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Originally published August 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 11, 2008 at 1:43 PM


Reusing, recycling abandoned houses

When Brad Guy takes apart a house, he uses the "LOFO" method. That's last on, first off. That way he can preserve the integrity of the light...

Newhouse News Service

CLEVELAND — When Brad Guy takes apart a house, he uses the "LOFO" method. That's last on, first off.

That way he can preserve the integrity of the light fixtures, the wood floors, anything of value that can be reused.

It's called deconstruction, and it's pretty much done by hand. Guy, a 49-year-old former architect now living in Pittsburgh, is an expert.

He has even co-written a book about it, "Unbuilding: Salvaging the Architectural Treasures of Unwanted Houses."

Guy has been in Cleveland directing a $75,000 deconstruction pilot project being paid for by the Cleveland Foundation and managed by Neighborhood Progress.

They hope to show that crews of trained laborers can clean up blighted sections of Cleveland more efficiently than a single wrecking ball.

They also want to put disadvantaged residents back to work — in particular, the many former prisoners who re-enter society every year.

On a recent morning, Guy stood on the second floor of an abandoned two-story bungalow in the Slavic Village neighborhood.

The house, dating to 1900, was a mess inside. Thieves had battered the sinks and toilets in search of copper and steel pipes. But the bones of the house were still in good shape. And those bones could be transplanted.

A hydraulic-powered lift sat in the front yard, its boom extended at an angle to the second-floor balcony. Guy would eventually use the lift to cut away the roof. But at the moment, he and his crew, all in boots, hard hats and work gloves, were busy prying off molding, removing doors and pulling up flooring.

Reusable materials

If done right, deconstruction can extract thousands of dollars' worth of reusable materials from a house that would otherwise be knocked down, crushed and planted in a landfill, Guy said.


Inside the house, Guy started to remove the original tongue-and-groove oak flooring in a second-floor room. He turned the task over to Melinda Harchuck, 30, who wants to be a carpenter and recently completed training through Hard Hatted Women in Cleveland.

Harchuck used a tool that Guy invented to gently pry up floors. It looks like a short rake, but with only two prongs just inches apart. The tool rests on an exposed floor joist, the prongs on either side.

"Just rock it back and forth a little bit," Harchuck said, explaining how the prongs exert upward pressure on the floor slat.

Slat pops up

Eventually the slat popped up, carefully preserved. A pneumatic tool called a nail kicker will be used to drive any nails back through the wood.

By definition, deconstruction is tedious work, something that may take getting used to for some. Thomas McClendon, 46, a member of the deconstruction crew, realizes simple brute strength won't cut it.

"Because the more you mess up, the less money that can be made," he said.

While cleaning up neighborhoods and providing jobs are critical to the deconstruction effort, so, too, is the environmental leg. Reusing material saves landfill space, reduces the need for new material to be produced and gives builders the tools to meet green building standards.

Often, real gems can be found. Like the old fir that was used to build a combination hutch and picture window on each floor of the Slavic Village house.

"It's just so rare to find wood this wide," said laborer Adam Smith, 39, marveling at a hutch top that measured about 14 inches by 22 inches. Then he made an even more remarkable discovery — a single piece of fir more than a foot wide and about 11 feet long.

Wood like that is unheard of today, given the plantation-style growing practices that harvest trees at a much younger age, Smith said.

In the case of the pilot project, everything taken from the Slavic Village house, and another house deconstructed nearby, will go to Habitat for Humanity for its ReStore shop, which sells used building materials. Ultimately, it's hoped that a variety of markets will develop for used building materials, making the whole process economically sustainable.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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