JULY 2008

An expert explains the process of deconstruction

As a nation, the United States should be taking proactive measures to promote the deconstruction and reuse of construction and demolition (C&D) debris, says Brad Guy, president of the Building Materials Reuse Association.

Brad Guy

“Deconstruction is an on-site materials separation process,” he says. “The process entails sorting each of the materials into its highest and best use, whether for reuse or recycling, and including careful management of any hazardous materials.”

Because demolition contractors often work under tight deadlines, deconstruction is not always possible, but Guy says that municipalities can play a key role in developing and implementing education and outreach programs concerning C&D materials and deconstruction that can bring together industry and building owners.

He recently spoke with officials from San Francisco.

“They are planning an outreach and education program around C&D and reconstruction and reuse,” says Guy. “They weren’t necessarily talking about laws at this point, but more about what they could do as a local government. It is similar to the situation that the green building industry was experiencing a few years ago. The market is everybody – residential, commercial and institutional owners – people who are going to make the decisions related to buildings and if they don’t know what the potential green strategies are, they may not know enough to ask what a contractor can do on a project.”

“And if the contractor is equally unaware, they are not going to offer up these options,” he adds. “That is where you have to break the barrier. There are many different incentives that can be brought in to change practices and unless contractors can see the benefits and know how to cover the costs associated with deconstruction, progress will be slow.”

Guy says that having a comprehensive strategy will create a situation where demolition contractors will be able to sell materials for reuse to recycling centers, which can help expand their operations, and then consumers will know where they can purchase these materials, which results in the creation of sustainable markets.”

He also suggests that cities consult major trade associations in the building industry such as the National Association of Home Builders, Associated General Contractors, and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, as well as regional and municipal associations.

Because deconstruction can be costly and labor intensive, Guy believes that cities can help promote deconstruction by scheduling demolitions to give deconstruction companies time to access buildings and to help set up databases that would alert recyclers to the types of materials that will become available.

“The first thing is to identify all the materials and quantities expected from a project and to immediately seek potential markets for those materials because time is money and there will be less risk to implementing the project,” he says. “In some locales there are demolition delays. Once the permit is applied for, there is an automatic delay placed on the project. This can create time to set-up the potential markets and to allow for the deconstruction to take place. In general, residential structures and small commercial buildings of predominantly wood construction are more manageable.”

Taller structures, once demolished, allow for on-site recycling of concrete and masonry or quick transport to a processing facility. California, says Guy, has some innovative facilities set up for recycling to create aggregate.

“San Jose, California has a C&D debris deposit program where the contractor makes the deposit payment as part of the permit process,” he says. “The deposit is returned based on the achievement of recycling rates documented by receipts from approved recycling facilities. It is not all or nothing – there is a sliding scale. Some communities have fines or misdemeanor penalties if the required recycling rate is not achieved.”

While there are companies that specialize in stripping a building of materials such as windows, doors, cabinetry, lighting and plumbing fixtures and other architectural, Guy says there are not nearly enough of them compared to the potential.

“The core of our association is those groups that recover and sell reuse items such as windows, cabinets, doors, fixtures – literally everything that is attached to a building, even down to the flooring and framing,” he says. “I have completely deconstructed three-story homes and recovered everything – except asphalt shingles and drywall and plaster. A strong niche industry in the United States and Canada is the re-milling of larger wood members from timber-sized structures such as churches, warehouses, and barns. This older-growth lumber often makes a very high quality remanufactured product such as flooring.”

Communities that provide grants or loans to help establish businesses that specialize in deconstruction are essential because they allow the firms to set up in areas that are close to demolitions and consumers. The biggest capital hurdles are the initial establishment of the warehouses, processing facilities and retail outlets in order to make the product available to general public and construction trades markets.”

Guy is hoping that with future construction, builders will be able to provide details on the types and quantities of materials that went into the structure – information that can be accessed when the building comes up for demolition.

“One concept already in place in the retail industry is a bar code or stamp that stays with the materials even after installation into the building. When it comes time to make a change, all the information about the material can be accessed prior to the renovation or demolition process even being planned or bid,” he says. “While the industry is constantly adapting to information about the environmental impacts of materials and creation of more environmentally benign products, it must still consider how buildings are assembled in less wasteful ways and in ways to make the disassembly process more economical and that the original material, even if made from recycled materials to being with, can continue to be recycled.”

The downturn in the economy and the home mortgage crisis has added to the number of abandoned homes, especially in cities in the ‘rust belt,’ such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit.

“In Cleveland, the city is trying to demolish 1,000 homes a year to remove abandoned, foreclosed and tax delinquent structures that place a high burden on the community,” says Guy. “The lemonade from lemons is that this is an ‘urban forest’ of raw materials that can be harvested through recycling and reuse – a kind of ultimate local manufacturing base that can create economic benefits. Calculations of the total potential dollar value of ‘produced’ materials range in the many millions of dollars in places like New Orleans, Philadelphia and Cleveland. The National Recycling Coalition and the Northeast Recycling Council have both done economic benefit studies of reuse and recycling and found that the local economic multiplier effects of reuse and recycling are on par with manufacturing, which is higher than services and retail industries.”