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All That’s Old Is Renewable

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All That’s Old Is Renewable

Workers deconstructing a house, which involves dismantling the structure in reverse order of its construction. Deconstruction works well for barns and other framed structures with simple designs, which generate large materials to be reused. Image courtesy of: Dan Oswald, and Iowa Central Community College. Plastic bottles, newspapers, aluminum cans, cardboard, pie tins, and… floor joists?

Yes, floor joists. And while we’re drawing up our recycling list, let’s not forget cabinetry, fixtures, copper pipe, bricks, trim, and almost anything else that can be safely removed from a building at the end of its usable life. These and other components can be reused or recycled, thereby reducing the cost of new construction and diverting what would otherwise become demolition waste away from landfills and back into productive use. But before we can reuse or recycle, we must first deconstruct — a lesson the Center on Sustainable Communities (COSC) and its Iowa Deconstruction and Reuse Initiative have learned well.

According to COSC’s Dan Oswald, “Deconstruction is the process of systematically removing a building or structure by taking it apart in the reverse order of construction, with a goal of maximizing reuse or recycling.” Oswald recently hosted a webinar produced by the Sustainable City Network and COSC titled “Maximizing Reuse and Recycling Through Deconstruction.” In addition to describing the deconstruction process and the remarkable quantity (and often, quality) of salvageable materials that a run-down or abandoned building typically yields, the webinar also examined some key benefits, including:

  • job creation,
  • environmental preservation,
  • reduced cost (compared with straight demolition and removal),
  • reuse or sale of salvaged products, and
  • tax deductions and other incentives that exist in some jurisdictions.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only 20 to 30 percent of building-related construction debris is currently recovered for processing and recycling. Oswald and others who recognize the opportunities inherent in materials reuse and recycling are determined to improve those numbers through a concerted effort involving education, training, economic analysis, and policy change.

Why It Works

A worker deconstructing a roof. Deconstruction requires workers to disassemble buildings and process, sort, grade, transport, store, and sell salvaged material. Image courtesy of: Dan Oswald, and Iowa Central Community College. According to the Deconstruction Institute, building demolition in the United States generates roughly 124 million tons of waste each year — enough to build a wall 30 feet high and 30 feet thick around all the coasts of the continental United States. Conversely, deconstruction of a typical 2,000-square-foot single-family home with a wood frame can yield 6,000 board feet of reusable lumber, an amount equal to the yearly output of 10 acres of farmed pine trees.

Deconstruction, recycling, and reuse are viewed as sustainable building practices. Architects and builders can receive points under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and National Green Building Standard rating systems, which take into account the embodied energy that’s saved when using salvaged materials. Embodied energy encompasses all the energy that goes into constructing buildings, including raw materials processing, manufacturing and delivery, and assembly. As Oswald observes, “The average home contains 892 million BTUs of embodied energy; an amount equal to 7,826 gallons of gasoline or enough to drive an SUV 5 1/2 times around the earth.” For best results, salvaged building materials are reused in projects built at the same site. However, even when in situ reuse is not possible, building materials derived from old structures often are higher in quality and less expensive than new.

It Is Work

Assorted wood materials that were salvaged from a wooden structure that was deconstructed. Building materials found in old structures are often less expensive and higher in quality than new materials. Image courtesy of: Dan Oswald, and Iowa Central Community College.Deconstruction and salvage drives job creation: not only must the buildings be disassembled, but the resulting materials must also be processed, sorted, and graded, and materials not reused at the same site must be transported, stored, and sold. Refurbishing and repairing salvaged materials requires both semiskilled and skilled labor. New products crafted from salvaged materials such as tables, cabinets, and bookcases are sold at retail; these items have a unique visual appeal that evokes a bygone era. Although deconstruction takes longer than demolition, the economic and social benefits make the extra effort worthwhile.

Oswald’s presentation also touched on opportunities for community engagement and skill building. COSC has teamed with Iowa Central Community College (ICCC) to provide students with hands-on experience and training. The college sells salvaged items and student-made furniture derived from reclaimed materials. In a unique partnership with Iowa Prison Industries, ICCC students and offenders have worked together to deconstruct a number of old barns, reclaiming valuable timber and other materials. Prisoners study to become certified in asbestos handling, lead paint abatement, and OSHA safety. Using old-growth wood harvested from barns, prisoners have also been learning woodworking by building furniture that’s then sold to the public.

How It Works

Buildings are removed for various reasons, including abandonment, natural disasters, redevelopment, and safety issues such as unstable structural conditions or the presence of environmental contaminants. According to Oswald, all buildings have some salvage value. The easiest to work with are old barns and other framed structures with simple designs that yield longer length materials. In more complex structures, workers can selectively remove architectural elements, trim, fixtures, and other items. Regardless of building type, deconstruction yields quality building materials that can be reused, donated, or sold.

Because supply is nothing without demand, creating resale and distribution channels for these products is an important part of the salvage equation. Numerous for-profit and nonprofit architectural salvage and restoration companies sell everything from antique doorknobs to hand-carved crown molding to the remodeling and interior design trades as well as consumers looking for unique additions to their home décor. Habitat for Humanity has created a nationwide network of ReStores — businesses that sell new and used building materials and home improvement items to the public.  All materials at the stores are donated by local retail businesses, building contractors, suppliers, and individuals and are sold to the public at 50 to 90 percent below retail prices. The donations are tax deductible, and retail sale proceeds support the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, which builds houses for local families. ReNew Building Materials and Salvage, a regional nonprofit, is a building materials reuse store and deconstruction services provider. Its website includes links to a number of related nonprofit building product, education, deconstruction, and green building resources available throughout upstate New York and New England.

Iowa is among the states that offer tax deductions to owners who engage in deconstruction and salvage, and grants are also available to support and encourage the practice. For state and local governments looking to stem the rising tide of abandoned and dilapidated buildings as well as reduce their negative effects on property values, public safety, and the tax base, deconstruction, recycling, and reuse are becoming increasingly attractive options. For information about the program in Iowa and other locales, click here to view a table with links to source documents.


The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.