City hopes reclaimed brick will pave way to jobs, sustainability

For years, the city has fought blight with excavators, clawing down abandoned and decrepit buildings. This month, it started to attack its vacant home problem by hand, signing off on a plan to take apart a selection of houses brick by brick.

Proponents say the program will be able to pay for the added labor expense by selling the salvaged materials, especially Baltimore's iconic red brick. They believe the venture will help turn the city's multimillion-dollar demolition program into an environmentally friendly job creator, without costing much more than a typical tear-down.

"You've got a triple-bottom-line solution that makes it a win for everybody," said Jeff Carroll, director of Details, a division of the workforce development nonprofit Humanim, which received a $690,290 contract from the city to take down 50 houses. "The variable for us will be what is the percentage of usable, resalable brick."

Deconstruction is not a new idea, starting as a way to reduce the amount of waste headed to landfills and gaining traction as a job-training program. Officials say the city considered incorporating the practice into the city's demolition work for years, but balked because of the additional cost.

Last summer, the city said it would budget $22 million for demolition over 2 1/2 years, compared with about $2.5 million in prior years in an effort to reduce the city's inventory of more than 16,000 vacant buildings. The surge in demolitions — the goal is to raze 500 properties this year — provided an opportunity to experiment, said Michael Braverman, Baltimore Housing's deputy commissioner for code enforcement.

In seeking bids for deconstruction, the city required contractors to employ at least 24 people and sell a portion of the salvaged materials for reuse, instead of recycling. Masonry, for example, is crushed for use as gravel.

By comparison to the $5.8 billion-a-year brick manufacturing industry, the market for reclaimed brick remains too small and fractured to produce reliable statistics, according to industry operators. But some brick sellers say they have benefited from a vogue for lofts and exposed bricks, with growing opportunities to sell the antique brick for tiles and interior walls.

"There would seem to be a trend right now. Everybody wants that old warehouse look," said John Gavin of the Iowa-based Historical Brick. "It's an expanding market."

Sellers said what matters for resale is quality and color, which among antique bricks vary region by region, depending on the minerals in the soil and the firing process. Molded bricks, which make rounder, more irregular blocks, also fetch a premium.

Some cities have established brands for their brick: Chicago, which has one of the most successful reclaimed-brick industries, is known for its mottled, pink terra cotta color, and St. Louis boasts a deep red.

Milwaukee's bricks come in a paler yellow, while Detroit, where nonprofits are also trying to start a resale industry, suffers from bricks that tend toward a homogeneous, unpopular orange, said Tom Svoboda, owner of Illinois-based Vintage Brick Salvage.

"Aesthetics is really the main thing. ... There's a good market for solid red brick," said Svoboda, who said an antique red brick can sell for 50 cents. "The real problem is, 'orange' is a bad word."

Baltimore's brick — a basic red that occasionally veers into a more orange, sunset hue — gets its color from the silica and iron oxide in the shale, according to Gary Clark, sales manager for the brick manufacturer Glen-Gery Brick, which has locations across the country, including in Lutherville.

Deconstructing vacant buildings will reduce pollution, create jobs and preserve a historic legacy, said Beth Strommen, director of the city's Office of Sustainability.

"There's tons of demolition being done by the city of Baltimore, so ... we can sort of positively modify markets," she said. "It's a little bit more expensive, but not enough to make it not doable."

Officials at Humanim, which has torn down more than 50 privately owned homes and commercial structures since it started doing deconstruction work about two years ago, said they believe they will be able to sell the bricks and make the labor-intensive practice work economically.

"We've done a lot of research," said Cindy Plavier Truitt, Humanim's chief development officer, who said the organization has sought advice from brick brokers and has established programs in Chicago and St. Louis. "We're going to be tapping into their established markets."

Deconstructing the city's vacant houses, however, comes with added challenges. Conjoined rowhouses pose safety risks. In many cases, scavengers have already harvested the most valuable pieces, such as copper pipes, cornices and appliances. Deterioration also takes a toll on what can be salvaged, particularly lumber.

The city does not benefit from the tax breaks that private owners receive for pursuing deconstruction.

"I don't want to sound negative, it's just that it's a very difficult arena," said Mark Foster, executive director of Second Chance, which has performed deconstruction in Baltimore since 2003 and did work in the houses demolished as part of the East Baltimore Development Inc. redevelopment near Johns Hopkins Hospital. "If Humanim can do that cost effectively, there's going to be a lot of people very interested in that. I haven't seen it happen before, but there's always a first time for everything."