Put a hammer in Shawn Wood’s hand (or any tool, for that matter), and he’ll make something. As early as a six years old, he was sanding blocks of wood into toy canoes and making his own tiny toolbox and workbench, toiling away next to his dad in the basement of their home in Virginia. As he got older, he would “raid” local construction sites and make tree forts out of the loot. And during the summer between high school and college, he did construction work. He would go on to build a house for his family in Portland’s NW hills, milling the lumber in his driveway from the Western red cedar trees on the lot.
So, the guy knows a thing or two about wood and construction. That, and his urban planning degree, as well as time spent at the Bureau of Development Services (BDS, prior to BPS), learning the ins and outs of the City’s land use and building codes, made him a natural to lead the development of North America’s first building deconstruction ordinance, which was adopted by the Portland City Council in 2016.
Sadly (and happily), Wood will soon be joining the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), working to advance the use of low-embodied-carbon building materials, including those that have been reclaimed and reused.
Buildings don’t live forever; their lifespan can be anywhere from 30 to 130 years. Once they are demolished, all the materials used to make them (many of them toxic) end up in the air or landfill.
So, let’s “deconstruct” the meaning of deconstruction.
Put simply, deconstruction is the reverse process of construction. Instead of demolishing a house by smashing and crushing it with a backhoe and scooping it up with a bulldozer, the house is taken apart by hand in the opposite order in which it was constructed, starting at the top.
“Disassembly starts with the roof, then the siding, windows, doors, lathe and plaster, fixtures, then framing,” Wood explains. “It ends at the foundation. That’s when the excavator comes in and removes the remaining concrete and backfills the basement.”
This is important from a recycling and repurposing standpoint, but also for public health. A lot of toxic particulates are released into the air when a building is torn down, including from asbestos and lead-based paint.
Turning old homes into new material
So, how did Shawn, the tool guy, turn into “The Woodsman,” developing and championing a whole new approach to replacing Portland’s old housing stock?
In 2015, City Council directed the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to develop recommendations on ways to advance deconstruction in Portland. This was in direct response to an ever-increasing number of house demolitions as Portland recovered from the Great Recession.
So Wood convened and led a Deconstruction Advisory Group (DAG) that included home builders, deconstructionists, salvage retailers, BDS, Metro, as well as neighborhood and historic preservation advocates. The DAG unanimously agreed to a phased approach to deconstruction: jump start deconstruction with grants, followed by requirements that could be expanded over time.
The country’s first deconstruction ordinance
On July 6, 2016, Portland City Council adopted an ordinance requiring certain projects seeking a demolition permit to be fully deconstructed ― as opposed to mechanically demolished. Building on the success of this initial ordinance, Council subsequently adopted a new amendment in November 2019 to raise the year-built threshold from 1916 to 1940, which went into effect on Jan. 20, 2020.
These new rules mean that all single-dwelling structures (houses and duplexes) in all zones are subject to the Deconstruction Ordinance if the structure was built in 1940 or earlier or is designated as a historic resource subject to demolition review or 120-day delay provisions of Title 33.
A Certified Deconstruction Contractor, trained to safely and effectively disassemble the house and salvage valuable materials for reuse, must perform the deconstruction work. In the early days of implementation, however, ensuring that existing and new deconstruction contractors could meet the new requirements meant new workers would need training.
So, BPS committed to a deconstruction workforce training program that prioritized women, people of color, and other under-represented groups in the field of construction. BPS teamed up with local nonprofits and trade organizations to recruit interested participants. Oregon Tradeswomen was critical in promoting the opportunity, and numerous recent graduates of their program applied for and participated in the workforce training. Through funding support from Metro, Oregon DEQ, and BPS, the training was offered at no cost to participants.
“Additionally, we were able to give students their own tool kit, personal protective equipment and a small stipend to cover daily expenses like day care, transportation or lost wages,” recounted Wood.
The training took place in March of 2017, before the busier summer construction season. The hands-on training meant students spent 12 days on an active deconstruction, learning how to safely and effectively disassemble a house and salvage building materials for reuse. The cohort of 15 were all either women and/or people of color, houseless, or post-incarcerated. Following the training, Wood held a meet and greet for the students and the deconstruction contractors that were interested in hiring new crew members.
Costs going down, not up
Lest you think deconstruction is expensive, Wood says costs have come down and mechanical demolition costs have gone up since 2018. Lower deconstruction costs are in part a result of deconstruction contractors offering additional services such as asbestos abatement and more.
“In 2019 we saw a bump of deconstruction projects, and 9% were voluntary,” says Wood. “I suspect that’s because deconstruction is becoming cost competitive with mechanical demolition.”
Furthermore, retail outlets like the Rebuilding Center, Lovett Deconstruction, Reclaim NW and Good Wood are making money selling salvaged material. Some are even donating materials to low-income households.
As recently as 2015, the majority of houses that came down in Portland were mechanically demolished. Today, the majority are hand-disassembled by deconstruction contractors, and the materials are salvaged for reuse. That’s a pretty fast turnaround.
Portland’s deconstruction ordinance is an important element in the city’s emerging "circular economy," recycling and reusing products and materials as much as possible. Wood has been a key player in other efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle everything from wood to Max rail cars.
So, as he heads to the Feds, Wood leaves an inspiring legacy for others to continue. He’s poised to scale up deconstruction policies as well as other sustainable building and construction ideas and initiatives nationwide.
“The best part of my job has been sharing Portland’s deconstruction policy experience with other jurisdictions, agencies, businesses, students (the future), and researchers,” he says. “And the EPA has played a significant role in amplifying the success of Portland’s deconstruction policy.”
Now that’s as smooth a transition one could hope for.
Profile by Eden Dabbs, Senior Communications Strategist, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability