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Resources from Wreckage: 'Deconstruction' Saves the Whole House

The emerging "building deconstruction" movement seeks to break the wasteful cycle of demolishing old structures and rebuilding with all-new materials. By Jennifer Huang

A small house in the Bay Area suburb of Los Altos filled with clanging as Paul Harrison hammered a crowbar underneath a floorboard, wrenched up nails and pulled the three-quarter-inch solid wood free.

Over the course of two days he took out 400 square feet of oak flooring from the house, which was scheduled for demolition.

Harrison said he saved at least $1,200, paying 75 cents per square foot -- as opposed to $4 or more at retailers like Home Depot.

"I like the idea of recycling old materials," Harrison said. "I guess I’m saving old-growth forests."

He said using salvaged doors, flooring and windows will tread more lightly on the environment and add character to his home.

That's the vision of the "building deconstruction" movement, an emergent effort among municipalities and entrepreneurs to break the wasteful cycle of demolishing old structures and rebuilding with all-new materials.

Harrison found his mother lode of oak flooring at a Whole House Building Supply "demolition sale."

Almost every weekend, Whole House invites the public to homes scheduled for destruction.

Doors, windows, cabinets, countertops, toilets, plants, light fixtures, molding, tile, brick and more -- all are sold at bargain-basement prices.

Donors get a tax write-off for diverting salvageable materials from the structures they are having destroyed. Do-it-yourself-minded homeowners and savvy contractors come armed with crowbars and chisels to take away everything that's nailed down. Anything left unsold is stripped by the Whole House crew and taken to its salvage yard in East Palo Alto.

Run by locals and chock-a-block with building materials, fixtures, appliances and hardware, the warehouse is operated under the auspices of the nonprofit East Palo Alto Council of Tenants, an advocacy, referral and education service.

Whole House manages each demolition and the sale, and returns any profit to the council.

Whole House founder Paul Gardner has been concerned with reuse and recycling ever since his days as a carpenter’s apprentice 15 years ago.

During the remodeling of an I. Magnin store, Gardner saw mahogany doors and brass fixtures hauled out to the trash.

"It was my job to put this stuff in the debris box," he said. "I said, ‘This is nuts! This is valuable stuff.’"

Gardner went on to become a general contractor, and on the side started publishing a newsletter for people buying and selling used building materials.

Word got out, and contractors and architects started to contact him when they had salvageable goods. In 1998, he realized his dream of opening a salvage warehouse.

In doing so, Gardner has tapped into a rich vein of resources. According to California’s Integrated Waste Management Board, waste from construction and demolition (C&D) made up 12% of the state’s waste stream in 1999.

Of that debris, "a great deal is recyclable," said Roni Java, a board spokesperson.

Beyond the "soft strip" technique preferred by Whole House, walls (including paneling, insulation and wainscot), framing, roofing and even foundations can be dismantled and reused, a process called "deconstruction."

"Concrete can be crushed and used for road base and paving projects," Java said. "Asphalt is one of the number one recycled materials in the nation," about 80%. Steel, lumber, rock, soil, even sheetrock can be processed and live again in new construction.

Pavitra Krimmel, owner of Beyond Waste, a Cotati, Calif., deconstruction and salvage operation, said "you can always [salvage] 50%" of a building, usually more. She and her crew will dismantle entire buildings, saving as much as 90%.

Market Demands Demolition

While Paul Harrison ripped out floorboards in Los Altos Hills, Whole House Building Supply held another demolition sale a few miles away in Mountain View.

The 1,500 square foot house, built in the 1950s, was in pristine condition. With three bedrooms, hardwood floors without a scratch, solid wood doors and windows, and fixtures that seemed brand new, the house was a well-preserved period piece -- and doomed nonetheless.

"This house is basically worth nothing," said Ed Wills, a Whole House sales manager. "These lots cost about a million, a million and a quarter. That’s basically for the dirt."

The real estate, he said, will never appreciate with such a "small" house on it.

