There is a growing trend around the country that takes the idea of green building to a new level.

It's called "deconstruction.”

The technical definition of deconstruction is the "disassembly of components of light-frame structures in such a way to harvest and process the material for reuse.”

Many communities around the country have been turning older buildings slated for demolition into cash cows. Some of the material harvested from these buildings is sold through special retail outlets set up by Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofit organizations.

The excess from these projects is sold to out of town concerns.

Deconstruction firms are not nonprofit entities, but companies that start and thrive on materials that we as a nation have learned are no longer readily available and tend to crowd landfills that already are filled to capacity.

According to Jim Primdahl, a deconstruction expert based in Portland, Ore., recycling and resale of materials is just a part of the package.

It also involves such economic development components as job creation.

Training personnel for the job costs about $1,000 a person, Primdahl said. But why train them first?

Because deconstruction is so different from demolition, with regard to procedures, tools, even mind-set, that training is critical.

"Successful deconstruction involves 'systems thinking,'” Primdahl said. "You are attempting to disassemble a building efficiently and with minimal damage to the reusable materials, and still keep costs lower than standard demolition."

So you've got to get the crew thinking as one.

To get the full picture of deconstruction, watch a video of a house being built and then run the video in reverse.

"The last thing that goes into a new house is the carpeting, the switch plates, and the light bulbs,” Primdahl said. "The first thing that comes out in deconstruction is the light bulbs, followed by the switch plates and the carpeting.”

Crews are trained to remove components in large packages to reduce on-site costs, trying to come under what he calls "crunch-and-dump” contracts.

In most cases, doing it that way means improved sales potential.

The crews also have to be trained in using tools designed specifically for deconstruction.

"We use something called a gorilla bar that comes in three different sizes, and two different flat bars that are called rhinos in the West and hurricane bars in the South,” Primdahl said.

Crew members are shown how to operate a "denailing" gun and to work with sawhorses -- "saw elephants" -- that are specially built for deconstruction.

And there is instruction in "mess management."

"A clear job site is the key to deconstruction," Primdahl said. "You just can't rip stuff out and leave it in a pile. You have to process it immediately."

What about environmental problems?

"Anything of a certain age undergoes an asbestos survey first," he said. "In Oregon, we've developed a relationship with abatement companies so that they come in and take out everything that will get in our way."

Lead-paint content is assumed in houses dating before 1978.

"There are no Environmental Protection Agency rules against selling material with lead paint, although almost all retail yards have warning stickers on materials," Primdahl said.

Deconstruction has been helped along by the growing maturity of the recycling industry.

"Asphalt shingles can't be used, but they can be reprocessed into road patch," Primdahl said. Concrete also can be ground for reuse.

"There needs to be a symbiotic relationship between retail and deconstruction,” Primdahl said. "A deconstruction operation needs access to 20 percent of the retail value of the materials sold to stay above water in the first year of business.”

That means that 85 percent of the materials harvested from a site has to reenter the retail market.

The key is to keep most of the material for reuse here and sell the surplus.

Moreover, there is the "valued-added" potential of turning seemingly unusable pieces into salable items.

"For example, you take a few pieces of molding and an old mirror, put them together, and you have an architecturally interesting piece you can make for a few dollars and sell for much more," Primdahl said.

Log in to comment