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Deconstruction Conference


November 27, 2017

Our very own Sarah LoPresti shares some of her experiences and observations from the 2017 National Deconstruction and Reuse Conference:

"Here is a cool thing that happened in Portland!

Earlier this fall Portland hosted the National Deconstruction and Reuse Conference. The Building Material Reuse Association organizes this event annually to bring together leaders and innovators in the reuse and deconstruction fields for three days of presentations and workshops.

This was a great time for our city to participate. Our rapidly growing skyline, and robust community of makers, builders and craftspeople have encouraged a flurry of change.

Portland set itself apart from all other cities this past year when it passed what is known as a “deconstruction ordinance”. This is a law states that any building built before 1916, or is designated as a historic resource, must be taken apart rather than demolished. This is the only legislation of its kind in the country. I learned that this law is the result of years of civic activism, and consistent vocal and visible messaging. The people involved, many of whom were at this conference, made evident the real change that can come when a group  is committed to informing and involving a diverse body of community members.

Here is what I learned about re-use:

Globally, there is a huge diversity in how it’s approached. While the concept of repairing and reusing things is not new, its popularity and visibility are not consistent. In countries that are going through massive growth and redevelopment, such as China, building materials are reused almost immediately after being removed. Structures with historical value may be stored, and low grade materials are sent to areas in greater economic need. In many European countries waste management is carefully managed and prioritized by the government. Those values are also reflected in design; home goods and furnishings are fabricated with an emphasis on quality, durability, and repairability.

Within the US, the opinions on the importance of waste management and accountability are inconsistent, at best. The general consensus of the conference attendees and residents of Portland is this; as the economic and environmental expenses associated with dumping and recycling mount, so do the importance of material re-use of and creation of high quality durable goods. What I heard from the out-of-towners was that their cities have had mixed success with making strides toward higher environmental standards and accountability; specifically programs attempting to move industry away from demolition and toward deconstruction. Non- profit programs that combine re-use retail, deconstruction services, and contractor work seem to be the most viable in those areas. Unfortunately the grant money and public funding they rely on aren’t usually sufficient to to pay their staff living wages or implement the programming they want  to see.

On the bright side; deconstruction and building material re-use is a rapidly growing industry.  As we have seen in Portland, it’s stimulating job creation, encouraging community involvement and encouraging a new wave of sustainable business models. Many of the business owners present mentioned their commitment to the triple bottom line; profit, people, and planet. Profit is seen as the the vehicle for improving the life of the people and the planet. We are also seeing a growing presence of local retailers who are able to employ, source, and sell locally. These business have been crucial to proving to the economic value and viability of deconstruction and re-use.

Here is how it affects us:

A topic many attendees spoke passionately about was the positive impact local reuse has had on their individual communities. Looking back through history it’s clear that the idea of re-use is poorly integrated in our culture. It’s often stigmatized, it’s not well incorporated into our laws, it’s not practiced in most businesses, and it isn't emphasized in schools. The last decade, however, has shown a shift toward re-discovering the value of locally sourced reusable materials and its ability to positively impact community revitalization.

As a small business that is invested in the forward momentum of this industry, we work every day to invent ways to put these materials back into the homes of local community members and businesses. Like many others I met, we are creating a new narrative for these building materials; through the hands of the laborers and the makers, and the designers. I discussed with other attendees the work we do redefine the aesthetic and assumptions people often have for reclaimed lumber.

Not only is the re-use of building materials undeniably important to our local ecosystem and economy, but it allows us to participate in some of the cultural continuity that residents of Portland really crave in this time of rapid growth."