The home was recently purchased from its original owner. To best capitalize on their investment, the new homeowners will replace the house with something much larger, perhaps as much as 4,000 square feet.

If outfitted with all of the standard luxuries -- granite countertops, Jacuzzi bathtubs, multiple bathrooms and cathedral ceilings -- the property could sell for more than $2 million, Wills said.

"People want something new and shiny," he said.

Even if they didn’t, market conditions make demolition an economically savvy choice. Salvage and deconstruction consultant Jim Primdahl said the practice is all too common.

"It happens all the time ... anywhere the property value exceeds the actual value of an older structure," he said. "You tear down the small houses to make room for McMansions ... You even tear down McMansions to build a McCastle."

Primdahl described a particularly distressing case where he was asked to deconstruct a $1.5 million English Tudor home so it could be replaced by a 27,000 square foot home for three people.

"When I first pulled up in front of that house my stomach went completely up in my throat," he recalls. "But had we not been there, they would have bulldozed it. It’s a sad state of affairs."

In Mountain View, the new homeowners will be saving two things from their old house: as set of floral glass towel hooks, and a light fixture. Its doors, windows, and immaculate wood floor will be for sale, in pieces, at Whole House.

Ken Sandler of the Environmental Protection Agency said not much can be done about such situations.

"I believe that is driven by market forces," he said. "I don’t know that we could have much influence on that ... unless it becomes a bigger problem."

Statewide Efforts
In fact, the demolition problem is big enough to merit attention on the municipal and state level.

City-mandated construction and demolition waste-diversion programs have been growing in California, in part because of 1989 legislation requiring California cities and counties to cut their landfill dumping in half by the end of 2000 (AB 939).

(Noncompliant cities face penalties of up to $10,000 per day -- although no fines have been issued yet; the state works with each city to achieve compliance, and provides a waiver for good-faith efforts.)

While many municipalities have implemented now-familiar recycling programs for cans, glass, paper and cardboard, this usually hasn't been sufficient to meet state requirements for reducing waste. Construction and demolition projects are a logical next target.

San Jose found 30% of its garbage was C&D debris. City administrators drew up a program requiring a deposit from contractors before their project commences. The deposit is calculated on the project's square footage, and whether it is new, a remodel, residential or commercial. Smaller projects are exempt. Under this system, new residential construction over $115,000 is charged a deposit of $.20 a square foot.

To get a refund, builders must prove they’ve diverted at least half of their waste from the landfill, usually by hauling debris to certified salvage yards and scrap-metal recyclers. Whole House is one of the 21 recyclers authorized by the city of San Jose.

So far, efforts like these have succeeded in cutting California’s total landfill stream by 48%. East Palo Alto, where Whole House operates, diverts 45%; nearby Atherton, the upscale residence of venture capitalists and retired NFL players, recycles 31%. The small northern California town of Blue Lake now diverts 92% of its waste.

Unfortunately, California doesn’t keep records on the percentage of C&D that is saved from the landfill; few states do. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates about 20% to 30% is salvaged, with wide variations across the country.

At the forefront, Massachusetts salvages 77% of its C&D waste and is implementing a complete ban on its unprocessed disposal.

Walled in by Trash

Kurt Buss of the Used Building Materials Association said that C&D waste is estimated to be 20 to 40% of the national municipal waste stream.

According to the EPA, that was about 136 million tons in 1996.

"On a national level, we generate enough C&D waste to build a wall ... that’s 30 feet thick and 30 feet high, up and down both coasts of the United States every year," said Jim Primdahl.

Primdahl thinks of the material he saves in terms of "embodied energy" -- its thermodynamic energy, plus the amount of labor necessary to create it.

"How much energy goes into making a brick, how much energy goes into growing a tree, how much energy goes into making a set of stairs ... To me, the essence of deconstruction is to extend the embodied energy of all the materials," he said.

He wants the industry to start measuring salvaged material not in cubic yards or tonnage but in BTUs (British Thermal Units, a measure of energy).

