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Deconstructing Cleveland exposes its pride

Richey Piiparinen  |  04/12/10 @ 12:30pm  |  Posted in Reuse

The question of what to do with vacant houses can seem unsolvable. On the one hand, we must demolish much of the abandonment as a way to fight blight, and to daylight Cleveland of its unsafe and unhygienic places. On the other, in our haste to demolish we risk creating waste, not only in terms of landfill deposits, but in the opportunity lost in the lack of reusing Cleveland's built history.

Enter deconstruction, in particular Chris Kious, who is one of the proprietors of Growth Ring Enterprises, which is the umbrella organization for A Piece of Cleveland (APOC), the Urban Lumberjacks of Cleveland (ULOC), and Cleveland's Urban Reclaim Lumberyard, or Curly's for short. More specifically, Kious is not only in the sustainability business via the extension of the life span of a vacant house's parts, but he's in the Re-imagining business as well-if only by allowing the city a chance to see in its abandonment kernels of uncovered hope.

Still, at this stage of the deconstruction industry's evolution it's not easy being green, and to this Kious can attest. "The inner-city deconstruction models traditionally don't work," he'd say, making reference to the initial reasons the industry started. "A lot of it began because tipping fees were too high in the West," Kious continued, "and so there was a real incentive to avoid dumping." Yet that wasn't the only incentive according to Kious, as there was a common practice out West of providing exorbitant tax write-offs to folks donating the parts of deconstructed houses. So, in essence, there was a demand for deconstruction from both contractors and homeowners, which eventually lowered costs for both.

There are some problems with this model in cities like Cleveland, however. Specifically, the tipping fees are low in the region, and this-combined with the increased man-hours involved with disassembling a house as opposed to its flattening-makes the cost of demolition roughly $6,000 a house as compared to around $10,000 to $15,000 for deconstruction. "It's about $250 per dumpster to take it to the landfill," Kious says. "But if we're taking a dumpster that is co-mingled with materials to be recycled, the cost increases to about $400 a dumpster." Kious goes on to state, however, that the cost to recycle a dumpster's fill that is not co-mingled-say one filled with "clean wood"-is reduced to around $90. But again: there is man-hour costs related to this, and so there are trade-offs.

So the question becomes, then: how are Kious and his partners making the deconstruction industry in Cleveland work? Put simply, the answer involves innovating novel practices as a means to lower cost, and Kious focuses primarily on two ways to do this. The first is through the more traditional means of labor efficiency, or the reduction of time it takes to deconstruct a house. Here, ULOC has made much progress in that what used to take a few weeks (and cost upwards of $28,000/house) can now be done in as little as 4 days. But still, given the man-hours and skilled labor involved in deconstruction as compared to machined mashing, the cost of deconstruction-without the onset of penalties incurred with dumping or higher tipping fees-will probably never be lower than demolition.

This brings us, then, to the second (and quite frankly ingenuous) way to lower cost: by using ULOC not only as deconstruction firm, but as a "harvesting" firm that can supply the other arms of Growth Ring Enterprises. In short, what Kious and partners do is calculate-"in the cost"-what the return on the harvested materials will be, and these returns-in effect-make deconstruction not only viable, but perhaps even more profitable than a traditional demo firm.

That said, getting profitable return from the harvest is not easy, as many of the homes ULOC deconstructs have been gutted of valuable materials. Says Kious: "We'll go in, and most of these houses will have the toilets smashed from when the copper was being stolen, and so a lot of times the only salvageable material in these homes is wood." What is still good, though, like say the cabinets, the chandeliers, the windows, it'll all be sent to their re-use shop Curly's, whose motto: "Floors, doors, and more" says it all. But again, given the disrepair of most houses the relatively simple life cycle from harvesting to re-use in itself wouldn't make deconstruction robustly viable, as the loss of return on the devalued homes makes it hard to capture the potential worth. Enter then: A Piece of Cleveland (APOC), perhaps the entrepreneurial and sustainable jewel of Growth Ring Enterprises.

In short, APOC upcycles the materials of Cleveland's old homes, in effect re-carving the city's vacancy into reusable forms. Yet these are not just any wood and metal pieces being made into any wood and metal shapes, as there is a certain meaning arising out of the old house parts APOC is re-creating with-a meaning lending itself to the idea of a city's rebirth that has subsequently captured the minds of Clevelanders, with the proof being made in the vast market APOC has gained. Speaking to this demand, Kious states: "What APOC is doing really doesn't work outside the Midwest as there needs to be a certain pride attached to a location for this kind of thing to work." In other words, by tapping into the strong sense of identity Clevelanders have with their city (in economic parlance this is called a city's "interpersonal capital"), Kious and partners re-capture the value of the vacant home by honing in the fact that their medium holds within it a story: a story of a person, a family, and a neighborhood; that is: a story of Cleveland.

Now, what can such sustainable practices mean for our city? Or more broadly: how can we capitalize on the success of the likes of Growth Ring Enterprise to drown out the drone of past failures? Well, it is perhaps safe to say that with all the self-effacing that Cleveland tends to get hung up on, it is these kinds of stories that need expression if only to fill the vacuum that is the potential which vacancy has granted. These stories, then, of innovation and reuse, and of a city's too silent pride that enables the fostering of a few of its members: this is the narrative of our hope. Because while the struggles of this town are often the issues that are most upfront, what Kious and partners prove is that even though the identity of our city can seem in pieces-just like the parts of the empty houses that the city is comprised of-the cohesiveness remains. As does the will to put ourselves back together again.

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