The District government, which agreed to buy a $1.5 million house in Northwest Washington after mistakenly allowing it to be built, is considering an unusual way to get rid of it. Instead of demolishing the house, officials said, the city might pay to have it disassembled piece by piece.
Although taking the house apart would cost more than razing it, they said, "deconstruction" would be more environmentally friendly, like recycling.
"We have to look at the environmental impact of demolition versus deconstruction," said Neil O. Albert, deputy mayor for economic development. "It's an opportunity to salvage portions of the house and give it to charitable purposes."
Nearly two years ago, the city issued building permits for the house, in the 1700 block of North Portal Drive NW, without first giving the house plans to a federal commission for review. A review was required because of the lot's proximity to Rock Creek Park. By the time the project was stopped, the house was nearly complete.
A dispute over addressing the mistake was settled last month, when the city agreed to pay the owner $1.5 million for the six-bedroom house and get rid of it. Neighbors agreed to buy the land for $135,000 and maintain it as green space. Under the settlement, the house was supposed to have been demolished by yesterday.
Demolition seemed the likely next step. But officials said bulldozers are on hold while other options are being considered, including deconstruction, which would allow the city to salvage the shingled roof, 46 windows, three sets of French doors, hot tub, five toilets, and many other fixtures and features.
The city has yet to officially advertise for contractors to get rid of the house, said Linda Argo, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Deconstruction is increasingly favored by environmentalists, who want materials to be recycled and reused.
In Oregon, for example, Mark Pomeroy, manager of deconstruction for the ReBuilding Center, said his organization has been disassembling buildings for a decade and recently completed a project for Portland's housing authority. A nine-unit apartment building was taken down in five weeks for $57,500 -- nearly double the $30,000 it would have cost to raze it.
As to the price, "it's difficult to compete with the bulldozer," Pomeroy said, adding that deconstruction takes longer. "But if you consider the environmental cost of demolition, it's either pay now or pay later."
In the District, deconstruction advocates say the process adheres to the sprit of the city's "green buildings" law, passed last year to force developers to meet higher energy-saving standards. In deconstruction, labor costs are more expensive, but the salvaged goods can be sold or donated to a nonprofit organization.
Jane Solomon, a Ward 3 activist who owns a house partially disassembled two years ago, e-mailed Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) with the idea.
Two weeks ago, Solomon and her contractor, Paul Hughes of DeConstruction Services LLC, toured the North Portal house with city officials. "This has the potential to be a real win-win situation," Solomon said. "It's a very green thing to do. For the city government to take that step is a very high-profile statement to make."
Hughes said he proposed disassembling the house for about $40,000. He has done 70 area projects and said it would take his 13-member crew about three weeks, compared with about two days with a bulldozer.
In deconstruction, the house is taken apart, much of it by hand and with nothing larger than a sledgehammer, in reverse of how it was built, Hughes said. The finishing touches, such as light fixtures and appliances, come out first.
Hardwood floors are taken up, the nails removed and the wood placed in bundles that are easy to carry. Doors are removed with hinges, jambs and all. Asphalt shingles are ground and reused in road repairs. After Hughes finished, the city would need an excavator to remove the cinder block foundation.
"Why would anybody want to see this go to a landfill?" asked Hughes, who started his company two years ago. "Our mission is to save the whole house."
After a house is deconstructed, the materials belong to the homeowner, who can receive tax breaks from donating the salvaged materials to nonprofit organizations. Based on his experience, Hughes estimated the value of materials to be salvaged from the North Portal house, because they are high-end and new, at $300,000.
In 2002, the District disassembled the Stanton Dwellings public housing project in Southeast Washington. The process was part of a federally subsidized training program coordinated by the D.C. Housing Authority.
Larry Dwyer, director of planning and development for the authority, said the project was not a money-making venture, although the copper, lumber and concrete salvaged were sold to fund the program.
"Where you look at getting [some] tax breaks and making some dollars is in the higher end of the stuff you're deconstructing," Dwyer said. "There are good environmental reasons to have it done. It's green, and that's the way society is moving."
If Hughes is awarded the job, it will be his first major deconstruction of a government-owned property, he said. The reason: Unlike homeowners, governments cannot offset the higher cost of deconstruction by getting tax breaks for donating materials.
But the city could donate the materials to a nonprofit group that builds affordable housing, said Albert, the deputy mayor. "Providing shelter for the homeless -- how do you put a price tag on that?"