Who can say what the walls of a certain home on Clio Street witnessed? Births? First kisses? Family drama? Laughter? Deaths?
Those walls have come down. The house, a victim of economic malaise and natural disaster, was too far-gone to be saved. But portions of the walls will live on nonetheless to witness the lives of local families in the future. Preservationists and environmentalists are teaming up to make sure of that.
In a warehouse downriver from their old home, the pieces and parts of the Clio Street home now wait in stacks, hoping for a new owner to put them into another home.
Welcome to deconstruction. It is to a condemned house what a Native American feast was to a downed buffalo. Work crews discard the fewest parts possible. That means saving not only historic gingerbread and doors, but also structural elements, such as floor joists. Local and national activists hope that it becomes the post-K standard for demolition.
“We’re going to continue to fight unnecessary demolitions,” says Kristen Gisleson-Palmer, director of the Rebuilding Together program at the Preservation Resource Center. But if a building clearly requires demolition, “then the smartest thing to do is to salvage what you can.”
The local deconstruction push began in the weeks after the levees broke in 2005. Walter Gallas, director of the New Orleans field office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, saw with his local colleagues a tidal wave of demolitions approaching. He began to lobby FEMA to require demolition contractors to deconstruct historic homes, rather than just reduce them to rubble destined for a landfill.
At first, he encountered bureaucratic resistance. With persistence, Gallas won a partial victory. “We had to settle for selective salvage of architectural features,” he says.
FEMA opened the doors of historic structures to Gallas and the Preservation Resource Center. Preservationists tagged salvage items for extraction from the buildings before the wrecking crews arrived.
“Give FEMA credit for sitting down and working with us,” says Palmer. “They had to think out of the box and it took them more time.”
Palmer says the City of New Orleans has agreed to continue to work with preservationists on salvage as it begins to move down its demolition list. That will mean a world of new work for Palmer and her fellow preservationists.
Hard core deconstruction
it was clear that the devastation of the Crescent City would create a massive debrisBy November 2005, when Rick Denhart arrived in New Orleans from Portland, Ore., problem—and thereby a strain on the environment. Denhart, director of Gulf Coast hurricane recovery for the humanitarian aid group Mercy Corps, saw immediately the resource that was at stake.
That led to a Mercy Corps pilot project, supported in part by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to deconstruct 15 houses. So far, the group has completed eight deconstruction projects. Denhart says Mercy Corps has managed a “salvage rate” of 30 percent to 60 percent, meaning 40 percent to 70 percent ends up in a landfill, rather than 100 percent.
Denhart points to a long list of advantages to deconstruction over demolition: preventing debris from going to landfills; recycling the resources contained in a dwelling; reusing the high-quality historic materials and items, such
as old-growth lumber; using deconstruction projects as a training ground for construction workers; keeping high-quality or unique salvaged items in the local area; creating employment, since deconstruction takes several times more workers than demolition; and even providing an education for builders, architects and engineers.
“It’s a great education for them to see a house taken apart,” Denhart says. “You see the different construction methodologies from different time periods.”
He says Mercy Corps is trying to spin off the benefits to local nonprofits like the Preservation Resource Center and others, as well as private contractors, to help them build inventories of quality materials—and, thereby, build local capacity.
“I think Orleans Parish can really be a leader in showing other cities that this can be done,” Denhart says. He hopes to help the city build “a legacy of awareness around deconstruction and the environment.”
Denhart also notes the humanity in deconstruction. For someone whose home was destroyed, donating the materials helps bring positive closure to what would otherwise be pure tragedy. “It offers them dignity in having their home removed,” he says.
Preservationists intend to keep the ball rolling. Palmer says the PRC is expanding its warehouse to receive new materials. The organization is selling salvaged materials at a low cost, exclusively to locals who are rebuilding locally, as well as using the materials for the PRC’s own projects. Ultimately, Palmer hopes to build an in-house deconstruction crew and make the enterprise self-sustaining.
Gallas, meanwhile, hopes to make deconstruction a mandatory part of demolition, at least for historic structures. “Deconstruction is something that we would want to become a standard practice within government policy,” he says.
Palmer shares that view. “[The historic fabric] may seem like a vast resource, but it’s not,” she says. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Deconstruction by the numbers
deconstruction by the numbers (Home deconstructions supported by Mercy Corps):
• The Clio Street house costs about $10,000 to deconstruct; the value of the sale of the salvaged material is at least $5,000, resulting in a bottom line cost of $5,000 to remove the building.
• The cost estimate for demolition for Clio Street is between $6,000 and $7,500 with no value for resale of reusable building materials. Therefore, deconstruction is 20 to 30 percent less than demolition.
• These numbers don’t take into account that the homeowner can receive a tax-deductible receipt for materials, which would further offset the cost of deconstruction.
Deslonde Street house, c. 1960s (opposite page)
Actual deconstruction cost: $5,850
1,400 sq. ft., 1 floor, on piers
Not collapsed, flooded, off foundation, not vacant
280 labor hours
50 percent of building salvaged.
Dumaine Street house, c. 1850s
Actual deconstruction cost: $7,255
2,200 sq. ft., 2 floors, wood on piers
Collapsed, not flooded, termites
420 labor hours, includes training
35 percent of building salvaged
St. Bernard Avenue house, c. 1890s
Actual deconstruction cost: $6,475
2,000 sq. ft., 2 floors, wood on piers
Collapsed, not flooded, unoccupied
240 labor hours
42 percent of building salvaged
N. Robertson Street house, c. 1860s
Actual deconstruction cost: $10,500
3,000 sq. ft., 3 floors, wood on piers
Collapsed, not flooded, unoccupied
480 labor hours
60 percent of building salvaged
Information courtesy of the Mercy Corps