Habitat shifts gears to unbuild housing

BLACKSBURG — Volunteers were unbuilding the OakBridge apartments as fast as they could Thursday. 

The Unbuild Blast, a weeklong, first-of-its-kind effort by Habitat for Humanity of the New River Valley, brought crews to salvage what they could from OakBridge’s empty apartments ahead of the coming razing of the 197-unit, 354-bedroom complex. Appliances were being hauled to the Habitat ReStore in Christiansburg to be sold to raise money for Habitat’s next home-construction project. Scrap metal was being gathered to sell to raise more money.

“It’s been a huge endeavor with high impact,” ReStore general manager Kimberly Snider said between steering some volunteers toward lunch and others toward new rounds of tasks.

OakBridge is being torn down by its owner, Blacksburg-based Campus Management Group, which is working with CampusWorks of Charlotte, N.C., to use the site for a new, more densely built, student-oriented apartment complex called The Edge. Named for its proximity to Virginia Tech’s campus, The Edge will have 254 furnished apartments with 911 bedrooms.

Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam praised The Edge last week as an ideal infill project that increases student housing within walking and bicycling distance of classes. It was a distinctly more upbeat reaction than town officials have so far given to another venture of Campus Management Group head Jeanne Stosser: the Midtown Village proposal for the old Blacksburg Middle School site. That proposal, now under review by the town, is a project of Stosser’s Fiddler’s Green Partners, not Campus Management Group.

Stosser said last week that she was glad to let Habitat have older appliances and other items that could be carried away before demolition begins. Shelley Fortier, executive director of the Habitat chapter, said it was the largest donation ever made to the Christiansburg ReStore.

On Thursday, Habitat volunteers dragged refrigerators and air conditioners, stoves and dishwashers out of apartments that had been occupied up until student tenants finished exams and moved away — some as recently as Monday.

In one apartment, the outline of a refrigerator on the floor was traced by a scattering of pens and hairbands, along with a fork and darts from a child’s Nerf gun. In another apartment, a line of mismatched socks trailed out from what had been a utility room. Scraps of insulation hung from a hole in the wall where an air conditioner had been removed.

“I think it’s great they’re giving the Habitat store the option to come in,” said Dan Maderic, a volunteer from Christiansburg who’d spent the morning disconnecting dishwashers and moving heavy appliances. “We need to save our natural resources, not throw everything in the Dumpster and start over.”

Annie Pearce, an associate professor in Tech’s building construction program, said she’d also been drawn to the volunteer effort by its re-use aspect.

“I’m a green-building person, so this deconstruction appeals to me,” Pearce said.

Helping with the appliance-moving on Thursday, Pearce had several weeks ago assigned students from a sustainability and ethics class to study how to safely remove items from OakBridge. Their work helped in the planning of the effort, Pearce and Fortier said.

“The logistics are staggering,” Pearce said Thursday. Windows can’t be removed until asbestos-abatement crews are finished, and solid lumber and other materials from the walls probably won’t be salvaged because of the deadlines of impending demolition and construction.

“You wish you had all the time in the world to pull all this stuff out,” Pearce said.

David Lloyd, who lives just outside Blacksburg, was tying down a pickup truck-load of electric baseboard heaters to take to a scrap yard. He’d joined the Unbuild effort as part of the volunteer requirement for a master gardening program, and was soon going to turn his attention to digging up plants from around the apartment complex, he said.

The plants were bound for one of two newly built Habitat homes on Blacksburg’s Nellie’s Cave Road, the first homes the New River Valley chapter has constructed since emerging from a financial and organizational crisis.

Lloyd said that one of the new homes will be occupied by the family of a man he works with at Tech’s dining services. Lloyd said that his co-worker recently left on a trip to his native Nepal after the death of a relative there.d

“Hopefully, he’ll have a landscaped place when he gets back,” Lloyd said.

Fortier said the Unbuild is expected to recover more than 400 appliances from OakBridge. With scrap sales and other salvaged items, the effort will probably raise about $25,000, or a third or more of the cost of building a new home, Fortier said.

To raise the money, of course, the appliances and other goods have to be sold. On Thursday, with about half the appliances somewhere in the transportation process, Snider said the ReStore in the Northgate Village Shopping Center was already getting crowded.

Prices were being set low to help clear space, Snider said. Air conditioner prices start at $50, and ranges and refrigerators at $45, she said.

“It’s become critical that everyone who has a need for a refrigerator — now or in the future — come buy one,” Snider said.

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