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Bringing Down the House

Buffalo ReUse members gather at their Ellicott Street warehouse. Pictured (l to r) are: Tim Kukulka, Kevin Hayes, Michael Gainer and Erika Hedberg.
(photo: Rose Mattrey)

Michael Gainer doesn’t sleep, he waits…and thinks. He’s simply too busy to sleep, and besides, recently he’s got a whole lot to think about—soliciting foundations, screening employment applications, honing his business plan, getting various permits from the city, networking with related organizations and companies, obtaining gap funding and lining up future jobs, to name a few things—the pen-and-paper drudgery required of a budding not-for-profit. Oh yeah, and taking down houses. That last bit may sound outlandish, but it’s not when you consider his organization’s purpose: deconstructing and reusing Buffalo’s worn out buildings. As ambitious a project as it sounds, especially given the 20,000 or more ragged, abandoned buildings in Buffalo, it’s only the tip of the iceberg compared to what Gainer hopes to accomplish with Buffalo ReUse. To understand the scope and vision of the project, you have to speak with Gainer himself, as I did on a recent Friday morning.

When I rolled up to the downtown SPoT Coffee at an obscenely early hour, haggard and late for our meeting, Gainer was already wide awake and gingerly tapping away at the keys of his laptop. I think he was probably cooking up another grant proposal or reviewing an upcoming presentation. Such is the energy of this man that he reads fine print before most of us have worked out which day of the week it is.

Gainer begins by giving me a brief overview of Buffalo ReUse and deconstruction. Deconstruction is an alternative to the current standard of building demolition that stresses reusing and recycling as much material as possible, thus diverting it from landfills so it can be resold. Gainer is a big thinker, though, and he sees its potential beyond that. He sees Buffalo ReUse as a vehicle for new job creation, architectural preservation, youth job training, material recycling, as well as several self-sustaining offshoot businesses.

Buffalo ReUse’s story begins with Gainer’s own story here in Buffalo. Fed up with life in the Boston area after eight years there, he started looking to move closer to his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. “I wanted to be closer to home, and I was looking at potentially Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Buffalo, because I wanted to be in an urban environment,” he says.

He flew into Buffalo from Oregon—where he had a summer gig with the Northwest Youth Corps—at the end of summer in 2005. “I rode the bus down Genesee from the airport, walked down Grant Street and Elmwood and Delaware, and hung out at SPoT Coffee downtown. At the end of it, I said, ‘I think I want to live here.’” His parents picked him up that night, they went out to eat at Off the Wall and two weeks later Gainer returned to drop off his bags. He’d serendipitously signed up for a Building Material Reuse Association conference in Atlanta, Georgia that started the next day. There he met David Bennick, a deconstruction consultant.

Gainer didn’t yet realize the importance of that meeting, but after a few months of living in Buffalo, it dawned on him. “I came back and I spent the first month and a half just reading the newspaper accounts of these abandoned and vacant buildings and how the city was going to spend millions of dollars. I thought to myself, ‘This just doesn’t make much sense.’”

So Gainer picked up his phone in January and called Bennick, who thought it sounded like an amazing opportunity.

Building Buffalo ReUse

By March, Gainer was running with the idea, bouncing it off of folks like Chris Brown and David Granville. He received a grant from the Baird Foundation, which he used to bring Bennick to Buffalo for a two-day community presentation and workshop at the Grant Street Library. After a summer-long hiatus, during which Gainer founded and was heavily involved in Buffalo Youth Corps, he returned and restarted the conversation. “We had more conversations with the city, worked on improving our organizational structure, and had community meetings where we invited people from the community to come and talk about this idea.” Since then, things have been falling into place for Buffalo ReUse…or, rather, they’ve been carefully set into place with great care by the cheerfully overworked Gainer.

The Baird Foundation grant also covered a down payment on insurance, bought some tools and paid for a trailer. ReUse became licensed with the city in April and immediately got its first two deconstruction jobs—26 Lombard Street and 21 Wasson Street. In total, they’ve obtained more than $250,000 in seed funding from government and private sources, including a grant through Empire State Development’s Environmental Services Division for $187,000. Then, in a huge breakthrough for Buffalo ReUse, the city opened up the demolition process to them, putting out an RFP for 10 deconstructions. ReUse will likely win the contract, and the city will monitor their success (e.g. tonnage of material they divert from the landfill, how much money they spend, how long each deconstruction takes).

