Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Minneapolis nonprofit works to deconstruct — rather than demolish — old buildings

Constructions workers take apart a building with tools.
Two construction workers dismantle a portion of the Francis Drake Hotel piece by piece to avoid damaging a nearby business, on Dec. 31, 2019. Once that business is safe from being damaged, the demolition of the hotel will proceed much faster.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

In much of the state, the snow has melted, the ground has thawed and you know what that means: It’s the beginning of construction season!

That also means demolishing old buildings to make way for those new construction. But back in 2020, Hennepin County became one of the first counties in the nation to offer ‘green grants’ for deconstruction, an alternative to demolishing a building.

In deconstruction, a building is taken apart to reuse its parts. Recently the concept has taken off.

A nonprofit based on the north side of Minneapolis specializing in deconstruction is gaining traction throughout the state. 

Petrina Rhines, founder and director of the Birch Group, joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about how it works.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: So in much of the state, the snow is melted. The ground is thawed. You know what that means, right? It's the beginning of construction season. That can also mean demolishing old buildings to make way for that new construction. But back in 2020, Hennepin County became one of the first counties in the nation to offer green grants for deconstruction, an alternative to demolishing a building.

In fact, the concept has really taken off. A nonprofit based on the north side of Minneapolis specializing in deconstruction is gaining some traction throughout the state. Petrina Rhines is the founder and director of the Birch Group. Petrina, welcome to Minnesota Now. How are you?

PETRINA RHINES: I'm good, Cathy. Thank you so much for having me today.

CATHY WURZER: Glad you're with us. All right. Obviously, we know about construction. We know what that means. Give us a picture of what deconstruction looks like.

PETRINA RHINES: Sure. So with deconstruction, we are disassembling building components from a home or commercial structure to maximize their end of life cycle so that they can be reused or repurposed and sold to the public. So basically, we are un-building what was built or deconstructing what was constructed. There are three types of deconstruction-- full, selective, and salvage work deconstruction.

Full deconstruction is when you're removing the entire structure from roof to the deck or foundation. Selective deconstruction is when we're removing the building components according to the client's wishes. That's what you would find in remodeling or renovation. And then there's salvage work or what they call soft stripping in which we are going in and identifying all the high salvage, high value potential building materials and disassembling them and taking them back to our store to place back into the supply chain.

CATHY WURZER: OK. I love salvaging. I'm one of those that kind of dig through piles, and I'd like to repurpose and reuse things. So you've got your own store, right? Scrapbox Salvage?

PETRINA RHINES: Yes, Scrapbox Salvage. We are located in the Northwinds Lofts building of North Minneapolis. And there at Scrapbox Salvage, we sell windows, floors, doors, lighting, and lots of high end windows and doors-- items that are pretty much priced to sell. We are not trying to hold these hostage so to speak. We ask that you come in and make an offer. We don't have a price on any of our items in the store. We want you to think of it as coming in and saying, hey, I want that. And we pretty much will give it to you.

CATHY WURZER: Explain, please, about what is so green about deconstruction versus demolition.

PETRINA RHINES: Great question. What is so green? I guess in regards to Hennepin County, they offer the green grants as you were speaking of. I guess first I just want to say thank you to Hennepin County Environmental Division and Washington County and Ramsey County for providing these grants because it really does help with the pricing especially when compared to demolition.

But when speaking of these grants, the county-- they actually offer these grants to offset the cost of deconstruction. So when you say in regards to the environmental side of things, what's so green about them is with deconstruction, we're releasing fewer harmful pollutants into the environment, and it's also ensuring that building materials are salvaged and reused instead of being tossed into the landfills or incinerated.

And so we're aiming for a 75% waste diversion rate for each project we deconstruct and undertake. Again, speaking on green, if we're looking at that and compared to demolition, demolition mechanically crunches a building, and it can spread lead laden toxins up to 400 feet from a job site and remain in the soil for about 30 years before it's abated or dissipates, so this is why we choose to use deconstruction or we try to promote and advocate to use deconstruction over demolition.

CATHY WURZER: I'm going to assume that it is more expensive than just taking a wrecking ball to something because you're going to have to carefully-- you just take it all apart, in a sense.

PETRINA RHINES: Yes. So one reason is due to we are gingerly disassembling these building components. Right, Cathy. We're doing it all by hand to be resold. However, although the upfront cost may be slightly more, there are tax incentives involved, which can actually save money in the long run. So especially if our clients are renovating, remodeling, or redeveloping or building new, demolition does not offer any tax benefits or incentives.

CATHY WURZER: I've spent significant time in some places where you drop off things you want to get rid of, and it's just amazing as to what people will throw out, right? Some really beautiful pieces of furniture and some really lovely antique architectural details. So in your business, have there been any special building materials or architectural details that you were especially proud to save?

PETRINA RHINES: Oh, yeah. Definitely. So there was a mansion that's right in the Lori Hill neighborhood by Walker Art Center, and the owner of this home-- he called, and he said, we're tearing down our home. We have Dutch Baroque chandeliers. They're going to go to the landfill, and we don't want to see them go to the landfill.

You think you can come out and salvage some of the stuff? So we went out, we did a preliminary material list of everything we were going to take, and we salvage so many beautiful-- I mean, 18th century items from the mansion. So I can say that's one of our biggest harvesting achievements that we did run away with.

CATHY WURZER: Good. So you're opening a new place in St. Louis County, is that right?

PETRINA RHINES: Yes, we are. Really excited about that-- very, very excited about it. Again, the counties have been so supportive of us and what we're doing. And so we did approach St Louis County about a year and a half ago in regards to just going to their transfer sites and actually doing waste diversion efforts and sustainable construction within their waste sites.

And so this is when it was told to us that they have 40 homes this year that they will be demolishing. So we said to them, hey, let us come in and deconstruct those for you. So that's what kind of sparked us going there and actually establishing a store there as well in St. Louis County.

CATHY WURZER: The Duluth area?

PETRINA RHINES: Well, we're actually talking about Virginia, the Iron Range area. I actually had the opportunity to study under Will Steger in Ely for two years living off grid and learning how to do sustainable construction, and I just love the area. I love the Iron Range, and so that's what kind of sparked us to kind of stay in that area because I do-- I just love the environment. I love the people. Yeah, exactly.

CATHY WURZER: So what kind of folks get in to deconstruction? Who are you hiring? Where do you find people who have a love for this? Because this is intensive work, and it's not exactly easy.

PETRINA RHINES: Awesome. Great question. So our client list consists of builders, developers, architects, contractors, and homeowners. Builders, developers-- they like utilizing our services because we are assisting their client with the tax benefits, and we have the ability to save them on tipping and hauling fees. And then we have designers and architects who like us for the tax benefits as well.

But also, we are well versed in getting their buildings certified as a green building because of our waste diversion initiatives. The designers are starting from the beginning with their design of utilizing waste diversion efforts and doing sustainable construction, which we just think is awesome.

And then of course, we do have just like homeowners who are like, hey, I just have a kitchen that needs to be done. Do you think you can salvage this for me? Because I don't want to see it go to waste. So we definitely do that for them as well.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Petrina, I wish you all the best. Thank you so much.

PETRINA RHINES: Thank you so much, Cathy. I do appreciate you giving us this opportunity to get deconstruction out there. Thanks.

CATHY WURZER: You're welcome. That was Petrina Rhines, the founder and owner of the deconstruction company Birch Group and the salvage store Scrapbox Salvage based in north Minneapolis.

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