Environment
10:28 am
Tue August 16, 2011

Deconstructing Detroit

Nearly a quarter of the homes in Detroit are empty. That’s more than 79,000 vacant homes, according to the last Census.

Of those, Mayor Dave Bing’s office considers 12,000 to be dangerous. They’re burned out, or falling apart. They attract squatters and drug dealers. So the city is paying contractors to demolish them.

But another group of people says some of these homes don’t have to be demolished. They can be taken apart board by board... and the materials can be salvaged.

The non-profit WARM Training Center is teaching deconstruction classes to residents of Detroit who are unemployed. They want to create a new industry in the city and put some people back to work.

Today, the student work crew is clearing out a 1930’s bungalow in Southwest Detroit. The porch and the roof are crumbling. The team’s pulling out bag after bag of trash.

“All the neighbors, they’re just delighted this is happening. It’s been a long time coming.”

Dorothy Young is sitting on her front porch next door, watching. She says most people on her street have gardens and they mow their grass. But the people who lived next door were hoarders, and the house filled up with junk. Eventually, they were foreclosed on. Then the house sat empty. Kids started breaking in, smashing the windows.

“People were coming in and staying over. I was afraid they would start a fire.”

She says she’s glad to see the house taken down... but she’s not sure there will be anything good left inside.

James Willer is the site supervisor and one of the class instructors. He’s helping a group of guys clear out the garage. Once the site is safe... they’ll start the painstaking work.

“The last thing that went on in building the house is the first thing that comes off.”

The hardwood floors and the kitchen cabinets will go first. Then the windows and the doors.

Next, it’s the roof, then the walls, then the foundation.

Then, a crew will backfill the site, and you’d never know there was an 80 year old house here.

Willer says there’s a lot of value in these old homes. He says the lumber can be especially valuable. For example, a lot of older houses were built with heart pine – it’s from centuries-old trees, and you can’t buy it at your typical home improvement store.

“If we just treated everything as wholesale from the last house we did, there’s about $40,000 of materials there.”

That’s for everything from hardwood floors and windows to steel and siding.

But taking a house apart literally nail by nail is not fast. It can take two or three weeks. Demolishing a home takes just half an hour.

And demolished homes – along with their contents – usually go to the landfill. This is the third house the WARM Training Center has taken apart, and so far with the first two, they’ve diverted about 90 percent of the materials from the landfill.

James Willer says this could be a viable new industry.

“We have the building stock to be able to start to kind of jumpstart that economy, with the residents of Detroit, teaching them valuable skills that are going to make them more marketable in their professional careers.”

Dwayne Brown is one of the students working on the house. He says he feels like deconstructing the house helps preserve some of its history.

“I think about the people who first moved in here: what were they like? How excited they were when they first moved into their home, despite where they came from.”

Brown says he’s hoping to start his own business.

“And if we are to help the city of Detroit save its neighborhoods, well they need more people out here in the field. This is a dream and it will be a challenge.”

So far the city has demolished more than three thousand homes. The WARM Training Center is hoping officials will start letting them save some of the materials from the homes that remain.