Deconstruction: For Many Builders, It’s Greener Than New

Filed in Education, Remodeling by on December 25, 2014 1 Comment

In the rush to build high-performance homes, it’s important to pay attention to the houses that are truly the gentlest on the planet and ultimately the most sustainable: existing homes.

bricksA green home can be one that is already built. It is the embodied energy — the raw materials, energy to transport those materials, turn them into products, transport them to the site and build them — that makes existing buildings so valuable.

Craftsmanship notwithstanding, many of the materials in a 100-year-old building are no longer available. Old-growth wood found in the windows, moldings and flooring no longer exists. Bricks found in historic buildings were most often locally produced in cities, very close to the building site itself.

These brickyards are long since shuttered and the specific brick, produced from the local clay, can’t be purchased from a modern brickyard hundreds or even thousands of miles away. These finite materials add to the richness of a place and cannot be replicated.

So what can be done if building reuse is impossible for a new home owner or builder? The builder needs to start thinking green long before the site is cleared for construction by considering deconstruction, not demolition.

Deconstruction Defined

Deconstruction is a purposeful dismantling of a building with the intention to salvage as much of the materials as possible. While deconstruction can be more expensive and time consuming than classic demolition, it benefits the environment, community, home owner and ultimately, the builder. Often the extra cost is recouped or surpassed by taking advantage of tax deductions for donating materials saved during the deconstruction process.

Environmentally, deconstruction diverts tons — literal, not figurative tons — of debris away from a landfill. A study from the American Institute of Architects has found that up to 40% of the nation’s solid waste that ends up in landfills is building waste.

The repositories for deconstructed material, such as the ReBuilding Exchange in Chicago, are often located within the community — vastly reducing the distance materials must be transported away from the building site. Additionally, the reuse of existing materials eliminates the need for new building materials to be manufactured, thereby saving all the energy and fuel costs associated with producing and transporting new goods.

The community also benefits from deconstruction as it employs more people than demolition, thereby creating more jobs locally.

Home owners can also benefit from tax deductions available on the value of the materials that were donated. The Wall Street Journal reports that one home owner paid $20,000 to deconstruct the lot’s existing home, which cost approximately twice as much as the standard demolition bid. Their salvaged materials appraised for $159,000, which, after donation to nonprofits that reuse the materials, tabulated to $66,000 in deductions — saving the home owner the equivalent of triple the cost of the deconstruction.

Builders and remodelers following the ICC 700 National Green Building Standard also see the benefits of deconstructing. The green rating system acknowledges the value of reusing existing structuresgreenhouse4 by rewarding reuse of major elements of an existing building with a generous 12 points toward resource efficiency requirements on projects that are mostly new. And, the standard has two full chapters devoted to green remodeling; one for whole home remodels and one for smaller projects like kitchens and baths.

There are some disadvantages. Deconstruction can take longer than demolition, up to two months in less than ideal conditions, versus two weeks for a demolition. Not all materials are reusable or recyclable and not all buildings are as well suited for deconstruction as others — frame houses are the easiest and most cost effective.

In the end, these few drawbacks do not outweigh the ongoing tangible (tax breaks, local jobs, low cost used building materials, conserved landfill space) and intangible (stewardship for the environment and community) benefits of deconstruction. Deconstruction needs to be a part of the equation for building truly sustainable homes.

About the author: Emily Wallrath Schmidt has a master’s in historic preservation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and writes and consults on renovation and reconstruction issues from her home in Durham, N.C.

Reprinted with permission.

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  1. Paula Bahler says:

    Thank you for boasting the benefits of deconstruction. Our process typically takes 2 weeks. Not a big hit to the timeline when you consider the benefits.

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