Can deconstruction of vacant homes help grow Detroit's economy? Some local businesses hope so

Gary Zimnicki has been crafting custom guitars, mandolins, and ukuleles since 1976, but it was just a few years ago that he started experimenting with making instruments from reclaimed wood. He was looking for a fresh approach for his business Zimnicki Guitars, and after reading about Reclaim Detroit, Zimnicki decided to experiment with materials he could source from that organization's warehouse -- materials that originated from deconstructed homes.
"Acoustic guitars are 15 inches wide -- in the back there are two boards that are 7-1/2 inches wide and there's just one seam down the middle," explains Zimnicki. "What I get from Reclaim Detroit is just a bunch of maple floorboards…so I have to make these multiple-pieced instruments."
Instead of hiding the extra seams, Zimnicki embraces the construction as part of the beauty of the instrument, placing contrasting strips of dark wood between the strips of maple. Although Zimnicki still builds more traditional pieces, his reclaimed business, for which he has made 10 pieces to date, is gaining interest.
Wallace Detroit GuitarsIt's a concept that is catching on with other local businesses. Mark Wallace founded Wallace Detroit Guitars in 2014, making reclaimed wood the mainstay of his designs. But Wallace takes a different approach than Zimnicki.
In his first year of business, Wallace contracted with 14 skilled craftspeople and sold 15 guitars. He is looking to scale the business and roll out a local and regional sales strategy, as well as a larger platform that includes Germany and Japan, in 2015. Because Wallace's approach is scalable, he needed to develop a product whose materials could be sourced consistently and scale with the business.
The maple that Zimnicki sources from flooring is a wood species that is traditionally used for acoustic instrument construction because of its sound quality, but the demand is high for reclaimed flooring material, making the sourcing inconsistent at a larger scale. Ash and Mahogany are also commonly used for traditional acoustic designs, but these woods are not readily available in Detroit's salvage market.
Wallace has been focusing on a prototype that is made from pine 2x4 material, which is abundant in the area. "Pine is not usually a good wood for instruments, but the pine that's coming out of these houses, because it's old growth, has a really tight grain pattern, which really benefits the sound of the instruments."

Both Zimnicki and Wallace source their wood from Reclaim Detroit and Architectural Salvage Warehouse Detroit (ASWD), two nonprofits that, in addition to training workers for deconstruction and other entry-level construction and abatement trades, run deconstruction crews that harvest salvageable material from donated or contracted homes. This material is then sent to wholesalers or made available for retail sale at their respective warehouses.
"The material moves pretty quickly," says Jeremy Haines, Reclaim Detroit's marketing manager. "If we don't have projects coming down on any given week out in the field, our warehouse starts to thin pretty quickly. There's a real strong demand. The stories around deconstruction seem to have shifted in the last few years. There's not as much doubt out there about whether or not people actually use this stuff."
Haines says he works with many artisans and craftspeople throughout the region that are developing unique ways of reusing the material, a phenomenon that is aggregating into a burgeoning economy around deconstruction.
Lead Head Glass of Ferndale is one such company, transforming old windows into beautifully handmade terrariums. Their work, led by Chad Ackley, earned them the title 2014 Wildcard Finalist in Martha Stewart's American Made contest. Homes Eyewear, operated by Achille Bianchi out of the hacker space OmniCorpDetroit, is another example, creating custom wood eyewear from a labor-intensive, 60-step process involving a CNC machine and hand woodworking techniques. Both companies are growing quickly -- Ackley has grown beyond the capacity of his home workshop and Bianchi plans on scaling the business with online sales this coming year.
There are other, more traditional woodworking operations that are sourcing reclaimed material simply because, as old growth wood, it is better to work with and yields higher quality products. Chad Dickinson of Dickinson By Design is currently redeveloping the historic Hunter's Supper Club property in the Avenue of Fashion district on Livernois, and is using reclaimed materials in pursuit of a quality and sustainable construction strategy.

Original bolts hold together trusses at Dickinson by Design's Hunter House
Dickinson says the demand is so high for reclaimed material that he often has trouble sourcing it locally, which has forced him to look to other parts of the country in the past. He hopes to source enough old growth wood to mill custom windows and doors for the property over the winter.
Chad Dickinson, founder of Dickinson by Design"I feel like [ASWD and Reclaim Detroit] are catering right now to a boutique market of people that want to have the word reclaim in their business, but where there's a lot of opportunity to move a lot of material is with builders," says Dickinson. "I've called ASWD a few times for flooring and they've never had any because people are using it, which is great, but there's a ton of it out there. It's not like the city is used up."
Indeed, a historic blight removal effort is ramping up in Detroit, fueled with $57.2 million in Hardest Hit funding. This year alone, 2,368 blighted properties held by the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA) have been removed, and another 1,400 will be taken down before April, but this is merely a scratch on the surface of what's to come, with an estimated 40,000 properties with severe indicators of blight coming down the pipeline in the next five years.
So far, deconstruction has played a very small role in this effort. Only one contract for the deconstruction of 10 homes has been awarded, while all other properties have been demolished and sent to landfills. Partly, this is because Michigan State Housing Development Authority and the federal government didn't initially list deconstruction as an approved building removal method -- a snafu that Mayor Duggan's administration and other state and local agencies have since worked together to rectify.
As an approved deconstruction contractor for the city, Reclaim Detroit is currently bidding on deconstruction contracts for properties slated for removal by April. "You should see a couple hundred properties with some form of deconstruction integrated in the building removal process," says Craig Varterian, executive director of Reclaim Detroit. The organization was recently awarded two contracts totaling 43 homes in Pontiac that they will start to execute next week.
"Out of those houses we pull an average of 1,000-3,000 board feet per house. Out of that group of houses in Pontiac, with an average square footage of 1,500, we'll probably pull 80,000-100,000 board feet of material," says Varterian. Reclaim Detroit moves about 30,000 board feet of material per month, but that is based solely, not on demand, but on their ability to supply.
"Demand is there. That's very clear," says Varterian. "The supply chain will open up. We have a good set of best practices in place now. It's just a matter of getting these contracts out. We need more material."

Amy Swift is a Detroit-based freelance writer and the principal of Building Hugger. Follow her on Twitter @buildinghugger.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.
Signup for Email Alerts