Piece By Piece

Middlebury College Recycles Paper—and Its Old Buildings

"I had my first college class in that room right there," says Chad Malone, pointing to a ground-floor chamber stripped to a concrete shell and filled with rubble. "Chem 104. This was a terrible building. Cold, cold."

Very few people get to trash their old college classrooms (at least, very few get paid to do it). But that’s not what makes Malone’s operation unique. It’s how he’s demolishing Middlebury College’s old Science Center that’s so remarkable.

There is no dynamite on this demolition site, even though at seven stories it’s the tallest building ever demolished in Vermont. No wrecking ball. Instead, T-Rex Demolition, the company founded by Chad’s father, Dick Malone, is taking the building down slowly and softly—and recycling every single bit.

The cold and drafty Middlebury College Science Center (top) was the bane of student existence for 40 years; now it’s being torn down in an environmentally sensitive way: one brick and one 2X4 at a time. All the building’s materials will be recycled.
Trent Campbell

Instead of a line of dump trucks heading off to the nearest landfill, the company has sent off 75 tons of wood to be burned for electricity or turned into paper. A hundred and fifty tons of steel and iron made their way to scrap yards in New Hampshire. "We may take a bent I-beam out of there, but if you grind it up you can make a new one," says Dick Malone. Crushed glass from the windows may find its way into pavement, where it can aid in water filtration and thus avert frost heaves. Limestone from the fa?ade will be sold to landscapers.

And so on—right down to the concrete that makes up 80 percent of the building’s weight. Even the college’s ambitious environmental planners hadn’t imagined they’d be able to recycle that, but using a machine modeled on a wood-chipper, T-Rex eventually reduced the rubble to 600 tons of three-quarter-inch gravel—just what Middlebury needed as backfill for the new (green) library that will rise on the site later this year.

At best, 50 percent of a normal demolition project might find its way into the recycling stream, says Dick Malone. But in this case the wishes of a client combined with the new techniques of an area company to produce nearly magical results.

First the client. Middlebury, one of the country’s top undergraduate schools, has made environmental studies (ES) one of its signature programs in recent years—it’s the third-most popular major on campus, and its blend of humanities, science and policy classes has drawn widespread imitation from other ES programs around the country. Middlebury has also created a green atmosphere on campus. When the school built a major new hall to mark its bicentennial last year, for instance, all the interior wood came from locally harvested trees grown under the supervision of Vermont Family Forests, a pioneer in sustainable forestry.

But constructing new buildings is a relatively sexy project. A few colleges around the nation have begun to sprout remarkable examples of environmental architecture, perhaps most notably a zero-emissions building at Ohio’s Oberlin College. Middlebury is also planning a naturally air-conditioned dorm, a sod-roofed dining hall and all sorts of other green fun. Taking things down never gets the same attention. "We figured it was a real test," says Nan Jenks-Jay, Middlebury’s director of environmental affairs.

So when the time came to pull down the Science Center (built in the 1960s, the building was so ugly and cold that professors who had worked there suggested auctioning off the chance to strike the first sledgehammer blow), the college’s project manager for facilities planning, Tom McGinn, knew he would have to work to meet the trustee-endorsed commitment to "sustainable design and building principles."

Looking around for contractors, he happened across T-Rex, a family owned firm whose eldest son had just graduated from Middlebury. And T-Rex knew exactly how to take the building down. In a word, gently.

"If you just knock it over, you have a pile of commingled stuff and all you can do with that is haul it away," says Chad Malone. Instead, the company brought in several workers and a pair of robots. After the building had been stripped to its shell, the robots went to work on the top floor. One was equipped with a jackhammer arm; the other with a pulverizer grip able to squeeze 12-inch walls into gravel. As they worked, a man on a mini-snowplow scurried around behind them, dropping the gravel down one hole, the wood down another, the metal down a third, so that the materials collected on the bottom floor.

The team slowly worked their way down the ever-shrinking building, till they were left with a pile of scraps, which is when the chipper-machine went to work. With a magnetic belt capable of separating out the rebar iron from the concrete, it ground the concrete to gravel. The work was noisy, but not so noisy that anyone seemed to mind, especially since they knocked off work whenever a nearby Catholic Church was holding services.

"This requires a forward-thinking client," says Dick Malone. "Someone who’s willing to take the time. Who doesn’t just say—"you have a week, now make the building disappear.""

The environmental gains didn’t add much cost to the project, however, says McGinn. "Otherwise we would be paying the truckers and the tipping fees at the landfill. I don’t think it’s that much difference. We’re paying about $10 a square foot, instead of maybe $8 otherwise. And in return, we get the satisfaction of having done the job right."

More and more of T-Rex’s clients are signing on to the recycling idea, says Dick Malone. "We’re able to prove that it’s a monetary benefit, or at least a wash." And in crowded New England, where landfill space is at more of a premium than the rest of the country, the sales pitch is easier to make.

"You can do this with a huge building, and you can do it with a suburban ranch house," says Dick Malone. "You just have to want to do it."