Deconstructing Detroit

Nonprofit sets out to destroy the monster of 'ruin porn' one abandoned home at a time


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In a neighborhood near Henry Ford Hospital called Northwest Goldberg, a boarded-up home at the corner of the block is surrounded by overgrown trees and broken glass. It’s a common example of “ruin porn” overplayed by the media.

Eliminating decay in Detroit is a monstrous undertaking, but if Reclaim Detroit and the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force do what they intend to do, things are about to change — for the better.

Nearly 80,000 abandoned buildings loom over the city. No mayor has ever been able to make much of a dent in Detroit’s vacant properties. But Kevyn Orr, the state-appointed emergency manager, has allocated $520 million to tackle blight over the next six years.

Demolishing a home in Detroit is relatively cheap, costing about $8-10,000, and many consider this as the best option. So why not quickly tear down every single home? Negative environmental impacts include spreading asbestos and lead poisoning, which can affect neighboring communities with hazardous dust.

That’s why Reclaim Detroit, which began in 2011, is applying their in-depth research to push for “deconstructing” 10 percent (about 8,000) or more of the city’s abandoned buildings. And according to Jeremy Haines, Reclaim Detroit’s sales and marketing manager, they’re creating more jobs for locals, as well.

“A lot of people have deconstruction in the country — nobody has ever done it on this scale,” says Reclaim Detroit’s Executive Director Craig Varterian. “The financial situation is obviously dire, the blight is 100 times greater than any other urban market. But with that said, there is a very strong movement to resolve these issues in Detroit for the first time in probably 20-25 years.”

FINDING SOLUTIONS

Haines’ deconstruction expertise and Varterian’s passion for sustainability has created quite a buzz around Detroit’s deconstruction efforts. Now they’re working with the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force to come up with a master plan.

“This will transform the fate of Detroit’s landscape and lay down the groundwork for future development,” Varterian says.

The blight task force has three high-powered members: Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Rock Ventures LLC; Glenda D. Price, president of Detroit Public Schools Foundation; and Linda Smith, executive director of U-SNAP-BAC, Inc.

At press time, the task force was scheduled to share with Orr and Mayor Mike Duggan a detailed implementation plan on how to remove every blighted residential structure, commercial structure, and public building, as well as clear every blighted vacant lot in the city of Detroit as quickly and environmentally conscious as possible.

Meetings with Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA) have initiated more deconstruction efforts. The DLBA has developed a Blight Elimination and Redevelopment Strategic Plan to target the hardest-hit areas. It’s just a matter of determining how many homes will be allowed to be deconstructed, Haines says.

While deconstructing every abandoned home in Detroit is out of the question, Reclaim Detroit is working with every organization they can to push sustainable initiatives.

“We know we aren’t the solution to the problem but we’d like to be a piece of that puzzle, and we’re really providing a valuable service,” says Lisa Grace, development director for EcoWorks (formerly known as WARM Training Center, where Reclaim Detroit was started).

Instead of deconstructing an entire house, from a cost-benefit perspective, the nonprofit determined three days to be the optimal time to hollow out a house and collect all the wood flooring, joists, and doors, as well as prepare the house for final demolition by getting rid of all the items that have lead.

Aside from the positive environmental effects, Reclaim Detroit hires more people than would be needed to simply demolish a home and has trained more than 300 people in asbestos and lead abatement. Even though the nonprofit can’t employ all those people full time, they get useful training to look for other jobs.

“A Michigan-specific challenge for deconstruction is it’s very cheap to throw things away, and paying for deconstruction here is much higher than in other parts of the country,” Haines says.

Other cities part of the Rust Belt have also experienced extreme deindustrialization and blight, but Haines — who used to work in Baltimore where the industry standard for deconstruction began — will tell you the deconstruction game in Detroit is completely different.

BIG TEST AHEAD

Back at the Northwest Goldberg neighborhood, Reclaim Detroit has partnered with Henry Ford Health System and is preparing to deconstruct 15 homes. Most of the homes have been bought through the city’s tax auction for next to nothing and will be deconstructed for the Henry Ford Hospital Neighborhood Revitalization Plan.

Once the 15 homes are completed, Reclaim Detroit hopes to replicate the project as a model for future large-scale deconstruction initiatives throughout the city.

“We have a hospital immediately proximate to these sites, and we are going to be expanding our hospital and health care facilities in the near future,” says Jordan Cox, a project manager for the Henry Ford Health System. “Instead of doing traditional campus development with a barrier between the neighborhood and institution, we’ve decided to take an integrative approach that will be more beneficial to the [surrounding] community.”

