Don’t Demolish, Deconstruct: Rebuilding in a Zero Waste World

Could deconstruction instead of demolition help create a sustainable construction economy?

Keeping stuff out of landfills and incinerators is the focus of the Zero Waste Hierarchy, and this recent NY Times article presents the current state of progress on building deconstruction.

On the challenge side:

  • There needs to be increased demand for salvaged materials.
  • Salvaged materials aren’t always economical to refurbish today.
  • It takes longer to deconstruct than to demolish.
  • Deconstruction might expose hazardous materials like lead paint.
  • Major, salvaged structural elements are hard to make certifiable again for new construction.

On the opportunity side:

  • Municipalities and, as noted, even Google are looking to use more recycled materials as a way to reduce carbon footprint.
    • If we demand better attention from contractors during our own construction and renovation projects, we’ll start to move the needle.
  • Tools and training can be driven to speed the process and safety of deconstruction.
  • We can design new tools and technologies (through programs like this and this) to make salvaged materials more recoverable and more useful
    • Imagine just one piece of old molding from your home with years of paint, nails, nail holes, scrapes, cracks, etc., and you get the challenge — but each of these flaws has a solution that can be automated.
    • Now extend that to a structural beam that you’d really like to keep useful as a certifiable structural component. There’s technology to assess that old beam for its strength and durability, as well, if we demand it.

Who’s doing it right?

Well, Portland, Oregon, passed an ordinance “requiring certain homes to be deconstructed, rather than demolished”. It applies to structures built in 1940 or earlier or those structures designated as historic.

Other places like Milwaukee; Palo Alto, CA; and San Jose, CA, Pittsburgh, San Antonio; Foster City, CA; and Orange County, NC are also pursuing deconstruction initiatives.”

Portland is no small town and if they can do it, perhaps Delaware County can do it, too. Or maybe just Upper Darby or Swarthmore or Wallingford or Lansdowne or Nether Providence — all of which just passed the Zero Waste Resolution.

Delco has a LOT of structures that would meet these criteria (if implemented), so the market is pretty solid for a long time.

On another front, “architects and academics are exploring ways to design buildings that can be easily disassembled and reused.” It’s all part of learning to build and sustain a circular economy where waste materials from one industry are used as raw material from another.

And then there’s Habitat for Humanity Restores (there used to be one in Folsom) that directly reuse non-structural elements like kitchen cabinets. If we adjust our expectations, and accept that a few scratches are part of life anyway, we can incorporate reused components to bring a decorative flare to any home at substantially less cost and much lower carbon impact.

What can we do about it?

Well, there are a number of things we can do locally and across our county to educate and encourage action and change.

All of them require that we get creative, think innovatively and collaboratively about the integrated nature of this challenge.

We can join (or start) our municipality’s environmental advisory committee or the local planning or historic commission to encourage consideration of related ordinances and initiatives.

We can write to the Delaware County Sustainability Commission to ask for a discussion of this topic. They can, in turn, make a recommendation for similar resolutions that drive this and other Zero Waste initiatives.

We can join and support local action groups who are fighting to reduce waste or our environmental impact. Here’s one. Here’s another. And another. And another.

And one of our county’s state senators, Senator Tim Kearney, is an architect with direct experience and knowledge of the impact and possibilities of these programs.

And at a national level, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network fosters innovation and networking on building deconstruction that guides local and regional governments these initiatives. Their site even list organizations and companies the support or perform deconstruction — companies like Second Chance that started as simple recyclers but have grown significantly through their deconstruction programs.

And finally, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, through their Waste to Wealth program, promotes the local economic and workforce development benefits of deconstruction and repurposing programs.

Look around, and you’ll see that more environmental building construction is clearly possible.

And change is possible when we work together.

Do you see other opportunities to bring new policies to Delco and our municipalities that drive waste reduction? Join our Blog Force today.

Published by ZeroWasteDelco

Supporting zero waste initiatives in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

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