Money & Business

How Baltimore Is Deconstructing Itself—With Local Nonprofit Help

By / Apr 5, 2019 (via Details Deconstruction's Facebook page)

Rather than demolishing blighted buildings, the city is helping fund nonprofits that take the buildings apart piece by piece—then resell the parts, which still have significant value in construction.

Some large cities have a big problem—numerous buildings that have seen better days or that have been abandoned by their owners.

This blight can have a negative impact on communities and create perception issues that can be tough to shake.

But in Baltimore, a successful anti-blight initiative is helping to highlight how nonprofits can help solve this problem. In recent years, the city has supported the “deconstruction” efforts of multiple local nonprofits, which effectively take apart homes piece by piece, salvaging their old parts for potential resale, rather than demolishing the homes entirely.

In other words, Baltimore’s discarded row houses are being reclaimed—especially their wood and bricks, which can be reused in modern-day construction projects.

Since 2014, the Baltimore-based nonprofit Humanim, which operates a large number of social-good initiatives in Maryland and Delaware, has contracted with the city through its Details Deconstruction arm. Since the nonprofit started contracting with the city, at least 400 homes have been taken apart and salvaged in this way, according to The Wall Street Journal. And 200 more are in the works this year.

While less common than traditional demolition methods—and not every home has parts with value on the resale market—the process has gained such popularity that there is a trade group focused on it: the Building Materials Reuse Association. Executive Director Joe Connell has noted that the process is gaining popularity, with officials in other large cities reaching out to the association for insights.

“I’ve never seen so much attention going toward deconstruction and reuse as I’ve seen building up in the past year,” Connell told Stateline last year.

While it’s not a cheap process—the upfront costs are high, and the process is more costly and time-consuming than a traditional demolition—there are significant benefits for both the city and the nonprofit.

For one thing, the material can be resold—something Humanim does on its website Brick + Board. According to the Journal, Details Deconstruction has resold 1.4 million bricks and almost a million feet of lumber.

For another, it creates potential employment opportunities for those who might struggle to find other kinds of work, such as ex-convicts—something that’s particularly attractive to cities.

Still, it’s not an easy process to start up, and its challenges have created problems for cities that have hoped to follow in Baltimore’s footsteps, such as Milwaukee.

“We’re just now at this place where it’s financially turning a margin [and] covering all of our overhead,” Details Deconstruction head Jeff Carroll told the Journal.

One thing’s for sure, though: There’s going to be plenty of opportunities to deconstruct houses in the years to come. Stateline reports more than 16,000 abandoned buildings in Baltimore.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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