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St. Louis Begins Taking Apart Buildings To Salvage Valuable Brick And Lumber

Lumber collected from a building in the Vandeventer neighborhood on Nov. 21, 2019.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
For about six months last year, the St. Louis Development Corporation hired workers to carefully take apart a former storage warehouse in the Vandeventer neighborhood and saved lumber, brick and other materials for reuse.

For years, an empty three-story warehouse on the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and Whittier Street was just another eyesore in north St. Louis. 

But last summer, workers began to dismantle the 136-year-old building and saved about $250,000 worth of brick, lumber and other materials. The city had selected the former moving and storage warehouse as its first project to deconstruct, or take apart, a building to salvage its components. 

Unlike demolition, deconstruction saves valuable materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. It also doesn’t emit harmful pollutants into the surrounding community and provides more jobs because it requires more workers. 

Every building provides an incredible learning experience, said Eric Schwarz, executive director of Refab, a nonprofit salvage organization. The St. Louis Development Corporation hired Refab to deconstruct the building in the Vandeventer neighborhood. 

“Each job is like a cadaver. You get to dissect the building, see how it was put together, how it worked, how it could fail,” Schwarz said. “And each job is different. You don’t always know going into it what exactly is going to be there.”

SLDC received $100,000 in grants from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to study how deconstruction could reduce waste and create jobs in communities with many vacant buildings. City officials are determining 30 buildings to take apart later this year and are planning to work with St. Louis Community College to train workers in deconstruction.

Giving Historic Materials New Life

St. Louis has more than 7,000 vacant structures, and most were built before 1930, according to a report conducted by the Delta Institute, an environmental consulting group. There’s a lot of demand from architects and builders for the iconic St. Louis red brick and other rare materials that can only be found in old buildings, said John Myers, an engineering professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. 

“Those [bricks] actually go at a higher market value because of their aesthetic appeal than brand-new produced brick masonry,” Myers said. “[With] today’s manufacturing techniques, you can’t even really produce some of those rich reds that we have around St. Louis.” 

Large carrier beams from an old warehouse on display at Refab's warehouse on Nov. 21, 2019.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Carrier beams designed originally for the 1904 World's Fair stabilized the old warehouse. Eric Schwarz brought the beams to be displayed at Refab's warehouse in south St. Louis.

The building on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive also had floors made from longleaf yellow pine, a type of lumber that’s found only through salvaging old structures. At the mostly torn-down warehouse, Schwarz pointed at large painted beams, which originally were built for the 1904 World’s Fair. 

“You’re getting to see a level of construction that you don’t see anymore. No one does these giant carrier beams unless it’s, you know, some person who has enough money to do that,” Schwarz said. 

Good For The Environment, But More Expensive

Salvaging materials from vacant buildings could save tons of materials from being thrown away. Debris from construction and demolition accounted for nearly twice the amount of municipal solid waste, according to a 2017 Environmental Protection Agency report.

Deconstruction also does not create the kind of air pollution that occurs with demolitions. Many old buildings can contain lead and other toxic substances that are released into the air when workers tear down a building, said Laura Ginn, who manages environmental programs at SLDC. 

“A smash-and-grab produces a lot of dust. You can’t always control where the materials are going, so you might miss some of the environmental remediation,” Ginn said. “The meticulousness that comes with deconstruction ensures that you’re capturing all of the potential environmental risks and remediating them.”

A warehouse being taken apart, or deconstructed, on Nov. 21, 2019.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Deconstructing a building can save a lot of valuable materials, like St. Louis' iconic red bricks, from going to the landfill.

However, not every vacant building should be deconstructed. Some buildings are in such good shape that they can be rebuilt into homes, and others are too dangerous for workers to spend several days or weeks in, said Megan Walton, a program associate at the Delta Institute. 

Deconstructing a building also typically costs more than demolishing it, as it requires more time and at least five times as many workers. 

“You want to make sure that the material that you would be able to salvage and resell would make up for that increased cost and labor,” Walton said. 

City officials want to design a program that would make the cost of taking apart a building comparable to a demolition, Ginn said.

Reclaiming Old Materials Provides New Jobs

The materials from the old warehouse on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive will be shipped all over the country, Schwarz said. 

“Most of the bricks are going south,” he said. “A good majority of them have been going to Nashville, also Louisiana, Texas and Arizona.” 

Piles of lumber at Refab's warehouse in south St. Louis on Nov. 21, 2019.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Brick, joists, timber and lumber from the warehouse were shipped to many places across the country. Eric Schwarz sent some of the materials at the Refab warehouse in south St. Louis.

Schwarz has overseen more than 30 deconstructions, and he wants to see such projects provide jobs to people who live nearby. The more revenue generated from the reclaimed materials, the more people Refab can employ at the site, he said. 

“Even after we’ve paid people for months on this job, we may still end up with a tiny profit here,” Schwarz said. “But we’re not trying to profit off of this job. We’re trying to get people jobs.” 

Shahla Farzan contributed to this report. 

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.