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.

Photos courtesy of Jack Williams
Jack Williams and Jane York had their Kansas home ‘deconstructed’ and the materials resold or reused.
Photos courtesy of Jack Williams
The chimney and fireplace were crushed onsite to make foundation backfill for the new home.

From Florida to Washington State, homeowners are discovering an environmentally friendly – and, increasingly, cheaper – alternative to demolition: home deconstruction.

This labor-intensive, job-creating approach takes unwanted buildings apart systematically and turns the pieces into new home construction or tax-deductible donations to nonprofit reuse centers, thus saving them from the landfill.

Construction and demolition debris take up more than one-third of landfill space annually, but on average, more than 60 percent of a house – and in some cases, more than 75 percent – could be reused or recycled, says Bradley Guy, who researches architecture and deconstruction at The Catholic University of America.

"Deconstruction, although it's difficult to do, offers a lot of opportunities," says Jesse White, creator of deconstructioninstitute.com and owner of an architectural salvage store in Sarasota, Fla.

Of course, building materials have been reused for as long as there have been buildings. But where salvaging typically involves cherry-picking the pieces of most obvious value – stained-glass windows, ironwork – deconstruction reclaims as much of the building as possible.

Environmental benefits

Jack Williams and his wife, Jane York, spent 28 years in a 1950s ranch house in Leawood, Kan. When they decided to remodel and add an addition, they learned that their house's unstable foundation meant they would have to remove the house and start over on the site.

Mr. Williams had watched the demolition of a neighborhood house and regretted seeing still-useful material going to the dump.

"I'm driven by conservation because I hate to see stuff wasted," says Williams, a retired electrical engineer.

Working with the local Habitat for Humanity office, they found a certified deconstruction appraiser in Denver who traveled to Kansas to evaluate their home's materials. A local builder undertook the three-month deconstruction.

Williams and Ms. York ultimately donated or reused 82 percent of their home's materials, Williams estimates – everything except the insulation and drywall.

Appliances and other materials were hauled off to Habitat ReStore, a nonprofit reuse store affiliated with Habitat for Humanity. Scrap lumber was chipped into mulch. The foundation, driveway, and chimney were crushed onsite, becoming backfill around the new foundation.

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.

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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