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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports from a deconstruction project in Washington, DC, where workers are carefully taking apart, rather than knocking down, a condemned public housing development so that much of the material can be reused.


CURWOOD: Usually we take down old buildings by blowing them up or knocking them over. But we didn’t always do it that way. In the past, labor was cheap and new resources were expensive. So, buildings were taken apart board by board, brick by brick, and the material reused. But since the 1950s, advances in machine technology have made it cheap and easy to build new structures and dump the remains of the old ones in landfills. Now there’s a new movement to return to the old ways of demolition. It’s called deconstruction. Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports.


PRIMDAHL: That’s the sound of money being made.

GRABER: Jim Primdahl watches as a handful of workers split apart wood from a staircase. It’s lying on the floor in the shell of a former two-story home. Primdahl says the steps are made from solid oak.

PRIMDAHL: We’ve got 13 stair treads. We’ve got about $80 worth of oak material in just the treads alone. The risers, they’ll probably be able to harvest about 50 percent of the risers. And those are three dollars. So in that staircase alone, we have $100 worth of oak. We like stairs.

GRABER: Primdahl works for the non-profit Institute for Local Self-Reliance. His crew is taking down 348 public housing units in Washington, D.C., making this the largest deconstruction project in the country. Primdahl says deconstruction is a very deliberate, careful method of taking apart a building.

PRIMDAHL: The first things we take out are the last things that a builder would typically put in. So then we strip out all of the closet shelving. We strip out all the poles, all the closet poles. We strip out the trim, the molding, the doors and things like that. Then the next thing is the sheetrock. And then after that, we move them into the utility systems and the framing. So it’s a very systematic process of unbuilding.

GRABER: Demolition creates 135 million tons of waste each year. That’s according to the National Association of Demolition Contractors. They say about 30 to 40 percentage of that is crushed and then recycled. With deconstruction, 50 to 90 percent of a building is reused. These materials, such as old heaters, wires, windows, bricks, pieces of lumber, are mostly sold as is to other builders, or to renovators to use in new projects.

At the D.C. deconstruction site, Primdahl points to a row of homes that haven’t yet been taken apart. To most people driving by, they’d look like any boarded up old building. But that’s not how they look to Primdahl.

PRIMDAHL: When I look across a site like this, because of my last three years of experience, I see product, product, product, product, product. I don’t see boarded up buildings.

GRABER: If Primdahl seems excited, it’s because he’s found that deconstruction is both profitable and environmentally friendly. While labor costs for deconstruction are higher than for demolition, the difference is made up by avoiding landfill fees and by selling the recovered resources. And the environmental savings are significant. The only energy needed to take the buildings apart is human energy and some power tools, plus the transportation to take the materials to the next user. Landfill space is saved. But more importantly, there is less damage to the environment by avoiding processes such as logging to get wood for new boards. Nadav Malin is the editor of Environmental Building News. He says logging isn’t the only destructive process used to get the resources for buildings.

MALIN: Brick is made primarily from clay. And so there is the open pit mines where they extract the clay from the ground and then the heavy energy costs, usually these days in the form of natural gas to fire that clay into brick. A lot of the metal materials in our buildings, certainly hardware, doorknobs, hinges, light fixtures, things of that sort, metals, of course, are also originally mined from the earth and then processed through, frankly, some pretty energy-intensive and polluting processes.

GRABER: Reusing materials like bricks and light fixtures avoids this damage entirely. Over the past five years, deconstruction initiatives have been growing rapidly, as crews have taken apart barns, military bases, even old Victorian homes all around the country.

But deconstruction today is still on the margins of the demolition industry, accounting for maybe one percent of all demolition. Most of the deconstruction projects are run by non-profit organizations. It’s a challenge for these groups to break into the construction and demolition industry, which is known to be very resistant to change. And then there’s the question of demand.

TURLEY: We have to have our Americans get by their bugaboo against reused and materials slightly used.

GRABER: Bill Turley is executive director of the Construction and Demolition Recycling Association, an industry-based recycling group. He thinks deconstruction is a good idea. But he’s skeptical about the growth potential in the U.S. He says that right now there just isn’t a strong market for the materials.

TURLEY: You know that tomorrow, if you were building a house, or most people when they’re building a house, to go to pick out the bathroom fixtures, are they going to go to the reused store or they going to go order some new ones? Are they going to ask for new timber beams in their house or are they going to go pick some reused ones?

The builder, himself, what is he going to want to use? Is he going to want to use something that’s certified solid, that it’s going to hold up this building, and he’s not liable for 20 years from now? Or is he going to want some reused lumber that’s not certified yet?

GRABER: Proponents of deconstruction say certifying the quality of their product will help solidify the market. For instance, there’s now a nationwide program underway to grade reclaimed lumber. This way, builders will be assured of its strength, and can use it in the framework of new buildings.


At the D.C. site, Primdahl says they haven’t had a problem selling the used materials. And there is another benefit to his deconstruction project. It creates jobs. Deconstructing this D.C. public housing site takes 50 workers, as opposed to the ten that would be needed for demolition.

Jamail Harris is the site safety facilitator and product management supervisor. He says salaries are good. But best of all, the workers are from the neighborhood.

HARRIS: It’s an opportunity for a lot of people. So I’m just blessed to have it here within our own community.

GRABER: Like other community-based deconstruction groups around the country, the crew here will eventually have the opportunity to own the deconstruction company. And they also will have the first options to buy homes that will be built on the sites of the houses they’re taking apart. For Living on Earth, I’m Cynthia Graber.



Institute for Local Self-Reliance


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