Making furniture out of torn-down houses keeps materials out of land fills

Media Reports News

Making furniture out of torn-down houses keeps materials out of land fills

March 24, 2012 [Olivera Perkins, The Plain Dealer]

CLEVELAND, Ohio — An emerging movement in Cleveland sees an alternative to knocking down the region’s thousands of vacant homes.

The process is known as “deconstruction,” and it differs from demolition because up to 40 percent of a building’s remains can be saved from the landfill — from Southern Yellow Pine joists to the oak flooring capable of regaining life as furniture or millwork.

Northeast Ohio is fertile territory for the movement. The region has an abundance of structures to be taken down, many of them monuments to the foreclosure crisis. Cuyahoga County alone has 27,000 vacant and abandoned properties, more than 12,000 of them in Cleveland.

An effort is growing here to start a deconstruction industry that can contribute to the economy. The problem is, the process can cost twice as much as demolition.

“The theory behind deconstruction is that even though it is more expensive to do — because it is more labor intensive — that you will reclaim and salvage enough usable material and resell it, and that that income will offset the additional expense,” said Frank Ford, senior vice president for research and development at the nonprofit Neighborhood Progress Inc. – or NPI, which has been in the forefront of Cleveland’s movement.

A Piece of Cleveland, a Cleveland company that deconstructs buildings and makes furniture from the components, and the Cleveland Institute of Art intend to test whether the process can be profitable. The partners will construct 130 Hive modular studio workstations for the school using wood from deconstructed buildings. Hive workstations, constructed from sustainable materials, use hexagonal shapes as found in bee hives.

They reason that the additional costs of deconstruction can be offset by businesses, including making furniture of reclaimed wood and selling the bounty on the wholesale market.

Company owner Chris Kious said a deconstruction industry would be trailblazing. Interest is high in places like Seattle for environmental reasons, but such cities often don’t have thousands of vacant and abandoned structures. On the other hand, Buffalo, like many cities in the Great Lakes region, is struggling with abandoned housing and also is trying to fashion an industry.

“What we are doing is so radical that there really isn’t anyone to learn from,” Kious said.

Nearly four years ago, NPI, at the invitation of the Cleveland Foundation, decided to initiate a pilot deconstruction project. The appeal was environmental and economic. A two-person crew working about a day and a half can demolish a single-family house. A crew of four to six, working about a week, can deconstruct a similar property. Additional jobs could be created through businesses like furniture-making, selling the salvageables or recycling materials like shingles into new products. Since 2008, the nonprofit has overseen the deconstruction of 45 properties.

Cleveland officials say they are committed to deconstruction. Since 2009, the city has deconstructed 49 buildings, including many NPI projects. The city has received $780,000 in federal grants to subsidize the difference between deconstruction and demolition, said Sustainability Chief Jenita McGowan.

Contractors were asked to submit both deconstruction and demolition bids for the same project. Demolishing a single-family home averaged more than $8,100, compared with nearly $16,000 for deconstruction, said Ronald O’Leary, assistant director of building and housing.

Kious is glad for the city’s support. He participated in most of the NPI projects, which heightened his sense that a deconstruction industry could take shape here.

His company is in a big brick industrial building on East 49th Street. A showcase wall highlighting various styles of paneling fashioned from reclaimed wood greets visitors. The styles are named after RTA lines. The Blue Line, for example, is “rough, rustic and lightly sanded.”

These resurrected pieces of Cleveland history, along with furniture, have found new homes in the boardrooms and atriums of corporate offices throughout Greater Cleveland as well as restaurants — companies like Nestle and Cliffs Natural Resources. With the increasing popularity of LEED certification, the official accreditation of a green building, Kious said such clients have been drawn to the paneling because it can increase their scores.

“If they want to go from silver to gold [certification], why would they choose the waterless urinals when they can get this wall paneling?” Kious said.

Several feet away from the paneling is a “sausage” dining room table, so-called because it is a patchwork of hard and softwoods. The table costs $3,000 to make. Kious said consumers probably won’t pay more than $2,000 for the table, so he hopes to find ways to make it more cheaply.

