BioCycle Magazine

The evolution of deconstruction


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Deconstructing, as opposed to demolishing, abandoned buildings will revitalize our cities by reducing waste, creating green jobs, providing high-quality recycled materials for new construction, and more.

Neil Seldman

UNDER a research grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources in l999, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) researched deconstruction as a community development tool. ILSR produced technical booklets, and convinced the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that deconstruction was both an eligible and desirable activity under HOPE VI programs, which pay for cities to take down public housing. I was a general contractor for deconstruction projects from 2001 to 2007. Currently, ILSR coordinates technical assistance to start-up and existing deconstruction companies throughout the U.S.

As both a facilitator of, and participant in, the deconstruction industry, it has been interesting to observe and track its evolution. The evolution seems to have occurred in distinct phases, which are described in this article.


Deconstruction is a 21st century phenomenon, but its origins date back to the turn of the 20th century. Recall that Hechinger’s, the model for today’s Home Depot and Lowe’s building supply empires, started in 1911 as a deconstruction/resale company, selling recovered building materials. The demand for their supplies was so great that they started selling new materials in a warehouse format. By 2000, deconstruction of buildings, including strip out projects that do not impact structures, reached the takeoff stage. From a few dozen companies in the l990s, taking down buildings through deconstruction has risen to an estimated 400 for-profit and nonprofit enterprises today. These pioneering enterprises grew rapidly as the cost of disposing construction and demolition (C&D) materials rose, increased efficiency in deconstruction techniques, and the value (embodied energy and labor) of recovered wood, bricks and electrical infrastructure products rose as well. The economy started to reflect market value of these materials and the negative value if these materials were disposed of. Bricks, for example went from $.21 to $.75 a piece in this period. The high-end, architectural salvage market prospered in parallel development.


During the l990’s, the federal government played an important role in expanding deconstruction through military base projects and HUD HOPE VI projects. By the end of the decade it was commonly accepted that take down of public buildings is an ideal way to train low-income people for good jobs in the construction trades. Military bases on the West Coast proved to be excellent grounds for employment training and cost reduction on base transformations. Sufficient amounts of high quality wood (Douglas fir and redwood) were recovered that a deconstruction lumberyard was opened for milling and manufacturing.

When you’re dealing with structures that were built years ago, observes Pete Hendricks, a pioneering deconstruction practitioner, “You have wood, no composites and laminates. It’s pure wood, which makes it easy to take apart and very profitable.”

HUD’s HOPE VI program provided just under $1 billion annually during the 1990s and early 2000s to public housing authorities to remove existing complexes and build mixed-income housing. It became convinced that deconstruction could help private developers meet their Section 3 requirements, which call for the maximum investment in the neighborhoods where projects were located. This allowed for major deconstruction projects. In Hartford, Connecticut trained workers formed a joint venture with a traditional, unionized, demolition company. Families moved from costing the city $50,000 annually to families that now pay $11,000 in state, local and federal taxes. In Washington, DC, a HOPE VI training program for public housing residents was scaled up from 8 workers in Hartford to train 49 workers (trained by 6 journeymen/women deconstructionists from around the U.S.). The decade of the 90s also saw steady growth in traditional deconstruction operations and the emergence of new business models. For example, Pete and Robin Hendricks, based in Wake Forest, North Carolina have been deconstructing houses as a family business for decades. Bearded Brothers Deconstruction in Gainesville, Florida is a small partnership formed by two Vietnam veterans who deconstruct buildings, train young people, and have added an independent educational arm. In Portland, Oregon the ReBuilding Center launched DeConstruction Services, which remains among the most sophisticated operations in the U.S. and Canada. The only deconstruction company to have a certified lumber re-grader (to facilitate sales to architects), the nonprofit enterprise is also a source of excellent trainers for the industry, and critical educational materials relating deconstruction’s historic role in preserving old growth forest and natural habitat. The Green Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota started its rise to a major deconstruction operation and sustainability organization as a community response to planned a garbage transfer station in south Minneapolis. The Institute has been more than generous with its trainers and inventory control systems that have helped many new operations. Habitat for Humanity developed a network of Restores that sell recovered building materials in support of their affordable housing construction programs in the U.S. and Canada. Habitat’s restore manuals are helping other grassroots projects.


New growth came from new entrepreneurs, lured to deconstruction from other fields. In Baltimore, Maryland, Mark Foster, a successful entrepreneur, started Second Chance, a nonprofit company that has grown to a 60-worker operation, grossing $3 to $4 million annually. It has developed innovative contracts with the city, which support its take down and training programs, and provided the initial 125,000-square-foot resale space in downtown Baltimore. Ted Reiff was a financial analyst who also got bitten by the deconstruction bug — He founded The ReUse People, another nonprofit enterprise that has affiliates in San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland, Boulder, Kansas City and Chicago. Over 250 workers are employed in these networked facilities.

New equipment such as denailing guns, which use pneumatic energy to increase worker productivity by 10 fold, and deplaners which allow for rapid refurbishing of lumber for sale, have been developed by Reconnix, Inc. based in Boulder, Colorado. The Building Materials Reuse Association emerged as the industry trade association, which represents for-profit and nonprofit enterprises. Its conferences are extraordinary for training new practitioners and informing public officials.

