Shifting the Paradigm from Demolition to Reuse: New Tools

By Special Contributor posted 02-16-2017 17:12


By Will Cook and Tom Mayes

What would be the biggest potential game-changer for the future of historic preservation? From our perspective, it would be to shift the paradigm from a default assumption of demolition to one of building reuse. This topic was discussed at “Old Buildings, New Tools,” a public forum in Denver, Colorado, hosted by Historic Denver, Inc on January 17, 2017. An earlier essay by Tom Mayes—which appeared in Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States—also explored this issue.

Currently only a very small percentage of buildings are protected from demolition by historic designation. And while we support designation for the many benefits it brings, it can be a lengthy and politically fraught process. The Atlas of ReUrbanism recently released by the Preservation Green Lab captures data for 50 cities—including most of largest cities in the United States—and shows an average of just more than 4 percent of buildings protected through local ordinance. At the same time, we now know that building reuse is one of the greenest strategies a community can adopt. It brings not only a more sustainable future but also a whole host of other community benefits—from improving mental health by bolstering stability and belonging, to protecting the character of neighborhoods by preventing teardowns. What if the presumption in favor of demolition were reversed and communities chose to require—or at least incentivize—the reuse of buildings, regardless of whether they are designated as historic or not?

The idea of shifting the paradigm to a standard of reuse is not a new one. As former National Trust trustee Vince Michael wrote back in 2009, “Shouldn’t the default option be re-use of our communities, not their demolition?” The National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab is working with the Urban Land Institute on a program to remove barriers to building reuse. Senior Director of the Preservation Green Lab Jim Lindberg has said, “Across the country, we are seeing a recognition of older buildings as assets for building successful cities. Neighborhoods that have a mix of old and new buildings are often the most diverse, dynamic, and vital.”

Deconstruction of an 1884 House in Portland. | Credit: Scott A. Tice

Happily, there seems to be a movement toward building reuse across the country. In recent years, several cities have either adopted or considered adopting new tools that require or incentivize it. For example, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Santa Ana in California have all adopted adaptive reuse ordinances, as have Phoenix, Arizona, and Saint Petersburg, Florida. Baltimore, Maryland, is considering similar legislation.

Deconstruction in Portland

This past year, the city of Portland, Oregon, adopted a new Deconstruction of Buildings Law, which Brandon Spencer-Hartle, senior city planner for the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability, discussed at the Denver forum. The new law, which Portland’s city council passed unanimously, doesn’t require the reuse of entire buildings, but encourages building reuse by requiring the salvage and reuse of materials in place of destructive mechanical demolition. The regulations, which went into effect in October, apply to houses built before 1916 as well as those designated as landmarks. A companion change to the state’s residential building code will soon allow for deconstructed houses to serve as “organ donors”—their lumber will be used in new houses and remodels. Although from a preservation perspective deconstruction is not as beneficial as wholesale building reuse, rigorous deconstruction requirements are a disincentive to demolition—for property owners who decide not to rehabilitate or reuse an existing building—and an important step in the right direction.

Portland based its ordinance on factual findings that support the city’s Climate Action Plan Update and Comprehensive Plan Update, thereby broadening the ordinance’s reach and linking it with broader land-use goals. These findings, which the city incorporated into the ordinance text, note that deconstruction (1) maximizes the salvage of valuable building materials for reuse, (2) reduces carbon emissions associated with demolition, (3) reduces the amount of demolition waste in landfills, and (4) minimizes the adverse impacts associated with building removal. According to Spencer-Hartle, “Portlanders are becoming increasingly aware that Oregon’s old growth forests are still standing in our old buildings.”

It is important to note, too, that Portland city leaders also considered deconstruction as a job engine. Although rehabilitation of an older building—one that is neither demolished nor deconstructed—is likely to generate more jobs than deconstruction, supporters of the ordinance noted that deconstruction will provide six to eight jobs for every one job associated with traditional mechanized demolition. Furthermore, although it doesn’t compare to the reuse of an entire building, deconstruction will provide carbon-reduction benefits by preserving the embodied energy of at least some existing building materials and by cutting the greenhouse gasses associated with sending waste to landfills.

Portland also provides grants ranging from $500 to $2,500 to promote deconstruction; build capacity within the deconstruction industry by allowing salvaged materials to be sold, donated, or reused on site; and encourage innovation. As Portland Mayor Charlie Hales has said, “Our goal is to preserve neighborhood character and affordability by discouraging demolitions. But when buildings must come down, that work should still serve the public good.”

Incentivizing and removing barriers to reuse, finding new ways to save existing building materials, and requiring a thoughtful review before any demolition all support the paradigm shift from an assumption of demolition to one of reuse. As we look to the future of historic preservation, cities and states are likely to continue to be laboratories of innovation. As these new tools emerge, we’ll highlight creative approaches for preservation advocates to consider and test in their own communities to help people keep and maintain the places that matter to them.

Will Cook is an associate general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Tom Mayes is vice president and senior counsel for the National Trust.

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