November 18, 2004 | General

Building The Deconstruction Industry

BioCycle November 2004, Vol. 45, No. 11, p. 36
Across the United States, young firms are increasing the supply of reusable building materials by using deconstruction at job sites.
Diane Greer

INSTEAD of filling dumpsters with demolition debris, materials carefully removed from homes are bundled and loaded onto trucks for reuse, resale or refurbishing. Deconstruction is allowing homeowners to realize substantial cost savings over traditional demolition techniques while diverting significant quantities of waste from landfills.
Deconstruction is simply construction in reverse, an environmentally friendly and cost-effective alternative to demolition. “We literally take apart a building in the reverse order in which it was built,” explains Ted Reiff, president of The Reuse People, a nonprofit deconstruction service in Alameda, California. Salvaged materials from an average project include doors, windows, plumbing and electrical fixtures, appliances, flooring, lumber and bricks.
Significant quantities of materials can be salvaged or recycled utilizing deconstruction techniques. “On a typical 1,500 square foot house, we recover 50 percent of the materials for reuse, 25 to 30 percent is recycled and the remainder is trash,” says Brian McVay, a Deconstruction Estimator with the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Rebuilding Center. Reiff has tracked the weight of building materials salvaged and recycled by his company in the past nine years. “Over 200,000 tons have been diverted from landfills,” says Reiff.
Reducing the amount of demolition and construction waste is a priority for many localities facing shortages of landfill space. The Deconstruction Institute estimates a typical 2,000 square foot home produces 127 tons of demolition debris. A recent EPA report found demolition debris comprises 48 percent of the 136 million tons of construction and demolition waste produced each year in the U.S., equating to a little under 10 percent of the country’s total waste stream. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance estimates deconstruction could divert up to 24 million tons of demolition waste each year for reuse.
Diverting building products from landfills provides an environmentally friendly means to recapture the value of salvaged materials for reuse while saving energy and conserving resources. “Think about how much energy, labor and other resources go into making new building materials,” says Jim Primdahl, president of the Deconstruction Management Group. “The whole beauty of the deconstruction process is it keeps materials out of landfills and maintains their value.”
While enthusiastic about the environmental benefits, industry advocates realize economic factors are driving the shift towards deconstruction. “A large motivator is the tax benefit homeowners get from donating salvaged building materials to nonprofits,” says Julie Larson. Larson is the Assistant Program Director for Deconstruction at the nonprofit Green Institute in Minneapolis.
Economics is also driving developers and demolition contractors to consider deconstruction. “Companies want to save money,” says Ann Marie Aguilar, president of Environmentally Sustainable Design Solutions of New York. “They do not care about green design and they do not care about reducing materials going to landfills. You need to show them the savings.”
Demolition contractors practicing deconstruction reduce disposal costs by diverting materials from landfills. In some parts of the country, tipping fees range from $65 to $80 per ton. “It is wildly expensive to get rid of trash,” says Jeff Carlson, Project Manager for Pizzagalli Construction in Vermont. Vermont has the third highest tipping fees in the nation. “The savings really come quickly if you can make some inroads and get rid of things out of the waste stream.”
Deconstruction is more cost-effective than demolition when the value of the materials salvaged and the avoided hauling expenses offset the cost of labor to remove the materials. In case studies of deconstruction projects around the U.S., deconstruction costs average 30 to 50 percent less than demolition costs. To evaluate the economic viability of deconstruction, the Center for Construction and the Environment at the University of Florida deconstructed 6 wood frame residences in 2000. The study found deconstruction costs to be 37 percent lower than demolition costs.
Reiff uses data collected from six homes deconstructed by the Reuse People in California to create a composite comparing the cost of deconstruction versus demolition. The value of the donated salvaged materials from the homes averaged $84,000 yielding a tax benefit of $29,400 for a homeowner in a 35 percent tax bracket. Deconstruction costs averaged $20,338 versus estimated demolition costs of $10,100. After tax, deconstruction saved $9,062 over demolition. Reiff points out the actual costs and savings from deconstruction are dependent upon age, location, type and condition of the materials within the house.
McVay believes deconstruction can be cost competitive with demolition but cautions you need to be honest with clients. “Each of the Rebuilding Center’s deconstruction projects starts with an assessment of the value of the materials that can be salvaged,” says McVay. “The best candidates for deconstruction are well appointed buildings constructed between late 1800 to the 1940’s.” He estimates they turn down about five percent of the projects they evaluate because the economics do not make sense.
In addition to economic and environmental benefits, deconstruction provides social benefits. Carefully salvaging building materials is more labor intensive than standard demolition, creating good paying entry-level jobs. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance estimates the deconstruction industry could generate as many as 200,000 jobs each year in the United States.
