Detroit— James Willer has a simple approach to blight: Re-use before you raze.
So before crews took down an abandoned, 102-year-old house on Hamtramck’s Carpenter Street, members of the WARM Training Center removed wood for use as shelves, trim and floors in other buildings.
The historic wood now provides shelves for pottery bowls and pitchers at the soon-to-open Tea Room in Detroit’s Sugar Hill Clay Gallery. Across the street in the newly renovated Great Lakes Coffee House, not yet opened, wood accent walls saved from the Hamtramck house complement the Midtown café’s exposed brick.
And the home’s hardwood floors grace the interior of Newberry Hall, a newly redeveloped apartment building with 28 units. Zachary and Associates, a Detroit-based development firm that specializes in historic preservation, renovated the former nursing school across the street from the Detroit Medical Center.
“One house has been used for so many different projects,” Willer said.
His center trains people to take apart every beam, plank, brick and piece of flooring from homes and recondition the materials for use elsewhere.
Advocates say the process, known as deconstruction, preserves building material, creates jobs and reduces landfill use.
Groups such as WARM Training Center have tried to tap into millions of dollars in federal funds dedicated to razing thousands of blighted Detroit homes.
But city officials maintain it’s cheaper to demolish than to deconstruct.
“I clearly understand the benefits of doing deconstruction, but our need is so great, and federal funds have timelines. We did not see a group or groups that could take on the volume we had at the price comparable to demolition,” said Karla Henderson, group executive of planning and facilities for the city of Detroit.
Since 2009, the city has had access to about $4 million a year to demolish abandoned buildings.
On average, Henderson said, it costs the city $10,000 to raze a structure. The cost to deconstruct, she argued, has been up to twice that much.
Advocates don’t dispute the initial cost difference but argue that money can be recouped after salvaged materials are sold. They also say putting people back to work provides long-term economic stimulus.
Wayne County in 2009 partnered with Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit and the Architectural Salvage Warehouse to test whether deconstruction could help the region take down the thousands of properties in line for razing.
Two homes were deconstructed in Detroit’s Osborn neighborhood, but the pilot program did not build momentum for additional deconstruction projects.
Some 38,000 properties are in some stage of demolition, equal to 10 percent of all housing units in the city, forcing city and county leaders to find ways to keep up with demand.
The Wayne County Community Development Division plans another pilot project in which federal “Pathways out of Poverty” funding will train people for temporary employment in deconstruction.
“This train is off and running,” Henderson said. “If there are groups that can come to the table with a business plan, we would be happy to incorporate that.”
Tom Friesen, executive director of the Architectural Salvage Warehouse, which saves usable material from blighted homes, understands the dilemma. “The city of Detroit has its economic problems, and there is a cost factor associated with deconstruction over demolition,” he said. “It’s hard for the city to utilize us.”
Aside from a small following of creative types and trendy, hip Midtown properties, the demand for repurposed materials has yet to take off.
But Diane Van Buren, a consultant with Zachary and Associates, which redeveloped Newberry Hall, sees long-term benefits from rescuing and reusing wood from blighted buildings. “We like to think that we’re uncovering Michigan’s ancient forests and giving them a new life,” she said.