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The Recyclable House

If Ken Ortiz has his way, no one in Chicago will ever simply "demolish" a building again.



Ken Ortiz has more work than he can handle. As the only certified deconstructionist in the midwest, he'd like nothing better than to train some competitors.

Ortiz doesn't write unreadable literary criticism; he's a Northbrook-based contractor who takes down buildings and saves almost all the pieces. After doing construction for 25 years and throwing away "tons of good building materials," he delights in being able to save 23-foot-long two-by-sixes for reuse as two-by-sixes.

And pretty much everybody else is delighted too—environmentalists, preservationists, antiques dealers, even the folks who live around the houses he's taking down. "I've never been involved with something that's such a win-win for everybody," he says. But few people realize that there's an affordable alternative to conventional demolition, and building and environmental regulations aren't yet geared to let deconstruction become less of a novelty.

Deconstructing a house is supposed to be just like building it, only in reverse. That wasn't quite true of the house on Wilson where I met Ortiz to watch him at work. From the street, the green stucco three-story looked like its neighbors, except for the telltale 30-foot Dumpster parked in the driveway. (Ortiz hates Dumpsters, but until someone figures out how to reuse or even recycle stucco, asphalt roofing, and plaster, he's stuck with them.)

The house had been gutted and then some. Gone were the appliances, cabinets, trim, doors, and the never-sanded three-quarter-inch red oak tongue-and-groove flooring. ("We saved 95 percent of it," says Ortiz.) An orderly forest of upright rough-cut two-by-fours remained to hold up the structure and define where the rooms had been. Overhead, long beams ran the full width of the house.

With the lath and plaster gone, the high-quality siding underlying the stucco was visible from inside. Ortiz's crew chief and four workers were shoveling the last of the plaster from the kitchen walls and ceiling. (Deconstruction involves more hand labor than conventional demolition.) The small backyard was divided between a "denailing station" and a stacking area for heavy lumber and appliances. The garage, also slated for deconstruction, was being saved for the moment to store molding, flooring (organized by length in banded bundles), doors with their frames and hardware, and a few unique pieces—like the solid oak classical columns that had once separated the living and dining rooms.

Deconstruction is possible because there's a market for this stuff, and at the high end it's been around for a while. West Wilson was Ortiz's fourth deconstructed house, but auctioneer Jodi Murphy of La Grange Park averages an auction a week in the metro area. Last year Murphy and Ortiz worked together on a Glencoe house built in 1950 and renovated in 1994. "After Jodi took out all the pretty stuff," says Ortiz, "we removed two 48-foot semitrailers full of lumber and building materials."

Marketing these items requires some organization, and that's where Ted Reiff and his brainchild, the Reuse People of America, or TRP (, come in. Reiff, aka "the man with the velvet crowbar," is an investment banker turned nonprofit entrepreneur. Now headquartered in Oakland, TRP started in 1993 as a relief operation to help flood victims in Mexico. It's now active in Seattle, Boulder, Denver, San Diego, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area, has deconstructed more than 1,000 buildings, and is moving into Chicago. Ortiz is TRP's regional manager.

"Anyone can save something and keep it out of the landfill," Reiff told the authors of the book Unbuilding: Salvaging the Architectural Treasures of Unwanted Houses. "Contractors save stuff all the time. Their garages are full, their backyards are full"—Ortiz has his own cache of iron window weights from old double-hung windows. "But eventually they throw most of the materials away because they run out of room," he said. "The challenge as I see it is to move salvaged materials to markets where they can be reused."

Some of these markets are nearby—locally deconstructed lumber has gone to Habitat for Humanity's Restore in Elgin. Some are overseas. "We ship a tremendous amount of our product to Mexico, especially southern yellow pine," says Reiff. Some high-end woods go to Japan—"They appreciate lumber; they don't have any"—where they may turn up in cowboy-themed restaurants. Other destinations include Belize, Chile, the Philippines, and the Cook Islands. "We're not in business to hold out for the highest dollar—we've got to do high volume."

Reiff has no plans to compete with Chicago's existing architectural salvage stores. "The real high-end stuff is not our business," he says. "We focus on the everyday—doors, windows, flooring. As a not-for-profit with a charter to keep stuff out of landfills, nobody's doing what we're doing." Right now Ortiz is stashing stuff in semitrailers parked in cooperative businesses' lots; the goal is to open a warehouse in a year or two and eventually establish what Reiff calls a "Home Cheapo, where you can come and buy a door with hardware and frame for $10."

Like many environmental innovations, deconstruction requires a long view. It costs more up front than conventional demolition, but often costs less in the end. In other words, often you can make more money selling building materials than it will cost you to pay people to remove them carefully by hand. In 1999-2000, a study of the deconstruction of six houses in Gainesville, Florida, found the average cost of deconstruction before salvage to be $6.47 per square foot, greater than the estimated demolition cost of $5.36 per square foot. But when salvage value was included, the net deconstruction cost dropped to $3.19. When you hire the Reuse People you might pay $10-$14 per square foot, depending on the complexity of the deconstruction, and you agree to donate the salvaged materials to the not-for-profit. The tax deduction you can take on the donation, though, can range from $12 to $55 per square foot of salvaged material, which Ortiz says "usually more than offsets" the initial cost.

