Deconstructing Detroit: Can large stock of vacant homes, schools spur a new industry? |

As Detroit Mayor Dave Bing continues his aggressive plan to tear down 10,000 blighted homes during his tenure, leaders of a burgeoning industry believe the city has a unique opportunity to create jobs through deconstruction rather than simple demolition.

Deconstruction, as Diane Van Buren of development consultant Zachary and Associates tells, is the “opposite of demolition, in that it is the careful removal of materials and then the repurposing of those materials for new use.”

As of late 2009, Detroit was home to more than 33,500 vacant homes, according to a survey conducted by Data Driven Detroit. And while many of those were in good condition, others were awaiting demolition or fire.

“I’m an Indian Village resident, so every day I see these houses burn,” says Van Buren. “It just breaks your heart to think that we lost the house, but we also lost all that material that is now just being shoveled into the landfill as burned embers. All that material could have been reused.”

A group of local architects, planners, engineers, government representatives, construction companies and community development groups are expected to explore the deconstruction industry on Friday during the “Detroit Re-Nailed” symposium at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn.

The event will feature guest lectures, an industry roundtable lunch, site tours in Midtown and an award ceremony for creative reuse of materials salvaged from a deconstruction project. Registration is limited may close, but the general public is invited to attend a reception Friday evening.


The rise of the automobile industry in Detroit prompted a boom in home construction during the first half of the 20st century, as healthy wages spurred a significant demand for single-family homes.

And while more than half of Detroit residents would leave the city between 1950 and 2010, they left behind a huge stock of houses framed with high-quality wood.

Mayor Bing is using neighborhood stabilization funds to demolish thousands of vacant homes. And while it is more expensive, advocates say deconstruction is a better value proposition because of its long-term potential for job creation.

In fact, WARM Training Center is already training local residents to work in the deconstruction industry, and Henry Ford Community College is offering a deconstruction management course.

“It’s kind of creating wealth out of waste,” says Van Buren. “In this economy where people are struggling, lets use what we’ve got. A lot of it is just sitting there waiting to be demolished.”

Deconstruction opportunities in Detroit are not limited to houses. The city also is home to a number of abandoned schools and factories that contain reusable materials, from wooden floors to slate chalkboards.


Van Buren has helped spearhead several deconstruction-based projects in Metro Detroit.

Zachary and Associates, along with Quinn Evans Architects, helped deconstruct and rehab Newberry Hall in Midtown, gutting the former nursing school and redeveloping it as a 28-unit apartment building.

The same companies are teaming up to redevelop 71 Garfield, a former Midtown hotel they are converting into a tea room and clay studio. The project uses materials from a deconstructed building in Hamtramck, which the city donated as a training project for WARM.

Hamtramck, which has embraced innovative reuse of blighted homes, also is funding a $500 contest for the creative reuse of materials from the building. Projects by local craft workers will be displayed and the winners announced Friday evening during a post-symposium reception at 71 Garfield.

Van Buren believes the deconstruction movement is about to reach “a tipping point” where municipal governments recognize the value of reuse over demolition. Friday’s symposium, tour and reception are meant to explore the potential of the industry and showcase the resulting products.

“Now we have to work on the demand side,” Van Buren says. “We really have show the consumer base, the designers, the architects and homeowners how this really valuable wood has a premium to it and can be used in different ways.”

Check the Henry Ford Community College website for more information on the “Detroit Re-Nailed” symposium, which takes place Friday.

via Deconstructing Detroit: Can large stock of vacant homes, schools spur a new industry? |