Breaking Down Deconstruction in PDX

If you’ve been following the news, you know that Portland’s City Council recently adopted an ordinance mandating that in lieu of demolition, home structures built prior to 1917 be fully deconstructed instead. Prior to the ordinance, roughly 30 homes in Portland were deconstructed annually with 300 being demolished. With the ordinance, it is estimated that as many as 100 homes will be deconstructed each year, diverting up to 2,400 tons of materials from the landfill.

To ensure that the skilled workers are available to take down all of these old homes, the City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability held a training in March, led by the renowned deconstructionist Dave Bennick of Bellingham, WA. Fifteen trainees participated over 12 days, taking down three homes.

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All of which is enough to get us excited at the ReBuilding Center. But what was really cool was the class of trainees itself: women, people of color, the formerly incarcerated. Every single one of the trainees came from a class of people who are not traditionally well-represented in the trades. And as a sustainability organization, that was amazing because development that is truly sustainable must not only “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” but also needs to work for everyone in the community. Let’s meet some of the trainees!

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Zach is an incredibly affable guy. He learned about the training from his Home for Good manager. “It’s pretty incredible. It’s an amazing opportunity. The first house came down quick. It moves fast, fast. Removing flooring was probably the coolest thing. It was oak. Nice stuff. Learning how to rock it back and forth so you don’t rip the groove out, that was something I’d never seen before. We had Shane, Forrest, and Augest teaching us how to do that. And the roof came off in like two hours. The hardest piece was the plaster in the other house. It was a good inch thick and we just had to hammer it and hammer it and hammer it.”

Savannah, a recent Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc. graduate, learned about deconstruction during her pre-apprenticeship training with OTI. She enjoyed it, did some research on deconstruction and “realized it was something ethically I believed in; and I like hard work and I love the idea of rebuilding things… It’s gratifying to be able to visually see progress on something. I love the idea of salvaging materials and keeping things out of the landfill.” 

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Joe was living in a shelter when she heard about the training. She owned her own home for fourteen years and so knows a thing about reuse and repair. “You’ve got to do some of it---the repairs---yourself. You just can’t afford to have someone else do all of it.” Joe said, “I think the training's great. I always believed in deconstruction and reusing. And I think having this program vs. coming in with big equipment and wrecking everything and taking it to the dump, it’s great. I think it’s really important that we can use places like the ReBuilding Center to keep reusing. Dave Bennick gave a great speech about energy, about how it takes a certain amount of energy to make the roads to get the items, to take them somewhere to build them, and that we lose that energy if we don’t save the materials and reuse them. So let’s reuse them.”

And then there’s Umoru. Umoru was a carpenter before he came to the United States. He’s been hanging around the ReBuilding Center for about a year, volunteering and trying to get back into the trades. Umoru said, “There are some tools that I didn’t know the names of but that I know how to use. So there’s one big tool that I really like to use, a big pry bar, I like using it. I feel like it’s good for me. It is dirty work but it’s a good job.”

Safety is always a concern. Dave Bennick, the intrepid instructor explains: "We’re practicing taking out florescent light fixtures in a safe way. It’s above your head. So not only is there the danger of the light falling down but you’ve got debris. And it’s an older light fixture so there may be PCPs in the ballast. And another concern is that we’re worried about taking it out in such a way so that it can be re-used.”

But the best story was from Sara Badiali, a former ReBuilding Center employee, the founder of Reclamation Administration, and a fixture in Portland’s deconstruction scene. “This has been a really fun group of people. They work together really well. The guy with the dumpster dropped it off in the wrong spot. So Dave Bennick was showing everyone how you use levers and we actually fit it into the right spot. And I turned to Kyle (one of the students) and said, ‘Man you work together really well.’ They had the communication down. And she turned to me and said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been a longshoreman and I have never actually worked with a group of people who worked together so well and had such a good time,’ and then she leaned over and she said, ‘You know, there’s always kind of an a**hole in the group that sort of ruffles everyone’s feathers. But there’s not a single one in this group.’”

Reducing waste. Reusing materials. Building a more sustainable Portland, for everyone. And having fun while they’re at it.

Keeping Portland weird.