Nearly 20 years ago, David Bennick, owner of RE-USE Consulting based in Bellingham, Wash., learned the art of deconstructing buildings for a municipality. When he deconstructed his first house, it took him three and a half weeks. “We got better,” he says. “Today, I can take down a 2,000-square-foot house in three to four days.” RE-USE Consulting has deconstructed about 500 structures and has salvaged more than 3,000 in the past 16 years.
To understand the value of deconstruction, one has only to look at the sobering stats on construction debris: The demolition of buildings in the United States produces about 124,670,000 tons of debris each year, according to recyclesmart.com. One year's debris is enough to build a wall about 30 feet high and 30 feet thick around the entire coast of the continental United States (4,993 miles).
For green builders, deconstruction is a less wasteful option. Deconstruction is systematically disassembling a structure with goal of maximum reuse and recycling. “Up to 35% to 50% of building is saved to be reused and 35% to 50% is recycled,” explains Bennick. “The remainder that is disposed of can run from 1%-30%.
Local landfill fees are a factor in the acceptance of deconstruction. “I have to be realistic,” Bennick says. “Dump fees are $11 a ton in parts of Ohio, for example, while they are $110 a ton elsewhere. In Portland, Ore., it would cost $5,000 to throw away a building.”
Over the past two years, Bennick’s company, a deconstruction consultancy that teaches people to how to keep about 95% of a building out of the landfill, has been growing rapidly. “The hidden benefit of deconstruction is that the work is great for workforce development programs and creating jobs,” Bennick points out. “We create about 20 to 30 times more jobs than demolition. I spent much of the last two years training ex-offenders on how to do this type of work. Imagine keeping ex-offenders off the streets and from re-offending while helping the environment, taking down nuisance properties, and providing building materials to repair low-income homeowners properties.”
To be sure, builders and homeowners have always deconstructed houses to some extent—pulling out period light fixtures or reusing decking lumber or doors. But the deconstruction Bennick and other companies tackle runs the full gamut, down to concrete and asphalt shingles. Items that can’t be used are recycled.
For a list of the myriad items that can be salvaged from a house, check out Washington, D.C.–based Deconstruction Services website. In addition, check out the Building Materials Reuse Association for more information and for details on the industry’s spring conference.
Bennick notes that people are almost always interested in the concept of deconstruction, but that cost is important. “I usually hear, “I like the idea of deconstruction, but I will only do it if it costs the same and takes the same amount of time.’” Bennick believes the industry has come a long way toward solving those two demands. “Today, say it takes one and a half days to demolish and four and a half to deconstruct; usually a builder would have put aside a week for demolition anyway. Plus, we are frequently the low bidder.”
In terms of the return on investment, a homeowner or building owner will pay more up front for deconstruction over demolition, but will often recoup that expense through the tax credits for donating material or from reusing material in their remodel project or new home. “I had a project where we took 2 x 6 cedar from the structure and milled into 5,500 square feet of 1 x 6 paneling. That paneling would have cost $20,000 to buy new. The owners actually saved about $10,000 by using deconstruction services,” Bennick says.
“We can’t beat demo on every building,” Bennick adds. “But if we can on 51% of projects, we can be mainstream solution. In fact, a lot of my clients are demolition contractors. We need them because if you have a building that had a fire, it’s demolished, but they can also be trained on [deconstruction] as an option.”
Deconstruction companies must be trained in handling hazardous conditions and waste. Some examples include asbestos survey and remediation, removing liquid mercury from old thermostats, and arranging for HVAC contractors to remove freon from HVAC systems or refrigerators.
As in many areas of the emerging sustainable market, greenwashing is a threat to the intent of deconstruction. “ADC (alternative daily coverage) is when landfills spread construction debris on the landfill to keep the smell down,” Bennick says. “Companies who send debris to the landfill call what they are doing recycling. In fact, USGBC still considers it recycling. But recycling or reusing construction waste versus using it in a landfill is not the same thing.” Reusing materials versus using them for ADC saves five times the embodied energy. “We need to hold green building to a higher standard,” he reminds.
Today, RE-USE operates on 1,200 job sites a year in 39 states and two Canadian provinces. “We’re creating jobs out of garbage,” Bennick says. “Just look at the benefits: We’re saving tens of millions of pounds of materials, and we are creating hundreds—and perhaps thousands—of jobs in the process. There is no downside.”