Gainer removes brackets from the Civil War-era Horton House on Franklin Street.
(photo: Rose Mattrey)

“It’s really critical that the city has been so open-minded with the process,” Gainer says, “because they are the ones with the ability to pay.” Gainer wants to turn Buffalo ReUse into a legitimate business venture out of this. Even though it’s a nonprofit, he’s committed to it standing on its own two feet. “I don’t want to be really dependent on foundations to be able to do the work that we want to do. We’re ready to do it now, there’s an urgent need, people are yelling and screaming about these abandoned houses, and we want to field test and prove an alternative.”

He says that he hopes to match the cost of traditional demolition, but it’s unlikely that Buffalo ReUse will ever be cheaper. “It would be great if we could take down buildings for half the cost, but the point of the matter is that right now you’re paying $10-12K and you’re getting nothing out of it. You’re getting no benefit, except for a vacant lot and fewer people screaming at you.”

When you invest in deconstruction, he continues, it costs the same amount of money but you’re creating jobs in the community, you’re salvaging materials that can be sold back to the community to help other people fix up their houses and, ultimately, he hopes it will become a vehicle for job training. “Then we’ll be providing opportunities for young people during the summer and throughout the year to get good skills training and experience.”

All of this stems from Gainer’s former work teaching in all sorts of venues—public schools, private schools, outdoors centers. “I really think that the forgotten population is the 18- to 24-year-olds who are out of school, who don’t have a lot of skills, who didn’t go to college, who may or may not have high school diplomas,” he says. “This well help them get support and skills so they can make ends meet, you know, get involved in the economy and have jobs and live productive lives.”

Gainer says he’s been in the classroom enough to know that a formal educational setting is not the vehicle for him, it’s not where he wants to be spending his time and energy.

“And now we’re at the point where we have committed funds through the state and through a couple of other foundations…wait a minute, hold on.” Gainer pauses for a while, during which time he rifles through his date book. “Next week is the 29th, right? I was getting nervous there, my heart rate accelerated. I just remembered a 10 o’clock meeting with the Community Foundation on a Friday and I was thinking, ‘I hope that’s not today.’”

This is patent Michael Gainer, as I would witness soon again. The following Friday, June 29, I ran into him at the Old Crow Medicine Show concert at the Town Ballroom. Standing in front of the empty stage during an intermission, he casually mentioned that he had to move the very next day. “I totally forgot my lease is up tomorrow,” he said. He’d tried calling his landlord to see if he could extend the lease, but there was someone moving in on Sunday. “No worries,” he said, “I don’t have a whole lot to move anyway.”

Back at the café, Gainer talks about the crew he hopes to hire once he secures some gap funding. Buffalo ReUse is looking for four people to work alongside him on the deconstruction crew—an assistant project manager and three deconstruction technicians (two full-time, one part-time). He needs another technician to help Kevin Hayes with salvage. And then he wants a “logistics coordinator,” a complicated position whose list of responsibilities seems endless as he rattles them off. “The logistics coordinator is a pretty critical piece in all of this, because when I’m running this crew, they are basically keeping everything else going. I’m communicating with them to coordinate dumpster, they’re doing foundation research, they’re setting up events, they’re interacting with the public, they might be doing some financial management, some database management, coordinating volunteers…just an everything person, and someone who can also don a tool belt and fill in when somebody calls in sick. Particularly when we’re small, I’m looking for somebody who can do a lot of things.”

It sounds like Gainer’s basically looking for another Michael Gainer.

(photo: Rose Mattrey)

“They would also be lining up and feeding projects to the salvage person, and they could also be estimating jobs, going out and seeing projects or driving around the city and looking at the sites on the city’s demo list and trying to identify properties that fit our criteria.”

Though he seems like a nice enough guy, it sounds like he’d be a pretty tough boss.

Gainer exudes a beguiling outward calm while seated in the café, talking about his role as organizer. His formal training as a teacher has no doubt cultivated in him an unusual capacity for the patience it takes to teach me about deconstruction, but I sense he’d rather be doing something. There’s a restlessness in his eyes and he’s mindlessly tapping his fingers on the table. Looking closely, though, one can see the telltale signs of the work he’s probably more interested in doing. Right. Now.