Deconstruction and the market for salvaged building materials are still in their infancy in the U.S. In some parts of the country, reuse stores are having difficulty obtaining sufficient quantities of salvaged building materials to meet demand. Reuse stores specialize in selling salvaged materials to consumers and building industry professionals along with artists and furniture makers looking for low cost supplies.
Partnering deconstruction services and reuse stores aligns the supply and demand for salvage building materials, illustrating the potential for the market. Many reuse stores, originally relying on donations to stock their shelves, now provide deconstruction services to meet the demand for materials. The Green Institute started their deconstruction service two years after opening their Reuse Store. “We found the demand for materials was greater than what was coming into the store,” says Larson.
The Rebuilding Center in Portland, Oregon operates a 62,000 square foot warehouse selling salvaged building materials. “What better way to fill our shelves and create jobs than to run a deconstruction service,” says McVay. “The center is open seven days a week, employs 15 people and sells 1.8 million pounds of materials each month.” He estimates 250 customers walk the store’s aisle each day shopping for items averaging 50 to 90 percent off the price of new materials. Business is so good that the center is in the middle of a fund-raising campaign to expand its warehouse space.
Currently, over 200 reuse stores are in operation in the U.S. providing good quality, low-cost building materials. “The demand from the customer base is there,” says Brian Alferman, Program Manager for Habitat for Humanity’s Reuse Store and deconstruction services in Kansas City, Missouri. “If we can get the material on the floor, it will sell.”
In some communities in the U.S., efforts to start deconstruction services and convince contractors to salvage building materials are hamstrung by a lack of sales outlets for the materials. Aguilar’s firm was hired by a developer to oversee the deconstruction of the interior of the former J.P. Morgan building in New York’s financial district. She teamed up with WasteMatch, a nonprofit offering technical assistance on solid waste reduction in New York, to find outlets for the materials recovered from the project.
“WasteMatch was instrumental in arranging for material donations to nonprofits,” says Aguilar. “They were successful in finding takers based on need and nonprofit status, but companies developed just to take much of this material for resale are not easily found. The market is not very developed.”
Primdahl is currently training groups starting deconstruction services. He says one of the problems facing new operations is lack of access to a retail yard. “You have to get the materials back to the marketplace,” says Primdahl.
Efforts are under way to increase the supply of salvaged building materials by convincing contractors to deconstruct instead of demolish buildings. At the Habitat for Humanity Reuse Store in Kansas City, Alferman has undertaken a concerted effort to woo contractor donations. “Donations from contractors provide a more reliable source of material to the store,” says Alferman. “About a year ago, 75 percent or more of our donations came from individual home owners or small landlords. Now it is more evenly split, with 50 percent of the donations made by retail businesses and contractors.”
Alferman realized to increase donations he needed to convince contractors to change the way they approach demolition projects. “Contractors have a set way of doing things,” says Alferman. “They need to shift their habits. It is hard for them to work deconstruction into their projects.” On the positive side, contractors are realizing the benefits of deconstruction. “Some of them see it as a financial thing, you can save some money, but others are interested in the PR aspect. They like telling people that they partner with us. They use it as a selling point; customers get a kick out of that.”
Rob Ricketson, the Program Director at Vermont-based nonprofit ReCycle North, is focusing on contractors as both a source of materials and a means to secure deconstruction jobs. “We are starting to see a change in contractors’ policies and protocols,” says Ricketson. “I’m amazed at the number of contractors who are now calling us with materials or subcontracting projects to us.” He believes Recycle North’s successful track record and level of service are convincing contractors to use our services. “We are changing the mentality. Contractors are starting to look at a building and think about the types of products that are in there that might be reusable.”
The Reuse People are also working more closely with contractors. They are developing a network of contractors to do deconstruction projects while they shift their focus to specialize in the marketing of salvaged materials. Their goal is to establish a network of reuse stores with the ability to move materials between facilities to equate the supply of materials with the demand by area.
“We are certifying contractors to do deconstruction our way,” says Reiff. “Deconstruction is not a scaleable business. You cannot reach out very far; the cost of management becomes very expensive.” He believes that by working with local contractors; everybody wins. “We do not have crews strung out around the country. The contractor can offer the homeowner a whole package of services, including deconstruction. What we are offering them is a new way to make money.” “Just deliver it, we will take care of the material,” is Reiff’s pitch to contractors. “We know how to unitize, pack and merchandise this material.”
Time is a critical factor for both deconstruction services companies and contractors when deciding to deconstruct or demolish a building. Deconstruction takes more time than demolition. Manual labor is required to insure materials are removed intact. Once removed, salvaged items may require additional processing before they can be marketed, lumber needs to be denailed and items bundled and labeled to facilitate sale. Often construction projects are under time constraints limiting the extent or use of deconstruction.
