Detroit Craftsmen Sift House Rubble in Quest for Treasured WoodChris Christoff and Alexandra Mondalek
Detroit’s 70,000 abandoned homes are proving to be a trove for entrepreneurs who recycle century-old lumber, glass and brick into everything from terrariums to $4,500 guitars.
“It’s like a treasure hunt,” said Craig Varterian, executive director of Reclaim Detroit, a nonprofit group that’s stripped and sold materials from almost 70 demolished homes. Floorboards and joists of early 20th century maple, walnut, hickory, fir and even chestnut are prized for their density and fine grain.
As Detroit ramps up demolitions of vacant dwellings, Mayor Mike Duggan plans a reclamation center in a city-owned building to keep tons of rubble out of landfills and create jobs and merchandise. Recycling would become a centerpiece of the city’s blight-removal effort, which is struggling to maintain funding.
A typical house and basement yields 400 tons of debris, meaning material from all of Detroit’s vacant residential buildings would weigh about 28 million tons -- roughly equal to 280 of the largest U.S. aircraft carriers, fully loaded.
The city’s 139 square miles (360 square kilometers) were scarred by abandonment as its population shrank below 700,000 from 1.8 million in the 1950s. While decrepit buildings are being stripped of reusable materials in other U.S. cities, the magnitude of Detroit’s decay holds limitless bounty for entrepreneurs, businesses and home-improvement devotees who see the Motor City’s rich history in ripped-out floors and walls.
“Detroit debris as a marketing tool is in vogue,” said Varterian, 55, whose products include cutting boards and tables fashioned in a sprawling former automotive warehouse. “Detroit is now a brand.”
The city, which emerged from a record $18 billion municipal bankruptcy in December, had more than 78,000 vacant buildings last year, according to a blight task force survey. It would cost $850 million to remove all neighborhood blight, the task force concluded.
By April, the city will have used half its $100 million in federal aid to tear down almost 4,000 buildings, and it plans to raze another 3,300 by later this year, according to Brian Farkas, projects director for the Detroit Building Authority.
Beyond that, Duggan is searching for more money to continue demolitions, which have left swaths of vacant land. Reusing materials from a fraction of demolished homes would create jobs and feed new, local industries, proponents say.
Reclaim Detroit is one of several nonprofits that are deconstructing homes. It takes as long as three days to remove resalable materials before wrecking crews level a structure.
“When I got here in 2013, our sales were near $9,000 a month; now we exceed $90,000 a month,” said Chris Rutherford, executive director of Architectural Salvage Warehouse Detroit, a nonprofit that also recycles wood. He said he has 15 to 18 full-time employees, plus subcontractors and part-time labor.
There are plans to deconstruct 100 structures in the coming year, Rutherford said.
While reclaimed lumber has furnished many Detroit restaurants and businesses, remnants of the city’s decay have found their way to unlikely products as well. One entrepreneur uses wood from vacant Detroit homes to create sunglasses.
Gary Zimnicki and Mark Wallace make guitars. Zimnicki also makes ukuleles and mandolins from old lumber that he says produces a richer sound. While most of his acoustic instruments use conventional wood, some buyers want an instrument made from a 100-year-old house, said Zimnicki, 57, whose home workshop is in Allen Park, a suburb.
“It’s a cool thing to be involved with preserving some of the past, part of our heritage,” said Zimnicki, showing a $4,500 guitar made of wood from a house built in 1910. The top is made of Douglas fir from ceiling joists, rather than spruce. The back and sides are made from maple floorboards.
Wallace’s Detroit-based company makes solid-body electric guitars from two-by-fours torn from homes, which create a butcher-block appearance.
“Wood from these homes came from old-growth forests; the grain pattern is more dense, more beautiful,” said Wallace, 37, who heads the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, a nonprofit that oversees redevelopment.
Glass and wood from Detroit homes become terrariums in the hands of Derek Smiertka and Chad Ackley, who started Lead Head Glass LLC in 2013. Last year they sold 1,500 in the U.S. for between $40 and $190, at a 50 percent margin.
Smiertka, 40, is an ex-lobbyist and Ackley, 30, a former financial planner. They work from their 800-square-foot basement in Ferndale, adjacent to Detroit. Hanging tarps divide a glass-cutting station from their washing machine.
“Having the Detroit connection has definitely helped us grow faster because you get so much interest,” Ackley said. “There’s a strong community of artists in Detroit that help each other out.”
To tap demand, the city is offering to lease a 37,500-square-foot vacant warehouse it owns, plus surrounding land, for $1 a year to a private operator who would create a regional hub to recycle tons of materials from demolitions. The center would create “critical mass” that would generate more demand and more jobs, said Farkas of the building authority.
The plan is more ambitious than reclamation centers in other cities, said Anne Nicklin, executive director of the Building Materials Reuse Association, a Chicago-based nonprofit. She reviewed Detroit’s request for proposals.
The city wants to deconstruct at least 10 homes a month, with all reusable materials going to the reclamation hub, Farkas said. Stripping a house adds about 15 percent to the $12,500 average cost of demolition, he said. Home deconstruction also teaches skills that can be transferred to the construction trade, according to Reclaim Detroit.
Reclaim Detroit is seeking to operate the hub. Varterian, the director, said 10 to 20 home deconstructions per month would keep 5 million pounds of demolition rubble out of landfills over the next three years.
“This is not just a Detroit problem,” said Varterian, who once owned woodworking businesses in Thailand and Los Angeles. “It’s a national problem, these kinds of decaying, urban communities that are trying to redefine themselves.”
Though deconstruction costs more than simple demolition, it creates more jobs, said Ted Reiff, founder of The ReUse People of America, a nonprofit based in Oakland, California. It takes a truck driver and bulldozer operator to demolish a home, plus five to 10 workers to strip out reusable materials, Reiff said.
The former investment banker operates a national network of contractors who deconstruct homes for banks and private homeowners -- he doesn’t work with abandoned properties - and enjoyed a business boom from foreclosed homes following the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009.
“I’m surprised it’s taken Detroit so long to realize that deconstruction is an ideal solution to many of their properties,” Reiff said.