Miracle on Wasson Street

Well, maybe it wasn’t a miracle. But for the folks at Buffalo ReUse, who’d just proven for the second time that they could efficiently and competitively deconstruct a house, it sure felt like one. Looking at the pretty little lot that sits at 21 Wasson Street today, with its blossoming garden and pastoral tranquility, you’d never guess that a moth-balled, century-old duplex had stood there only two months ago.

It’s out here, on little dead-end factory streets in neighborhoods like Seneca-Babcock, that you’ll find Gainer and his crew most at home. That’s because they’re on the work site, doing rather than talking or planning, or any of the other frustrating, pencil-pushing tasks that feel so unimportant but which they know are critical to making this work possible. Here Gainer’s energy is unleashed as he heave-hos himself onto rooftops, jumps back and forth wildly from ladder to telescopic forklift, pulling down whole walls in one fell swoop, yelling enthusiastically—some would say manically—the whole way, encouraging the crew on.

Out here he and his crew don’t have to play by someone else’s rules. They are dependent only on the team’s willingness to work and its ability to improvise. That’s not to say that there aren’t protocols they follow. Once a deconstruction contract is secured and the permit has been pulled, there’s a straightforward process that Gainer and company use to take down each house. The work goes from the roof down. It is cut into large pieces like a gingerbread house—portions of wall, floor and ceiling. Each piece is individually cut off and lowered to the ground with the telescoping forklift. In a staging area—sometimes an empty lot next door or a backyard—the large panels are disassembled to separate and sort out reusable materials, recyclable materials and waste. The house disappears in sections—first the roof, then each wall, followed by the floor, each wall of the ground level and that floor—until only a foundation is left. If there’s a foundation, Buffalo ReUse subcontracts to have it excavated, filled and graded.

It’s dirty work. I know, because my girlfriend and I volunteered on that job. The first two deconstructions were carried out by Gainer, Hayes and a fully volunteer force. They were simply out to prove that it could be done. “We wanted to prove to the city, to ourselves, to whoever was paying attention that yes, we can take down buildings and yes, we can do it in four to five days consistently,” Gainer says.

He looked like a pirate, dressed in his bandana and hysterically swinging from place to place to keep everyone’s spirits up. By the end of each day, he and Hayes were so dirty, so black in the face, that they resembled coal miners (Hayes especially so with his ubiquitous headlamp). There were bumps and hiccups along the way as Gainer and Hayes tried improvising more efficient techniques of moving waste, and there was a problem getting dumpsters to the site at one point. It was a labor or love, though, and everyone involved knew they were part of something special.

Developing disassembly

Michael Gainer and Buffalo ReUse are not reinventing the wheel with this method of hybrid deconstruction. In fact, it’s the process that Bellingham, Washington-based deconstruction specialist David Bennick has been developing for the past seven years. Though he runs his own deconstruction business, his relatively new role as consultant has recast him as a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, crisscrossing the country and planting the seeds of hybrid deconstruction wherever he goes. It was Bennick who got Gainer started in hybrid deconstruction, so I called him to ask his opinions regarding Buffalo ReUse.

(photo: Rose Mattrey)

When I first reached him, he was, quite predictably, standing in the attic of a house in Washington that no longer had a roof. “My entire world right now is an eight-by-ten-foot platform,” he said, matter-of-factly, “so this might not be the best time for me to talk.” Point taken. I tried him again when his feet were planted safely and firmly on the ground, and he told me about the evolution of hybrid deconstruction.

When Bennick first started in deconstruction, 14 years ago, there weren’t a lot of people around in the business. So, as he says, they started taking buildings apart the obvious way—the reverse of building them. “In the beginning, we just salvaged things like cabinets and doors, and then we sort of graduated into taking down our very first building, an agricultural pole building,” he said.

