As Baltimore demolishes, an effort to encourage salvage
Calling it a jobs as well as environment measure, Councilwoman Odette Ramos plans to introduce an ordinance to require city-owned properties to have a deconstruction plan in place.
Above: A photo of Johns Hopkins University’s May 2023 demolition of rowhouses on 29th Street shows potential salvage material: a toilet, sink and medicine cabinet, plus wood, doors and lots of bricks. (3-D image by Taylor Houlihan)
Under fire from community members for tearing down a block of Charles Village houses allegedly too deteriorated to save, Johns Hopkins University was pressed to at least salvage building materials and usable items from the 111-year-old structures.
The possibilities could be seen in the debris that remained last spring after the excavators had clawed down the seven rowhouses on the unit block of West 29th Street:
A mountain of bricks, a tangle of two-by-fours, a sink, toilet and the white marble steps Baltimore is famous for, among other things.
The marble and brick could not be saved “because there was no immediate interest from local firms,” university spokeswoman Jill Rosen said at the time.
But the contractor, working with local salvage companies, was able to salvage other materials, Rosen said, describing them in an email as “stained glass windows, door knobs and hardware, light fixtures, chandeliers, globes and wall sconces, and miscellaneous wood work, including columns, mantels and fire place surrounds, along with metal fixtures including fireplace covers, exterior metal railings and grates.”
Hopkins’ mixed experience with salvage reflects the challenges faced by those promoting the idea of deconstruction (instead of demotion) of buildings, so that materials can be re-used or recycled rather than thrown in the dump.
“Bricks are our big product here in Baltimore,” said Stephanie Compton, an organizer with Energy Justice Network. “What’s needed is to build up a local market for these materials. There’s not enough of an economy for them here now.”
The push for deconstruction is partly to protect the environment by keeping construction waste out of city alleys, parklands, landfills and the big Wheelabrator incinerator, said Compton, whose Philadelphia-based group has been working with the Clean Air Baltimore Coalition on the issue since 2021.
But deconstruction is also aimed at the kind of workforce development undertaken by entities like Second Chance, the Baltimore-based nonprofit that deconstructs buildings, sells salvaged material and uses the revenue generated to provide job training for people with employment challenges.
City Councilwoman Odette Ramos today said she plans to introduce an ordinance that would require all city-owned properties to have a deconstruction plan in place.
The plan would outline how buildings scheduled for demolition would reuse or recycle deconstructed building materials.
“Deconstruction is a critical part of our city’s efforts to reduce waste, protect the environment, create local jobs and take steps to close our incinerator,” Ramos said.
“It makes sense to reuse materials rather than waste them, and make sure that contractors are not illegally dumping in our alleys” – Councilwoman Odette Ramos.
“As we move toward accelerating the rehabilitation of vacant properties, more and more demolition activity will occur,” she said.
“This just makes sense in order to reuse materials rather than waste them, and make sure that contractors are not illegally dumping in our alleys.”
Ramos’ REBUILD Act, as it’s being called, is the product of organizing by the Energy Justice Network and the Clean Air Baltimore Coalition, according to Compton.
She called the measure a first step to move the city towards more ambitious deconstruction policies.
San Francisco, Portland and Seattle and other jurisdictions have enacted ordinances that require certain homes to be deconstructed rather than demolished.
Possible EPA Funding
Ramos said she is hoping to help fund a deconstruction effort in Baltimore by taking advantage of somw of the $350 million available through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via the Inflation Reduction Act.
The funding, aimed at fighting climate change, could potentially provide grants, technical assistance and tools to support deconstruction efforts.
Compton and other local groups are excited about the potential impact of the legislation.
“Second Chance has told us their business operations could double. They could hire more people and take in more material,” Compton said. “Deconstruction is a win-win for the environment and the economy.”
For local demolition contractors like K&K Adams and P&J Contracting Company, the deconstruction movement could have a different impact if it really takes off.
As it razes vacants and other structures, the city spends millions of dollars a year to have private companies haul away the wood, bricks, plaster and other debris.