Catherine Commons Deconstruction Project

In October 2020, the Circular Construction Lab brought together a group of community organizations (SC Johnson College of Business, Finger Lakes ReUse, Ithaca NHS, Cornell Cooperative Extension, TAITEM Engineering, Trade Design Build) as partners on an Engaged Cornell Grant (ECG) with the “specific aim to investigate the circular potentials of the local built environment by researching and proposing methods for material reuse and recycling, reversible construction, reactivating embodied values, creating green jobs, and reinventing the underlying business models of construction.” 

Throughout the past year, the group has been busy understanding the local economy through stakeholder interviews, research seminars and field work. In parallel, the group began to identify structures within Ithaca slated for demolition, proposing to instead document and deconstruct these buildings as case studies, and reuse all salvageable materials in a local and sustainable design-build process. One such project is the Catherine Commons/ Collegetown Innovation District on College Avenue, where demolition of 11 residential structures originating from the year 1910 is beginning on January 3rd 2022 to make space for new housing developments. Supported by ECG and in close collaboration with the principal developer, the Circular Construction lab began documenting and cataloging the structures for their reuse and deconstruction potential with the help of students from the Department of Architecture. Additionally, the grant allowed us to bring deconstruction consultant Dave Bennink (Building Deconstruction Institute) to Ithaca to help assess the site, and to identify the most promising structures to focus on. The team is currently in negotiations with the owners as well as the contractors and working on a detailed proposal to deconstruct at least one of the Catherine Commons buildings and maximize the direct reuse of materials in a broad coalition of local stakeholders. 

The Circular Construction Lab is not only involved in this project with regards to the general narrative and the development of a feasible and economically viable strategy, but more importantly to document, compare and study the material stocks and flows, and processes, as well as economic, ecologic and health-related impacts of demolition vs deconstruction on a unique and local ‘real world’ case study. It does not happen often that academic research and industry processes overlap in such a seamless way. Being able to track and understand exactly the above described processes will provide a much-needed insight into the potential barriers, limitations and benefits of implementing deconstruction as the status quo moving forward. 

The generated information will be shared and processed in collaboration with the partner network CR0WD (Circularity, Reuse and Zero Waste Development), which includes the Susan Christopherson Center for Planning, Historic Ithaca and Significant Elements, the Historic Preservation Association of Central New York, members of the City’s legislature as well as the Just Places Lab, the Circular Construction Lab and a multitude of student of Cornell AAP. CR0WD stakeholders are advising local governments across central New York on legislation related to carbon neutrality in the built environment. One such partner is the City of Ithaca, where CR0WD will be introducing a Deconstruction Ordinance for discussion to the Common Council by early 2022. The proposed project will be able to create the necessary data within the local economy to support both the need and viability of such an ordinance, as well as continuous research during its implementation. Additionally, the described case study project and its documentation will help to inform a larger body of interested decisionmakers on local, state and national levels, resulting in real work change.

The Circular Construction Lab is proud to be a partner of this truly interdisciplinary and local community engagement.