In her seminal work The Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs argued “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation – although these make fine ingredients – but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.”

Most people would probably agree with Jacobs, at least to some extent, yet we continue to lose old buildings daily in Portland.  While undoubtedly some areas of town are able to absorb some such losses others are extremely fragile and have already perhaps lost too much. In these areas do we just let them go or should we work to ensure their continued existence?

It is with this in mind that this recent article in the Daily Journal of Commerce, about building deconstruction in place of demolition, caught our attention. This is likely a touchy subject so we’ll preface things by stating that building deconstruction and salvage is certainly preferred over demolition. We greatly appreciate the work carried out by area deconstruction and salvage organizations. But at some point however, an elephant enters the room that must be given attention: Why deconstruct (or demolish) in the first place?

Former apartment buildings at NE 6th and Couch. These buildings are now in the advanced stages of deconstruction, to be replaced by a half block mixed-use building

In the above mentioned DJC article, a local contractor estimates the cost of deconstruction at five times the cost of demolition. If this is indeed the case and the developer really does wish to reduce the environmental impact of the project, couldn’t they have taken the money set aside for deconstruction and applied it to a renovation of the existing buildings? It is noted in the article how fantastic and of high quality many of the building materials are from the two apartment buildings being deconstructed at NE 6th and Couch. If that’s true and there is a presumably a significant pot of money available for deconstruction purposes, couldn’t those two elements have contributed to a creative and interesting new development that integrated the existing buildings with new construction, preserving building materials and energy on the one hand, and a little bit of the old neighborhood on the other?

Preservation economist Donovan Rypkema has long asked “Why invest money to tear down and reconstruct what’s already there? Historic buildings by and large have water lines, gutters, and streets already in place. Older ones, designed before cars were the dominant mode of transportation, instill surroundings with strong pedestrian orientations. If our future is aimed at reducing our reliance on automobiles, using buildings planned for human access is the smart place to start.”

Rypkema has argued that “Razing historic buildings results in a triple hit on scarce resources. First, we are throwing away thousands of dollars of embodied energy. Second, we are replacing it with materials vastly more consumptive of energy. What are most historic houses built from? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber. What are among the least energy consumptive of materials? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber. What are major components of new buildings? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum. What are among the most energy consumptive of materials? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum. Third, recurring embodied energy savings increase dramatically as a building life stretches over fifty years.” 

In another recent DJC article about the Multnomah County Courthouse in downtown Portland, County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury is quoted as saying “If you have a building, why not renovate it?” While the commissioner was specifically talking about the courthouse, she makes a very valid point.

Why not?

Postcard of the Multnomah County Courthouse from the Bosco-Milligan Foundation Collections

As we’ve already stated, such work conserves energy and materials, but it also preserves something else less tangible – that sense of place that makes Portland interesting and special. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about our city less in terms of what we can construct that’s new, justifying such work through our admirable recycling and deconstruction efforts, and instead begin to move toward a truly more sustainable model in which we reuse what we already have – not just materials but places too.