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Tearing Down, Building New, Renting Out

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Workers from ReBuild Deconstruction dismantle the rafters of the garage. Photo by Nat Frothingham.
Workers from ReBuild Deconstruction dismantle the rafters of the garage. Photo by Nat Frothingham.

by Nat Frothingham
For Montpelier resident Peter Watt and his family, there’s everything to like and very little to dislike about where they live at 4 Hinckley Street in Montpelier.
It was during the 1990s when Watt and his wife Mary Beth discovered Hinckley Street, one of three quiet streets that swing around in a small half-circle, beginning off College Street with Arsenal Drive, then connecting to McKinley Street that borders on Sabin’s Pasture, then connecting to Hinckley which links back onto College Street.
“We had wanted to move onto th
at street for years,” Peter Watt said in an interview with The Bridge.
Then Peter, who works as an instructional assistant at Montpelier’s Main Street Middle School, learned that an older couple who lived at 4 Hinckley Street was about to retire.
“So I wrote them a letter,” Peter Watt said. And they got back in touch to say, “Yes, we’re retiring to our hometown. Come over in three weeks and talk.”
“They were the sweetest people in the world,” said Watts about the older couple who owned the house. So they invited Watt over. And they talked. And in six months or so, Peter said, “We had closed the deal.”
That was back in 2000 when Peter and Mary Beth bought the 4 Hinckley Street house.
Describing that house, Peter said, “I would say it was midsized. It has four small bedrooms. It’s a traditional Dutch gambrel-roof house from the 1920s. But it’s beautiful inside with unpainted orangy-gold varnish from the 1920s and built-in cabinets with the original woodwork. It’s really a very nice house that hasn’t been changed.”
Inevitably, some things have changed during the 14 years that Peter and Mary Beth have owned the house. They have three daughters and their eldest daughter is 30, their middle daughter is 28 and their youngest daughter is 23 and some of their daughters have left the house. Then Peter Watt, who is in his 50s, is nearing retirement—another change. And since they bought the Hinckley Street house 14 years ago, Peter figures that Montpelier property taxes may have doubled.
For the past five years, Peter and Mary Beth have opened their house to legislative pages during the session. The pages get a housing allowance and the Watts have used that money to offset their winter heating costs for the oil and wood. “I don’t know what we would have done without it,” Watt said.
Putting the Montpelier property tax situation in perspective, Peter Watt compared his situation with that of his mother who lives in Wellesley, MA, a college town outside of Boston. “We pay more taxes than she did in her smallish house in Wellesley,” he said. But, despite their rising property taxes, neither Peter nor Mary Beth wanted to give up their house in Montpelier and move out of town.
“It’s the location,” Peter said. “We have neighbors on only one side. All of Sabin’s Pasture is to the back of it. It’s within walking distance of town. This property is exceptional. But with property taxes as they are,” said Peter, “We have to move out of town.”
As he pondered his choices, Watt remembered that the city of Montpelier had been (and still is) encouraging what is called “in-filling”: building between existing houses, or building apartments above a garage or building what is sometimes called a mother-in-law apartment.
“We have an extra half lot between ourselves and our neighbor which we can’t build on,” Peter said. “It doesn’t have sufficient street frontage.” But then there was the existing garage. As part of their Hinckley Street property and under new city regulations, they could build on the old footprint of the garage if the garage was taken down.
And as Watt sees it, the existing garage had little value. “It’s the bane of my existence,” he said. “It has a dirt floor and the rain comes in under the dirt, and sand (comes in) under the eaves. One of the garage doors doesn’t open. It’s a storage area. That’s all it is. There’s an attic. But you can only reach it with a tiny ladder. They used to store lumber up there.”
In addition to learning about the new and more permissive city in-fill regulations, Watt said that some of the family’s best friends have been talking about downsizing into much smaller spaces.
But when Peter talked to Mary Beth about the idea, at first she was skeptical. “We can’t live in that smaller space,” she had said. It was only when Mary Beth took a hard look at the finances of the idea that she changed her mind.
“What got her on board,” Peter said, “was the calculation that we could rent our house for about what it would cost to cover current taxes. Then, if we tore down the old garage we could build a much smaller living space, something like an apartment on the footprint that the garage had occupied. And the rent from the main house would cover the taxes on the new space as well.”
As Peter and Mary Beth have refined their idea, they’ve put together a budget and done the math for a simplified living space, somewhat like an apartment that will be built on the footprint occupied by the old garage.
If there’s a single negative to the plan whereby Peter and Mary Beth leave their larger house, rent that house and live in a much smaller house, it may be this: “We’re going to have to downsize,” said Peter. He continued, “I have a lot of clothing. My wife and daughters are pretty minimalist. My wife would call me ‘a recovering packrat,’ and we have reached the point where we want to simplify.”
But there’s one other thing, one other ball in play. And here Peter had a gleam in his eye. “We want to travel. My wife and I agree that travelling makes us happy. We can spend more time together because we won’t be working and we won’t be messing with possessions.”
 

A “Green” Demolition

A two-day (May 8–9) demolition of their garage on their property at 4 Hinckley Street in Montpelier will make it possible for Peter and Marybeth Watt to rent their larger house and move into a new and much smaller house on the footprint of the old garage.
Dan Lee and Nick Reed from ReBuild Deconstruction of Burlington’s nonprofit ReSource arrived at the Watt property on the morning of May 8 and by the end of the day on May 9, the two-man team had taken down the old garage and removed both the materials that can be saved and used and the materials that will be disposed of in a landfill.
Talking by phone to The Bridge after the garage tear-down was completed, Dan Lee who was foreman on the job at the Peter and Marybeth Watt place said, “What we’re doing is diverting usable materials from the landfill. And we’re reducing the need to use virgin materials.”
Lee said that the deconstruction service typically reclaims up to 80 percent of the volume of materials that result from tearing down a range of structures, including full houses and barns. The deconstruction service also goes into a house ahead of a renovation. “Let’s say someone is remodeling their kitchen or bathroom,” said Lee. “We can take the kitchen cabinets, vanities, mirrors and doors.” All the non-structure materials.
Lee estimated that about 60 to 70 percent of the materials from the Watt garage might be saved for reuse. He added that any clean wood that doesn’t have paint or stain on it, “we divert from the landfill.”
“There is a market for those used materials,” Lee said. “Once the nails are pulled, this lumber doesn’t sit around. A lot of people are doing home renovations and want to save money on materials.”
And if the wood can’t be reused, it can be taken to the power plant in Burlington where it is chipped and used as a fuel for the power plant’s wood gasification. It becomes electrical energy.
When asked if ReBuild Deconstruction is cheaper than hiring an excavator or a track hoe to come in and tear down a building, Lee said, “I can’t say that we’re cheaper. But we’re competitive.“
Then he itemized what any client who hires the deconstruction service is paying for. “We’re charging for labor. We’re charging for transport. We’re charging for our tools. We’re charging to get rid of the waste.”
Lee mentioned a new solid waste law that has been recently enacted by the legislature. Under that new law, clean wood will be banned from the landfill. “If they brought a track hoe in here and put it in a dump truck, they have to dump it out and pick through it and get all the clean wood out. What we’re doing is all about recycling and reuse,” Lee said.
The nonprofit ReSource organization has four Vermont stores: a building materials store in Burlington; a household goods store, also in Burlington; another building materials store in Barre and a fourth store in Morrisville. ReSource employs 60 people throughout Vermont and is involved in job skills training, poverty relief and what Lee called “environmental stewardship,” as in green demolition.

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