Detroit firefighter takes on blight with deconstruction business

Working with the Detroit Fire Department for nearly two decades, Gary Ringer has seen his share of fire-ravaged and neglected buildings.


He even coined the phrase: “I eat, drink, and sleep blight” to describe his relationship with the damaged structures he encounters in the course of doing his job. But while some folks might become discouraged when faced with this sort of devastation, it's been an unlikely source of inspiration for Ringer.


In 2013, he founded a company called Eco-Environmental Solutions as a grassroots way to address blight in the Detroit area. The company specializes in deconstruction, the process of taking apart old buildings and salvaging parts of them for reuse. In doing this work, Ringer draws on an understanding of structures he’s gleaned from his time as a firefighter as well as prior job experiences building massive homes in the suburbs of southeast Michigan.


Over the past six years — while also working full time as a firefighter — he’s supervised around 15 primarily small-scale partial deconstruction projects. One of his more recent undertakings involved taking apart a dilapidated garage on Detroit’s West Side.


“It had an old garage door on it and was pretty much falling apart,” he says. “Once it was taken down, pretty much everything that was rotted went to the landfill. And anything we could reuse, we reused in their rebuild.”


Eco-Environmental Solutions aims to reuse or repurpose around 60 percent of anything it touches during a deconstruction endeavor. According to Ringer, there’s a small but growing segment of people who are extremely interested in using repurposed materials for building structures, making furniture and other purposes. He typically ends up getting salvaged materials to these sorts of people or uses them to rebuild the structures he's working on.


Laura Sigmon of Best Practices Consulting Services, a Detroit based firm that collaborates with Eco-Environmental Solutions, says Ringer brings a wealth of knowledge about buildings and materials to his deconstruction projects.


"That’s his greatest area of expertise," she says. "He sees a lot of it and can tell the difference between what's modern and what's historic craftsman’s work."


While repurposing materials through deconstruction is a technique that goes back to ancient times, it’s a method that’s fallen out of fashion over the last century due to the rise of inexpensive modern building materials. Ringer became intrigued with the idea when he heard how people on the West Coast involved with the green building movement were using deconstruction to keep potential building materials out of landfills.


“I found out about this deconstruction thing and got really passionate,” he says, “reading and researching, contacting people from the recycling industry, trying to find out-of-the-box inventive ways to create a whole new industry.”

Photo by Stephen Koss.


Right now, Ringer relies on a small workforce made up of himself and several Detroit residents who’ve received formal deconstruction training from local nonprofits like Southwest Solutions.


Although he now resides in Redford, the firefighter is originally from Detroit and takes a lot of pride in hiring Detroiters to assist him with deconstruction work.


The scarcity of Detroit residents working construction jobs in the city has been a contentious issue in recent years, with contractors working on Little Caesars Arena paying $5.2 million in fines last year for failing to comply with local work requirements. Black workers, in particular, are underrepresented in the building trades here; a national study of industry demographics prior to the 2008 recession found that African-Americans made up only seven of 100 construction workers on Detroit job sites.


So helping city residents get a chance to see people from similar backgrounds as themselves cleaning up neighborhood blight has been a powerful incentive for Ringer to continue on with his deconstruction efforts.


“The great benefit I get is people seeing a neighborhood eyesore actually being taken down,” he says. “And the people who are taking it down get a lot of kudos: ‘Hey, thanks. I appreciate you guys! Wow!’ I get a lot of joy out of that.”

It's been a bit of a rollercoaster ride for Ringer and other deconstruction operations in the Detroit area, such as the nonprofit Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit and the social enterprise Reclaim Detroit. As Detroit’s blight removal efforts were first getting underway, many expected deconstructions and green technology to play a vital role. Ringer believed he'd be able to secure government contracts bolstered by federal funding to further his environmentally minded blight remediation work.

Photo by Stephen Koss.

"Deconstruction was touted to be a vehicle for employment, skill building and reallocation of resources to individuals directly impacted by the liability of abandoned, blighted and fire damaged properties," he says. "As a firefighter and former rough carpenter, I envisioned the possibilities to be life-changing for myself and the community I serve."


That vision, however, did not come to pass in Detroit. In a move that attracted federal scrutiny for the way contract bidding was handled, the Detroit Land Bank awarded federal Hardest Hit Funds linked to blight removal to large contractors who used conventional demolition methods to remove blighted homes. With Mayor Duggan recently floating a proposal for a $200 million bond to complete residential blight elimination efforts in Detroit, though, Ringer is hopeful that the administration will reconsider the benefits of deconstruction.


With his sights set on the future, Ringer has also been exploring some potential subcontracting partnerships that could help to alleviate staffing challenges he's faced in the past and allow him to scale up the size of his projects. If he can navigate that successfully, Ringer believes the conditions are right for his business to flourish in the next few years.


"What we're hoping to do at Eco-Environmental Solutions is to keep doing our small jobs and then eventually start doing big jobs," he says. "And I’m very, very, very excited about growing that opportunity and articulating the value of what we do with deconstruction."

The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.


Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.
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