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A salvage operation

Materials from ruined homes are saved for use in reconstruction

August 29, 2007

Brad guy, an architect and researcher at Pennsylvania State University, is an advocate of deconstruction -- not the thorny literary theory, but the idea of carefully taking apart buildings and making the parts available to builders.

The idea, Guy says, "is as old as buildings -- the Romans built on the ruins of the Egyptians." The modern deconstruction movement in the United States began taking off in the 1980s as an environmentally sound alternative to demolition and disposal of building waste in overflowing landfills.

The movement has taken root in progressive cities such as Portland, Ore., and Burlington, Vt. But when floodwaters destroyed miles upon miles of housing stock in New Orleans, Guy realized that the city could serve as deconstruction's most dramatic proving ground.

This, he knew, was a chance to keep thousands of tons of building materials out of the landfills: Most of it would be fine once it dried out. It was also a chance to recycle some of the defining ornamental elements of New Orleans architecture and preserve a little of the city's charm.

Guy said he and a handful of other environmentalist pitched the idea to city, state and federal officials. The reception was tepid, but the activists did find willing accomplices in a tiny nonprofit, the Green Project, and a for-profit company, GRD Demolition.

So far, the two groups have taken down about 40 homes, with much of the salvageable material going to the Green Project's recycled-materials store in the 9th Ward. It's a modest start, but they are satisfied that the idea is getting some exposure.

On a recent rainy afternoon, Fanny Berdugo, owner of GRD Demolition, stood inside the shell of a partly deconstructed 1914-era house in the badly flooded Lakeview neighborhood. The house had survived every storm save Katrina.

Berdugo was charging about $10 a square foot to desconstruct the house, about twice as much as she would charge for a normal demolition. But the owners, a doctor and his wife, wanted to do the right thing environmentally. About 85% of the building -- the original wood flooring, the windows, some kitchen cabinets -- would end up going to the Green Project's store (where resident John Griffin, at right, shopped for screen doors).

Berdugo said her clients weren't just environmentalists: They had a deep emotional attachment to the house and wanted to see its materials live on in another building.

That kind of New Orleans sentimentality might eventually help sell deconstruction to a broader audience down here, Berdugo said: "People don't want what is left here to be totally gone."

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