Finding value in old homes

Yesterday Charlie, Laura and I paid a site visit to the warehouse & headquarters of ReClaim Detroit, a social enterprise that takes homes slated for demolition and “deconstructs” them, meaning they remove structural elements that can be reused and/or recycled. We learned that in the majority of cases, this means lumber: floorboards, doors, frames, and support beams. Many Detroit homes built in the early half of the 20th century used old-growth wood that is highly valued and extremely difficult to find in modern construction.

Because of the high number of abandoned properties in Detroit and the length of time a home often sits vacant, things like metal radiators, copper pipes, etc. are typically removed very quickly by illegal scrappers, so there’s not much of that left for the deconstruction industry. Any furniture or other personal belongings left in the home is also typically of little value, in many cases due to exposure to the elements from broken windows, holes in the roof, squatting, etc. Every now and then a demolition or debris removal crew will find something of value (like a piano, or collectibles, or a vintage car) — but it’s unusual. There is some market for things like bathtubs, light fixtures, leaded-glass windows, and the like, but it’s uneven.

Part of the task of our IBM team is to figure out a way to integrate what ReClaim Detroit and other organizations like it (for example, Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit) do into the process of demolishing and/or removing debris from homes owned by the Detroit Land Bank. The idea behind deconstruction is not only one that benefits the environment by keeping reusable materials out of landfill, but it also creates jobs down the value chain including people trained to do the deconstruction (building in-demand construction industry skills) and the people who refine & make things out of the salvaged wood. ReClaim and others are committed to training and creating jobs for Detroiters who have in the past faced barriers to employment such as low skills or criminal records.

Here’s an example of a “raw” material: interior doors. There are a lot of these! Exterior doors have typically been too damaged to be salvageable.

Much of the lumber needs to be de-nailed, which is a time-intensive, manual process.

Jeremy Haines, Sales Manager, and Craig Varterian, Executive Director, show us around the warehouse. It looks like a lot of lumber, but in reality it moves very quickly and there is currently more demand than they can regularly supply.

They get all kinds of lumber, such as this collection of floorboards, which they categorize and inventory.

Currently ReClaim sells most of its lumber with minimal processing, however they do have a millshop where Detroiters are trained to turn the wood into more finished products.

One easy and innovative use for some of the lumber is to make stakes to mark demolition sites around the city. In the past these stakes were made of metal, which meant they were often stolen for scrap — and created a safety risk for demolition & deconstruction crews who rely on the stakes to mark hazards.

But the bigger opportunities lie in more finished products, like this tabletop and cutting board. Beautiful!
Thanks to the ReClaim team for taking the time to show us around and sharing your insights with us!


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