Another One Bites the Dust: the Tiny Tragedy of Teardowns in Chicago Neighborhoods


Walking to work this morning I noted yet another pile of construction debris on the foundation of a former house just around the corner from moss HQ.

Seeing an old house demolished always seems like a small tragedy. It’s true; some older buildings certainly HAVE outlived their useful lifespan, are in poor repair or structurally unsound.  Sometimes the change in a neighborhood’s needs calls for higher density – a 6-unit building instead of a single family home.  But still, our take at moss is that you should always think carefully before you knock a building down.

Trading Old Lamps for New

Demolished houses are not an unusual sight in Lakeview.  Old houses are regularly purchased only to be replaced by newer versions of same or by higher density town house or condo units.  Curbed recently highlighted this issue and pointed out that some of these tear down projects are actually destroying beautiful and historic buildings, or even the odd new and “sizable pricey” home simply to “make way for a newer, sizable pricey home.”

Curbed cites urban planner Steven Vance of Chicago Cityscape, who estimates that 1,700 homes have been torn down in Chicago in the last eight years.  His website spots probably teardown projects by noting city-granted permits for demolition and new construction within 60 days.  Its not surprising that Lakeview, West town and North Center head the list for most teardown projects.

Teardowns are Trash

What happens to that old house when it is demolished and driven away in trucks?

The answer … a lot of it ends up in a landfill.  30% of all landfill content in the US is Construction and demolition waste.  The City of Chicago now requires that at least 50% of that waste be recycled.  This is great.  But half of a HUGE AMOUNT is still a pretty large amount of waste.  Another reason to think carefully before demolishing an existing building.    Remember when we talked about Landfills earlier this summer?  We want to keep them UN-filled.

Note: About a tenth of so-called “construction and demolition waste” is created not tearing down old buildings but by tossing out extra bits or whole units of material that are ordered for new construction and not used, damaged in construction, or not processed efficiently!  This EPA pamphlet estimates that an average 2000sf residential construction project generates 8000lb (70 cubic yards) of waste.

What Can be Salvaged?

Actually quite a lot of a building can be saved from the landfill if approached carefully – 70% to 90% according to Bob Falk, of the Forest Products Lab who has written a book on the topic of deconstruction.  Read the book (Unbuilding: Salvaging the Architectural Treasures of Unwanted Houses) or this Washington Post article which summarizes his points: 250,000 houses are torn down in the US every year.  People generally don’t salvage because it takes longer – a week for a five man team as opposed to a two day job for one guy with a backhoe and another with a truck.

Salvaged materials form the mainstay of organizations like the Habitat for Humanity ReStore and our own dear friend the Rebuilding Exchange.  And the trade off in deconstruction time can even pay off financially – donated building materials can be written off as a donation in taxes and sometimes prove quite valuable.  In the deconstruction project documented at A House By The Park, the total donation was appraised at $18,000. In other cases the write off may not quite cover the cost … but will sure help everyone sleep better at night.

Best of all, Don’t Tear Down Old Buildings

Whenever possible we at moss advocate for salvaging as much of a building (read, the structure) as possible.  Every older building has problems and also possibilities.  Working, as we do, on restaurant conversions and residential remodels, we are no strangers to the vagaries of re-construction. Often we find inspiration in the history or materiality of old buildings and we’re able make a space that’s more interesting than building from scratch.  Ultimately we can’t help seeing most of these teardown projects as a sad loss to the city of Chicago.

What do you think?  Let us know in the comments?

  • Suzanne

    My heart breaks every time I see the telltale fencing around a house. I live on the 1900 block of Cornelia, and in the last 15 years we’ve seen 13 teardowns! Most of these were solid old homes that simply aren’t attractive to the upper-income bracket young couples nowadays who want 3 vast levels of sparkling living space . The new homes dwarf the old ones next to them, thereby blocking all sunlight from their neighbors’ yards. Trees are uprooted and removed, thereby erasing all flora and fauna from their neighbors’ views. The new designs almost always include an extremely small backyard space with zero green space in it, and a garage roof deck that the homeowners rarely, if ever use. (I’m sandwiched between two of these, so I know! And I won’t even mention the multitude of annoyances endured when living next to a tear-down and construction project! ).

    I recently overheard our new neighbors’ child ask if he could have his baseball to play with up on their back raised deck (which tragically overlooks our yard now), and his mother said no, because it would just fall down onto the gravel under the deck!

    Some neighbors and friends try to soothe me by pointing out that my property values are now higher. But we have a young child, and have helped make our local school one of the best in the city, so aren’t going anywhere soon. And speaking of higher property values, the economic diversity (and thereby the racial diversity as well) has diminished immensely, shrinking the cultural juicyness that drew me to the city in the first place. I’d happily sacrifice a profit on my house to regain that juicyness.

    Don’t get me wrong–I’m not opposed to “new and improved.” We gutted and renovated our 100+ house 8 years ago, and retained some of its charm: the solid oak five-panel doors, some of its bullseye trim, among others. But I cherish living within the old bones of a house that’s seen a century of Cornelia Avenue life come and go.

  • Lethe

    So I’m not alone! I was all ready to comment, only to find that Suzanne pretty much covered most of my points already. Still…

    Let’s include in the property-line to property-line warehouse-style of construction we’re seeing in North Center the issue that this scorched-earth approach leaves no green space to allow for groundwater drainage. Our building had not a single drop of water in the basement for 18 years – but we’ve had three floods in the past several years, and every time it rains, our street corner looks like the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. EVERY time.

    And Suzanne brings up this excellent point – large two and three flats (preeminent amongst the teardowns/conversions here) gave multiple lower-middle-income families long term homes, from which they sent their children to some of the best schools in the city. These living spaces are no longer available – so where have these families gone? To put this in proportion, consider this. We live in a beautiful (100 year old) 6 unit condo conversion, one of the earliest in the neighborhood. There are 6 families living well here; we have a yard, and plenty of outdoor space. The three most recent teardown/rebuilds down the street are all single family homes, and each one is larger than our entire building.

    And a final comment – most of these monsters are built on spec. These are contractors’ darlings, and they look almost exactly like the (smaller) buildings they have replaced, but, in the words of Joan Cusack referring to her classmates at her 10 year reunion in Grosse Pointe Blank, “as if they’d swelled.” Are we as a city not known for our architecture? Why tear down something just to replace it with a ‘swollen’ copy? Where is the design innovation?

    I will never understand the emphasis on size over quality. If you have the money to pay several million $$$ for a home and you want size, then go where there’s space to put it. If I had that kind of money, I’d want land to go with the shelter. And some good design, for sure.

  • I’d like to add another perspective.
    IF an older house is torn down and replaced — that new building had better justify itself by taking into consideration all we now know about designing buildings to consume as little non-renewable resources as possible in their construction and their many future years of operation.
    We now have the materials and know-how to build structures that consume very little fossil fuels to heat and cool themselves. Rebuilding as efficiently as possible is a favor we can do for the future.