On Saturday I spent some time watching volunteers remove nails from old lumber.
If that sounds like a new low for City Talk, think again.
The action was taking place just west of Pennsylvania Avenue on a site that was formerly home to several dozen houses in the sprawling Strathmore Estates.
On the east side of Pennsylvania, parts of Strathmore are still occupied, although many of the World War II-era one-story units are already empty.
Originally constructed as 'temporary,' the units are being demolished to make way for a mixed-use, mixed-income development.
The demolition has provided the springboard for Emergent Structures (www.emergentstructures.com), a newly created nonprofit working with a variety of community partners to salvage as much as possible.
On Saturday, dozens of volunteers were removing nails from the sturdy old studs so the lumber can be reused. After the visible nails were yanked out, each piece of wood was scanned with a handheld metal detector.
The "denailing" attracted a broad mix of volunteer labor - SCAD professors and students, local contractors and other community members interested in issues of sustainability.
Some volunteers were wearing specially designed t-shirts with "Volunteer Stud Stripper" on the back, just one sign of the optimism that characterizes the ambitious project.
Twenty-one trusses harvested in recent weeks have already been used in a new pavilion by the Girl Scouts in Athens.
The Emergent Structures project is just one manifestation of the seismic shift that I've occasionally covered over the last decade. "Sustainability" and "green building" have become an integral part of theory, design and practice for many professionals.
The economic downturn has opened up possibilities and created huge obstacles for the movement.
As a friend who works in sustainability once reminded me, the greenest building is the one that never gets built.
With a dramatically slower pace of new construction across America, there is obviously less pressure on the environment.
At the same time, we've seen a locally based but world-renowned company - Melaver Inc. - transition away from development.
Designers and builders can't hone their craft or pay their bills if there is no construction going on.
Sitting on relatively high ground, with easy access to major thoroughfares and to the downtown area, the Strathmore site seems just about perfect for redevelopment.
But we have a glut of apartments and houses in Savannah right now. Rather than speed ahead with public-private partnerships to create additional housing, we should be looking at incenting the use of existing privately-owned housing stock.
That takes nothing away, however, from the impressive goals and work of Emergent Structures, which is dealing with the tangible realities in front of us.
City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.