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Demolition is a Choice, Not a Solution

Demolition is a Choice, Not a SolutionRecently, I was at a historic homes event here in Winter Park where the keynote speaker was Nicole Curtis of  HGTV/DIY Network’s Rehab Addict.

In case you haven’t seen her show, she is an energetic little thing that goes around saving old houses by restoring them with her own two hands. She’s a one-woman preservation society in the Minneapolis area and its incredible!

During the speech she said something that has really stayed with me.

“Demolition is a choice, not a solution.”

The language is subtle, but very powerful for those of us interested in historic preservation. We’re often faced with the choice of demolishing an old building that is too far gone. But is it really beyond saving? I don’t know, and that is the question I pose to you.

Wouldn’t Demolition Be Easier?

I won’t lie, a lot of times demolition is the easier choice. One day the building is there, the next it’s gone and the lot is wiped clean. I’m amazed at how fast demolition companies can work. It seems that on historic properties they work even faster for fear that someone will try to stop them.

But when it comes to historic preservation demolition is NEVER a solution. In a society obsessed with being “green”, we are so quick to tear down an old house and pile all those materials in a landfill. The average house weighs about 60 lbs. per sq. ft. Demolish a small 1500 SF house and you’re throwing 45 tons of materials in the landfill! I don’t care how green your new house is, it will take you decades of living to recoup the embodied energy and wasted materials you just trashed.

In my opinion, our historic preservation boards have turned into homeowner’s associations instead of what they were truly intended to be, protectors of history. We squabble over paint colors, but will allow badly neglected homes to be razed for any number of reasons.

When historic properties are allowed to be razed because they have fallen into such a terrible state of disrepair, we are actually encouraging this bad behavior. Property owners see that if they neglect the building long enough, the historic district will finally cave in and allow them to demolish it to make room for a new house. I’ve seen this played out across the country and more specifically in my own backyard.

A Failure in Orlando

The picture you see above is a perfect example. This is a home in the Lake Eola Heights Historic District in Orlando, FL. I have been dreaming of getting my hands on this property for years while it sat vacant and neglected. In 2004, one of the hurricanes that hit Florida damaged the roof on this little mission style home pretty badly.

The owner petitioned the preservation board for permission to demolish and was denied. Well done, right? Well, his stubbornness eventually paid off. A few years later, I inquired with him about a sale so that I could restore the home. Each time I inquired over the years, I received either no response or a “Not interested.”

Finally, the interior had been so damaged from a decade of rain and exposure that another buyer showed up to purchase the property with plans to demolish and build a new house more than twice the size on the lot. The preservation board approved the demolition request!

The message: Wait long enough, neglect bad enough, and we’ll let you tear it down.

The Solution

What can we as old house lovers and preservationists do? There is a simple little acronym that will help you remember the keys to save an old house. S.O.S.

1. Serve

If you really want to protect historic structures in your area, volunteer your time to be on preservation boards. Stocking the boards with folks who are passionate, solution-oriented preservationists makes them better. Make your local board into something that truly serves the historic community and as a result the entire city it is a part of. “Armchair preservation is incredibly inefficient.” via @AustinRestores <–Click to Tweet this!

2. Organize

Does your city not have a board or historic districts or any preservation movement? Start one! Form a non-profit and start raising money to help save neglected buildings. Start workshops in your area teaching folks about their old houses. Raise awareness. If you don’t have the skills to teach about this stuff, find someone who can. They may be local or maybe you bring in an expert from out of town.

3. Start

Don’t wait until you know everything or you feel completely prepared. You have to start somewhere and the beginning is a great place. You’ll stumble and make mistakes at the beginning, but they will be fewer and smaller as you move forward. So many people have great ideas but never go after them. If you are passionate about preservation what are you waiting for? Failure to launch is the biggest obstacle you’ll face. Launch it, start it, ship it. Whatever it is, listen to Nike and “Just Do It!”  Once your idea is out there, you can tweak and improve to your heart’s content. No one has ever benefited from great ideas that stayed in your head.

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6 thoughts on “Demolition is a Choice, Not a Solution

    1. I asked several of the house movers we have worked with in the area how much (on average) a house weighs per square foot. Every house is completely different, but this was a general rule of thumb they gave me.

  1. I love Nicole’s show. I watch every episode as I love what she can do with an old home that just needs someone to love it. Demolishing an old home to me just makes me want to cry. I’ve seen a few salvage shows where they go in to salvage, because the house is going to be torn down. One of these homes was from the 1700s!! It’s just so sad. Luckily, I’ve witnessed the restoration of the old homes here in Portland. The other day I just drove by a house down the street from me that was lifted right off its foundation! I never even knew you could lift a house until I saw it on Rehab Addict and then saw it with my own eyes!

    I hope that with more information about preservation, people will rethink their choices to demolish parts of our history.

  2. Hello Scott,
    In our little town of St Marys we are experiencing the same with some of the commercial buildings – shameful and embarrassing. I’ve linked your post to my latest post. Thank you!
    Anyes K. Busby
    The Dusty Victorian

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