The building was nearly all wood and metal, so Bennick was able to divert 98 percent of it from the landfill. When he compared this to the simple salvaging he’d been doing, he realized that he could make a much bigger environmental impact by offering disassembly of entire buildings. “Disassembly…that’s what I called it back then,” he said. The industry would rename it deconstruction in 2001. So Bennick’s company began deconstructing buildings—at a rate of two-and-a-half weeks each—the exact opposite way from which they were built, starting with trim and stripping them all the way to the foundation.

That system was costly and time-consuming, though, and as such it had a limited market. “I was never happy with it, because everyone was asking us to go faster, and they wanted it to be cheaper,” Bennick said. Over time, his unhappiness evolved into determination to come up with a better, more efficient system. The result is what he calls “hybrid deconstruction,” a combination of people and machines that maximizes reuse and recycling while deconstructing buildings in a cost-competitive, time-efficient way. Over time, Bennick refined his system, using safer, insurance-reducing techniques that also allowed him to use volunteers on occasion. And while his business grew in leaps and bounds, Bennick knew that he was on to something that could have a nationwide impact.

To that end, he started a consulting company, RE-USE Consulting. Now he travels the country retraining demolition and deconstruction companies in his hybrid method, as well as helping train new companies like Buffalo ReUse. Bennick sees a lot of potential in Buffalo, though admittedly he sees it differently from most folks. “Though Buffalo’s not exactly a huge forest, it really is a huge stand of processed lumber, ready to processed,” he said, referring to the city’s abundant vacant buildings. “We call demolition a dead end, because it dead ends at the landfill. It doesn’t help the community.”

In his eyes, it makes no sense to throw away such an abundant resource. “If you did have 20,000 trees that needed to be cut down, what would people say if you hired a demolition contractor and put them all in the landfill? People would be outraged.” But in the case of housing demolitions, he says, no one questions it. “They look at the façade of a house and say, ‘This house is really run-down, there’s no value left.’” But Buffalo ReUse is tapping into that value and giving back to the community by creating jobs and making the material available to the public.

“There’s a lot of character to this material,” said Bennick, “and Buffalo ReUse is trying to preserve some of the stories of the buildings where it comes from.”

The story goes on

Bennick is on to something there. Certainly there’s more significance to the work that Buffalo ReUse performs than the obvious monetary and environmental value of the wood they’re saving from the landfill. Preserving the city’s architectural character is also a significant part of the good they do. Like an oral tradition, they take the stories told by the oldest buildings and pass them on, so that they might continue in other buildings.

Such was the case with the Horton House at 399 Franklin Street. As this issue goes to press, a hulking excavator is punching out gaping holes in the Civil War-era house’s brick masonry, systematically reducing it to rubble. Though the Preservation Board voted unanimously last November to demolish the historic building, Gainer and company made sure they could pick through the decrepit building and rescue its salvageable architectural elements. A month ago, with the permission of demolition contractor Empire Building Diagnostics, Buffalo ReUse volunteers pulled a bounty of materials from the Italianate house in a three-day operation, including more than 30 doors, two clawfoot bathtubs, 15 porcelain sinks, roof brackets and decorative dentil moldings from the façade. Now Gainer is seeking out someone with a similar Italianate house to purchase and install the brackets and dentil molding as a package, thus passing on the Horton House’s 140-year-old legacy. “If you start splitting up the pieces, a couple here and a couple there,” he says, “then it kind of loses some of the character, I think.”

(photo: Rose Mattrey)

For now, though, they’re stored in a cramped warehouse space at 459 Ellicott Street. That’s where you’ll find the Buffalo ReUse crew on any given Sunday afternoon, organizing their inventory, pulling nails from newly harvested lumber and selling the second-hand goods they’ve salvaged. Located next door to the Washington Market, the Buffalo ReUse warehouse is chocked full of valuable old building materials and hardware. Against one wall are stacks of antique bathtubs and sinks. In another area are rows of solid doors of every stripe. In the back are towering stacks of lumber—floorboards and joists of every size you can imagine. Buffalo ReUse also sells foundation stone and brick, porch columns, hinges, doorknobs, clasps, window openers, window frames and doorframes, fireplace mantles, single-pane windows, double-hung windows, banisters and cabinets. The warehouse is truly stuffed, but luckily these are only temporary digs. Gainer is currently looking for a new, larger warehouse space near the Broadway Market, a move that would put Buffalo ReUse in the geographic center of Buffalo’s highest concentration of abandoned buildings.

