The Rubble Within

By Midge Pierce


The greenest house is an existing house.

Lost in the din over demolition is the environmental cost of razing homes. Carbon is stored in the timber and materials of older homes, but it is expended in the harvesting of fresh resources, the manufacturing and delivery of new materials plus the transport of manpower to and from a new building worksite.

The Markham House
The Markham House 3206 NE Glisan

3206 NE Glisan

“It can take over 50 years to offset the materials wasted in demolition,” says Val Ballestrem, education manager at Bosco-Milligan Architectural Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of the value of older homes. “The notion of building a new, energy efficient house is ludicrous.”

In a city that prides itself on sustainable practices, he says the rise of home demolitions to pre-recession levels is a terrible waste of precious resources. “New buildings start at a point of negative energy. Saving old homes is the most sustainable practice.”

The concept is known as embedded, or embodied, energy. A spokesman for the Home Builders Association of Portland says he is unfamiliar with the term. The National Trust for Historic Preservation cites an article that includes research by the Cascadia Green Building Council and others saying, “Retrofitting one percent of (Portland’s) office buildings and single family homes that would otherwise be demolished and rebuilt over the next ten years would help meet 15 percent of the (Multnomah) county’s total CO2 reduction targets.”

Restore Energy’s Field Service Manager Brandon Spencer-Hartle says, “We’re looking at new ways to think about place-saving that includes environmental factors.”

He recognizes that close-in neighborhoods are ripe for redevelopment to absorb density but urges adaptive re-use of buildings over teardowns. More jobs are created, and fewer materials are wasted, in building rehabilitation, he says, than in the logging and manufacture of new materials.

The rubble from a teardown may include old growth timber, custom workmanship, skilled labor and irreplaceable history, says architectural designer Caitlin Cranley. “Older homes were generally one-of-kind with a level of detail and craftsmanship not found in mass production homes.” Cranley, in the midst of renovating her own 100-year-old home, adds, “Wall studs are the most prevalent material, possibly from trees cut down before there were restrictions on old-growth lumber.”

On the flip-side, she says, new houses are built with energy-efficient heating and cooling systems that provide greater savings over time than poorly-insulated older homes.

“It’s a difficult equation but one that needs to happen,” says local craftsman Brant Moore. He says there are calculations for energy offsets, and even tax incentives for builders who recycle materials, but these should be weighed against the environmental costs of razing older homes to build new ones.

While the calculation is complicated, it’s easy to understand in human terms. “Why waste houses that are structurally sound and that someone would love to have?” says Ballestrem. “The timbers in a 100-year-old house are irreplaceable. Bulldozers turn wood to garden mulch.”

Of course, not all homes are worth saving, says Spencer-Hartle. “But the energy embodied in a significant, structurally-sound building deserves consideration.”

Salvaging and repurposing materials are desirable goals, but Ballestrem claims rebuilding centers can’t keep up with demolition.

Last month, he was disheartened to see  “heaps of unsalvaged materials” that included century-old structural wood at the site of the former Jarra’s Restaurant, a building once owned by a Hawthorne family member.

Selling houses at reasonable prices can be an equity issue that helps save older homes and stabilize the economy. “Existing homes are usually more affordable than what replaces them,” Ballestrem says.

Yet, builders often pay cash to purchase homes at premium prices, outbidding homebuyers who are at the mercy of bank loans for mortgages and lines of credit for repairs. Builders find legal workarounds that enable them to replace a single home with one, two or more. Often, neighbors are shocked. Part of the surprise is that homeowners don’t always know how their property is zoned.

Preservationists have limited options to save old homes. Establishing a National Register of Historic Homes District (like the one in place in Irvington) was voted down in Laurelhurst several decades ago. Pressuring local lenders to ease restrictions on loans for remodeling might slow down demolitions and put home buying within reach of more Portlanders.

Meanwhile, residents would do well to check the zoning in their neighborhoods  and consider what might be in their mulch.

The so-called Markham House at 3206 NE Glisan is a classic Portland paradox. Recently purchased by a developer, the unique, Spanish tiled house has stood sentinel at the gates of Laurelhurst for 100 years. Thousands have signed a petition to Save the Markham House at, but what is an icon to many, has become an eyesore beyond repair to others.

As of this writing, owner/builder Peter Kusyk had not applied for a demolition permit, but he says two homes with reduced energy costs are a better solution than spending an estimated $300 K on renovation. “Fifty years from now, the energy savings of a new home will more than offset what is taken down.”

Kusyk says he would discuss resale with potential buyers who can match his roughly $600 K investment plus afford financing for renovation. Warning that budgets and unexpected problems can undermine projects, he says, “Renovating is not my preference.”

Bosco-Milligan’s Ballestrem suggests that someone with a preservation mindset evaluate the  cost of restoration vs. demolition of the property: “With many older homes, it’s possible to do a few things to make them habitable and postpone other improvements to do over time.”


Tallying the Impact of Teardowns


With demolition above pre-recession levels, Restore Oregon claims that 26% of the state’s landfill comes from demolition and construction waste.  Restore Oregon is lobbying City Council for significant zoning and building code changes to reduce the waste.

Proposals include requirements to call any project that brings down 50% or more of a structure a demolition, coupled with removal of a section of the building code that allows some properties to be demolished without proper notification and delay.

“The City needs to stop calling it a remodel when it’s really a demolition,” says Field Manager Brandon Spencer-Hartle. Currently, unless every element in a building is gone, a local project can be called a renovation.

Restore Oregon tallies the impact of teardowns:

In 2013, 279 houses were demolished in Portland. That does not include remodels that Spencer-Hartle believes should have been called demolitions.

Less than two percent of the demo waste was salvaged.

An average 1200sq. ft. foot house tear- down generates 115 lbs (per sq. ft.) of waste.

Restore Oregon extrapolates that last year’s demolition was the equivalent of: failing to recycle 1.5 billion pieces of paper (2,426 per person in Portland), 438.9 million aluminum cans (728 per person), or 33.4 million glass beer bottles (55 per person).

Conversely, building rehabilitation means that 60% of costs go into the local labor market rather than material manufacture, according to Restore’s website.  Hartle adds that building re-use sustains the environment and Portland’s storied sense of place.



The Rubble Within

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