Finding A Future For Old Buildings

Finding A Future For Old Buildings

Some building owners are choosing an alternative to demolition: deconstrution. By David Kozlowski

Every year, 135 to 165 million tons of what were once buildings are demolished. More than half of those buildings are commercial ones, and most of that debris is landfilled.

The cost of landfilling, however, is increasing as landfill space shrinks. The average tipping fee is around $40 per ton today, but fees of $50 to $60 per ton are not uncommon, and some are more than $100. A commercial building can produce 155 pounds of debris per square foot.

Today, some owners are choosing an alternative to demolition. It’s called deconstruction. While it may not be appropriate for every building and construction schedule, it does offer opportunities to save money and reduce the environmental impact of demolition waste.

Deconstruction Defined

Deconstruction is the dismantling or disassembling of a building and the reuse and recycling of some of the building components. It’s a time-consuming and labor-intensive process that can be limited by the complexity of today’s commercial buildings and the small, somewhat geographically limited markets for the materials. Therefore, deconstruction has been largely limited to residential and old, heavily timbered commercial and institutional buildings. But some experts see this changing.

Because there are strong markets now for quality wood, such as beams and flooring, the deconstruction of pre-1950 buildings is a burgeoning business, says Ken Sandler, an environmental protection specialist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. One sign of the change is the fledgling Used Building Materials Association, which opened for business in 1996 and is offering a network of materials and suppliers.

One of the key things that needs to happen for the concept to spread is the development of deconstruction infrastructure, says Tiffany Wilmot, president of Wilmot Inc., a deconstruction firm. Transportation of the material is cost prohibitive, so markets need to be developed locally, she says.

Inviting contractors or potential buyers to the building to bid for materials in place is often advised because this reduces the need to store materials, Wilmot says.

Those supporting deconstruction say some regulatory pressure may be necessary to spur markets. Wilmot says it has to start with the local government because that’s where the material is being generated.

Local government can mandate change by creating codes and regulations. Portland, Ore., for instance, requires most buildings to be deconstructed and the materials recycled or reused. Vancouver, British Columbia, has banned the landfilling of sheet rock. And while it has taken time, markets for recycled sheet rock are beginning to develop there.

Mike Taylor, executive director of the National Association of Demolition Contractors and a skeptic of the process, says one drawback to deconstruction is time. Taylor says owners usually want the building removed quickly, and it takes time to do much of the labor needed to deconstruct a facility. But, he says, there are about 14 materials in a typical structure that can be recycled or reused, so the potential to make it cost effective is there.

Deconstruction usually is a break-even proposition at best, but it can be profitable. In Madison, Wis., a whole city block has been deconstructed to make way for a new arts district. Seven buildings were removed; 74% of the debris by weight has been recycled or reused. According to Jenna Kunde, executive director of WasteCap Wisconsin, the process has been quite profitable. Between cost avoidance and outright sale of materials, the project accrued a net savings or profit of $28,000, and that doesn’t include the facade of an old bank that is still for sale.

And the process of deconstructing a building is becoming more efficient.

“There is an emerging industry and some research happening now on how to systematize processes and reduce some of the labor involved,” Sandler says.

Perhaps the most important thing that has to change is the design and construction of buildings, says Brad Guy, associate director for the Center for Construction and the Environment at the University of Florida.

He points out that phone, auto and carpet manufacturers are beginning to make products that can be disassembled and remade into the same product.

“With buildings, we need to look at how we use steel, glass and concrete,” Guy says. “Buildings could be more panelized to make them easier to take apart and reuse. Raised flooring is a good example. Maybe we could engineer precast concrete panels differently to reuse them.”

There will be more difficult issues to tackle, such as entangled building systems that are difficult to separate, and the use of composite materials that are difficult to recycle. Also, used equipment is often not as efficient as new equipment.

The private sector is beginning to react to this new industry. In Raleigh, N.C., a demolition and deconstruction company has built what may be the country’s first material recycling facility (MRF) for building materials.

The MRF takes materials and reduces them to reusable or recyclable products. If built locally or even regionally, such centers could help jump-start the industry, Wilmot says.

There are other things the deconstruction industry would need, such as systems that recognize the strength or grade of used lumber and codes that allow used materials and equipment to be used in buildings.

Right now, deconstruction may not be an outright cost savings, but, on some projects, costs could be a wash. What’s more, deconstruction can mean valuable public relations for a company.

“Practically and realistically, it’s not something you can do on every single building, and yet it probably could be done a lot more often than it’s done now,” Wilmot says.

By David Kozlowski. Copyright 2001 Building Operating Management, a GreenBiz News Affiliate.