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Expert sees value in vacant homes, calls for salvaging of materials

Thousands of vacant homes scattered throughout Buffalo might not be worthless after all.

A consultant who has specialized for more than a decade in "deconstructing" and salvaging materials from houses -- rather than demolishing them -- sees untapped potential in one of the city's toughest challenges, abandoned homes.

David Bennink, owner of Re-Use Consulting, led a workshop with community activists, contractors and other city leaders Sunday, exploring how the systematic disassembly of buildings can create opportunities for job training, small business development and recycling of valuable building material.

Buffalo has an estimated 14,000 vacant or dilapidated buildings, each of which brings down the value of other properties within the neighborhood. Many of the homes are too costly to rehabilitate.

The city has long lagged behind in demolishing the buildings, which can cost from $10,000 to $15,000 apiece to tear down.

Some residents believe a process known as deconstruction can help alleviate the problem.

Deconstruction goes beyond architectural salvage, and involves taking a home apart piece by piece and reusing materials such as joists, studs, siding and asphalt roofing.

Bennink helped build a nonprofit deconstruction firm in Bellingham, Wash., from two employees and 4,000 square feet of retail space to 36 employees and 50,000 square feet of retail space.

He emphasized that almost every building has deconstruction potential, but the community must develop a plan that fits its needs. "This isn't an all or nothing thing," said Bennink, who toured some of the city Sunday.

He will be part of a community forum, "Say No to Demo: The Potential of Building Deconstruction in Buffalo," from 7 to 9 p.m. today in the former Grant Street library at 271 Grant St.

"It just doesn't make sense for us to throw this stuff away," said Michael Gainer, a general contractor who did deconstruction work in Boston, Mass., before moving to Buffalo last fall. "That lumber has value. We need to recognize that this is an asset, a resource."

In particular, Gainer envisions tremendous job training and community development potential in a carefully planned deconstruction effort.

Deconstruction ultimately might end up costing the same as demolition. But the expense is on employees as opposed to dumping fees. Deconstruction diverts material from the landfill and allows for the sale of reclaimed lumber and other building products -- potentially lowering the overall cost.

It also enables people with lower incomes to buy quality used products to maintain their homes, said Bennink.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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