Deconstruction (and Reconstruction)

Bill Sitkin says, "At the heart of recycling, for me, is a great love for this planet and the awesome natural systems that support life here. I have always been a 'dumpster diver' and developed a used building materials and deconstruction business known as The ReStore in Crestone, Colorado. I look forward to your questions on anything about recycling materials or deconstructing buildings."

Questions and Answers

Q: My wife and I live in central Phoenix and have a fairly unique home, (for Phoenix standards): a 1925 English Tudor/cottage that sits on a .75 acre lot rumored to be an old carrot farm at one time. We *love the home* for its character and history, and especially at the rate Arizona destroys old buildings and builds track homes… we want to keep it. Overall the house is still in sound condition but as you can imagine it needs updates and it certainly isn’t very efficient.

I am very interested in the idea of a sustainable home – passive solar, water recycle system, etc. as much as I can afford. I am not sure what direction to go...1. I can update the old home with new windows, solar panels, etc. Basically “add-on” -Or- 2. Since we have a decent size lot to work with- I like the idea of building a new home that utilizes the lot and sun in its design and to recycle and incorporate much of the materials from the old house into the new. It has beautiful wood, doors, etc. This way, I see it as keeping the past but looking to the future. My wife isn’t so excited about this idea. She doesn’t want to demolish, but is remotely open to the idea. Any advice on how to go about making this decision. (I realize its mostly personal) and how about costs? How much money can I see saving in recycling (obviously I know it varies ) To convert an old house by adding on seems more expensive. This is our first home – what is the typical process for recycling a home to build new…and what are some pitfalls to watch for? And timeline- because we will need to reside elsewhere during de-construction and construction.

A: Welcome to the sustainable conundrum. When you really start calculating the costs of a new home (resource origin to product to your building site and including the cost to the originating environment) then deconstruction takes on a whole new meaning. When we take down a home we can reuse as much as 80% of the building. The cost is mostly in labor and time. I find the process to be quite meditative and gives me time to be creative in terms of designing the new home.

I prefer your second option. We know so much more about designing and building efficient homes today than when your older home was built. No doubt you would have to upgrade your plumbing and electrical in the old unit for starters. Have you had your current home inspected for structural soundness? A home (house) is a heating/cooling machine. The object in designing a sustainable home is to get as close to zero energy input as possible. The systems you integrate into your new home should function like a well tuned orchestra. Quite the challenge. You may want to check out the newest version of the Green Building Code to help with your design integration. I like the idea of integrating much of the older home into the newer one. A friend of ours has actually incorporated whole cabins into his home that he has deconstructed.

Q: We are deconstructing our attic in our 1922 foursquare to make way for an upstairs addition. The majority of the materials will be going to the "rebuilding center" in Portland, Or. I would however, like to salvage some knotty pine paneling to use as wainscoting in the new addition as a nod to the former upstairs history. My question is: are there any tips you can give for removing and keeping it in tact?

A: The most important is to work slowly and double check what you are doing. Don't try to pull finish nails, let them go through the wood. A flat bar works the best for getting behind the panels. Instead of levering the panel as if you were pulling a nail, try pulling the bar downward as if throwing a switch. Get as close to the nails as possible and do not try to free each nail separately but work the board away by degrees working down or up the board.

Q: I am interested in knowing who might be interested in purchasing a very old & large barn that would need to be disassembled & removed. The lumber is in great shape & is vertical on the barn. It is in the Willamette Valley, Oregon.

A: I did a Google search - used recycled building materials Oregon - and came up with several possibilities. I figured since you emailed us you have internet access and could do the search yourself. Being that I am located in Colorado I do not have much familiarity with deconstruction services in Oregon. You may want to start with posting ads in your local papers and fliers within a 50 mile radius of you. Transporting that much material can get quite costly for the deconstruction crew and make the whole undertaking not very financially rewarding. Instead of finding someone to pay you to take it down, you may want to work out some sort of creative profit sharing plan. Or you may want to look for a non profit organization and donate it in exchange for tax credits.

Q: I'm trying to find a company that can price the dismantling and re-mantling of an 1898 home that is the best maintained home in Waverly in Baltimore, Maryland. The Giant supermarket is about to tear it down and I'm wondering about the costs of such a project. They might pay for it if it is not too much.

A: (Jennifer Corson) You are asking a question that I hear very frequently from all over North America. My response is going to require you to do some sleuthing. The dismantling of century housing is becoming a very popular industry. It is done to access the materials for resale. These materials usually include doors, flooring, windows, hardware (plumbing, door and electrical), mantels and trim stock. Less frequently is a building dismantled and then rebuilt. This is due to the labor required to basically return the entire house into stack of reusable lumber and sheathing. As well, many pieces of the building are difficult to salvage, like painted shingles, plaster and lath, roofing material. Unless the building can be moved to a new site whole (or in stories) on a flatbed, then it is more likely that its value would be in the stock of material.

