Monday, August 20, 2007
If house has to go, at least it can go 'green' -- piece by piece
Deconstruction crews salvage siding, floors, even nails
By LISA STIFFLER
There is a deafening buzz over "green" houses, with their recycled-paper countertops, rainwater cisterns and super-efficient appliances.
So far, there is less interest in the "green" demolition of buildings in ways that could keep millions of tons of siding, wood floors, windows, doors, chimneys and shingles out of landfills.
That will change. Seattle is embracing a "zero waste" strategy to cut dramatically the amount of trash going to landfills -- including that from demolished buildings.
Zoom Dan DeLong / P-I
Jonathon Eaton of RE Store removes oak flooring last week from a house in the Bryant neighborhood. The wood will be bundled and resold to add beauty to a different house -- and keep it out of a landfill.
"It's insane," said Noel Stout of RE Store in Seattle, a non-profit dealer selling used building supplies. "It's so precious, and we're throwing it in the trash."
In Seattle alone, more than 720 homes have been torn down since January 2006.
In 2005, more than 200,000 tons of construction and demolition waste in the city went to landfills -- about one-third of Seattle's total trash by weight. Less than half of the city's building refuse was recycled or reused.
"This is something we can handle," said Tim Croll, solid waste director for Seattle Public Utilities. "It's hard work, but it's not impossible."
Stout and his team are part of the solution.
At a modest house being rebuilt near University Village, Stout and his three-man "deconstruction" crew are taking the building apart board by board.
First, he salvages items for resale. The crew members take doors off. Line up light fixtures and the porcelain kitchen sink on the deck to be hauled away. Save the greenhouse window. Pry up the oak floorboards and blow the nails out of them with a noisy pneumatic gun. Pull out copper pipes.
Later, they strip pillowy insulation from the attic and bag it for reuse. The lath and plaster walls come down for recycling. Then, they take the roof off, knock down the chimney and disassemble the wall framing. All the nails, screws and miscellaneous metal are recycled.
In a recent study financed by the Environmental Protection Agency, four house deconstruction projects by RE Store achieved recycle or reuse rates of 70 to 97 percent.
"It's part of the new cutting edge of green building," said Jon Alexander, owner of Sunshine Construction in Seattle. "It's very exciting and gratifying. It's really where the construction industry needs to be going, to become more and more sustainable."
Crowbars versus trackhoes
There's an art to unbuilding a house.
"You can easily have it come down and crush you," Stout said.
That's one of the reasons that deconstruction isn't more widespread -- there aren't a lot of people skilled in doing it. RE Store has crews in Seattle and in Bellingham, and a handful of other businesses do the labor-intensive work as well.
Bidding for the job pits human against machine. To knock down a house with a machine called a trackhoe (basically, a backhoe on tracks) takes two days; doing it by hand can require two or three weeks.
The city's permit process is one of the main hurdles to increased use of deconstruction. People get demolition and building permits simultaneously, encouraging them to knock structures down quickly so they can rush to construction.
The city is considering creating a delay between issuing the two permits, which could make deconstruction more appealing, said Lucia Athens, green building program manager with Seattle's Department of Planning and Development.
The city has pledged to modify demolition permits by the end of 2008 to support more salvage and recycling. Other possible changes include adding incentives and penalties to promote waste reduction.
King County, too, is looking at pro-deconstruction changes, such as banning wood and metal disposal with regular trash, requiring contractors to recycle a set percentage of waste and raising fees for dumping trash.
Another challenge to cutting waste is a shortage of recycling businesses accepting used carpets, drywall and the ubiquitous, petroleum-based, asphalt shingles.
"Shingles are something that really upset me," Stout said. "I want to be recycling them. I mean, it's oil. That's a war on the roof."
His best option is to haul the shingles to a recycler in Snohomish, but the time and labor to fill and unload his truck makes it tough to justify economically.
Seattle is considering grants, tax breaks and other assistance to encourage new sorting and recycling businesses.
Salvage helps pay for costs
Deconstruction's costs -- and revenue -- can compete with demolition.
Stout totals up labor and disposal costs and subtracts from that how much can be earned by reselling and recycling whatever is salvaged.
For the house near U Village, the cheapest bid for a trackhoe demolition was $9,600, owner Sanjay Soli said. Stout's bid was $10,500, but he estimated that it held $5,000 worth of salvageable material, resulting in a tax-deductible donation worth about $1,500 for Soli.
The environmentally friendly option becomes the cheaper choice.
Deconstruction also preserves landscaping. No massive machinery parks on the property, trampling the plants as the house comes down.
Reusing items rather than making new ones saves trees and energy.
Alexander, of Sunshine Construction, has worked with RE Store on deconstruction projects. At one, he salvaged wood and other items for a project at the same location.
He'd love to see lumberyards selling used wood and a construction, sort of an Amazon.com dealing in used lumber.
"We'd have to do a very minimal amount of logging, considering all of the wood in the system," Alexander said.
Used flooring and beams, light fixtures and doorknobs have a certain charm, often with craftsmanship superior to products being cranked out today.
"There's something sacred about keeping those materials part of the community, having them removed, reprocessed and put back on the shelf," said Marty Brennan of RE Store.
"No one really wants to see a house crushed by a big machine," he said. "Your grandma lived there or someone's grandma lived there.
"No one wants to see it crushed and put into a metal box and put on a train to Oregon."
There are a lot of resources for finding deconstruction companies and tips for salvage and recycling materials.
Northwest Building Salvage Network: nbsnonline.net
Seattle Department of Planning and Development: goto.seattlepi.com/r925
Seattle Public Utilities: goto.seattlepi.com/r926
King County: goto.seattlepi.com/r932
P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler can be reached at 206-448-8042 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog on the environment at datelineearth.com.