Cox has worked with the Reclaim Detroit team before and says they are the “go-to” contractor in Detroit for actively pursuing a deconstruction approach.

“We think it’s a healthier alternative to traditional demolition,” Cox says. “We love their whole mission, their job training, hiring people in the community, recycling materials. It’s in sync with our focus to stay as environmentally conscious as possible.”

DESIRABLE DETROIT

Many of Detroit’s abandoned homes have been exposed to the elements and have fire damage or waste dumped inside of them. That’s where Reclaim Detroit comes in. They pinpoint the best homes and go after the old-growth structural wood to repurpose or sell to lumber companies — and demand is exceeding supply.

There’s an increasing amount of international interest for reclaimed materials from Detroit, with inquiries coming in from Japan, London, and France.

“You’re talking about millions and millions of feet of lumber, old-growth lumber, beautiful lumber that doesn’t exist anymore sitting right in these houses, and you have to wonder: Do you throw it all out, do you demo it, or do you re-task it and create something new out of it?” Varterian says.

Reclaim Detroit is a construction company, a wholesale company, and a design company all at once — with less than 30 full-time employees. Varterian emphasized their goal of one day becoming self-funded.

“Whatever profits we make or whatever we are doing, we put back into the organization to expand our programs,” he says. “All nonprofits need to learn how to be less needy these days.”

Typically, architectural salvage is all about grabbing the easiest high-value items you can find, but oftentimes with Detroit’s blighted houses, active illegal scrappers have already snatched the best stuff.  So Reclaim Detroit must get creative with the materials they find.  For example, their popular cutting boards and butcher blocks have stirred up quite a following.

“It’s a monster,” Haines says. “It’s one of the most complicated operations I’ve ever run, but we are turning this crisis into opportunity, what was formally seen as rubbish into beautiful home furnishings and other products — we’re turning blight into beauty.”

Inside Reclaim Detroit’s woodshop, doors, piles of lumber, and treasures from abandoned homes fill up the space, while two full-time employees complete orders for countertops, dining room tables, and everything in between.

One of these workers, Lee Powels, lives in Southwest Detroit and will tell you firsthand what it’s like to raise three children in a neighborhood surrounded by abandoned homes.

“You can walk down a block and count 10 houses; if one is on fire, and you call the fire department, they just let it burn down — I mean, who came up with that?” Powels says.

As a mill shop worker, Powels has constructed everything from children’s toys to conference room tables to countertops.

“Before I was unsure, but working here makes me keep pushing, it’s that thing that keeps me going, it’s not just a job, it’s fun,” Powels says.

He started working with the organization by completing a 10-week training program with weatherization and deconstruction classes, and Grace says his work ethic stuck out and he was hired full time.

“It’s so hard to get a job in Detroit right now, and it’s so hard to keep one, so that’s why I try to stay strong and positive, and try to learn something new every day,” Powels says.

Powels assists in deconstructing homes as well, wherever he is needed. He has also helped create the countertops, flooring, tasting table, and decorative walls found in Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company in Midtown, the picnic tables found at Shinola’s headquarters outdoor patio in Detroit, and even the flooring at micro-distillery Two James Spirits.

More and more people are joining the reclaimed wood movement that Reclaim Detroit is spearheading.

“The idea of a coffee shop is really about the exchange of stories and ideas, and Detroit is rich in stories, so when the materials themselves have a story, you can’t beat that,” says James Cadariu, partner of Great Lakes Coffee.

Cadariu says he visited the Reclaim Detroit workshop two years ago and looked at different species of wood, some as old as the historically registered 1880s Midtown building where his business calls home.

Reclaim Detroit has grown exponentially since its inception, gaining a respected voice with city officials to accept their deconstruction methods, as well as shipping their products and lumber nationwide. A LEED-certified McDonald’s being built in Michigan has even inquired about using some of their lumber to build a decorative wall.

Varterian and Haines are constantly at work to gain access to more homes for deconstruction. And they’re very hard to track down, but for good reason. They are living proof for how Detroit is rebuilding itself from the inside out.

But it goes beyond Detroit.

“We just had a phone call the other day asking us, ‘Can you ship some of that wood to Japan?’ ” Varterian says. “The wood we’re pulling out of these houses in Detroit is not the same as what’s available on the market anymore, and the tightness of grain from old-growth forests doesn’t exist anymore.”

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