I would suggest contacting any architectural salvage companies in your state, or nearby states. They may be able to give you prices that they pay for certain materials. I would also contact a demolition firm to see if any take a 'dismantling' approach for any reuse possibilities. The third company to contact would be a real estate appraiser to estimate the value of building only. Good luck with your search.

Q: In many articles on green building, I've noticed reference to reclaimed or salvaged materials- heavy timbers and steel members reclaimed from local bridges that are demolished, cordwood salvaged from clear cutting, and windows, doors, and cabinets salvaged from construction and renovation sites. How can I go about seeking such materials without knowing about every construction project that goes on locally? There's a Habitat for Humanity building materials center nearby with atrocious prices and horrible selection. Near my hometown in Ohio, there's a salvage yard somewhat like a junkyard for building products and appliances, mirrors, windows, doors, scrap metal, etc. The place is called REUSE Industries and I've been considering starting a similar project as a means to reduce the waste stream-any words of caution or advice on that?

A: (Jennifer Corson) It is often possible to find out what projects are coming up for demolition through the building permit department in your area. If this information isn't available, then frequent contact with demolition or dismantling companies would be suggested. The Building Materials Reuse Association (bmra.org) is a North American non-profit organization. (Many Habitat stores are members of the UBMA). This group may be very helpful in letting you know what ventures are currently in your area, and as well provide you with information on getting started as a member of the industry. I'm a founding member of the UBMA and have owned a used building materials company for nine years. It is still a growing industry with lots of potential!

Q: My fiancee and I will soon be inheriting our family farm. The house was built in 1854 and still remains the same as it did in the 19th century (no plumbing and crude electric). My initial idea was to restore the existing house, update the electric and bring in plumbing. I think this would be the ideal choice because we love the character of the house and the idea that three generations of my family have resided there. After careful consideration, I'm realizing that this will not be such an easy task. My second alternative was to tear down the house and build something more modern on top of the existing foundation. Then it struck me, why waste all of that good building material? I could carefully disassemble the existing house and reuse the same materials to build something that fits our needs. The problem is that I cannot find any good literature pertaining to this subject. Surely people have done this before. Do you know of any published books or useful links on this subject?

A: (Jennifer Corson) 1. Used Building Materials Association website (literature section): www.ubma.org
2. The Resourceful Renovator book by me. Available here.
3. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation website. Papers on dismantling and deconstruction.

A: (Kelly) You might look at the listing of books available on this page. There are some that specifically relate to renovating, but not to completely dismantling. The first thing to assess is whether the available materials are of sufficient value to warrant the considerable work of carefully dismantling the building. I have taken apart several buildings to reuse their materials, and it can be a very satisfying and ecological activity.

Q: We have salvaged a few old barns in Iowa over the last few years and have an abundance of barn material. We would like to use the material in part of a few new houses for ourselves and an addition to a restaurant in northern Wisconsin. I am a structural engineer, so I can do the design, but we need ideas, pictures, etc. to make it look nice. Any ideas where to search?

A: (Jennifer Corson) Even though there are a number of new publications on the market referring to salvaging building material, I think a better point of reference would be to look at timber-framing design books. Since you have the ability to size and use this material in a structural capacity, then that would be the recommended best use for salvaged beams, not only as a decorative element which so often happens to old timbers -- and a pet peeve of mine.

A couple of things to be aware of when using salvaged beams are: hidden metal objects (nails and wires can be very dangerous and expensive when cutting or planning material), hazardous materials (any oil, lead or pcb that may have come in contact with the beams during their lifetime), dry rot or insect infestation (noted as small powder holes, or spongy surface), notches or pockets within the full span of the timber (Bob Falk working at the US Forest Products Lab) has researched how to analyze the structural capacity of old, compensated (drilled, notched, mortised) beams. Usually a building official will required either a lumber grade stamp, or engineer stamp approving the use of salvaged material.

Depending on the cross-sectional dimension of the material, there may also be value in considering planning some of the stock down for plank flooring. In our business, we have planed and edged 3-sides, from short lengths of beam material that were 8x10 and 10x10 stock.

As far as design goes, I have found that reusing timbers from their original application in a new use is the best use. For example using 6x6 for posts, 6x8 for beams, 4x4 for purlins and joists (all depending on their spans of course). Attaching beams to each other always look best, in my opinion, with a mortise and tenon connection. Angled braces between post and beams can be a decorative way to embellish the simple post and beam connection. These braces can also be mortise and tenoned using short stock material.

We have had success using salvaged timbers structurally framing Great Rooms, or Living Rooms, then using an insulated, in-fill panel in between main members, while framing the remainder of the house in a conventional wood-framing scenario. Basically, we are using the timbers in their best placement for aesthetics, and minimizing them in areas where structurally they are oversized, or would required too much work for resizing. Sorry not to have any favorite book recommendation, just lots of interest in traditional framing techniques and styles.

