Deconstructing Detroit to Build it Back Up

Over the past half century, Detroit’s population has dwindled from around 1.8 million to just 700,000. When driving around the city’s neighborhoods, you can’t help but notice how a majority of homes are boarded up and abandoned. They used to be middle-class dream homes, but now they’ve been left to stand alone and deteriorate.

But there is a bright side to all this doom and gloom. The dream homes built in the 1920s to the 1950s were built with excellent craftsmanship, and their construction has withstood the test of time and still has tremendous value.

Abandoned Home Detroit


Perks of Sturdy Construction

Most of the homes constructed when Detroit was a booming industrial town were built with wood from Michigan’s old-growth forests. Some of the trees that went into these homes included oak, red gum, cherry, maple, Douglas fir, and southern yellow pine. These trees produce beautiful, sturdy wood that’s perfectly suited for the construction industry.

Experts have estimated that 240 million board feet of this high-quality lumber still props up the 78,506 dilapidated and abandoned homes in Detroit that have been slated for destruction. If this wood is found to be in good condition, it can be sold for about $2 per foot, which would be a much-needed boost to Detroit’s local economy.

Detroit’s Urban Excavation Project

Reclaim Detroit and the Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit (ASWD), two nonprofit groups, are spearheading the effort to tear down these abandoned structures and reuse the valuable wood they were built with. It’s an enormous urban excavating project, but local entrepreneurs are up for the challenges that it may bring.

The EPA estimates that only about 20 to 30 percent of construction and demolition debris is recovered for reuse and recycling. ASWD uses systematic process in which up to 85% of demolition materials can be salvaged for reuse or recycling for a secondary use.

Not only might this reclaimed wood help boost the economy, but the labor needed for this scale of a project is creating jobs and training a brand new workforce. Projects like this often enlist crews of workers that are traditionally difficult to hire: former felons, unskilled laborers, and the chronically unemployed.

Abandoned Homes Detroit 2


Challenges and Rewards

But even though Detroit’s labor force and economy has a lot to gain from massive deconstruction, it is still an expensive process. There are mountains of paperwork that needs to pass through hands before the first wrecking ball hits, and you can still find squatters in many abandoned Detroit homes.

However, the nonprofits have been able to ship excavated lumber to both coasts and even overseas. And as the city of Detroit fights back and new startups emerge, they’re reusing the lumber too as a way to remember the city’s history. Even despite the challenges that persist, deconstruction, as an alternative to demolition, is a “triple” win for the city of Detroit. Reusing the valuable wood from these homes contributes to environmental sustainability, job creation and training, and cultural preservation for future generations of city residents.


*Photo credit: Sean Munson and SJ Carey via Flickr

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