From early 20th Century thrift to building cabins from contractor cast-offs, building materials reuse had long been an informal norm. But in a more recent world, entire houses have been thrown in the trash to make way for new construction. Landfills, many of them not lined to contain harmful chemicals, are filling up with construction debris, 90 percent of which is from demolition.
Better Futures Minnesota at the ReUse Warehouse, 2620 Minnehaha Ave. in Longfellow, is among those trying to prevent and divert that waste stream through deconstruction, which serves reuse and recycling. Here’s how people and systems can help decrease waste.
“We started the project, then realized we needed help,” said Libby Wilson of Longfellow. She and husband James employed a Better Futures crew to open an enclosed back porch bump-out. The crew took off exterior stucco and the siding underneath it plus ceiling and floor, leaving the structural elements.
James shared, “As a carpenter and employee owner at Terra Firma, all our experiences with Better Futures have been positive. There was no doubt who we were going to call when it came to our house. It’s great that there is such a considerate deconstruction and salvage operation in the Twin Cities.”
Libby added, “We also love to come to the store. A dryer, a toilet, an old door…there’s lots of stuff we’ve bought from there in our four or so years of living here.”
Like the Wilsons, most consumers know home deconstruction from the store perspective, finding used appliances, cabinetry, or vintage hardwood flooring matching their southeast and southwest Minneapolis 1900s to 1950s floors. Better Futures Waste Diversion Project Manager Jason Allen said huge, hand-hewn old growth timbers also go quickly. “The uglier it is, the more demand there is for it,” Allen said. With work, these become fireplace mantels, furniture or art pieces.
Deconstruction could mean anything from a “partial,” such as a kitchen remodel or condo where the wood color doesn’t fit the new owner’s taste, to a “full deconstruction,” an old house making way for apartments. Deconstruction crews remove fixtures, cabinetry and appliances in the first pass. Flooring is removed, de-nailed and packaged on site. Good trim and built-ins are carefully removed. To access the structural lumber, plaster or drywall must come out, and that goes into a recycling dumpster along with wiring, siding and other parts to be sorted at a transfer station. About 85% of demolition waste can be reused or recycled, according to Hennepin County’s Climate Action Plan. Currently only about 30% is.
Better Futures’ crews consist of men coming out of incarceration participating in a two-year voluntary workforce development program. They’re provided with 12 different certifications including OSHA 10 accident-prevention training. They cross-train in the nonprofit’s other business lines of lawn-and-snow, janitorial, and appliance recycling. Crews have a supervisor and at least two experienced members, plus one or two trainees.
A block away from ReUse Warehouse, Habitat ReStore at 2700 Minnehaha Ave. accepts materials already removed by the homeowner or a contractor. They also carry furniture, paint, tools and smaller home improvement sundries. The proximity of the stores brings customers to both and presents a variety of goods.
Future of deconstruction and reuse
Melissa Wenzel, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Built Environment Sustainability Administrator, has seen “movement, momentum, and more success stories” since joining this work in 2019. Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington County offer deconstruction grants, and she said two other metro counties have expressed significant interest in deconstruction projects and/or funding.
About policy and lawmaking, Wenzel said: “We’re already seeing cities that have sustainability, climate resiliency, waste management, emergency response, workforce development, and other similar goals. They are adopting more ‘sustainable built environment’ practices. St. Louis Park requires those receiving ‘green building’ funding to meet certain requirements: https://www.stlouisparkmn.gov/home/showpublisheddocument/23233/637902841408170000.
“We’re seeing more counties implement similar programs like Becker County’s Waste Diversion and Reuse Program and (Duluth area) WLSSD’s reuse program. Pope/Douglas and Dodge County’s future waste/material management campuses will include a building material and/or household goods reuse area.
“MPCA has a request in the governor’s budget to help fund similar programs at counties that do not currently have the financial means. We know there’s a high demand for deconstruction and building material reuse. We will continue to work to support this growing sustainable system,” Wenzel said.
What can residents do to discourage demolition waste? Wenzel says use the systems and services that already exist. “Demand for these services will help drive them. USE used building materials. Items donated are often higher quality and lower cost than new items. Plus, you will likely own something far more unique than what you can find at big-box stores.” She hopes that cities and counties offer building material/tool/household goods swap days or donation days.
“Definitely reach out to your local government contacts asking for these services. They WILL offer opportunities when enough people ask for them.”
Editor’s note: Margo Ashmore is Better Futures Minnesota’s Deconstruction Marketing and Business Development person, former owner of MSP Home Tour and former publisher of the Northeaster newspaper.
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