Menu Contact/Location

Under Deconstruction: Transformazium

Pop City Media

John Farley Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The United Brethern Church North Braddock

Ruthie Stringer can’t relate to the image of Braddock portrayed in the media. “I think life is more complicated than that,” she says as she sits next to a massive pile of wooden joints in what was once The United Brethren Church in North Braddock. Following a fire that damaged part of the building in 2005, the property sat vacant until Ruthie and her friends purchased it in 2008.

In the Greater Pittsburgh area, over 30% of real estate is vacant or underutilized. Instead of viewing abandoned properties as symbols of blight and despair, Ruthie is taking part in a rapidly growing movement called deconstruction, a sustainable alternative to demolition, which sees opportunity and hope in these properties.

Deconstruction is the selective dismantling of a building for the purpose of reusing the materials to build new structures, and it is this process which Ruthie, along with formerly Brooklyn based artists Leslie Stern, Dana Bishop-Root, and Caledonia Curry (better known as Swoon), are using to turn their building into a community arts center called the Transformazium.

After the Pittsburgh space where Swoon and Leslie were planning an art show two years ago fell through, they were invited to move the show to Lauri Mancuso’s Dorothy 6 space in Braddock, which happened to be located on the first floor of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman’s house. “John showed Swoon the Brethren Church, and she fell in love with it,” explains Leslie.

Swoon, who was busy working on other projects around the world, asked her friends to move to Braddock in order to manage the property. They were able to purchase the building through the Allegheny Vacant Property Act, a form of eminent domain that allows the county to take abandoned properties and clear back taxes, in this case over $500,000, so that new owners can purchase the properties at a reasonable rate.

Shortly after purchasing the building, a friend suggested they attend a conference on deconstruction in Buffalo, NY, co-sponsored by Buffalo Reuse and The Building Materials Reuse Association, a non-profit that serves as a representative for the deconstruction industry, informing people about deconstruction and its benefits.

United Brethern Church in North Braddock - interior.

The Many Benefits
“We spent nine weeks learning about deconstruction, and what it would take to do it, ” says Dana. Instead of demolishing the damaged parts of the Transformazium, they dismantled the reusable materials, which they are using to rebuild other damaged areas of the building. As the Transformazium crew learned, the benefits of deconstruction over demolition are huge. The value of reusable salvaged materials directly offsets high labor costs the donation to Pittsburgh’s Construction Junction in Point Breeze, results in a tax benefit for the building owner. In addition, deconstruction offers major environmental benefits.

“All reuse is a form of recycling, but not all recycling is reuse,” says Brian Swearingen, the head of Construction Junction’s deconstruction crew. “In deconstruction and reuse, we’re taking that same material, but using it for the same purpose, or slightly altering it for another purpose. When you do that, you’re saving energy, because you have less transportation costs, less energy costs, and no remanufacturing costs, which are high. A good example is a metal table. If you recycle that at a landfill, you have to put it on a truck, probably put it on a train, possibly put it on a ship, and send it maybe halfway around the world to make what is oftentimes a similar product.”

Construction Junction was set up eight years ago by the Pennsylvania Resources Council to spearhead a movement in Pittsburgh away from disposing waste in landfills without exploring its other purposes. They operate a store, which accepts donations of reusable materials from individuals and businesses renovating or demolishing buildings, and sells those materials at a low cost so they can be repurposed.

In addition to the economic benefits to builders and property owners, deconstruction and reuse provide large incentives for communities. “When you buy materials from Construction Junction, you’re helping provide a cost saving to people who are trying to run their small businesses. You are also helping us employ people to recover materials, which puts money back into the local economy,” Brian explains.

The possibilities of job creation through the deconstruction industry in Allegheny County are exciting. “When we’re asked to do an assessment of deconstruction vs. demolition from a workforce development standpoint, there are times when we could create 20 times more jobs deconstructing buildings than if we demolished them,” notes David Bennink, who will be hosting informational workshops about deconstruction in Braddock on June 17 and 18. David is a BMRA board member, Deconstruction Builder of the Year Award winner, and founder of ReUse Consulting, a 48-person company that performs deconstruction across the country for individuals and businesses, and trains people wanting to start their own deconstruction companies.

United Brethern Church interior.

Let Me Count the Ways
“The jobs are created in four ways. There’s deconstruction and salvage at the jobsite, there’s processing and transportation, there’s retailing and warehouse like Construction Junction, and finally there’s what we call value added jobs, where we take materials and we add value to them in some way, such as reclaiming wood flooring or making old light fixtures more energy efficient,” says David.

If deconstruction sounds like a dream industry, especially for revitalizing cities like Pittsburgh, why isn’t it a more common practice? Why have so few people even heard of it for that matter?

The answer to that question is multifarious, but for David the main problem is a lack of information. Oftentimes, contractors don’t tell property owners about deconstruction, because they fear it will put them behind schedule and cut into their part of the contract. “There are tons of people out there that say to us they didn’t know deconstruction was an option. They just knocked down their building, and they would have chosen deconstruction if they’d known,” he says.

Many people fear that deconstruction is too expensive or time consuming, but deconstruction is frequently faster and cheaper than demolition, and 95% of David’s clients over the past 17 years say they would still prefer deconstruction to demolition.

David and Brian both agree that legislation related to landfills is an obstacle. David is quick to point out that in some parts of the country, dumping fees at landfills are very inexpensive, rendering deconstruction unprofitable in comparison. “We’re always trying to point out that there are hidden costs when you do things too cheaply. An example of that would be if you took a bunch of computer monitors and threw them in the landfill, then naturally you have a hazardous waste problem. And this is a legislative issue, because if you’re doing things too cheaply, you’re passing on hidden costs to the future. That’s not really fair competition,” says Brian.

Despite the roadblocks, people involved with deconstruction in Pittsburgh appear very optimistic about the future. Legislation is evolving. For instance, California and Massachusetts have recently passed bills designed to discourage landfill use for materials that could be repurposed, which could encourage Pennsylvania to adopt similar laws. The Community Regeneration, Sustainability, and Innovation Act, a bill that provides economic support for deconstruction practices, is under consideration in Congress.

“We feel like we’re really onto something here. We’re reaching out to everyone and saying that we believe someday soon, deconstruction will be the main choice for building removal,” says David.

Although a lot of hard work still needs to be done deconstructing and rebuilding the Transformazium, the future seems bright. Swoon lives in Brooklyn, but is currently building an adobe dome in the lot across the street from the Transformazium, which will function as a community greeting space. Leslie, Dana, and Ruthie have completed two large projects that involved the community’s participation. It’s clear that the Transformazium is becoming more than a community arts center, but just what that will be remains uncertain, even to the Transformazium. “We are going to let it evolve more organically, and with input from our neighbors as well. We are definitely working towards a community garden in the lot, though”, says Leslie.

“One of the most exciting shift of perspectives has been realizing that the 15104 area is loaded with resources, and that it’s not simply blighted or abandoned. It’s full of people with a ton of skills and interests, there are several businesses that try very hard and care about the area and people, and there are lots of organizations and spaces.

“But not everyone knows or sees this. Deconstruction has allowed us this shift in terms of looking at all the abandoned buildings and seeing them as having tremendous potential value, instead of just being problems,” Leslie adds.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633