The most interesting table in the warehouse is a table with artifacts that aren’t for sale. Here you’ll find the real stories behind the buildings. “We found amazing and interesting things in the buildings that go all the way back to how the house was created and the people who lived there and its history and what the significance of that structure was to people who called it home,” Gainer says. “So letters from 1905 that were received from friends, pretty wild things like that were in the walls. Little artifacts that had a use back in 1905, but are unrecognizable today. We have a couple items on the table that fit in the Can You Guess What This Is? category. They’re tools and things like that that were dominant in their day but have since been rendered obsolete. Photographs, old books and people’s notes in the books and in the margins that tell what was significant in their life at the time. It’s those kinds of things that we want to hold onto, these little gems that tell the different stories of the locations where we work. And every house has something unique about it.”

According to Gainer, part of Buffalo ReUse’s goal is not just to sell building materials so they can be used in that purpose again, but to help their customers think outside the box. “We want people to use the materials in applications that they wouldn’t readily associate them with.”

Closing the gap

One major hurdle remains between Buffalo ReUse and all of its high-minded goals—money. There’s a good deal of irony in that fact, too, considering that New York State has already promised them $187,000. That grant works strictly on a reimbursement basis, though, and so far they haven’t found a bank to front the money.

“Our budget is predominantly a labor budget,” Gainer says, “as well as consulting and equipment rental. $25,000 for equipment rental, $10-12,000 for consulting and $170,000 for labor, because it’s labor intensive.” His goal is to have a full-time crew up and running as soon as possible. “That way we can really develop economies of operation and devise best strategies and best ways to do this efficiently. I feel like with our first two houses we showed them that we can get out of the starting blocks, and with all volunteers we can do what we said we could.” Now he wants to improve on that success with a crew of staff who will be focused on outcomes, efficiency and time-benefit analysis. “We need to make sure we get the most material in the most efficient amount of time,” he says, and that’s something that can’t be done with an inconsistent crew of volunteers.

Gainer says that $200,000 would essentially cover a full year’s operations without any other revenue from contracts and sales. “We’re going to have contract revenue on top of that, and we’re going to have sales revenue on top of that, so it’s guaranteed almost two-fold money that we’re asking for. It’s just enough to get us out of the blocks, just enough to float payroll for a few months until the reimbursements start coming in and we get final payment on contracts.”

They’re looking at less than a two-year term. As Gainer points out, $200,000 is a drop in the bucket to financial institutions, and is classified under a small business loan. For Buffalo ReUse, though, it’s nearly the whole bucket, and they can’t move forward without it.

The urban prairie

Someday in the near future, Buffalo ReUse will overcome these hurdles and become all that it dreams of—a growing, successful hybrid deconstruction company that diverts thousands upon thousands of tons of building material away from local landfills and back into Buffalo’s architectural landscape while creating new jobs and providing job training for local youths. It will become a well-oiled machine, developing even more efficient methods of deconstruction than those that currently exist, making it a model for other companies, both locally and abroad, that strive for sustainability in business. The people at Buffalo ReUse are too talented, too determined to have it any other way.

And when that all happens, maybe Michael Gainer will slow down a bit, maybe he’ll retire to his ideal little place on the East Side, which he refers to as the “urban prairie.” Back at SPoT Coffee, Gainer describes the place to me, while tracing his finger on the table. “There’s a little dead end street, and there are train tracks back here,” he says, indicating an abandoned right-of-way. He says there are only three houses on the street, the final one completely abandoned. “I wrote the property down, because I want to live there!” he says, his eyes lighting up. It’s buffered from a major road by a big warehouse directly in front of it, and a huge cemetery stretches into the distance behind the house. Next to it, away from the other houses, “this whole corner is a big field with three enormous trees, and it’s quiet back there. You could just…live on the urban prairie,” he finishes, his voice rising in a pseudo-Midwestern timbre.

It sounds peaceful. And I can picture it, the cemetery dead quiet, the wind blowing through those trees, and maybe, just maybe, Michael Gainer laying his head down and finally getting some sleep.

For more information, and to keep up to date on Buffalo ReUse, call them at 885-4131 or log on to their Web site at