In 2020, Hennepin County in Minnesota became one of the first counties in the United States to offer green grants for deconstruction, an alternative to demolishing buildings. Since then, one non-profit, based in Minneapolis and specialising in deconstruction, has begun to gain some traction throughout that state. This is an edited transcript of an interview by Cathy Wurzer from Minnesota Public Radio with Petrina Rhines, founder and director of the deconstruction company Birch Group and the salvage store Scrapbox Salvage.
CATHY WURZER (CW): Obviously, we know what construction means. Give us a picture of what deconstruction looks like.
PETRINA RHINES (PR): With deconstruction we are disassembling building components from a home or commercial structure to maximise their end-of-life cycle so they can be reused or repurposed and sold to the public. So basically, we are un-building what was built or deconstructing what was constructed. There are three types of deconstruction: full, selective, and salvage.
Full deconstruction is when you’re removing the entire structure from the roof to the deck or foundation. Selective deconstruction is when we’re removing the building components according to the client’s wishes. That’s what you would find in remodelling or renovation. And then there’s salvage work or what they call soft stripping in which we go in and identify all the high-salvage, high-value potential building materials and disassemble them and take them back to our store to place back into the supply chain.
CW: You have your own store, right? Scrapbox Salvage?
PR: Yes. We sell windows, floors, doors, lighting, and lots of high-end windows and doors — items that are pretty much priced to sell. We ask that you come in and make an offer. We don’t have a price on any of our items. We want you to think of it as coming in and saying, hey, I want that. And we pretty much will give it to you.
CW: Explain what’s so green about deconstruction versus demolition.
PR: First, I want to say thank you to Hennepin County Environmental Division, Washington County and Ramsey County for providing these green grants for deconstruction because it does help with the pricing especially when compared to demolition. These grants offset the cost of deconstruction.
With deconstruction, we’re releasing fewer harmful pollutants into the environment, and it’s also ensuring that building materials are salvaged and reused instead of being tossed into landfill or incinerated.
We’re aiming for a 75% waste diversion rate for each project we deconstruct. Demolition mechanically crunches a building and it can spread lead-laden toxins up to 400 feet (120 metres) from a job site and remain in the soil for about 30 years before it’s abated or dissipates, so this is why we choose to use deconstruction or promote and advocate deconstruction over demolition.
CW: I’m going to assume it is more expensive than just taking a wrecking ball to something because you’re going to have to carefully take it all apart.
PR: Yes. So one reason is we are gingerly disassembling these building components. We’re doing it all by hand to be resold. However, although the upfront cost may be slightly more, there are tax incentives, which can save money in the long run.
CW: I’ve spent significant time in some places where you drop off things you want to get rid of, and it’s just amazing as to what people will throw out. Some really beautiful pieces of furniture and some really lovely antique architectural details. So in your business, have there been any special building materials or architectural details you were especially proud to save?
PR: Oh, definitely. The owner of a mansion called and said, we’re tearing down our home. We have Dutch Baroque chandeliers. “They’re going to go to landfill, and we don’t want to see them go to landfill. You think you can come out and salvage some of the stuff?” So we went out and did a preliminary material list of everything we were going to take. We did [manage to] salvage many beautiful 18th century items from the mansion. That’s was one of our biggest harvesting achievements.
CW: Good. So you’re now opening a new place in St Louis County, is that right?
PR: Yes, we are. Really excited about that. Again, the counties have been so supportive of us and what we’re doing. And so we approached St Louis County about a year and a half ago to just go to their transfer sites and do waste diversion and sustainable construction within their waste sites.
This was when they told us they had 40 homes they would be demolishing this year. So we said to them, let us come in and deconstruct those for you. So that sparked us into establishing a store there as well.
CW: So what kind of folks get into deconstruction? Who are you hiring? Where do you find people who have a love for this? Because this is intensive work, and it’s not exactly easy.
PR: Our client list consists of builders, developers, architects, contractors, and homeowners. Builders and developers like utilising our services because we are assisting their clients with the tax benefits, and we have the ability to save them on tipping and hauling fees. And then we have designers and architects who like us for the tax benefits as well. But also, we are well versed in getting their buildings certified as green buildings because of our waste diversion initiatives.
And then we do have homeowners who just have a kitchen that needs to be done: “Do you think you can salvage this for me? Because I don’t want to see it go to waste.” So we definitely do that for them as well.
TOP Construction workers dismantling a portion of the Francis Drake Hotel piece by piece to avoid damaging a nearby business
PHOTO Judy Griesedieck/MPR News
ABOVE Cathy Wurzer (left) Petrine Rhines