Deconstruct, Don’t Demolish

Deconstruct, don’t demolish

Is “out with the old and in with the new” the motto of your remodeling project? If so, you’re hardly alone. Many remodeling projects involve gutting a portion or all of the home–in other words stripping the interior of everything from light fixtures to cabinets to wallboard so the builder can start from a clean slate.

Demolition or deconstruction?

If it’s a small remodeling project, say one or two rooms, you or the builder might do the work, but for larger remodeling projects like gutting an entire home, it’s common to hire a company that specializes in demolition. They’ll quickly strip out everything slated for demolition, tossing it all into dumpsters and hauling it away. Before you know what hit you, your home will be a mere shell.

Demolition is efficient from a time and labor perspective. But from a resource-conservation perspective it’s problematic. In some communities, everything in those dumpsters winds up in landfills or incinerators. Other communities have facilities in which recyclable materials are pulled out of construction and demolition waste. Some manage to recycle 50% to 75% of the waste. But even recycling isn’t a perfect solution because it requires large inputs of energy, water, and other resources.

The most environmentally responsible remodeling option is deconstruction. Deconstruction means manually “unbuilding” or dismantling the room or the entire house, taking care to salvage all materials that may have resale value. It’s a lot easier on the environment to take an old door out of a house and use it again on a new house than it is to grind it up into sawdust and make it into particle board or bury it in a landfill.

There’s almost no end to the other materials that can be salvaged, including cabinets, countertops, light fixtures, wood flooring, lumber, sinks, bricks, and molding.

Top Tips

  • Be aware of hazardous materials. Before starting any deconstruction or demolition work, assess whether you are likely to run into asbestos or lead-based paint. The U.S. EPA has information about how to identify and deal with these potential hazards in your home.
  • Plan well. If you’re doing deconstruction yourself, before you even pick up a crowbar, make a plan for what you can reuse, what you might be able to sell or donate, what you can recycle, and what will have to be trashed. Check with your local waste hauler or town recycling department about what’s recyclable in your community and whether there are any special procedures to follow for disposing of construction waste. Make sure you have enough space to organize the different types of material so the deconstruction process doesn’t become chaotic. Protect reusable items from the elements.
  • Pay to play. When you or your contractor hires a deconstruction firm, you pay it to strip your home. The company will save anything with market value and resell it, typically at a salvage yard they operate. It is unlikely to pay you for any resalable items. You or your contractor must alert the company to any items you plan to keep before signing the contract.
  • Deduct it. Deconstruction typically costs more than demolition because it takes more labor and time. But many deconstruction companies are charitable nonprofits, and homeowners may get a sizable tax deduction for the value of the donated material–often enough to cover the entire cost of deconstruction. And even if you’re not using a deconstruction company’s services, remember that items you donate directly to a legitimate charity may be eligible for a tax deduction.

Other Considerations

  • Demolition and deconstruction costs vary greatly, depending on the size of the remodeling project, the type and condition of the home, and many other factors. The ReUse People, a deconstruction outfit in California, estimates that demolition of a 2,200 square foot house might cost the homeowner about $10,000, while deconstruction might cost about $24,000. But with a tax savings of $29,000 (based on an $88,000 donation value), the building owner who chose deconstruction could actually come out $5,000 ahead. Check with a tax advisor about your situation.
  • It’s great to keep building materials and other goods out of the landfill. But can you take your devotion to reuse one step further by using salvaged materials in your own home improvement remodeling projects? First, think about what you can reuse from your own home. Then shop at building-materials reuse stores (you might know them as salvage yards or junkyards) and thrift stores. Check Internet classifieds to track down used building materials. Not everything should be reused, however. Steer clear of inefficient single-pane windows, old water-wasting toilets, and energy-guzzling old appliances.


…to your wallet
Deconstruction costs more than demolition, but if you sell the materials or donate them to a non-profit for a tax deduction, you could actually come out ahead.

…to the Earth
By making it possible to reuse materials that would otherwise be recycled or discarded, deconstruction saves natural resources. It also eliminates the fossil-fuel burning that would be required to make recycled or new products for your home. As a result, you’ll emit less climate-changing greenhouse gas.

Common Mistakes

Not allotting enough time enough for deconstruction. A project that takes a demolition crew a day could take a deconstruction crew a week. That’s because deconstruction involves careful unbuilding of the home to preserve as much usable material as possible. A demolition crew’s goal, on the other hand, is usually to strip the house as fast as possible without regard for reuse or recycling. Construction schedules usually have little wiggle room, so plan ahead to make sure there’s enough time for deconstruction.

Getting Started

Planning for deconstruction begins during design. It may be easier on the environment (and on your budget, too) if you make only modest changes in an area to be remodeled. But if a complete overhaul is necessary, be sure to allot time in the construction schedule for deconstruction.

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