Issue 13.5: October/November 2010

Razing Houses, Raising Houses

Story by Sheila Sarhangi

Photos by Olivier Koning


On a clear morning by Pier 1 off Ala Moana Boulevard, Re-use Hawai‘i’s gray warehouse has its doors rolled open. What’s inside looks out of place in the industrial Kaka‘ako district. The stylish reception area is floored with 1,200 square feet of maple, though few would recognize it as the former basketball court at Punahou School. In the midst of several plant boxes, each fashioned out of recycled wood, two green 1960s couches donated from Bank of Hawai‘i sandwich a coffee table displaying a book titled Unbuilding.


Here sits Selina Tarantino, demonstrating the opposite of “unbuilding.” She bends her fingers to shape a claw and moves her hand stiffly up and down to mimic demolition, the fast and brutal process by which a structure is typically taken down. “It’s pretty intense,” she says, half-smiling at her re-enactment. “In a single afternoon a machine just chops up a house into little pieces, wasting all of the materials and the energy that was used to grow them, harvest them and ship them here.” At Tarantino’s left a computer server sits on an acrylic cube that until recently housed an artifact at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. The wall behind her is made from reclaimed interior doors.


The forty-year-old Tarantino co-founded the nonprofit Re-use Hawai‘i in October 2006 with a single aim: to keep reusable building material out of the landfill. The year before, Tarantino, a SoCal native who’s lived in Hawai‘i for twenty-three years, had been working as an interior designer for a sustainable architecture firm. One morning she caught herself repeatedly writing the word “demolition” on a blueprint.


“We were doing a project in a penthouse in downtown Honolulu, and each of the executive offices had this beautiful koa wood paneling and slate tile,” recalls Tarantino, all of which was destined for the landfill. “I got really hung up on it and started to do some research.” She discovered that more than 30 percent of Hawai‘i’s waste stream comes from construction and demolition materials, according to the state Department of Health’s Office of Solid Waste Management.


A couple of months later she heard about an EPA-sponsored sustainability conference in Atlanta. Tarantino, who’s lived in South Africa and Southern France and traveled solo across Indonesia, cashed in her airline miles and headed east on her 36th birthday. “It was all men and most were hippie crunchy granolas,” she laughs. “I was totally out of place.” On the conference agenda was a speaker named Quinn. “I couldn’t believe that I was staring at that name,” she says. “I had been saying ‘Quinn’ for six months.” Tarantino had been urging her sister to name her yet-to-be-born niece Quinn, and she took it as a sign.


The tall, humble and impossibly sincere 30-year-old Quinn Vittum spoke on the business of deconstruction. The better angel of demolition, deconstruction is the process by which a structure is taken apart by hand so its materials can be preserved and reused. The son of a builder, with a hammer in his hand at age 8, Vittum’s organization in Olympia, Washington was still in development. Tarantino convinced him to fly to Hawai‘i for a visit, and after they did a feasibility study, the duo partnered as co-executive directors of Re-use Hawai‘i, the first company in the state committed to recovering and redistributing building materials.


In fewer than three years, Re-use Hawai‘i has deconstructed more than ninety buildings on O‘ahu and kept more than1,000 tons of material out of a landfill in the Wai‘anae Mountains, where crushed-up construction and demolition materials—wreckage, really—on O‘ahu is trucked and dumped.


Re-use Hawai‘i gives those materials a second chance. Its 24,000-square-foot warehouse (within view of a former municipal landfill) houses goods headed back into the community even after decades of use. This is no Sanford and Son junkyard; it’s amazingly well organized. In one corner, 200-plus doors—iron, screen, wood—stand like a row of mismatched dominos. There are sections for sinks (stainless steel, concrete, ceramic), for lighting (chandeliers, glass globes, ceiling fixtures), for air conditioners, ovens, windows, bathtubs—just about anything that can be removed and resold. Bins of surplus goods over-ordered by contractors or discontinued (such as new tile, nails and screws) are also for the picking. Outside, salvaged lumber—their biggest seller—stands propped like tipis; there’s even a random hot tub. Everything costs half or less than new.


