How to fight blight: Expert says planning a building's whole life cycle could reduce abandonment

Feb 25, 2016

The Next Idea

Michigan is all too familiar with the sight of abandoned buildings. Detroit is one of the most significant examples, where hundreds of millions of dollars are being spend on demolition.

One of many abandoned structures in Detroit
Credit flickr user Stephen Harlan /

Rex LaMore wonders whether we can’t save taxpayers the cost of abandonment by planning for the end of a building’s life from the very beginning. LaMore is director of Michigan State University’s Center for Community and Economic Development, and he’s looking at ways to address Michigan’s glut of abandoned buildings.

He recently received a U.S. Department of Commerce grant to work on the problem in Muskegon, an area LaMore tells us is desirable because of “the potential to use the port as an economic growth engine for the region, and to create jobs around the deconstruction sector by gathering the debris from many of the great cities along the Great Lakes shoreline and then bringing that to Muskegon.”

LaMore will be working with 3,000 abandoned structures in Muskegon, as well as looking at materials from Chicago, Toledo, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee and other Great Lakes cities to determine the economic feasibility of their reuse.

LaMore’s research emphasizes deconstruction over demolition, but he tells us that’s something of an uphill battle because the former lacks economic incentive.

“We’re particularly interested in what we’re calling the ‘high-volume, low-value’ material,” he says. He explains that when a structure is abandoned, it will quickly be scavenged of valuable materials like copper or unique artifacts. These “high-volume, low-value” materials are what’s left over: the less desirable stuff like wood siding, roofing, linoleum flooring and interior walls.

“A considerable amount of this material ends up in landfills,” LaMore says. “Are there other ways that we might repurpose this material?”

LaMore tells us that blight has become such a problem in the Midwest because landowners currently operate in a paradigm that allows them to “essentially abandon their property” when they’re done with it, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for cleanup.

"If ... you're going to be responsible for taking the property apart at the end of its useful life, you're going to build it differently."

“We really need to think differently about structures having a life cycle, so that at the beginning of planning, design, construction, use, reuse, and finally deconstruction, we’ll think about buildings having life cycles,” he says.

To that end, LaMore and his team are leading the charge in a field of study they're calling “domicology.”

Domicology, as LaMore defines it, is “the study of abandoned structures, policies and practices that result in abandonment, and ways that we can mitigate the negative social, environmental and economic implications of that."

“So if you think about, again, the policy issues, how would we collect financial resources at the construction of a new structure such that at the end of the useful life of that structure, there would be financial resources to deconstruct it?”

LaMore tells us the state of Michigan already allows local governments to require developers to purchase a bond on structures that “present a clear public health and safety hazard,” like cell towers and electricity-generating windmills, so that at the end of those structures' useful lives, there’s money set aside to take care of their deconstruction or demolition. He wants to extend that bonding authority to other structures.

His team is also looking at the possibility of requiring developers to purchase third-party insurance policies on new construction that would collect a premium over the life of that structure, again to ensure that sufficient funds are available to properly dispose of the structure at the end of its life.

LaMore argues that adopting this broader perspective of a structure’s life cycle will fundamentally alter design and construction policies.

“If you think about, you’re going to be responsible for taking the property apart at the end of its useful life, you’re going to build it differently,” he says. “For example, you’re going to use screws instead of glue. It just allows you to maximize the resource extraction out of that. So it’ll affect the design of the structure, it’ll affect the possible use of it and possible reuse.”

“Domicology is a long-term science. It’s going to require some consideration,” and many policy discussions, he says. LaMore hopes that the work he and his team are undertaking in Muskegon will help disrupt the current school of thought and bring to light “substantial health and safety and environmental challenges that we can think differently about in the future so our grandchildren are not dealing with a system of abandonment like we are.”

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