Deconstruction of historic properties: One city’s response to the demolition epidemic

Posted in: Cultural Resources

Not all historic buildings can be preserved. It’s unfortunate, but requiring deconstruction is a viable option when demolition cannot be avoided. Deconstructing historic buildings has proven to have economic and environmental benefits.

Portland, Oregon, is the first municipality in the nation to mandate deconstruction of historic homes. Low-density housing built prior to 1916 or historically designated properties cannot be demolished by bulldozer. These homes must be carefully dismantled so components may be salvaged and reused. The new ordinance offers incentives to reuse historic materials, reduce landfill waste and create jobs.

While Portland may be the first, others across the nation are considering response to the demolition epidemic. The article Shifting the Paradigm from Demolition to Reuse: New Tools by the National Trust for Historic Preservation likens deconstruction to “organ donors.” While not saving historic buildings, deconstruction provides an opportunity to thoughtfully consider, and possibly save, pieces of our architectural past.

In a second example, the University of Florida’s study, Implementing Deconstruction in Florida: Materials Reuse Issues, Disassembly Techniques, Economics and Policy analyzes the feasibility of replacing demolition and disposal of building materials with deconstruction and reuse.

Some developers have opposed deconstruction due to increased costs. However, deconstruction encourages builders to consider the intrinsic value of historic buildings before choosing demolition.

Personally, I wish redevelopment projects didn’t so often include demolition of historic buildings, but I understand the dilemma cities sometimes face. It is heartening that communities are looking for creative and economically sound solutions.

Rick Mitchell

About the Author

Rick Mitchell, AICP, Mead & Hunt Practice Leader for our Cultural Resources team, conducts architectural surveys and preservation planning with a focus on transportation projects. He led Mead & Hunt’s work on the Harbor Bridge project. A sixth-generation Texan, Rick enjoys discovering and documenting the state’s rich cultural and architectural history.

Read more posts by Rick Mitchell

2 responses on “Deconstruction of historic properties: One city’s response to the demolition epidemic

  1. As a preservationist and environmentally conscious individual I will never be okay with soft demolition otherwise known as deconstruction. I’ve seen the single family homes that are being demolished in Portland and they are either potential fixer uppers or homes that are in very good condition. Deconstruction should be the last option after incentives to reuse and encouraging people to gain actual skills to rehabilitate. Creating a dismantling economy is teaching people to enjoy the graveyard of homes that if left standing could help cities meet their carbon reduction goals. The high density push is often a guise for gentrification which leads to displacement of long time residents who then can’t afford to live in their own city. Yes soft demolition could be an option but in a consumer driven world that wants the next shiny new glass tower it is too easily a preservation green wash of epic proportions.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Terra. I totally agree that deconstruction should be considered only as a last resort, not as an easy replacement for rehabilitation or adaptive reuse.

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