How San Antonio wants to change the way old houses are demolished – San Antonio Report

On the front of the century-old house in downtown San Antonio, “no trespassing” is painted in red on the white siding. The roof appears to be rotting away. But step inside and the dwelling looks more like a treasure chest.

That’s how Kirt Haeberlein, the owner of architectural salvage store Picker’s Paradise, sees the house on 432 Dallas St., owned by a woman who had initially planned to rehabilitate the home until that option became impractical.

So rather than mechanically demolish the home and take everything to the dump, he will deconstruct it piece by piece, saving the original hardwood flooring, doors with transom windows, old fixtures and anything else that can be reused in other homes. 

The project is an example of what the city is proposing to make happen more often — through a deconstruction and reuse program and an ordinance mandating deconstruction versus demolition under certain conditions. 

Officials with the Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) recently presented their case to a City Council committee, using side-by-side photos to contrast the difference between turning a structure into a pile of splintered debris headed for the landfill and methodically taking it apart to salvage reusable building materials. 

“To us, that is a perfect illustration of what we mean by a circular economy — taking materials from buildings that do have to come down and redirecting them back into the repair of other structures at a neighborhood micro-level,” said Stephanie Phillips, a senior specialist with OHP. “We want to see more of that.”

A home built in the 1890s on Dallas Street is almost hollowed out after Kirt Haeberlin and his team completed a project to salvage flooring, doors, and wood paneling to sell at Picker’s Paradise.
A home built in the 1890s on Dallas Street is almost hollowed out after Kirt Haeberlin and his team completed a project to salvage flooring, doors and wood paneling to sell at Picker’s Paradise. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

City staffers are working to draft an ordinance they believe will achieve that goal. 

About 500 buildings are demolished annually in San Antonio, contributing to over 15,000 tons of waste. Since 2009, about $1.5 million worth of salvageable material has ended up in the landfill, according to data presented by the historic preservation office. 

A quarter of San Antonio’s housing stock consists of homes built before 1965 and 69% of all demolition permits issued in the last decade were for residential structures. Taking building products out of buildings set for demolition and using them for repair of other houses will prevent other demolitions in the long run.

In many cases, deferred maintenance contributes to accelerated deterioration of aging homes, putting them more at risk for demolition. 

But old homes and buildings largely provide affordable housing in a city where such housing is badly needed. “Not only does older housing stock provide affordable housing, but it has disproportionately provided housing for our Hispanic population, as well as our lower-income populations,” Phillips said, citing a 2019 study by the city, Opportunity at Risk.

On Thursday, another Council committee reviewed plans for a pilot program that aims to save 10 homes of low-income residents that are at risk of demolition because they’ve been designated as dangerous premises and are considered unlivable without repair. Known as Operation Rebuild, the program was proposed by Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) and will be funded through the city’s 2022 budget.

Mapping demolitions in the city within the last 10 years also revealed a public health concern “because demolition is effectively a form of air pollution,” Phillips said.  

The proposed deconstruction ordinance, crafted with the help of a think tank of industry professionals in February 2020, calls for deconstructions to be administered by the Office of Historic Preservation through a permitting process, similar to demolition requests, and subject to data collection and inspections. 

It would be phased in over time with the ordinance first applying citywide to single-family and small multifamily residential structures built in 1920 or earlier, and to the same types of structures with a historic zoning overlay or within a neighborhood conservation district. 

In a second phase to start about two years after the first, the ordinance would apply to single-family, multifamily and rear accessory structures built in 1945 or earlier plus the same types of structures also within historic or conservation districts. 

She estimated that 50 to 90 permits for deconstruction would be issued in the first phase and 120 to 150 in the second. 

The decision to start with older homes and buildings has to do with the quality of the material and the payoff, said Shanon Shea Miller, the city’s historic preservation director. The materials in older structures tend to be of a higher quality and more likely to be reused. 

She said she believes that will help persuade those who aren’t on board with the idea of deconstruction due to the higher cost of that process, which typically ranges between $1,200 and $2,000 for a single-family house, and allow the market demand for reclaimed material to catch up. 

“It’s a little bit harder ‘sell’ for some people to see the value, which is another reason why we really feel like a phased approach makes sense, because we can sort of win people over along the way until we get to a point where we’re able to deconstruct more buildings,” Miller said.

A 300-year-old city like San Antonio is a great source of salvageable materials, said Clayton Russell, special projects manager with J.R. Ramon Demolition service company. The 77-year-old business has contracts with the city to raze blighted and condemned properties, and Russell has been working with OHP to help develop components of the ordinance.

But in San Antonio, market demand for reclaimed materials has some room to grow even as it is trending upward. 

“That market just continues to go up,” Russell said, driven by examples of effective material reuse in developments like the Pearl and a millennial generation now looking to use reclaimed material in their homes. 

“As the market for those types of materials continues to increase, you’re going to start to see where [deconstruction] will be advantageous,” he said. In the meantime, the city will need to support the effort until the market demand catches up. 

Another element of the city’s deconstruction program is what Miller described as a material innovation center and learning lab for the city’s Living Heritage Trades Academy, which provides training in traditional crafts and skills related to pre-1960 building construction methods and materials.

The city is in talks with Port San Antonio to house the center in the 1920s-era bungalows on the technology and innovation campus. 

bria woods pickers paradise kirt haeberlin yvette villareal salvage vintage wood homes flooring 2 24 202219
The interior of Picker’s Paradise is a labyrinth of salvaged stained glass windows, doors, light fixtures and iron works. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Miller said the program would not compete with other architectural salvage operations in the city, including Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores. “We wouldn’t be taking the material that Habitat wants,” she said. “We would be the last stop for the material that they can’t move out of their stores.”

At Picker’s Paradise, a salvage shop Haeberlein started over seven years ago, the program will theoretically be good for business, he said. His store at 801 Fredericksburg Rd. keeps growing every year, and he has a steady clientele of homeowners, home builders and do-it-yourselfers.

“Greenhouses are huge right now and so people come by and want to buy 20 windows [saying], ‘I need them cheap,’” Haeberlein said.

He also deconstructs homes to salvage building materials and other items his customers want. The most valuable thing Haeberlein ever discovered in an old home was a stash of silver coins the homeowner did not want, and he often finds antique bottles worth selling. 

His favorite find was a six-pane window from a 1915 house on which previous owners had left notes about the house scrawled in the dust.

Haeberlein works with several demolition service companies that call him to reclaim sellable materials before the structure is razed. He was disappointed several years ago, he said, when the city said it had no policy for allowing him to salvage anything from dozens of homes set for demolition on the East Side. 

“My biggest thing with the city is that the city doesn’t hold themselves to the same standards as what they want to hold the people out there that are demo-ing houses,” he said.  

That could change under the new ordinance, which would also require the city to amend its demolition contract to require deconstruction, Miller said. 

The draft ordinance has not been finalized, said an OHP spokeswoman. When completed in the coming months, it will be presented to City Council for adoption. 

Members of the council who serve on the Community Health, Environment and Culture Committee spoke in favor of the program when it was presented in early February. 

District 3 Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran asked staffers for more data on ownership of the structures she called “legacy family homes” that could be affected by a deconstruction ordinance. But she supports the initiative overall. 

“This is something where builders in our side of town go in and they just tell each other, ‘Take whatever you want before they demolish,’ so I like this concept. I like formalizing it,” Viagran said.

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