The Art of Deconstruction

The Art of Deconstruction

Joe DeRisi worked hard to acquire his Connecticut demolition license even though he doesn't do demolition. He does take things apart — houses, barns, labs, what have you — but he does it carefully, lovingly, nail by nail. He doesn't demolish.

DeRisi deconstructs what others have constructed and saves everything he can: studs, stairs, cedar shakes, flooring, furniture, the works. Reusing is better than recycling.

His mission goes beyond saving useful, often superior building materials for resale: He is preserving bits and pieces of the past, cultural icons and kitsch, things that are disappearing into the landfill of history. Deconstruction takes longer and costs more than a bulldozer and to make it a viable business model more people will have to appreciate not simply the value of DeRisi's stuff, but also the environmental rationale for the industry he is pioneering.

DeRisi started Urban Miners in 2007 in an old brush factory in Hamden, and he is as much evangelist as businessman. He believes fervently that what he does is the wave of the future. He doesn't simply cherry-pick the sexy stuff, like lion's claw bathtubs. He wants to save it all, the mundane and the marvelous, or at least everything he can.

He argues that we can no longer treat the built environment the way we treat disposable razors. It's too valuable a resource. Our landfills are overflowing, and making new materials taxes our environment.

"I was looking at an 1810 house that needed to come down," he says. "Walking in there was like being transported back to a lumberyard from the Revolutionary War. It was timber-framed, with wide boards for the flooring and roof sheathing. Someone has preserved all this wood for 200 years, and it's still good, lots of it better than you can buy today. And then someone comes along with a bulldozer and throws it all away? It drives me nuts."

DeRisi's line of work entails both brawn and curatorial skill. His 9,000-square-foot brick warehouse is part museum, part storage. Just inside the door is a rack of vinyl albums, in case a customer is running low on Pat Boone or Tony Orlando and Dawn. The black phone in his office is a 1960 rotary relic. DeRisi, who was born in New Haven 57 years ago, has installed above his desk a mini-exhibit to Hull's Export Beer, including an unopened bottle. Next to it is a painting of Central Park that his father bought for his mother 35 years ago. The office cat, Jade, was salvaged from a departing neighbor.

DeRisi, a docent in flannel shirt, blue jeans and work boots, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard and ponytail, leads a visitor past scads of wood of various vintages and varieties, stacked by type; past an aisle of archaic housewares, past stand alone Doric columns, wrought iron fencing, pedestal sinks, Tiffany glass windows, books, entire stair stringers and framed wall units, galvanized long-neck watering cans, ornate radiators, wooden cabinets and metal laboratory casework (to but scratch the surface). The pièce de résistance is a set of funky wooden tables from Naples Pizza, the dearly departed New Haven restaurant, with a jumble of lovers' initials carved on the tops.

DeRisi majored in land use planning at Southern Connecticut State University and earned a master's in resource management from Antioch University New England. His eclectic resume encompasses carpentry, use planning, and stay-at-home dad; for the six years before starting Urban Miners he was an environmental analyst for the Southwest Conservation District in Hamden, a quasi-public entity that advises residents and municipalities on natural resource conservation. It required a lot of office time, and DeRisi is not an office guy.

So he and several investors, who remain anonymous, launched Urban Miners on the eve of the Great Recession. Married with three children, he works 70 hours a week and is candid about the struggle of starting a business in an industry that barely exists. He has two employees and periodically gets help from friends, contractors, and volunteers. One could argue that he is running more of a cause than a business.

"Here's my problem and it's part of the mission," he explains. "If there's something that I will only break even on — say chestnut cabinets from the 1920s — do I throw them in the dumpster? I think not."

For all that altruism, Urban Miners is alive and kicking, gaining customers and name recognition, largely through media coverage (its marketing budget is $40 a month), craigslist and Facebook. Clients run the gamut from homeowners and contractors to large environmentally conscious entities such as Yale University, as well as municipalities like his hometown of Hamden. As part of the multimillion-dollar Newhall environmental remediation project, Urban Miners deconstructed four houses and "soft stripped" two others, according to Dale Kroop, Hamden's director of economic and community development. Some of the lumber went into building sheds for the New Haven Land Trust's community gardens.

In addition to saving valuable materials, conserving the energy and resources it would take to replace them, and freeing up landfill space, deconstruction employs people.

"It takes six times as many people to do what we do as opposed to straight demolition," DeRisi says. "So we are creating jobs. The reason it looks cheaper to demolish a house is that a lot of the costs have been externalized. Our tax dollars subsidize demolition by using our land and our air as a dump — we don't count that as part of the cost."

A prime example would be the houses that Urban Miners deconstructed in Hamden's Newhall neighborhood; they had been built above an old landfill that rendered them uninhabitable, a situation that required public money to remediate.

John Gundling, president of Eco One Solutions in Massachusetts, has worked with DeRisi on nearly a dozen projects for the Yale School of Medicine. What Urban Miners is doing used to be the norm, Gundling says.

"Everyone built with used materials before 1960. There weren't many lumberyards, and they only sold things that you couldn't get from the places that had salvaged stuff. In New Britain you went to the surplus yards, to Menditto's or Manafort's, for used lumber. There were no Home Depots. Old construction materials were valued back then because making new products was very labor intensive and relatively more expensive. Joe is filling a void. He is ahead of the curve. We can't go on using virgin materials forever."

DeRisi wants to recreate that old-time market, one that rampant consumerism demolished long ago. Whether he will catch the deconstruction wave or is merely preparing the waters for others to follow is difficult to tell. Dale Kroop is rooting for him and thinks he will make it, that he has largely made it already. John Gundling says: "Joe is a hero when it comes to saving the environment. His goals and endeavors are just causes.He is, without a doubt, one of the good guys."

One thing is clear. Urban Miners is not Lowe's. DeRisi's museum/warehouse has distinctive charm. It makes a visitor smile, chockablock aisle after jumbled aisle, like seeing childhood friends you still want to hang out with.