s leading green building rating system, designed and created by volunteers in design and construction industry.  Because LEED for Homes challenges the top 25% of the building market to innovate and construct third-party verified high-performance homes, the process creates opportunities to achieve related goals such as deconstruction rather than demolition.

It is common sense that no community can demolish its way to economic or ecological health.  Demolition is an excellent way to stimulate growth in landfill development, to harvest more forests, mine more metal ores and aggregate, and to destroy living communities.  Deconstruction enables us to become a key functional force in living systems, of mimicking Decomposition in natural systems and the Law of Reciprocity in biocultural communities.