Key features of these companies include: mission-driven entrepreneurs and staff, independent minded people who, for example, enjoy taking down barns by themselves and then high grading the lumber for sale, or urban workers who can foresee jobs and small businesses selling legal products from their communities. Or, people like David Bennick from Re-Use Consulting, who specializes in trouble shooting for deconstruction projects and training new workers and public officials. Deconstruction has also proven to be a viable approach to abandoned urban row houses, as demonstrated by Kevin Brooks and Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The concern for climate change is also a factor underpinning the interest in deconstruction. In Philadelphia, the Healthy Building Network estimates that 5 million board feet of lumber a year for 5 years can be recovered from Philadelphia’s abandoned houses, easing pressure on forests. Deconstruction helps earn LEED points, and developers can get tax donations for donating valuable materials to nonprofit resale enterprises.

An estimated 250,000 single-family houses are demolished each year. Another 100,000 commercial buildings are taken down. This is an ample market for continued growth in the sector by new companies, training programs and workers. However, it should be noted that deconstruction should not be applied to good housing stock. Preservation through renovation is the sustainable approach. Deconstruction can serve renovation and preservation by recovering building materials to be used for revitalization of good housing stock. Cities need a comprehensive approach — using Neighborhood Stabilization, Workforce Development, Recovery Act and Energy Efficiency Block Grants, as well as EPA, HUD, DOE, DOL, HHS special project funds — to fashion a comprehensive housing program that preserves viable housing stock, trains workers for good jobs and careers, recycles materials from demolished houses and uses deconstruction for total takedown or strip-out deconstruction to recover valuable building materials. This is the only way to stabilize neighborhoods: decent housing and decent jobs for people.


The U.S. is being forced to rethink the way we live. The economy reflects the demand for less expensive, yet high-quality products. Deconstruction thrives in the local economy. There is no need to seek out-of-region or overseas markets. Deconstruction has unique characteristics: Short distribution lines to customers and from sources of products; Plenty of young people to train; High-value products to sell (not materials to recycle); High-end manufacturers (buildings and wood working products) to sell into; and, Markets are close to home.

Deconstruction is completely compatible with traditional demolition of foundations and recycling of aggregate and nonrecoverable wood. The state of the art of recycling has matured so proficiently and so fast that the state of Massachusetts banned C&D disposal, just as states have banned yard debris from disposal because the material is so easily processed and reused if kept segregated. In Los Angeles, California, 94 percent of C&D generated is recycled. C&D materials face a seemingly endless demand, as new road and bridge construction is less expensive when old aggregate is reused.

Local governments, like Santa Monica, San Jose and San Francisco, have developed new rules that require C&D discard recycling. Rules include bonds to get permits, which are then repaid when the project manager proves that certain percentages of materials have been recycled. No local ordinance however, as yet, rewards deconstruction over C&D recycling. “We would like to accomplish this, as we see a lot of high value wood needlessly being ground up for mulch,” says Kevin Drew, Residential and Special Projects Recycling Coordinator for the City of San Francisco. “Deconstruction offers a higher end product, available for building and wood working.”

New rules for C&D recycling are critically needed, as the federal Neighborhood Stabilization program is pumping millions of dollars into cities for abandoned house removal. If no action is taken quickly, tens of thousands of houses will be demolished and delivered to landfills. This is hardly the green program that the White House has promised us. Once properly trained, a deconstruction crew can take down buildings with alacrity, and at a cost less than traditional demolition. And, deconstruction builds, or more importantly, rebuilds urban communities. Preservation and deconstruction can allow cities to put cleared properties in a land bank for future development. This reduces infrastructure costs for police, fire, health, school services, at a time when cities are facing financial crises. Job training and career development are important dividends to investment in deconstruction. Workforce Development Funds, Neighborhood Stabilization Funds and Energy Efficiency Block Grants can be earmarked for deconstruction, the greenest and highest form of recycling and worker training in a common sector of every city’s local economy.


Small companies (one crew needs five workers, complemented by two administrators), mostly do the work of deconstruction and strip-out projects. As large companies get involved in deconstruction, they will assume some market share. But the proper use of federal and local matching dollars will assure that small, local companies will dominate the sector. The U.S. HHS (Office of Community Services) has already issued a grant program that can provide start-up capital for local deconstruction enterprises, as cities provide abandoned houses and workforce development money as matching funds.

Other policies can make rapid inroads in developing this sector. Neighborhood Stabilization Funds and Workforce Development funds are already in the hands of cities and counties. RFPs and set-asides for deconstruction by community development organizations are immediately needed. Procurement guidelines for new construction are essential. Legislation is a good supplement, but takes time. Focus should remain on existing resources for instant commitment to deconstruction. Local demolition companies are natural joint venture partners. Cities can satisfy several constituents with new deconstruction and C&D recycling rules first, and ordinances later.

Keep organizations such as Green For All, The Apollo Alliance and the Blue Green Alliance, as well as individual trade unions and environmental organizations well informed of your needs and accomplishments. We need new rules for building takedowns in all federal programs. And these agencies can help carry and focus the message to the White House. Van Jones, recently appointed by President Obama as Green Jobs advisor, should be the focus for introducing new programs that insure deconstruction of federal facilities.

Market forces can work here, but new start-ups to meet the needs of deconstructing hundreds of thousands of abandoned houses in our urban cores, need training dollars. These are now available. If used wisely, an estimated 200,000 new jobs can be created in recovery and sale of valuable building materials. Billions of dollars of building materials and accessories will not enter the economy from mines and forests, but from cities and towns. This helps the economy and reduces the pressure put on material resources and climate amelioration worldwide.

Deconstruction in our inner cities is not a magic bullet, but it is an essential building block for a revitalized local economy and a labor market for skilled workers.

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