Q: I'm looking for generic commercial demolition specifications that require sustainability. I realize that your site tackles more beginning - middle life of a building instead of end-of-life, but I thought perhaps you'd be able to pass me along to some of your sustainable buddies in deconstruction. I'm also interested in labor statistics for deconstruction vs. straight wrecking ball demolition. As long as we're taking long shots ...

A (Kelly): You might want to check out these folks: grn.com .

Q: I am the Business Manager at the Church of Saint Ann. We also have a school. The old school building has been abandoned and we would like to demolish it. It has not had the care over the years that it deserved and is too costly to renovate. My question is: How can we salvage some of the materials instead of disposing of them in a landfill? Are their companies/organizations that do that kind of thing? And are they willing to come to central Minnesota? The building has a brick exterior. We also have the interior fixtures, woodwork, stairs, and old heat register. Any information would be appreciated.

A: Hopefully there is a deconstruction company closer than mine in Colorado. One strategy is to start networking through your church group. There are usually construction folk that know someone willing to take on the project or a group. As a benefit to the church you may want to think of having the local members do the work and sell the materials as they come down. Then there is the auction route. With good advertising, good pictures of the building (inside and out) quite a few people will bid. There is a newspaper called Architectural Salvage News that is great for informing those of us in the industry. You may be able to
find their contact information through the link above. Wish I was closer.

Q: My father and his brothers & sister were born in a house built in the early 1900's in the valley of the Shenandoah, Va. He built a new house close to the old one, but he can't move into it until the old house is torn down (county insists). I and my dad would like for the house to be disassembled and use the lumber, rather than it be trashed. Where can we find a way to do this?

A: Wonderful!  Deconstruction is my favorite way of being environmentally friendly.  I have deconstructed more than a few homes and am always amazed at the amount of reusable materials that comes out.  There are several sources for information you should check out.  "Unbuilding" by Bob Falk and Brad Guy.  The deconstruction institute at  http://www.deconstructioninstitute.com/ has some very valuable info.

Basically, make sure all electric and gas is disconnected, gut the house of all wall and ceiling surfaces working from the top down, remove salvageable windows and doors, remove the roof, outer wall surfaces till you get to the skeleton.

Safety first always.  Get some good air filter masks (not the cheesy ones).  Wear a hard hat and always be aware of where you are and what is on the ground. (nails etc.)  If working with someone else be sure to communicate when dropping beams and such.  Take your time!!!

Q: I started deconstructing a house 2 weeks ago and its my first one. I'm recycling everything usable. I need to get in contact with people/companies that will buy or help me sell my recycled lumber.

A: I also deconstructed houses. You must get the word out. Start with a sign in front of the deconstruction project as well as an add in Craigslist. Let folks put deposits on materials you have yet to remove. Organize what you have already deconstructed in an area marked off by flags with prices attached. Be clear if you offer delivery for a fee. All sales are final. I don't think you will have a problem getting rid of your materials.

Q: I have been a carpenter for 30+ years in the commercial and residential industry. A jack of all trades, master of none, if you will. I have a strong desire to get involved with a 'green reusable resources' building business but am not sure where to look or how to begin.

A: Getting into the recycled building materials business mainly depends on demand and the size of the population you intend to serve. After you have that figured out then you will need somewhere to store your harvest as well as sell it. There are many sources for gathering your materials from taking down houses yourself to donations. One of the keys is in how you display and organize your goods. I would highly recommend that you check out some of the other recycled building material businesses and see how they operate. I did the business for several years and came to the conclusion that to really make it you need an ongoing influx of materials and that they should come from other people.

Q: I am buying some land with an older double-wide and want to slowly deconstruct it and reconstruct it using all natural building materials/solutions such as cob, straw slip, lime plaster, passive solar, Rumford stove, ect..... but I don't know how to do this for a mobil home. I don't understand their constructions nor how far I can push their metal cartage, nor how to by pass to install say a pole frame to support a green roof. There is tons of how-to (I have all the books) not only passing mention on specific deconstruction and replacement. I am a 51 year old mother of two handicapped children - where can I find practical how to info?

A: I have seen some interesting takes on the mobile home rebuild scene. Some of the best tend to leave the shell intact and use strawbale and stucco for the outer walls. The roof line is extended further out or even have a second roof put on over the original to create attic space. I am trying to understand why you would want to deconstruct unless you want to open up the space inside by taking down some inner walls. Depending on where you live you may be able to contact other folks that have done this sort of thing. Have you searched the net for blogs and forums yet?

Q: An old house in the neighborhood is scheduled to be torn down. They will let me take bricks, but the house is still a complete house, I'm not sure where to start or what to do to get the bricks. Any suggestions?

A: Each deconstruction project is different.  If you are deconstructing the entire house, work backwards.  Remove all of the interior wall and ceiling coverings. Remove windows. Remove all non-bearing walls.  Remove the roof. Then deconstruct the walls. That’s the basic.  From what you are saying you only want the bricks. How are they attached? Are they load bearing? If they are load bearing then you will have to wait until the demo folks finish with the smash and then you can grab. That’s about all I can say until I know more about the project.


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