Rebuilding Cleveland By Taking It Apart

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P.J. Doran, Aaron Gogolin, Chris Kious and Ezra Taxel want to sell you "a piece of Cleveland."

Thousands of empty, foreclosed properties in Ohio have proved to be prime pickings for scavengers. They strip these houses of copper pipes, aluminum siding and any valuable fixtures that might yield some quick cash on the scrap market. The remaining shells of former homes add to the blight of neighborhoods in decline. Chris Kious is looking to turn that pattern around.

SOUND: Freight elevator door closes and the elevator heads up

Several months ago, Kious and three colleagues set-up shop on the 6th floor of this old, eastside factory building. The elevator door slides up to reveal what he hopes will be the building blocks of a new Cleveland industry.

SOUND: table saw UP & UNDER

It doesn't look very promising…at first. All you can see are stacks of dark, dirty wood, ripped out of the frames and floors of old houses. But, one man's trash is Chris Kious's treasure.

KIOUS: If we make something of higher quality out of this great old lumber … you know… some of these houses were built a hundred years ago. So, this wood is old-growth --- first growth lumber, in a lot of cases.

The process of harvesting aged hardwood and other fixtures from condemned homes is known as "deconstruction". Earlier this year, Kious and his friends formed a company called "A Piece of Cleveland" or APOC. They scout out properties that are slated for demolition and arrange with the owners --- if they’re still around --- to remove any remaining salvageable materials. Their mission is to turn the reclaimed lumber into a variety of products… from cutting boards to book cubes to tables. Some of their handiwork on display in the company showroom.

KIOUS (giving a tour): This is where we take clients and customers… people who want countertops for their kitchens or offices… or contract jobs for restaurants (UNDER)

Partner Ezra Taxel designs some of this stuff, and he says APOC is trying to find a balance between forces that sometimes pull in opposite directions.

TAXEL: One is the moral justification, which is: save as much as possible from the landfill; do the right thing. But, obviously, cost-wise, that's not enough for most people, so we've got to figure out how to make it cost effective for our clients.

Neither Taxel nor Kious are kidding themselves about the bottom line. They admit it costs twice as much to deconstruct a house, as opposed to just tearing it down. But, Cleveland Community Development director Daryl Rush says the economics are a little more complicated than that.

RUSH: There are direct costs, there are indirect costs. The principles of sustainability have an intangible cost. So, what is the value of reducing waste in landfills? A lot of construction debris, right now, is sent out of our market. Can we create business activity by creating businesses that can process and create products?

The Cleveland Foundation is helping the city to sort through such questions by paying for nationally recognized consultant Brad Guy to explore the potentials for establishing a local deconstruction program. This summer, several area houses will be taken apart with the assist of the Piece of Cleveland crew and Guy will analyze the results. He compares deconstruction to urban mining.

GUY: When you mine, you have to mine a lot of raw earth to extract the little bits of gold. You need to have enough of a percentage of that gold, in order to make it worth the major effort it takes you to sort through it.

SOUND: Planer UP & UNDER

The APOC shop is housed in a cavernous structure that was once home to the Tyler Company which specialized in the manufacture of twisted, metal rope. As the Industrial Revolution grew, Tyler found itself in the middle of a boom market for elevators, eventually getting a commission from Buckingham Palace.

The folks at A Piece of Cleveland don't expect to ride a similar fast lane to international commerce --- at least not yet. For now, there's plenty of pleasure in saving some valuable parts of the city's past from the trash heap.

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