Everyday patrons include contractors, homeowners, woodworkers and artists, and because some items are so well crafted or vintage, it’s prompted a few regulars to treat the place like an antique store.


Louise Shinkoethe, a tan 20-something, just bought a $25 ceiling fan since hers broke, and now she’s perusing the aisles with no particular focus. “You can find some funky old school stuff in here,” she says. “You just have to get over the fact that things don’t need to be new.” (The fan does actually look brand new, to be fair.)


Matt Neal, an environmental scientist, has a large percentage of recycled materials woven into his two-story Palolo home, either from the warehouse or salvaged from his now deconstructed one-story plantation house, which was Re-use Hawai‘i’s first project in 2007. Take, for example, the rectangular glass louvers from his old windows. They’re now shower tile in his master bathroom. His shiny oak floor was yanked out of a house just two blocks away, and in his kitchen an old pew from a Makiki church makes for a casual, rustic seating area. “I think it’s kind of cool that the materials have all this character and life and experience,” he says, “but I also wanted a clean slate, too.” He had the house blessed before he settled in, just to play it safe.


“Last year we deconstructed a two-story house in Manoa that was built in 1909,” says Vittum. “We were able to save things that you would never see now.” That includes historic gems like a pedestal sink, glass doorknobs, etched sconces, cast-iron sinks and narrow interior doors—all now reincarnated inside other homes. It’s recycling at its best: Materials that already exist in Hawai‘i feed other projects around the Islands. “We get a lot of people from Moloka‘i,” says Tarantino. “They just put things on a pallet, and Young Brothers takes it over.”





Selina Tarantino and Quinn Vittum
On a hot afternoon at the beginning of summer, a five-person deconstruction crew methodically pecks away at a one-story 1950s home in Portlock, the upscale oceanfront neighborhood in Hawai‘i Kai. This is the organization’s fourth deconstruction on this street alone, a testament to its growing success. Most of the house is gone; only sections of the roof and a few concrete walls remain. The backyard fronts the waters of Maunalua Bay, and the silhouette of Diamond Head can be seen from the garage. Two men in hard hats stand in the empty living room pulling nails, a task that’s typically a third of the work.


Deconstruction goes something like this: Re-use Hawai‘i meets with a homeowner for a site visit to assess what can be recovered. The homeowner pays a fee for the deconstruction, which Tarantino says is comparable to demolition (a typical single-wall 2,000-square-foot home on O‘ahu can cost between $7,500 and $13,000 to deconstruct. Depending on the site, homes tend to average less than $10,000.) Then the homeowner receives a tax deduction for the value of the materials. It’ll take three weeks total to take this house apart, though most projects take two weeks depending on the amount of material that can be saved. Once the work is done, usually only the trees and dirt remain. (Re-use Hawai‘i will also take on commercial and industrial projects; their largest to date was a forty-foot-tall, 20,000-square-foot former military warehouse in Fort Shafter.)


Vittum says that this house was a good candidate because it has about 6,000 lineal feet of Douglas fir subroof and 1,000 lineal feet of redwood ceiling and walls—approximately equal to 115 trees. “When we talk about ‘waste stream diversion,’ this is where it’s at,” he says. “Some homeowners talk about objectives like recycling bottles and cans, and that’s great, but then you have to think about the consequences of throwing out an entire house. We’re probably looking at about twenty tons of building material diverted from the landfill—and that’s just for this house alone.”




The vision board hanging in Vittum’s office has a photo of a barreling wave (to remind him to surf more), and Tarantino has glued a magazine cutout of the word “legislation.” They want to get the message across to government and business that this is a serious enterprise, and if environmental incentives aren’t enough, then financial incentives must be created.


When asked about Re-use Hawai‘i’s next step, Tarantino deadpans, “World domination.” She continues, “No, we want deconstruction to become part of the mainstream in the building industry rather than just a hippie fringe movement.”


Given how successful they’ve been in so short a time, that goal seems within reach. “Sometimes, Quinn and I walk around the warehouse when everyone has gone, and we can’t believe that we’re here, that we have a crew and have come this far,” says Tarantino. “Everything about deconstruction and salvaging is blood, sweat and tears, but no matter how much energy we spend, we know it’s worth it.”