Deconstruction projects aim to give new life to historic building materials | St. Louis Public Radio

Deconstruction projects aim to give new life to historic building materials

Nov 18, 2018

For Eric Schwarz, a vacant building is more than a culmination of neglect and decay; it’s a treasure trove.

“Some of these materials will never be produced again,” said Schwarz, executive director of the St. Louis salvage nonprofit Refab. “Those handmade bricks, we’re not going to see those anymore.”

Refab has “deconstructed” more than 100 buildings in St. Louis, a process that involves carefully dismantling a property and reselling the materials for new projects. The nonprofit recently received a first-of-its-kind contract from the St. Louis Development Corporation as part of a new push to deconstruct more buildings slated for demolition.

As part of the contract, Refab will disassemble a three-story brick warehouse built in 1884 in the Vandeventer neighborhood.

Schwarz said the building was an “excellent candidate” for deconstruction, in part because its brick and timber have survived more than 100 years without being painted.

“We were just shocked when we got into it for the first time that it was so well preserved,” he said. 

Refab crews will dismantle the historic building and preserve its handmade bricks and timbers.
Credit Laura Ginn | SLDC

The 30,000-square-foot warehouse includes longleaf yellow pine beams, handmade bricks and extensive wooden paneling.

SLDC program manager Laura Ginn said it’s a “missed opportunity” to send these historic building materials to a landfill.

Although deconstruction is a much more labor-intensive process than traditional demolition, salvaged wood and lumber can be resold, which can offset higher labor costs.

“It takes more people to do more work, but you’re able to do that because there’s more money to be made,” said Ginn.

Proponents argue local job creation is one of deconstruction’s main selling points. 

The warehouse includes a beam from the original Baumann Cycle Company building in St. Louis. Schwarz said the beam will be removed during the deconstruction process and given a "third life."
Credit Laura Ginn | SLDC

Based on an analysis from Portland State University, deconstruction crews in Portland. Ore. were about two to three times larger than traditional demolition crews.

Ginn said the “meticulousness” of the process, which involves manually removing materials from a work site and sorting them, also cuts down on the release of toxic materials, such as lead dust.

“When you deconstruct a property, there’s more attention paid to the environmental and public health concerns,” she said.  

St. Louis is now following in the footsteps of other U.S. cities with deconstruction programs, including Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo.

To explore the possibility of an expanded deconstruction program, the SLDC is spearheading a partnership between city, state and federal agencies as well as St. Louis Community College.

The SLDC is now selecting 30 city-owned vacant buildings to be part of a deconstruction pilot project next year.

“Once we do that pilot of 30 buildings, we’re going to compare that to 30 comparable standard demolitions and see where those materials went, how many people were employed and how much did they make,” Ginn said.

The SLDC has also contracted the Delta Institute to complete a regional market research and analysis, which will include a standardized selection process for deconstruction projects and explore possible markets for salvaged materials.

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