Under Deconstruction: Transformazium
Ruthie Stringer can't relate to the image of Braddock portrayed in the media. "I think life is more complicated than that," she says as she sits next to a massive pile of wooden joints in what
was once The United Brethren Church in North Braddock. Following a fire
that damaged part of the building in 2005, the property sat vacant until
Ruthie and her friends purchased it in 2008.
In the Greater Pittsburgh area, over 30% of real estate is vacant or
underutilized. Instead of viewing abandoned properties as symbols of
blight and despair, Ruthie is taking part in a rapidly growing movement
called deconstruction, a sustainable alternative to demolition, which
sees opportunity and hope in these properties.
Deconstruction is the
selective dismantling of a building for the purpose of reusing the
materials to build new structures, and it is this process which
Ruthie, along with formerly Brooklyn based artists Leslie Stern, Dana
Bishop-Root, and Caledonia Curry (better known as Swoon), are using to
turn their building into a community arts center called the Transformazium
After the Pittsburgh space where Swoon and Leslie were planning an art
show two years ago fell through, they were invited to move the show to
Lauri Mancuso's Dorothy 6 space in Braddock, which happened to be
located on the first floor of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman's house.
"John showed Swoon the Brethren Church, and she fell in love with it,"
Swoon, who was busy working on other projects around
, asked her friends to move to Braddock in order to manage
the property. They were able to purchase the building through the
Allegheny Vacant Property Act, a form of eminent domain that allows the
county to take abandoned properties and clear back taxes, in this case
over $500,000, so that new owners can purchase the properties at a
Shortly after purchasing the building, a friend suggested they attend a
conference on deconstruction in Buffalo, NY, co-sponsored by Buffalo
Reuse and The Building Materials Reuse Association, a non-profit that serves as a representative for the deconstruction
industry, informing people about deconstruction and its benefits.The Many Benefits
"We spent nine weeks learning about deconstruction, and what it would
take to do it, " says Dana. Instead of demolishing the damaged parts of
the Transformazium, they dismantled the reusable materials, which they
are using to rebuild other damaged areas of the building. As the
Transformazium crew learned, the benefits of deconstruction over demolition are huge. The value of reusable salvaged
materials directly offsets high labor costs the donation to Pittsburgh's Construction Junction in Point
Breeze, results in a tax benefit for the building owner. In addition,
deconstruction offers major environmental benefits.
"All reuse is a form of recycling, but not all recycling is reuse," says
Brian Swearingen, the head of Construction Junction's deconstruction
crew. "In deconstruction and reuse, we're taking that same material, but
using it for the same purpose, or slightly altering it for another
purpose. When you do that, you're saving energy, because you have less
transportation costs, less energy costs, and no remanufacturing costs,
which are high. A good example is a metal table. If you recycle that
at a landfill, you have to put it on a truck, probably put it on a
train, possibly put it on a ship, and send it maybe halfway around the
world to make what is oftentimes a similar product."
was set up eight years ago by the Pennsylvania Resources Council to spearhead a movement in Pittsburgh away from disposing waste in
landfills without exploring its other purposes. They operate a store,
which accepts donations of reusable materials from individuals and
businesses renovating or demolishing buildings, and sells those
materials at a low cost so they can be repurposed.
In addition to the
economic benefits to builders and property owners, deconstruction and
reuse provide large incentives for communities. "When you buy materials
from Construction Junction, you're helping provide a cost saving to
people who are trying to run their small businesses. You are also
helping us employ people to recover materials, which puts money back
into the local economy," Brian explains.
The possibilities of job creation through the deconstruction industry in
Allegheny County are exciting. "When we're asked to do an assessment of
deconstruction vs. demolition from a workforce development standpoint,
there are times when we could create 20 times more jobs deconstructing
buildings than if we demolished them," notes David Bennink, who will be
about deconstruction in Braddock on June 17 and 18. David
is a BMRA board member, Deconstruction Builder of the Year Award winner, and founder of ReUse Consulting
, a 48-person
company that performs deconstruction across the country for individuals
and businesses, and trains people wanting to start their own
Let Me Count the Ways
"The jobs are created in four ways. There's deconstruction and salvage
at the jobsite, there's processing and transportation, there's retailing
and warehouse like Construction Junction, and finally there's what we
call value added jobs, where we take materials and we add value to them
in some way, such as reclaiming wood flooring or making old light
fixtures more energy efficient," says David.
If deconstruction sounds like a dream industry, especially for
revitalizing cities like Pittsburgh, why isn't it a more common
practice? Why have so few people even heard of it for that matter?
The answer to that question is multifarious, but for David the main
problem is a lack of information. Oftentimes, contractors don't tell
property owners about deconstruction, because they fear it will put them
behind schedule and cut into their part of the contract. "There are
tons of people out there that say to us they didn't know deconstruction
was an option. They just knocked down their building, and they would
have chosen deconstruction if they'd known," he says.
Many people fear
that deconstruction is too expensive or time consuming, but
deconstruction is frequently faster and cheaper than demolition, and 95%
of David's clients over the past 17 years say they would still prefer
deconstruction to demolition.
David and Brian both agree that legislation related to landfills is an
obstacle. David is quick to point out that in some parts of the country,
dumping fees at landfills are very inexpensive, rendering
deconstruction unprofitable in comparison. "We're always trying to point
out that there are hidden costs when you do things too cheaply. An
example of that would be if you took a bunch of computer monitors and
threw them in the landfill, then naturally you have a hazardous waste
problem. And this is a legislative issue, because if you're doing
things too cheaply, you're passing on hidden costs to the future.
That's not really fair competition," says Brian.
Despite the roadblocks, people involved with deconstruction in
Pittsburgh appear very optimistic about the future. Legislation
is evolving. For instance, California and Massachusetts have recently
passed bills designed to discourage landfill use for materials that
could be repurposed, which could encourage Pennsylvania to
adopt similar laws. The Community Regeneration, Sustainability, and
Innovation Act, a bill that provides economic support for deconstruction
practices, is under consideration in Congress.
"We feel like we're really onto something here. We're reaching out to
everyone and saying that we believe someday soon, deconstruction will be
the main choice for building removal," says David.
Although a lot of hard work still needs to be done deconstructing and
rebuilding the Transformazium, the future seems bright. Swoon lives in
Brooklyn, but is currently building an adobe dome in the lot across the
street from the Transformazium, which will function as a community
greeting space. Leslie, Dana, and Ruthie have completed two large
projects that involved the community's participation. It's clear that
the Transformazium is becoming more than a community arts center, but
just what that will be remains uncertain, even to the
Transformazium. "We are going to let it evolve more organically, and
with input from our neighbors as well. We are definitely working towards
a community garden in the lot, though", says Leslie.
"One of the most exciting shift of perspectives has been realizing that
the 15104 area is loaded with resources, and that it's not simply
blighted or abandoned. It's full of people with a ton of skills and
interests, there are several businesses that try very hard and care
about the area and people, and there are lots of organizations and
"But not everyone knows or sees this. Deconstruction has allowed
us this shift in terms of looking at all the abandoned buildings and
seeing them as having tremendous potential value, instead of just being
problems," Leslie adds.
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John Farley is Pop City's development news editor. A graduate of Oberlin College, he was editor in chief of The Grape. He lives in Lawrenceville at Helter Shelter, which doubles as a performing space.
Main image: Dana Bishop-Root (left) and Ruthie Stringer
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen.