J oe DiRisi is not the easiest guy to photograph. As I followed him through his warehouse full of salvaged materials, trying to snap a portrait, we passed rows of cast iron bathtubs, typewriters, laboratory cabinets, windows, and lumber. Joe simply cannot stand still. The man is on a mission: to elevate something called “deconstruction” – or, as Joe says it, “decon” – into standard practice in Connecticut.
In any given week, he covers a lot of ground. DiRisi visits houses, barns, warehouses, and laboratories in the greater New Haven area, assesses their value, and brings in crews to literally “mine” the sites for fixtures, moldings, floors, timber, doors, and windows. Hence the name of his retail store in Hamden: Urban Miners.
“Last night I did a presentation at the University of Bridgeport. This morning I met with a demolition contractor down the street. Tomorrow I’ll be at a Hartford conference on salvaged materials, then I’ll run the store til 7. The next day, I’ll test the removal of shingles to see if we can get them off a roof intact, and the rest of the day I’ll be working on a bid to submit to the town of Hamden.” After my chat with him, Joe was
30 Manila Avenue, Hamden, CT 06514 (map)
(203) 287-0852 | email@example.com
Tues-Sat 9am-5pm; open until 7pm on Thurs
off to meet with a crane operator.
A cousin of demolition, “deconstruction” means breaking down buildings into their valuable components before the bulldozer arrives. “Deconstruction crews look more like builders than demolition crews,” says Joe. “There’s a lot of careful skill at play. That generates lots of jobs.” He says the process can be 20% more expensive than demolition, but doing it this way offers substantial benefits such as more jobs, reduced consumption of resources, and big waste savings.
“Connecticut puts out 1.2 million tons of construction and demolition waste per year,” says Joe. “In a state riddled with nineteenth century barns and farmhouses, lots of that waste is incredibly valuable. Old growth pine, American Chestnut – the only place you find this stuff today is in old New England buildings. Right now we’re working on extracting bazillions of board feet of Chestnut floor joists from a grain
warehouse in Stonington.”
Perhaps the best byproduct from decon is the Urban Miners store itself: a warehouse chock full of interesting, historic materials. A recent trip to Urban Miners revealed bowling lane wood perfect for a coffee table or a kitchen counter, and Chestnut wall studs from an 1850s farm house. I purchased some of the latter, and removed several handmade nails before sanding the planks down into shelves that glow with a this-tree-was-alive-before-the-American-Revolution kind of glow.
Before founding Urban Miners in 2007, Joe worked for the Connecticut Conservation District. Then he took a deconstruction course at the Yestermorrow Institute in Vermont, and his focus shifted entirely to decon. He worked for the CT Reuse Network, and was a founding board member of The ReCONNstruction Center, a reuse store in Newington, CT.
One early story captures Joe’s mission, and his generous spirit, quite well.
“A single reused radiator saves 4 million BTUs of energy,” says Joe. “In 2007, Urban Miners salvaged 54 radiators from the old Yale Art Building, and sold them all to a man in Boston. That saved 216 million BTUs!” You can get a peek at how Joe and his crew got all those radiators down the stairwells on Youtube.
“Did I make money that day? Almost. Did we save 54 radiators and get this movement started? Yes. And we created jobs! Guys made money, even though I didn’t that day.”
Written and photographed by Jeremy Oldfield.