Deconstruction: greening the end of a building's life
Sometimes it seems the green building industry is fixated on finishes - bamboo floors, concrete counter tops, recycled glass tile. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with obsessing over materials - except when it clouds our judgement about what it means to be green. In the green building boom we've experienced up to now, the greening of existing buildings has taken a back seat to new projects, with their shiny finishes and clean lines. And the greening of demolition - the very last stage in a building's life-cycle? Not even on the map.
That's starting to change. More "deconstruction" experts, as they like to be called, are starting to offer their services and the national news media is taking note. A recent article in Forbes highlighted the work of David A. Bennink, who's currently deconstructing homes in New Orleans.
What is Deconstruction?
Here in Portland, deconstruction services are offered by at least two companies, Lovett Deconstruction and Deconstruction Services, an outpost of the non-profit ReBuilding Center. I spoke with Sara Badiali, Systems Manager at Deconstruction Services to find out a little more about what deconstruction really entails.
She described it as "a systematic unbuilding" of a whole building or even just a room. Much deconstruction takes place by hand, as opposed to the iconic wrecking ball. A 2,000 square foot house could take a week or less to deconstruct, depending on how it's made. Multiple roofs, for example, take longer to deconstruct than just one. And deconstruction is often price-competitive with demolition.
Deconstruction has many obvious and not so obvious benefits over demolition. It diverts up to 85% of waste from landfills, its re-used items prevent new materials from entering the future waste stream, and it generates affordable building materials. It also keeps often-toxic dust particulates out of the air.
Deconstruction Services encourages owners to re-use the materials they salvage on the property. Kitchen cabinets are an easy one, Badiali said, noting that many people undertaking a kitchen remodel find them useful storage tools in the garage.
Other low-hanging fruit include exposed woodwork and trim.
The Forbes article notes that a 2,000-square foot house can contain 6,000 board feet of lumber, or about 33 mature trees. More dedicate deconstructors can strip the plaster from lathe and plaster walls. At the ReBuilding Center that lathe is used to fashion recycled furniture and bookcases. Other easily salvaged items include appliances and hardware.
Badiali told me one story about a kitchen sink, now out there somewhere on its third life. A couple purchased it at the ReBuilding Center for their kitchen remodel, later moved it to a second kitchen in their house, then donated it back to the Center, where it was purchased by another customer.
What's in the 15% that can't be re-used? Usually it's drywall. Of course in one project even the drywall was salvaged. Portland's very own REX Project is trying to reuse each and every part of a Southeast Portland house in the construction of its replacement.
GreenRenter features several projects that include salvaged material. You can find them by entering "salvaged" in the search bar.
And next time you start thinking about your dream/green home, or even your next remodel, you know where to start. They call them "finishes" for a reason.
More deconstruction resources
- Wikipedia's "deconstruction" entry - as usual, a good overall summary
- Deconstruction Institute - a Florida-based how-to site that includes lots of how-to materials, a benefits calculator, articles and case studies
- Waste-to-Wealth deconstruction resources - another non-profit info site including decon groups around the country, benefits, resources and case studies, produced by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance
- BMRA (Building Materials ReUse Association) - another non-profit dedicated to re-use and deconstruction? Yes! This one is based in Pittsburgh and hosts an annual conference, the site features a provider nationwide director
- U.S. EPA - would you believe our government has waste reuse programs? Lots of programs and funding opportunities here
- Lifecycle Building Challenge - a nationwide contest for the most innovative, waste-reducing structures - built, unbuilt and components, the contest started in 2007
- Presidio case study - nice case study of a deconstruction project at the Presidio in San Francisco
- BNET article on deconstruction (2006) - it's not the most recent, but this article has some good info on the deconstruction marketplace