A STATELY WHITE duplex has been keeping watch over the intersection of SE 15th and Umatilla for the last 114 years. Built in 1902, it sits on a large corner lot and boasts about 2,500 square feet of living space with a full, unfinished basement. A porch runs the length of the façade and wraps around the building's east side.
This classic Portland home—unique not only for its age, but also because city code no longer allows construction of this type of duplex in its zoning area—was sold in October 2015 for $800,000. The new owner isn't planning to enjoy the home's expansive patio or its mature landscaping, though. He's going to rip the whole thing out.
Buyer Vic Remmers, owner of Beaverton-based Everett Custom Homes, was granted a demolition permit last month for the home. Remmers says he's going to raze the century-old structure and replace it with three new single-family homes.
The three-for-one trade is good news for Portland's ongoing housing crisis. And for Portlanders concerned with preserving the city's history, Remmers' choice to deconstruct—rather than demolish—the home will also be a welcome one.
In deconstruction, developers carefully dismantle the home piece by piece and salvage the materials for reuse, rather than using heavy equipment to pulverize and haul them to a landfill—otherwise known as demolition.
Portland is in the midst of what Peggy Moretti, executive director of preservation advocacy nonprofit Restore Oregon, calls a "demolition epidemic."
"It's chewing away at the character of many older Portland neighborhoods," Moretti says. "The market has created financial incentives for demolition, so we need to balance that out a bit with some disincentives."
On February 17, Mayor Charlie Hales will introduce a proposal to city council that would provide some of those disincentives. The resolution, if passed, would direct the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) to develop code requiring full deconstruction of all single-family homes and duplexes that were either built prior to 1916, or that are designated as historic resources.
"I'm interested in doing a number of things to slow the rate of demolition of these great old buildings," Hales says. "The ordinance requiring deconstruction itself isn't a 'Eureka!' solution, but it's one of three or four solutions that we hope will create a different picture in the future."
Hales' first proposal to this end—a $25,000 demolition tax—didn't fly with his fellow commissioners, but he says he's "hearing supportive comments from the members of council" he's talked to.
Moretti testified to council in November that Portland was on track to lose more than 400 single-family homes in 2015. Alisa Kane, green building and development manager for BPS, says that, on average, about 300 homes a year come down in favor of new development. Of those, a third were built before 1916.
"Homes that are more than 100 years old, if they've been reasonably maintained over the years, have materials, like old-growth Doug fir, that can be salvaged and have great value," Hales says. "The deconstruction process creates jobs and offers great environmental value in our community where there's concern that a mechanized demolition puts a house in a blender and can spew a lot of pollutants into the neighborhood."
Michael Armstrong, senior sustainability manager at BPS, says the city already encourages deconstruction over demolition, but believes making it a common practice will require policy change.
"Deconstruction jobs serve as gateways to higher-paying construction jobs," he says. "The salvage industry estimates that 25 new people will be needed to meet the increased work as a result of the new requirements."
There's a reason developers opt for demolitions: They're quicker and cheaper than deconstruction.
Kane says demolishing a home takes a few people, an excavator, and a day or two. After inspecting a house and removing visible environmentally hazardous materials—like asbestos and lead—one person operating heavy machinery can smash through the home quickly
It's a crude process and neighbors worry that hidden pollutants are released into the air.
Their worries might be justified: According to recent reporting by the Oregonian, hundreds of Portland homes have been demolished without proper asbestos removal—a potential health hazard.
"With deconstruction you increase the likelihood of discovering additional instances of hazardous materials hidden inside the walls," Kane says.
Following demolition, what's left is a pile of unusable sticks and twisted metal destined for the landfill. Deconstruction is a lengthier, more expensive process—it can take a crew of six to eight trained workers five days or so, and cost 40 to 60 percent more—but what's left is a neat stack of high-quality, reusable lumber and hardware.
Bob Falk, co-author of Unbuilding: Salvaging the Architectural Treasures of Unwanted Houses, writes that the lumber in those old homes is often of higher quality than anything on the market today and can fetch a hefty price.
"The quality of the structural lumber in our older buildings is like nothing we'll ever see again in our lifetimes," says Jordan Jordan (yes, that's his name), a used material broker at Portland nonprofit Earth Advantage. "Someone more poetic than me said something like, 'Our old-growth forests are still standing; they're in our historic buildings.'"
It's more than just the lumber—old glass doorknobs, ornate mantelpieces, and brass fixtures can be salvaged and reused or sold.
"There's a lot of great history in those old homes," Kane says. "There's an afterlife in them and salvaging those materials reduces waste and carbon emissions."
Jordan says construction and demolition debris accounts for about 25 percent of total annual waste in the Metro area. Deconstruction reduces carbon emissions by two to three times by preserving existing materials and avoiding the carbon cost of producing new materials.
"Deconstruction is a far superior option to mechanical demolition," he says. "It creates more jobs than traditional demolition, supports small businesses, and... offers an affordable option for acquiring quality used building materials."