Deconstruction vs. Demolition

Keep it from the dumpster: re-use rejuvenates valid building materials and saves waste and cost

May 21, 2005

Did you know that 40 percent of the material that clogs our landfills is construction waste? That’s a huge amount of potentially useful goods going to waste. Did you know that you can help change that? There is a new trend called “deconstruction.” Deconstruction is the dismantling of existing structures and putting those materials to use once again.

Re-use stores are springing up all over the country. The Re-Store in Seattle was one of the pioneers in this field and has been thriving now for 13 years. Now that the Gorge Rebuild-It Center has conveniently opened in the Heights of Hood River, I avoid countless trips to Portland. The Gorge Rebuild-It Center accepts (and then sells) donated useful building materials. The donations are tax deductible.

These stores differ from traditional salvage yards in that one of their stated goals is to reduce building waste that would have otherwise gone to the landfill. All the great vintage hardware, doors and trim can be found, as well as basic low-cost building materials. Prices start at half the cost of new. In addition to affordable building goods, jobs are created at the re-use stores and the material is saved from the landfill. There’s too much valuable stuff in those old buildings to not reclaim it — especially with the price of building materials skyrocketing upward these days.

A typical deconstruction scenario is that a homeowner has a building to be removed. Rather than hiring a demolition contractor to crunch the house and cart it to the landfill, costing thousands of dollars, the homeowner would spend a comparable amount of money to hire a “deconstruction contractor” to take the house apart. The owner gains the tax advantage of donating the materials to the Gorge Rebuild-It Center and the great feeling of putting the material back to use and helping to reduce landfill waste.

I decided to deconstruct my house in White Salmon. It didn’t have any good trim or hardware, but it had a lot of great lumber that I wanted to use in my new house project on the same site. One concept of “green building” is the idea of “embodied energy.” This is the idea of looking at all the costs associated with producing, manufacturing and transporting the material, not just how much it costs in dollars. The best deal is one where the material is existing at the site already. One of the stated goals of my project is “sustainability.” I want to use as many recycled products as possible.

My deconstruction team came from Portland where all three members had previous work experience with the deconstruction arm of the Portland ReBuilding Center. I can’t say enough about the professionalism and efficiency these guys (and gal) portrayed. They are very safety conscious. The siding was tested for asbestos before work began. All the copper wiring was recycled. All the aluminum was recycled. All the steel was recycled. All the asphalt shingles will be recycled in Portland. The concrete from the site is being used for retaining walls and landscaping. All the fixtures went to the Gorge Rebuild-It Center. My “decon” project created a fraction of the waste material that ended up at the landfill. Everything else is recycled. I got fir flooring, great framing lumber, tongue-and-groove timber that I’ll use to make my custom doors and floors, ship-lap siding that will become my ceiling finish; also some great large pieces that I’ll use for furniture. Leftover wood that wasn’t good enough quality for new construction is being used for planting beds and cut for firewood. How easy is it to find 14-inch wide pieces these days? Old wood is often clear vertical grain that’s harder to find and more expensive to purchase in today’s world. Plywood is very expensive too. I have all the plywood and wood I need for my tool shed. Whatever I don’t use I can donate to the Gorge Rebuild-It Center. I’m thrilled!

Many contractors shy away from deconstruction because they believe it to be messy and difficult compared to new construction. My team really showed me the art of deconstruction. A skilled crew can move quickly and effectively. Systems exist for de-nailing, sorting good material from dumpster stuff and getting the recyclables to their destination too. It’s amazing, the house was gone in a matter of days. Unfortunately, some newer building methods resist deconstruction. The glues, particle board and vinyl aren’t recyclable and you can’t take those assemblies apart. It would be nice if new buildings were built with deconstruction in mind. I don’t think that idea is too far off.

Deconstruction is inevitably the wave of the future. I’m glad to be a part of it.


Ruth Olin, who is on the board of the Gorge Rebuild-It Center, lives in White Salmon.

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