Reuse nonprofit flips the remnants of this house 

Green Wrecking Crew

With the world going green, it's hard to find anything that people aren't recycling. And a new market has opened up in the construction business. Local nonprofit The Sustainable Warehouse was founded on deconstructing — it's the difference between tearing down a house and taking down a house, with every usable material going to a new project instead of the landfill. The Warehouse is in the process of taking on its largest project to date: an entire home.

While there are shops out there with used materials, deconstruction goes beyond the cabinets and light fixtures, says founder Rebecca O'Brien.

"It's a lot of wood and a lot of waste," she says. "It's time to stop thinking about throwing it away."

A quarter of a million homes are demolished annually. Brad Guy, a deconstruction industry leader, estimates that only about 300 homes were deconstructed last year, according to a recent New York Times Magazine cover story.

Developers are applying the technique to earn green certifications and taking advantage of tax deductions, says Guy. It will sometimes off-set the added cost

"It's still crazy," Guy told the Times, "but it's on the edge of not crazy now."

A Summerville dentist purchased a two-story home for her new office, but quickly realized it wasn't viable to rehab. She brought in O'Brien to provide a green alternative to bulldozers. With her small crew and a few volunteers, she started taking apart the house two weeks ago, stripping it of flooring, walls, counters, and fixtures.

Now, a core crew of three others and O'Brien have pulled off the roof and are heading down, taking apart the two-floor home piece-by-piece until they get to the foundation.

"When we came in, it looked like it was in incredible shape. You could have moved in tomorrow," O'Brien says. "Now, it looks like this."

"This" is almost unrecognizable. The only thing left indicating this was ever a home is a front door painted in a warm red. It's surrounded by the building's frame, stripped to the wood. Inside, you'd be forgiven for assuming that the house was under construction, instead of being taken apart. The lumber that once stood between walls is all that separates one "room" from another. A quick glance upstairs to the second floor and you can see right up to the spotty clouds in the blue sky.

A wood burning stove that had been sealed off years ago is once again visible. It'll be one of the last pieces to fall. O'Brien points to home additions. She assumes they were from the '70s and '80s because of how they were decorated, but whatever indicated a time period was likely pulled out of the house a week ago.

O'Brien expects to be able to reuse 75 percent of the home. Some materials are too difficult to preserve, like sheetrock and shingles.

She started doing this about 10 years ago, often cherry picking scraps from neighbors or friends looking for a place to dispose of materials during remodels or home additions. After years brokering the resale of materials on her own, O'Brien incorporated the Warehouse as a nonprofit two years ago.

"I've done small projects, but this one became available and I just had to do it," she says. "It's what we've been waiting for."

The house has provided a few challenges. O'Brien's target was to finish in two weeks and one dumpster, but she says it'll probably be three weeks and two dumpsters.

"Several times we joked that we wanted to call the person who built this house and ask them how they really started," O'Brien says. "It seemed to go together in a certain way, and you get started and find out that it didn't."

For instance, the crew had to take the roof off in sections because it didn't look like it was put on at the same time.

Two of the crew members were also new to the process, so that took a little training.

"You start from scratch, explaining that you don't rip something down and tear it apart," O'Brien says. "You take two more seconds and do it right."

O'Brien hopes to bring out people to future sites who can apply the construction skills they learn on these projects to find work in the larger market.

The Warehouse also worked on the peninsula's Cigar Factory, a historic East Bay site developers are planning to rehab, anchoring the project with luxury condos.

Scott McKenna, senior project manager with developers The Simpson Organization, says they wanted to recycle as much of the building as possible.

"(It) represented a great way for us to connect with churches, charities, and others to reuse the tons of material the building produced," he says. "The whole effort fit our ethos — we're using reclaimed and recycled materials in much of the decor and design."

Over four months, O'Brien was able to recycle and reuse 15 tons of materials from the factory. Some of the items were donated to local nonprofit groups, with the rest available for purchase to help the Warehouse find a permanent home.

The "million dollar question" for the Sustainable Warehouse is what to do with what they've pulled from these projects.

"The biggest struggle isn't taking down the house, it's doing the right thing and getting the materials to the right place," she says.

A Beaufort home took most of the architectural items from the Summerville project. And O'Brien found a home for the vinyl siding, typically hard to reuse. There's still a lot of hardwood flooring and stick lumber left. And the pine siding that's still in good shape could be used on another project, she says.

Craigslist has been a helpful marketplace, and O'Brien has a few dedicated contractors and do-it-yourself folks who check her website for new items.

Storage is a consistant problem, she says. There's space available out there, but it's out of her price range.

"We're doing the right thing," she says. "We just need assistance in getting materials stored properly so they can be reused."

Currently, items are being stored in various donated spaces, but O'Brien is looking for a central location where they can both store materials and sell them.


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