Moving Day: Building mover aims to keep houses out of landfills

Jepsen Inc. moves a house from 2616 W. 44th St. to 4400 Thomas Ave. S. to make room for a new apartment project in Linden Hills

As a 98-ton Linden Hills house inched down 44th Street on Sept. 6, a crowd gathered on sidewalks and porches to watch, some eyeing a vase of flowers visible through a window. Still furnished, with the water heater and furnace riding along, the house moved under power lines and over an abnormally tall fire hydrant to rest a block away at 4400 Thomas Ave. S. 

The move cleared the way for construction of a 36-unit apartment building at 2614-2620 W. 44th St., where another house once owned by writer Brenda Ueland had previously been demolished after city officials ruled the house had lost its historic value.

“It’s one of the tighter moves I’ve been involved with,” said John Jepsen, owner of Jepsen Inc. His team dug around the house and jack hammered holes to insert supportive steel beams, which the developer referred to as Lincoln Logs. They then lifted the house off its foundation and slid in power dollies for the slow ride down the street. 

“I was able to essentially drive the house using a remote control,” Jepsen said.

Jepsen, who lives in the Kenny neighborhood, started his career as a carpentry subcontractor, and his work evolved into ever more complicated structural shoring, lifting and leveling projects. His company removed columns from the Mall of America to give the Apple Store an open sales floor. At a sloping corner of 43rd & Upton, next to Zumbro Cafe, Jepsen shored up the brick structure so workers could straighten out the floors. In the future Commutator Foundry development in the North Loop, Jepsen will move a historic brick building to allow underground parking construction, then return the structure to the site.

“It’s endless, the possibilities,” Jepsen said. 

The Linden Hills house at 2616 W. 44th St., purchased for $963,500 in 2016, had been extensively renovated, once advertising three gas fireplaces, a marble tiled master bath, a subzero custom fridge and a Vulcan range. The developer didn’t want to tear it down. Neighbors suggested moving the house to 4400 Thomas, a lot where the house reportedly had deferred maintenance and had passed through probate to an out-of-town resident. The developer bought the Thomas Avenue site on Aug. 19 for $546,809.

Developer Andrew Commers declined to share the total cost to move the house. But he said there’s a reason you don’t see it often. 

“Hopefully someone buys it for enough to make it at least a wash,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Rethinking what’s possible

House moves are not common in South Minneapolis, due to mature tree canopy, utility wires, light rail lines and few vacant lots, Jepsen said.

“Unfortunately we’re seeing more and more of these houses go to landfills,” he said. 

In Minnesota, more than 80% of the state’s 1.6 million tons of construction and demolition waste was landfilled in 2013, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. And the demolition of a typical 2,000-square-foot home generates about 127 tons of construction and demolition waste, according to a 2015 city report prepared for Council Member Linea Palmisano (Ward 13).

“Some of the most efficient structures out there are the ones that are already existing,” Jepsen said.

For houses with failing foundations, Jepsen said, it’s possible to lift the house, pour a new foundation and set the house back down. He did that about three weeks ago near 47th & Upton. Other local projects have addressed rotting and sinking interior columns, structural shoring for renovations, and house lifting to elevate basement ceilings. 

Lifting an average South Minneapolis home for a new foundation typically costs $12,000–$18,000, Jepsen said, and costs run higher based on weight and complexity of the job. (Additional costs related to mechanical systems are often the largest expenses, he said.) Moving an entire house to a new location, meanwhile, varies widely based on the weight and distance to travel, he said. The MPCA reports that the average cost to move a structure is $12–$16 per square foot. Nationwide, the average cost to move a house is roughly $15,000–$50,000, estimates Tammie DeVooght Blaney, executive director of the International Association of Structural Movers.

Thousands of houses were moved during expansion of the interstate system in the 1950s and 60s, she said, and it was easier because there was less congestion and more open space. Today, everything is more disposable, she said.

“It used be, you build something, it was built to last,” she said.

Groups like Habitat for Humanity  have found affordable housing by moving homes, she said. When the Green Bay Packers expanded a Lambeau Field parking lot in 2012, they moved and sold two houses, with proceeds going to Habitat for Humanity. 

But for a developer it’s typically cheaper and easier to pay for demolition than a move — every day a developer waits is a day they’re paying down a loan for the project, DeVooght Blaney said. 

“I’ve been on a lot of house moves where the developer will have their machine sitting right next to the house, and it’s like, ‘If this isn’t gone tomorrow, it’s demolished,’” she said.

Commers said they were fortunate the timing worked out in the Linden Hills case — but they couldn’t have waited another 30 days, he said. He said they spent more than four months navigating logistics and permits related to the excavation, foundation, stormwater, move, demolition, utility connections, power lines, house location and position on the new lot. 

“The checklist adds up pretty quickly,” he said. 

Rethinking waste

Climate change, manifested in flooding and hurricanes, is driving the biggest changes in the structural moving industry, DeVooght Blaney said. Three million U.S. homes lie in a floodplain, she said. Although the process to secure funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency can take years, FEMA can help relocate homes to higher ground or help elevate homes above a floodplain, installing resilient foundations that can handle water intrusion. 

“That will be the biggest amount of work in our industry in the next 50 years,” she said. 

DeVooght Blaney said the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is one of the few environmental agencies in the country seeing a connection to structural moving, sharing information on its website. 

There was a time when construction and demolition waste was perceived to be lower risk, and there were fewer restrictions at landfills, according to the MPCA. But the agency is now finalizing a report that shows contaminants from construction materials like concrete are showing up in groundwater near unlined landfills. (Much of Minneapolis’ construction and demolition waste goes to lined landfills in Rosemount and Shakopee, according to the MPCA.) 

The MPCA is launching two advisory groups to help improve the construction and demolition system. 

The typical 2,000-square-foot home can hold up to 6,000 board-feet of reusable lumber, according to the city. Other recycled materials can include electrical and plumbing fixtures, pipes, wiring, concrete, doors, windows, brick and stone.

Large Minneapolis developments are required to consider deconstruction and recycling as part of demolition. 

The Longfellow-based nonprofit Better Futures Minnesota (recently visited by presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren) offers job training in the deconstruction business, aiming to recycle or reuse at least 75% of each house. Council Member Phillipe Cunningham (Ward 4) tweeted in August that he is working with Better Futures on a deconstruction ordinance as a sustainability and economic development strategy, particularly for the North Side. 

“We know we can reuse and recycle this material,” said Courtney Ahlers-Nelson, supervisor of the MPCA Land Permits Unit. “We should just rethink why are we putting it all into a landfill in the first place.”