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?