Daring to Deconstruct

Doors and windows stood in loose piles at Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore in Stratford, Connecticut. Disconnected from their former lives in homes and commercial buildings around the state, the materials had been rescued from a one-way trip to the local landfill.

A Habitat for Humanity Restore, which offers used and surplus building supples at discount rates.©HABITAT for HUMANITY

When it comes to solid waste, most people think of candy wrappers, soda bottles and Styrofoam packing peanuts instead of the house they’re living in or the Target where they shop. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that up to 40 percent of U.S. solid waste is construction and demolition (C&D) debris. Even worse, only 35 to 45 percent of this debris actually makes it into properly designated landfills. Some waste is recycled or managed on-site, but at least a third is illegally dumped in non-permitted landfills.

A number of green groups are working to reduce construction waste, but the EPA estimates that only eight percent of C&D debris is actually from building sites—the rest is from renovations and demolition. Buildings are usually bulldozed under the assumption that it is cheaper to demolish a home than to disassemble it and sell the used materials.

Deconstruction does involve more labor than demolition, but it also avoids costly disposal fees and, in some areas, environmental and health-impact fees. And more labor means more jobs: The Institute for Local Self-Reliance estimates that deconstruction could create the equivalent of 200,000 full time jobs each year.

What had been a total loss—demolition and landfilling—turns into a revenue-generating opportunity to resell what was previously waste. Joe DeRisi of Urban Miners in Hamden, Connecticut says the average full deconstruction can salvage as much as 80 percent of a building. Deconstruction also decreases demand for new construction products, he says, reducing the waste and pollution associated with production from virgin materials.

The deconstruction movement has spurred a growing and increasingly lucrative industry selling used building materials. The Connecticut warehouse is one in a network of ReStores run by Habitat for Humanity that offer used and surplus building materials at a very low price. Most of these materials are received through donations from supply stores, contractors and demolition crews that want to avoid disposal fees. There are more than 200 ReStores in the U.S. and Canada, and the proceeds are used to fund the construction of more Habitat houses in the community.

The Materials for the Future Foundation in San Francisco uses deconstruction projects as an opportunity to train young people in general construction skills. Twelve buildings have been deconstructed, diverting 2,119 tons of building materials from landfills, and 150 youths were trained.

Deconstruction, while certainly not new, is still a small industry. DeRisi says one of the main obstacles is outdated laws that require deconstructionists to acquire difficult-to-obtain demolition licenses. Since deconstruction undercuts demolition prices, few demolition companies are willing to assist the deconstruction process, he says. Nevertheless, advocates say the deconstruction industry is growing, saving builders money and rescuing valuable materials from landfills.

—Shannon Huecker