Should you deconstruct or demolish a house?

During the past 25 years I have worked on 8 home renovation projects and one new construction project. I confess my awareness of salvaging materials was limited and disposal of unwanted materials was the dumpster in the yard which was hauled to the landfill when full.  I did “collect” items of interest from each house and tried to recycle something original in each project.  It was more nostalgic than anything else.

Having begun my current total home renovation project in 2001, at a time when I was still not very aware of resources and outlets for the demolition part of the project, I tried to use as much common sense as possible.  There were not a lot of “collection” locations in my area at that time so I recycled by giving useable parts of my house to friends who were also remodeling.  I did not know enough about separating materials and in my area you were able to get a dumpster that was emptied at the landfill…no other real options, just like 15 years earlier.

As I learned more about “retrofitting” houses and the subsequent disposal of materials I just assumed the best thing to do is salvage everything possible without consideration to cost or environmental impact because it was the best practice.  Obviously I needed to know more before broadly accepting that concept!  With new regulations for the disposal of lead paint and other toxins I have since learned there is a time to deconstruct and a time to demolish. 

From the latest Recycling News this article addresses common sense approaches to deconstruction and demolition, many of which make money sense.  In my earlier years of practicing real estate and working with builders, the mantra was demolition as quickly as possible with no thoughts of salvaging.

Recycling News                  7 / 26 / 2011 – Issue 135

Does deconstruction make Green sense?

Deconstruction seems like a good thing right? Guess again.

200317947-001smlWe all know that deconstructing a home or building allows the opportunity to salvage valuable, reusable materials and fixtures. Deconstruction can save you money by reusing these materials on site and in some cases when donated, results in a tax write-off for the property owner. However, it costs more money, takes more time, and results in a larger carbon footprint. So when does deconstruction make financial and environmental sense?

First of all what exactly is deconstruction?

Deconstruction is the dismantling of structural and nonstructural components of a home or building for the purpose of reuse.

Non-structural deconstruction, also known as “soft-stripping”, consists of reclaiming nonstructural components, appliances, doors, windows, and finish materials. The reuse of these types of materials is becoming commonplace and helps divert materials that would normally be destined for the landfill.

Structural deconstruction on the other hand, involves dismantling the structural components of a building. Traditionally this had only been performed to reclaim expensive or rare materials such as used brick, dimensional stone, and extinct woods; but now that secondary markets exist for used materials, deconstruction is becoming a preferred method for salvaging materials.

Deconstruction or Demolition?

Handmade-Red-Reclaimed-Bricks_40108_1Both methods have their place. Deconstruction only makes sense when reusable materials can be salvaged quickly and efficiently without creating additional carbon costs. However, the additional costs and time necessary to deconstruct are sometimes not justified. Many nonprofits and reuse companies claim that by using them to deconstruct your home, you will “help the environment and their organization by donating”. That is not entirely true. When you calculate the true cost of deconstruction, this process may do more harm than good. The methods used by these groups require more manpower, fuel, warehousing, transportation, electricity, and more importantly time and money. Then, when you add in the additional costs in processing fees, appraisal fees, and other miscellaneous paperwork this process is not green at all.

IMAG0181 2Demolition has it’s own issues but may sometimes be a better solution than deconstruction. It is quicker, cost efficient and because of today’s recycling requirements may be more effective in helping the environment. The days of tearing down a home or building and taking it to the landfill are over. Today’s demolition methods, necessary to comply with recycling requirements (source separation) are in essence a combination of demolition and deconstruction, and in actuality may reintroduce materials back into the system faster and more efficiently. Materials from demolition projects are sometimes processed or reused on-site, turned into fuel or other reusable forms with a smaller carbon footprint impact.

So what do you do? The solution is “Green Demolition”

Green Demolition is the best of both worlds by providing a hybrid approach that gives you the benefits of tax deductible deconstruction and salvage with the speed of demolition, all for around the same price as traditional demolition costs. Using this method you identify the most valuable items and materials that can be salvaged quickly and effectively then recycle the rest. Jobs are done quickly and efficiently, maximizing time and benefits for the client, the contractor and the environment. Demolition and salvage contractors prefer this straight forward approach, property owners and clients like it because it doesn’t inflate costs for doing something Green, and more importantly it’s good for our environment because it reduces the carbon footprint impact of a project.

Green Demolition Tips:

  • Identify items and materials that can truly be salvaged and reused. Fairly new energy efficient appliances, cabinets, electrical and plumbing fixtures make sense. Doors are okay in some cases, but salvaged doors require a lot of work to make fit or work properly in your new home or building and may not meet code. Using salvaged windows and sliding doors may not retain the window’s leak proof integrity. Some items are just better bought new with warranties.
  • Determine whether or not you will be able to salvage enough of what you have identified for salvage or reuse to make salvaging economically or environmentally feasible. Spending several days dismantling a home or building to save a door knob doesn’t make sense. Salvaging real dimensional lumber or aged wood from an old home or building does.
  • Unless you are salvaging true architectural features, aged materials, or unique items, or if you’re dismantling a fairly new home or building with modern updated features, chances are many of the items and materials salvaged will end up in a storage warehouse or salvage yard only to be thrown out when they need the room or get something better. What’s the environmental impact of that?
  • Some items are better off in a landfill. Old doors, windows, lumber, and architectural features are covered in layers of lead based paints and other toxins. Restoring these items is not only unhealthy but requires even more chemicals to remove the layers of toxic materials, and sanding in an uncontrolled environment makes these toxic materials airborne. Make sure that if you are salvaging and restoring some of these items that you take the proper precautions or hire professionals skilled in the restoration of these items. Again evaluate the true financial and environmental impacts first.
  • More importantly use your own common sense. Don’t listen to salvage appraisers. They’ll tell you they can salvage everything because in many cases their fees are based on the more “they can salvage”. After all is said and done all they do is jack up your demolition costs and take up more time without doing much for the environment. If you think you would or could reuse something then you probably can and it’s worth salvaging. Otherwise don’t waste your time and money, and don’t create more junk that will be disposed down the road. Put it in its proper place now.

The idea here is this, we all want to do what’s good for the environment and our pocket book. Every function has it’s purpose. Deconstruction has it’s place if done intelligently, recycling has it’s place, and even landfills have their place. Knowing when and where to use each is the key to making deconstruction and demolition truly green and environmentally friendly.

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