‘Mining the value of demolition:’ Dubuquer’s business salvages building materials

FitzGerald learned about dismantling buildings when he started working for John Gronen. PHOTO CREDIT: Dave Kettering

Early in his career, Kyle FitzGerald was tasked with deconstructing a brick building, finding a way to not only safely dismantle it but also the best way to take materials and repurpose them.

It was not a task that he had much experience with but something he knew he could handle.

“That was the very first job that was very instrumental in me becoming actively involved in deconstruction,” said the owner of FitzGerald Deconstruction & Reuse.

In the ensuing years, he has dedicated his career to deconstructing old buildings and homes while salvaging the materials to be repurposed. He has worked on many major construction projects throughout the Dubuque area.

FitzGerald was hired by the City of Dubuque to help with restoring one building and deconstructing another at the Blum Co. scrapyard. He also deconstructed a home for Habitat for Humanity near the corner of East 21st and Elm streets.

Recently, he was hired by Dubuque company Gronen to serve as a consultant for renovations to the former Voices building in the Millwork District, which soon will house the operations center for Dupaco Community Credit Union.

“They hired me as a consultant to work down there with windows and operational reuse opportunities,” he said. “I was able to help them with some streamlining of what to do with specific materials such as the windows on the building.”

Much of his attention as of late has been focused on material salvaged from the former Flexsteel Industries plant at 3400 Jackson St.

The property was constructed in the late 1800s, and Flexsteel Industries moved into the structure in 1936. Eight decades later, in 2016, the Dubuque furniture manufacturer announced plans to close that facility and move operations. The structure since has been demolished.

But some of those still-useful materials were rescued by FitzGerald and moved to a lot along U.S. 52 between 32nd Street and the Northwest Arterial. FitzGerald arrives at the site as the sun begins to climb above the nearby bluffs and frost covers the tops of the timbers scattered throughout the lot.

“We are mining the value in demolition,” he said. “1.2 million pounds of wood has been salvaged to date, and there is still more. There’s literally millions of pounds of material that was taken out of that building and would have gone in a landfill.”

Rather, FitzGerald and about half a dozen contractors he employs have removed nails and prepped the wood, which is sent to a sawmill, then sold to consumers throughout both Dubuque and the nation to use as flooring.

FitzGerald started his career working for John Gronen as a project manager years ago. That’s where he first learned the inner workings of dismantling old buildings as well as his love for taking the materials and restoring them to be used in homes or new businesses.

“That’s the exciting part of what I do is just finding opportunities to keep materials out of a landfill, but I do it for money,” he said. “We deconstruct the value.”

In 2008, he started his business but continued to help Gronen with projects and learned the importance of repurposing old, used materials.

“Gronen was a huge piece of me becoming who I am today, and we still work together today,” he said. “I was able to learn so much on (John Gronen’s) projects. It was like an internship in a sense that I learned lessons on those projects, and I met so many good people.”

John Gronen, president of real estate development company Gronen, said he has known FitzGerald since he was young and saw the spark in his eyes when he was first tasked with new projects and the challenges that come with not just deconstructing old buildings but preserving them.

“He was interested in preservation, but he became very passionate about repurposing building materials and architecture salvage,” Gronen said. “He was very frustrated when he saw materials being deconstructed and going to the landfill.”

FitzGerald moved to Chicago in 2011 and partnered with Ken Ortiz, a contractor with Reuse People Of America, who served as FitzGerald’s mentor years before when he dismantled the building at the site of what is now a Walgreens in Dubuque.

After returning to Dubuque in 2018, he has collaborated on projects with Gronen as well as with the city and travels throughout the country doing consulting, during which he teaches others about the value of reusing old materials, especially as the cost of infrastructure continues to climb.

According to National Home Builders Association, the composite price for lumber has increased more than 170% since mid-April, in turn causing the average price of a new single-family home to increase by $16,000.

But other than repurposing old materials, what’s also important to FitzGerald is providing others throughout his area with a purpose and skill set.

“I think that is a testament to what this type of industry can do,” he said. “We are not only reusing property — we are involving people who are re-engaging. There is real value in properties. We are seeing that now as material costs have gone through the roof and good quality timbers, lumber and even fixtures in buildings can easily be reused. People just aren’t trained to think that way.”