“One of our challenges is the time pressure to finish a project,” says Dirk Wassink, the General Manager of Second Use Building Materials. “It is a nice idea to salvage but not if it takes an extra week out of the schedule. You need to justify the inconvenience versus the savings.” Reiff also sees timing as a big problem. “We take seven to eight days instead of one day for demolition contractors.”
Time constraints can limit the extent to which deconstruction is employed in a project. “We are starting to do more complete deconstruction projects,” says Alferman. “But most of our jobs are skim jobs, we just do not have the time for a full deconstruction.”
Time is becoming less of a problem in areas experienced with deconstruction. “The time problem is becoming more and more rare,” says McVay. “Good references and the power of word of mouth is helping to evolve deconstruction scheduling. The construction industry is now planning for it.”
Productivity improvements are helping deconstruction to become more competitive with demolition. “More efficient methodologies are reducing the time required to deconstruct a building,” says McVay. Once done totally by hand, some deconstruction services are now utilizing articulating forklifts, conveyor belts and bobcats to mechanize material handling. Equipment like denailing guns significantly cut the time to remove nails from salvage wood. “Projects that used to take four weeks now take two weeks,” points out McVay.
Efficiencies are also being realized utilizing on-site sales and the internet to move materials. “On-site sales start as soon as a customer signs a contract,” says Larson. “It is much more economical to sell directly off the site; we maximize what we sell and do not have to haul the materials back to the store.” The Reuse People also utilize job site sales. “We have job site sales if a customer will let us. People can remove the items themselves at a lesser cost,” says Reiff.
The internet is facilitating connecting the supply of materials with the demand. Vermont’s Business Materials Exchange was used to list materials salvaged from buildings at Champlain College. “Almost everything went,” says Carolyn Grodinsky, a Waste Prevention Coordinator with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. “We also have a mailing list. If we know someone is taking apart a building, we try to get everybody lined up ahead of time to take the materials.” “We have a huge database of people looking for certain things,” adds Larson. “We list materials on our website as soon as a client signs a contract. We also email people.”
Along with the growth and evolution of the deconstruction industry come inevitable growing pains. “The industry is not cookie cutter yet,” says Primdahl. “We do not have the resources to help the industry grow.” Primdahl points to issues related to workmen’s compensation as an example. “Deconstruction is safer than construction, but from a workmen’s compensation standpoint, we are classified under construction. We need to collect safety data for the last three or four years to show we are safer.” Recently, the Used Building Materials Association was formed to address issues related to the growth of the industry.
Another problem facing the industry is restrictions on the use of salvaged lumber, currently limited to nonstructural applications. “Building codes require all structural lumber to be graded,” says Reiff. “There is a nonprofit that grades lumber according to what it can be used for. Building inspectors expect to see grade stamps on lumber.”
Salvage lumber either lacks grade stamps or the stamps are old and not accepted by inspectors. Some consumers are reluctant to purchase salvaged wood if it lacks a grading stamp. “Right now this is not a problem,” says Reiff. “But it could impede the growth of the industry as quantities of salvage lumber increase.” Reiff believes the industry needs to work on changing building codes or make regrading of salvage lumber easier and less expensive.
In some cities and municipalities, government policies and incentives are nurturing the growth of the deconstruction industry. McVay points to localities incorporating material recovery requirements into their construction permitting process. Others have passed ordinances requiring recycling and materials recovery on job sites as key elements in ensuring the supply of materials to the market.
Wassink suggests efforts by the city of Seattle and others requiring new city construction and renovation projects to be built using Green Building or LEED techniques encourages salvaging waste materials. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a system rating the “greenness” of a building. Developers employing deconstruction and salvaged building materials gain points in the LEED rating system.
It makes sense for communities to encourage deconstruction. In addition to providing municipalities a cost-effective alternative for reducing waste and lessening pollution, deconstruction creates new industries generating much-needed jobs. Carefully salvaging building materials is more labor intensive than standard demolition, creating good paying entry-level jobs.
Selling and recycling building materials as opposed to disposing them in landfills also creates jobs. Reuse stores, remanufacturing facilities and recycling operations employ people in both the selling and processing of materials. The Center for Economic Conversion estimates there are ten resource recovery jobs for every one landfill job.
Advocates of deconstruction are enthusiastic about the industry and its prospects. “The deconstruction market has exploded in the last two or three years,” says Primdahl. “It will continue to grow thanks to the green building movement and LEED.” “Deconstruction is a win-win-win situation – homeowners, contractors and workers all win. It appeals to the triple bottom line, providing benefits not only economically but also socially and environmentally,” says McVay. “Deconstruction just makes so much sense,” says Ricketson. “It is a great opportunity for any city or town in the nation.”
Diane Greer is an environmental consultant and researcher, specializing in the area of green technologies.

Sign up