A Piece of Cleveland is full of reminders of buildings past. An expansive wall incorporates a collection of windows of various sizes from deconstructed houses. Stacks of rafters, floor boards and joists await future projects. On one recent day, Yanko Mansaray was removing nails from some of the wood to ready it for reuse.

Mansaray likes his job and feels fortunate to have it. He is an ex-offender who did time for drug-related offenses.

“It gives someone like me another chance,” he said.

Kious said the NPI projects often hired neighborhood residents, many of whom had records or other employment barriers. He is working with groups focused on employing ex-offenders, other challenged job seekers and veterans to get grants to help in hiring them on deconstruction projects.

No matter how great the potential for doing good — from promoting a green economy to hiring the hard to employ — deconstruction in Cleveland hasn’t been able to survive without public subsidies.

In 2010, NPI hired a consultant to evaluate deconstruction in Cleveland, including why it didn’t pay for itself. The quality of the buildings taken down emerged as a major factor — they were in such bad shape, with such limited architectural value, that little was left to reclaim. The homes also tended to be devoid of cabinets, plumbing, fixtures and other items that could be sold, sometimes because scrappers had stripped them. As a result, a deconstructed single-family home averaged only a maximum of $750 in salvageables, the report said.

Deconstructing a single-family home in Cleveland costs about $8,000 more than demolishing one. To help make up the difference, a successful business model should include a retail store where a substantial amount of the merchandise is donations from home improvement chains, paint manufacturers and other businesses, the report said.

NPI’s Ford believes a retail operation is a good idea. He said it has worked in Buffalo.

“When you start to apply deconstruction to inner city, urban blighted, vacant, abandoned houses, essentially you are trying to recycle stuff that inherently has less value,” Ford said.

Kious said Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore is similar, so competing with the nonprofit wouldn’t be constructive. He said a more suitable business would be salvaging items for the wholesale market.

Kious said the report’s characterization of the deconstructed buildings as shabby at best was accurate. But he said that isn’t necessarily true of the entire inventory of buildings to be brought down. Being dependent on subsidies often means not having the option to choose from the most profitable buildings.

The project with the Cleveland Institute of Art will test the theory that deconstruction can be profitable. The school intends to spend $500,000 to $750,000 on the movable workstations, said Associate Professor Daniel Cuffaro, who heads the industrial design department. An account of that size will give the partners experience marketing and producing “upcycled” products. Though designed for the school, he said, the Hive has appeal for other users.

“This is a really cool cubicle that could be adapted for an accounting office, a bank or whatever,” he said.

The final prototype of the workstation will be completed in time for production to begin this year, Cuffaro said. Students helped design the workstation, and Benchmark Craftsmen in Seville refined the manufacturing process. He said the school hopes demand for the workstation and future products is high enough to create an income stream to help students with tuition.

Even if the business model shows promise, it could take time to establish a healthy market for items made of reclaimed wood. In the meantime, the deconstruction industry must find a way to close the gap.

Gus Frangos, president and general counsel of the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, said he is open to allowing a deconstruction contractor access to a large number of homes to harvest what is marketable. The carcasses could be deconstructed or demolished.

“Deconstructing one house at a time would probably not be cost-effective,” he said. “If you have a pool of 300 homes in which you can get deconstructables out of, then it can be.”

Also key is developing markets for waste from deconstructed and even demolished structures that can be shredded and used in street construction, he said.

Kious likes the idea.

“Closing the gap can only be done by increasing the volume of properties,” he said. Cuffaro said a community should look past the immediate costs to the future.

“Students are fundamentally idealistic, and we don’t want that to die,” he said. “We want to show them how being an idealist, doing things that are economically, socially and culturally responsible, are viable, important and have an impact.

Frangos believes deconstruction should be pursued, even though he isn’t sure just how close the local industry is to being self-sufficient.

“I am fully confident that we are going to figure it out,” he said.