Pilot program aims to reuse, recycle materials from condemned buildings

Santos Luna stacks maple floor boards on a pair of sawhorses behind a Duluth house being disassembled as part of a project designed to reuse materials from blighted properties rather than hauling them to a dump. Luna was removing nails from the boards so they can be sold. Steve Kuchera /
Santos Luna stacks maple floor boards on a pair of sawhorses behind a Duluth house being disassembled as part of a project designed to reuse materials from blighted properties rather than hauling them to a dump. Luna was removing nails from the boards so they can be sold. Steve Kuchera /

Society as a whole has taken a much dimmer view of highway littering in the past 50 years, said Alex Baldwin, a project manager for Better Futures Minnesota.

"We'd like to think sort of the same thing is going to happen, in terms of how people think about throwing away a house," he said.

Better Futures Minnesota is one of St. Louis County's partners in a project now underway in Duluth's Morley Heights neighborhood.

At a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Baldwin said: "What you see behind me is basically deconstruction versus demolition. So you see eight to 10 guys carefully dismantling and systematically reclaiming building materials."

He contrasted the scene to a typical demolition, which probably would involve one person working about six hours with a backhoe, and all the debris heading to a landfill.


When a house is deconstructed, Baldwin said usually 75 to 80 percent of the materials are reclaimed or recycled.

Thomas Adams, president and CEO of Better Futures Minnesota

In weighing the merits of deconstruction, people sometimes fail to consider the whole picture, said Thomas Adams, president and CEO of Better Futures.

"Oftentimes, when people compare demolition and deconstruction, they compare just the cash outlay right at the beginning. But we don't believe that's a fair comparison," he said.

Adams pointed to the legacy of overflowing landfills and the health risks they present. He also noted the increase in jobs and taxes generated by dismantling a building.

"When you factor those things in, we don't believe that demolition is cheaper than deconstruction," Adams said.

While the up-front cost of deconstructing versus demolishing a 2,000-square-foot home would typically be about $9,000 greater, Adams said a property owner who donates salvaged materials for reuse qualifies for a tax write-off.

"When we've crunched the numbers - and we've been doing this now for about five years - you do come out ahead in deconstruction. So we believe there's an economic reason for deconstruction and there's an environmental reason for deconstruction," he said, not to mention the social benefits of providing more gainful employment.


With the help of a state grant, St. Louis County expects to partner with others and deconstruct condemned structures on four tax-forfeited parcels of land this summer, said Ryan Logan, a planner for the county.

Thomas Bellanger uses a tamper to break up a plaster wall on Wednesday. Steve Kuchera / DNT

"The goal is to sell the vacant land and get the property back into private ownership and back into the property tax base," Logan said.

The county also is drawing on the experience of Miigwech Aki, an Anishinaabe initiative started 32 years ago in the Bemidji area.

Joe Day said the goal of Miigwech Aki is "to help folks learn about getting jobs, working and improving their lives."

That effort has spread statewide to places like St. Louis County, and Day said crews aim "to take Mother Earth's products, like wood, stone, concrete and to not put it into a landfill, but to reuse it. Everything we've got is from Mother Earth, and we want to protect Mother Earth. This project is doing that, and our workers are learning new skills."

The Natural Resources Research Institute is assisting in the St. Louis County pilot project, as well. Victor Krause, a materials scientist for the institute said he and other staff are working on four fronts:

  • Examining the deconstruction methods to optimize the value of recovered materials and the safety of workers
  • Identifying the various species of wood recovered to better assign value to the materials
  • Showing workers how reclaimed wood can be turned into value-added products, such as benches and table tops to fund their programs
  • Quantifying the environmental benefits of keeping materials out of landfills

"Keeping the material out of the landfill has an effect on things like greenhouse gas emissions and some of the stuff that may leach into the groundwater," Krause said.
After the pilot project is completed, Logan said St. Louis County will consider whether it makes sense to adopt deconstruction on a wider scale.


St. Louis Commissioner Patrick Boyle said he predicts the decision will be "a no-brainer."

Boyle said the county is eager to put more tax-forfeited properties back to productive uses - such as new housing - that will once again generate taxes.

"That's a big focus we've had, with the economic development we've seen, and folks at Cirrus and AAR sometimes unable to find enough housing for their workers," he said.

To buy materials

Lumber and other materials reclaimed from the deconstruction now underway at 538 Rose St. in Duluth, will be available for sale on site June 1 and June 8 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Related Topics: HOUSING
Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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