As local neighborhoods lose more and more older homes to demolitions (some permitted, some not), discussions of those demolitions often lead to some variation of the question, “Well, it’s nothing special, just an average house. What ‘s worth saving?” The answer may include everything from unique Batchelder fireplaces to vintage bricks and hardware…to less obvious but still irreplaceable old-growth wood studs and beams.
But while Los Angeles has yet to define the specifics of what might be worth saving in older homes, no matter how humble, other cities are starting to both ask and answer the question.
In November, the city of Portland, Oregon enacted a new law requiring “deconstruction,” rather than “demolition” of homes built before 1916. According to Portland’s new Deconstruction of Buildings law, instead of the traditional fast wrecking and removal, older homes must now be more carefully taken apart by a “certified deconstruction contractor,” in a “systematic dismantling.” The majority of materials are then saved for re-sale or re-use, either on-site or through sale to other potential users. The law is intended to:
A. Maximize the salvage of valuable building materials for reuse;
B. Reduce carbon emissions associated with demolition;
C. Reduce the amount of demolition waste disposed of in landfills; and
D. Minimize the adverse impacts associated with building removal.
Salvageable materials, according to the law, “include but are not limited to cabinets, doors, hardware, fixtures, flooring, siding, and framing lumber.”
“Our existing older houses are assets: They preserve our built history and contribute to neighborhood character,” said Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, quoted about the new law on a city planning website. “If they must come down, materials from these houses can live on in new buildings. By keeping valuable materials out of the landfill, we ensure the least amount of impact on the environment and neighbors. Deconstruction reduces our carbon footprint; prevents harmful air pollution caused by demolition; and creates good, family wage jobs.”
Of course, even without a city law to require deconstruction, people removing older homes do already have the option of salvaging materials instead of simply moving debris to a landfill. And there are benefits to doing so. A recent story in the Washington Post describes how one builder of new homes is finding huge tax advantages for its clients by donating salvaged materials from teardowns to 501(c)(3) non-profits.
Deconstruction takes longer and is more costly than simple demolition and removal, according to the Post story, but people who salvage and donate re-usable materials find that the profits and tax benefits far outweigh the costs. According to Patrick Smith, an IRS-certified deconstruction appraiser quoted in the Post story, “85 to 90 percent of a house can be recycled or repurposed. About the only things that cannot yet be salvaged or repurposed are drywall, rotted materials and broken pieces of ceramic tile or marble.”
And the benefits of saving them are financial, historic and environmental.