Rather than demolish buildings, Cornell researchers propose ‘deconstruction’ in Ithaca

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The Catherine Commons Deconstruction project in Ithaca. (Anna Canny/WSKG)

ITHACA, NY (WSKG) – On a typical construction site, it’s not unusual to hear the rumble of garbage trucks and bulldozers as buildings are reduced to rubble. But in Ithaca’s Collegetown neighborhood near Cornell University, things are a bit quieter.

Since early January, a team of researchers from Cornell University’s Circular Construction Lab and community stakeholders have been working to carefully salvage building materials from houses that are set to be demolished. They’ve also fully dismantled one of the houses as a ‘real world case study’ to assess the economic, ecological, and social advantages of deconstruction versus traditional demolition. 

They’re calling it the Catherine Commons Deconstruction project. 

The 11 properties along Catherine Street and College Avenue are mostly large houses built in the early 1900s. While they were previously used to house university students, they were vacated and slated for demolition to clear the way for the new “Catherine Commons,” an upcoming mixed-use residential and business development project. 

Dr. Felix Heisel is the director of the Circular Construction Lab. He hopes the project will provide the needed baseline data to help the City of Ithaca think about sustainability in the built environment, particularly construction and demolition debris.

“It’s just a question of planning it right and thinking in advance,” Heisel said. “There is a big learning curve in how we, as a society, think about this process.” 

Traditional demolition is one of the largest waste streams in the world. According to an EPA report from 2018, the United States produces about 540 million tons of demolition waste annually. 

Deconstruction could be a sustainable alternative. It reduces landfill waste, resource extraction, and CO2 emissions. It could also stimulate green jobs and workforce development. Employees from Trade Build Design, a local architecture and construction firm that is partnering on the project, and union laborers from Local Labor 745 were paid to assist on Catherine Street. 

Additional jobs will come from processing and reselling salvaged goods, which will be reused in  new local building projects. 

Gideon Stone is the owner of a local construction firm that is partnering on the project. 

“I’ve built homes before, and I do this for a living, and you understand the thought process and the effort… the trees that were cut down to process and produce all of the lumber,” Stone said. “And the bricks that were remanufactured and brought to the site. Even if they’re nothing spectacular, there’s still a lot of embedded material and human energy that has gone in to create this building.”

But in most places traditional demolition is faster and cheaper. Heisel said costs will go down as deconstruction becomes more popular, but first the city’s construction industry will have to change. 

“As long as we deconstruct just one building, without the right equipment, without a workforce that is trained, then this will be more expensive than demolition.” he said. “But with an economy of scale, that changes. It can be an economically competitive process as long as you have an economy of scale.”

The project is also supported by the partner network Circularity, Reuse & Zero Waste Development, also known as CR0WD, a local coalition which includes Finger Lakes ReUse, Historic Ithaca, and the Susan Christopherson Center for Community Planning, among others. 

The network promotes deconstruction, salvage and reuse of building materials and architectural elements in communities across New York state for it’s environmental, cultural and economic benefits.

Data collected from the Catherine Commons Deconstruction project will be used to inform the creation of a local deconstruction ordinance, a policy which will require deconstruction on some buildings that are slated for demolition. CR0WD will work closely with members of the Ithaca Common Council and the City Planning Board. City officials from both groups visited Catherine Street for demonstrations throughout the month. 

A few other cities across the nation have already introduced deconstruction ordinances with some success – most notably Portland, Oregon and Palo Alto, California. 

Proponents of the ordinance hope to develop it this spring. If adopted, it will be a complement to green building policies implemented under the Ithaca Green New Deal. It could also provide a template for other municipalities across New York state.