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Duluth homes condemned, but value not forgotten

A project between St. Louis County and Better Futures Minnesota is salvaging building materials from three uninhabitable homes and putting the lots back on tax rolls.

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Scotty White, of Minneapolis, hammers nails out of a board at a home they are demolishing at 215 South 62nd Ave. West in Duluth Wednesday morning as part of Better Futures Minnesota. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The squeaks and squeals of pulling nails driven into lumber 114 years ago gave a high-pitched soundtrack Wednesday to a home demolition unlike most others.

Located at 215 S. 62nd Ave. W. in the Fairmount neighborhood in western Duluth, the blighted property was already stripped to its bones, and would be down before the month was out.

“We like to say it was toward the end of its useful life as a habitable structure,” Christopher Johnson, with St. Louis County Land and Minerals, said. “They’re starting to get into the later phases with the dimensional lumber exposed.”

A "before" picture of the sagging house stood on a placard in the front yard as St. Louis County used the process on display to highlight its collaboration with Better Futures Minnesota, which strives to save old construction materials from being discarded into landfills.

“We believe fervently that climate change is real,” Steve Thomas, founder of Better Futures, said. “We do a typical house like this, we estimate we avert the emission of about 250 metric tons of carbon dioxide.”

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Melvin Stewart, of Minneapolis, looks over lumber saved from a demolition site at 215 South 62nd Ave. West in Duluth Wednesday morning as part of Better Futures Minnesota. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Carbon dioxide is emitted from burning fossil fuels, and traps heat responsible for warming the climate. By reusing materials, it saves energy required to create newer materials, Thomas explained.

The lumber being deconstructed piece by piece joined piles of maple flooring, tubs and fixtures currently being salvaged by Better Futures from three tax-forfeited properties across western Duluth. The other homes were located on 67th and 80th avenues west.

Because the homes are unlivable, the properties weren’t yet able to be entered into the county’s popular tax-forfeited property auctions.

Instead, when the deconstruction process is complete, St. Louis County will hire a contractor to clear out the foundation and level the lot, ultimately receiving a clean site it can put up for sale.

A similar site on Rose Street in eastern Duluth yielded the type of success the county is seeking.

“They subdivided that lot and one (contractor) has put up two homes now,” Eric Singsaas, of the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute, said.

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NRRI is helping with the deconstruction project by providing storage space for the recovered materials in preparation for resale. NRRI staff is also assisting Better Futures to get the most value from the resources they pull from the houses, and by helping identify wood species and quality.

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Jmarquello Hollins, of Minneapolis, pulls nails from a stud at a demolition site at 215 South 62nd Ave. West in Duluth Wednesday morning as part of Better Futures Minnesota. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

“We provide scientific research into what can be done with some of the harder-to-use materials like drywall, insulation and shingles,” NRRI’s Victor Krause said. “Things that are typically recycled in the Twin Cities, but there’s not a whole lot of places up here that do that. We want to make them usable after taking them out of a place like this.”

St. Louis County teamed with Better Futures this time using a state environmental trust fund grant intended to return the properties into lots for sale. In 2018, St. Louis County teamed with Better Futures to deconstruct four structures.

“If we were going through a traditional demolition process, there would be up to 85% of these materials going into the landfill,” Johnson said. “What we’re looking to do is get these lots back on the tax rolls and available in the future.”

Better Futures will host a two-day sale of salvaged materials from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 2-3 at 2024 Carnegie St., Oliver, Wisconsin. Included in the sale will be lumber, cast iron tubs, bricks and windows.

Artists often like to purchase the old windows, said Thomas, whose company is in its 10th year of operation. It also does private work with homeowners, who are able to deduct the taxable value of materials removed from old structures. Better Futures is scheduled to deconstruct 60 buildings in 2020, Thomas said.

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Melvin Stewart, of Minneapolis, gets ready to add a stabilizing beam to a stud at 215 South 62nd Ave. West in Duluth Wednesday while Better Futures Minnesota takes down a house. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Thomas was pleased to be in Duluth, a treasure trove for his type of work.

“There is no hard and fast rule, but typically the older the building, the better,” Thomas said. “The reason why we’re so grateful to work with St. Louis County is that it has some of the oldest buildings in the state.”

The half-dozen men using wrecking bars and nail pullers to break down the condemned home's framework were all recently released from incarceration and are serious about turning their lives around, Thomas said.

Better Futures typically has four deconstruction efforts ongoing in the state, mostly around the metro area. Soon, the company will take part in a new project with Becker County in Northwestern Minnesota, where it will place a crew at a transfer station and intercept useful construction debris and other items bound for the landfill.

From there, Thomas expects further growth.

“All of this stuff is showing up at transfer stations to get buried at a landfill,” Thomas said, “and we’ve got a crew pulling it out.”

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