Every situation is different, but Reiff is confident that within ten years in many cities you won't need a sharp pencil or a research study to prefer deconstruction. He expects conventional demolition to become less affordable, as landfill fees rise while the cost of bulldozers and the skilled labor to operate them stays high. Meanwhile, deconstruction will become cheaper as new ways to reuse old materials turn up. "Take steel casement windows," says Reiff. "We used to just break the glass and scrap the iron. Now, in some markets, people with lofts want dividers, so you can hang multiple steel casement windows next to each other" as a partition—a reuse that's more lucrative and more environmentally sound than recycling them as scrap.

TRP's contractor-training program runs a total of 16 to 20 hours, many of them on the job. The students already know construction; they're getting pointers on reversing the process. "It's how to take out, package, ship, handle, and market services so as to maintain maximum value and maximize their sales and tax-deduction potential," says Reiff. "Tax consequences, marketing, and how to bid a job are a big chunk of it." There are tools to be mastered that are unique to the process, like the pneumatic Nail Kicker, which pushes nails out of wood the way they came in.

Last year the Taunton Press published Unbuilding, which Ortiz refers to as "the bible" for the budding industry. The authors are Bob Falk, a research engineer at the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, and Brad Guy, professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University and president of the Building Materials Reuse Association. They call deconstruction "the ultimate green endeavor," noting that in 1996 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that "the equivalent of 250,000 single-family homes are disposed of each year, which represents an estimated 1 billion-plus board feet of available salvageable structural lumber, or about 3 percent of our annual softwood timber harvest." The book's full of photos that somehow manage to make even half-deconstructed buildings look good. Its how-to tips begin with the elementary—"Remove something only when you are sure that it's not supporting any other part of the building"—and move on to reminders that old two-by-fours may actually be two inches by four inches, and that there can be a big difference between a 14-foot-1-inch length of lumber (salable as a 14-footer) and a 13-foot-11-inch length (salable only as a 12-footer). Says research architect Thomas Napier of the Corps of Engineers' Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign, "Our project people have their routine and rhythm, and there are a lot of skeptics who value low first cost. This book will help."

Since the Reuse People have worked in western cities famous for being green, I asked Reiff what he thinks of Chicago as a venue. "Ain't been a better one," he said without hesitation. "I've been flabbergasted every time I come back. Everyone gets it." Ortiz echoes the point, though he acknowledges that the city official he met when seeking a permit for his first deconstruction job didn't quite get it. "I told him, 'We're gonna do deconstruction, not demolition.' He said, 'But when you leave, there's nothing there, right?' 'But I'll be reusing the stuff!' 'But when you leave, there's nothing there. You need a demolition permit.'"

Some people haven't thought of deconstruction, but others are in denial, says Reiff: "Typically we'll talk to someone on the phone and they'll say the house they want torn down is a piece of junk. And it's a great house! They just don't want to believe they're throwing away something of value."

In urban areas, lack of working space can make deconstruction seem more like a Houdini act. A house Ortiz deconstructed on the 3900 block of North Janssen came to within three feet of its neighbors on either side. "We had to put four-by-eight plywood sheets over the neighbors' property to protect it." When it came time to remove the roof, "we cut down the middle and took it down from the inside."

Deconstructing a building can be like indexing a book: everyone's in a hurry for you to get it over with. Each day a developer waits to begin construction costs money, and some jurisdictions compound the problem by not allowing a building to be demolished until a building permit has been issued for its replacement. Glencoe has such a rule, but suburban officials gave Ortiz some wiggle room: "They let us do interior deconstruction without a permit—the house became like a Hollywood set."

Well-intended environmental regulations can create problems too. For instance, lead paint is a known health hazard and a common obstacle to deconstruction, but as Bob Falk told a class at the Chicago Center for Green Technology, regulation of it is "very confused." Not only are the regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the EPA inconsistent with each other, none set standards for reuse of wood coated with lead-based paint. Falk and Guy take a preventive approach in Unbuilding, advising their readers to "avoid sanding, grinding, and sawing anything that's... coated with lead paint," and, if you can't, to "do it outside, wash your hands afterward, and change your clothes so you don't contaminate the people you come in contact with." Long-term, of course, the answer is to design buildings so that they can be deconstructed with minimal cost and hassle.

The market for structural lumber is also limited by industry standards. Used two-by-sixes, for instance, aren't considered acceptable for their original load-bearing purpose unless they are "regraded" (a very expensive process) as able to serve as such. Falk has done extensive testing of reused lumber and is working with grading agencies to adjust standards. Reiff notes that such lumber is fine for a non-load-bearing partition, closet, or shed. But if you're intent on reusing it structurally, he suggests that you become well acquainted with the building inspectors. "They have latitude and expertise—often the older guys will allow it."

Architect David Hamilton of Urban Habitat Chicago (a not-for-profit working for change "at the intersections of urban agriculture, the built environment, materials recovery and reuse, and emerging local industries") would like the city to give an informational flyer on deconstruction to everyone who takes out a demolition permit and encourage applicants to choose deconstruction by offering quick approval or reduced fees.

More spectacularly, he'd like to see the city do a high-profile building deconstruction that would grab attention the way City Hall's green roof did. Is that possible? Ted Reiff has no doubt. "On every job," he says, "when we leave for the day we see people come and look—walking their dogs by, pointing, and talking. It's hilarious." It's also hopeful. When a house has been part of the neighborhood for decades people hate to see it go down, says Ortiz. "But at least it's going to continue in some way living on."v

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