Primdahl believes people are starting to recognize this intrinsic value in material once viewed as trash.

"The deconstruction industry is busting at the seams," he said.

As a consultant, Primdahl has crisscrossed the country to advise new operations in Seattle, Detroit, Salt Lake City, Cleveland, Kansas City, New Haven and New York; there are an estimated 3,500 C&D salvage operations around the nation.

Currently Primdahl is working on an urban renewal project in Philadelphia, where as many as 19,000 homes are slated for removal.

"If we harvest just half of the floor joists out of these units, it works out to roughly 3.8 million board feet of lumber per year, for five years," he said.

That lumber is furniture grade old-growth fir, hemlock and yellow pine with a tight, knotless grain -- "a natural, national resource," he said. "Once the material is gone, it can never be replaced."

Primdahl points out that what is considered a niche market in the U.S. is the norm for the rest of the world.

"Deconstruction and our used building materials industry is pure reaction to western culture, western waste," he said. "In New Zealand ... it’s standard practice for the carpenters to take things apart, to save them to reuse them ... In Latin American countries, in Asian countries, materials are just not thrown away ... We sent four trailer loads of construction materials down to El Salvador and Honduras."

Kurt Paul of the UBMA believes the postwar building boom of the 1940s and '50s created the modern American practice of bulldozing homes and throwing them in the dump.

"Prior to World War II ... buildings were disassembled by hand," he said. The advent of heavy demolition machinery, coupled with spiking demand for housing, spurred the advent of crush-and-dump demolition that is still widely practiced today.

The Future

Ken Sandler of the EPA said his agency is limited in its ability to encourage construction and demolition salvage.

"Budgets have been falling in the last decade," he said. Unable to create financial incentives, the EPA focuses on education by running pilot deconstruction projects on old army bases and voluntary programs for businesses to reduce waste.

But while interest in the industry is growing, some in the business are still struggling.

One significant issue is insurance. Although Primdahl and Buss happily point out that deconstruction creates jobs, workers' compensation and liability rates are rendering that labor prohibitively expensive.

Jonathan Paul of Caldwell’s Building Salvage Resource in San Francisco said his service recently stopped performing home deconstructions, partly because of liability issues.

"Blame it on the insurance companies," he said.

Krimmel of Beyond Waste said a dramatic increase in worker’s compensation premiums has made her consider ceasing deconstruction operations, refocusing her workforce on flooring manufacturing.

Workers' compensation insurance carriers often classify deconstruction laborers with more dangerous "demolitionists," even though the lighter salvaging work is more like reverse carpentry.

"Until the deconstruction industry can develop a safety track record ... [insurance premiums] are really cost prohibitive," Buss said.

According to Brian Gray, a quality assurance director at the California Workers' Compensation Ratings Bureau, "Deconstruction right now is the same carpentry class as if you were doing construction. So rates are high all over. This is a terrible, terrible time for rates. This is especially true of construction rates."

In spite of these hurdles, Buss said most nonprofits have a positive bottom line within three years, and some for-profit companies have also jumped into the mix.

‘There are lot of for-profit startup companies that seem to be leading the edge," he said. "It certainly seems it’s becoming more and more a part of the construction industry in general, homebuilding in particular."

Mona Newton of the Center for Resource Conservation in Boulder, Colo., said salvage operations "can be profitable," depending on the situation. When factors like dumping fees are weighed against tax deductions for donations, she said homeowners can often be convinced that salvaging materials is "the right thing to do."

At Whole House Building Supply in East Palo Alto, Calif., Paul Gardner is optimistic about the future. He’s started a few deconstruction projects and wants to add a line of value-added products to their warehouse offerings, like the arbors and picnic tables employees recently started making from scrap lumber.

"I envision a section [of the warehouse] filled with things we’ve made from salvaged goods ... planter boxes, trellises, a mirror with hooks like they sell at Pottery Barn," Gardner said. "We’re just getting started."

This article first appeared in July 2003 on

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