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Home deconstruction: Can an entire house be recycled?

Deconstruction of a home to reuse or resell its materials is gaining popularity as a more environment-friendly alternative to demolition. Sometimes it even saves money.

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Location, location, location

The economics of deconstruction are highly localized. The housing market, availability of nonprofit resale stores, hauling distance to landfills, tipping fees, ordinances, overall strength of the local economy, and a cultural predisposition to sustainability all affect the deconstruction-versus-demolition calculus. The greater the quality and quantity of a house's reusable materials, the more attractive deconstruction becomes.

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David Bennink of Bellingham, Wash., an 18-year veteran of the deconstruction industry, says he sees a lot of activity in the Pacific Northwest, and also sees deconstruction gaining traction in many large Rust Belt cities in the Northeast and Midwest.

The federal stimulus package was a boon for the industry, Mr. Bennink says, financing training for unemployed and unskilled workers in deconstruction techniques. According to Bennink, job creation and workforce development are driving forces behind the growth of this labor-intensive industry.

"We are trying to make deconstruction the mainstream choice for building removal," says Bennink, who in 2009 was named National Building Deconstructor of the Year by the Building Materials Reuse Association.

"There are some who are willing to pay more for deconstruction because they think it's the right thing to do," he says, but "we can't just rely on altruistic people – and we don't have to anymore, as we keep finding new and better ways to compete with demolition pricing."

Economic benefits

Williams and York would have saved $5,000 by letting the house be demolished and carted to the landfill, but Lynne Corn, a biologist living in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., estimates she saved about $4,000 by deconstructing her small 1950s bungalow. The process took two weeks and left her with materials she reused in building her new home and others she donated for a tax write-off.

"It's a matter of conscience," says Dr. Corn. "When I found out that deconstructing my house and not adding more debris to the landfill was also going to save me money, that made it easier for conscience to shout."

Savings like Corn's are becoming typical, says Paul Hughes, founder of DeConstruction Services in Fairfax, Va.

"On whole-house takedowns, more often than not, the homeowner actually comes out ahead," says Mr. Hughes, "having achieved more in tax savings than it costs to deconstruct the house."


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