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On June 3, Portland City Council voted unanimously to speed up the timeline of the city’s resolution to promote deconstruction as a viable alternative to mechanical demolition in, as the mayor said, “the hopefully rare instances where [tearing down a house] is justified.”


Unfortunately, the City Council did not set a date for when deconstruction will become mandatory. The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s Deconstruction Advisory Group is to report back in January instead of the originally proposed September 2016 with a plan based on results of education, training, technical assistance, and incentive pilot projects to promote voluntary deconstruction. But the building and deconstruction industries need to know when they will need to make the change.

Deconstruction is the systematic disassembly of a building in order to maximize the reuse of its materials. The City Council recognizes that deconstruction as opposed to mechanical demolition, reduces waste of natural resources and minimizes carbon emissions. It reuses lumber rather than “recycles” it — by being ground up and burned to produce energy or garden mulch — when buildings are mechanically demolished. The council recognizes that deconstruction creates an estimated six jobs for every one in mechanical demolitions and the economic benefit of often higher-quality materials at lower prices for residents repairing their homes.

Even more urgently, they know that deconstruction controls asbestos, lead and other hazardous materials. Mechanical demolition creates clouds of dust that spread them into neighbors’ yards and gardens. Eighty percent of houses that have hazardous materials abatement before deconstruction need to have follow-up abatement when the walls are opened. Even with an initial abatement, mechanical demolition would spew the hidden materials into the air.

The benefits are many; yet few developers consistently deconstruct. The city is planning to provide training, education and pilot projects to incentivize voluntary deconstruction before making it required. But no date is set for the mandate. Portland’s deconstruction industry has been operating for two decades. Deconstruction needs to be supported not incentivized.

Once the City Council announces when deconstruction must be the way Portland does demolition, the transition will begin. Ted Reiff of The Reuse Place stated on its website last month, “The biggest challenge in running a retail establishment for salvaged building materials ... is simply obtaining sufficient inventory.”

When the volume of used building materials increases, prices go down, sales go up, and the market expands. If deconstructionists know when to expect the increased volume, they can invest in growing their work force and/or retail space; and new companies will arise.

If developers know when they will be expected to deconstruct, they can start educating themselves, modifying work schedules, and getting deconstruction bids. Many may start now to get a front seat on the bandwagon. Their customers will know that there may be some increase in costs, at least until the increase in deconstructions brings efficiencies to the field.

The proposed training, education and pilot projects are needed not to incentivize but to focus on maintaining the safety and quality standards already set by our deconstruction industry pioneers. National and international deconstruction research and training organizations are available. BPS and the DAG committee can move on to management and support of the transition instead of working to persuade the building industry to do something they know they will be doing.

We must stop the demolition epidemic, which on average is one house a day with more than 90 percent being by mechanical demolition. In the meantime, however, we must not allow building materials to be turned into pollution rather than products. The City Council has taken a stand on why we have to begin deconstruction. They now need to take a stand and say when. Neighbors across the city, especially those within several hundred feet of scheduled demolitions, need it to be very soon.

Barbara Kerr is the United Neighborhoods for Reform representative on the city’s Deconstruction Advisory Group and was a founder of Rejuvenation Inc., then Rejuvenation House Parts Co., which started in 1977 selling used building materials to people restoring older homes.

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