Thursday, October 18, 2007

Recycled Houses

October 18, 2007
Recycling the Whole House

IF the idiosyncratic, ’40s-era cottage Alice Keller bought in Shoreline, a small city just north of Seattle, had a style, it might be called classic teardown. The ceiling in one room was so low she couldn’t stand up under it. A downstairs bathroom was so narrow she had to wiggle sideways to get to the toilet. None of the windows matched.

“It was livable, and quirky,” Ms. Keller said, “but in ways I didn’t find amusing.”

The place was crying out for a wrecking ball, but Ms. Keller, a 63-year-old retired teacher of English as a second language, who has an environmentally aware conscience, didn’t want to scrap the building materials only to buy new ones. Instead of having her 1,300-square-foot house bulldozed, she hired Jon Alexander, a contractor who shared her environmentalism and was willing to dismantle the home shingle by beam, and build a replacement with the same two-by-fours.

The crew left the garage and a portion of the subfloor intact and broke the concrete driveway into chunks for a back patio. A gas water heater, fiberglass insulation and windows landed at the RE Store, a local nonprofit shop that sells used or excess construction materials. The drywall, shingles and extra concrete went to a recycling center.

Ms. Keller was able to reuse around 90 percent of the original house. “I just like reusing things,” she said. “You can end up with something with more character.”

Due to rising landfill costs, tighter recycling guidelines and the growing trend toward ecologically sound building methods, this sort of home “deconstruction,” as the practice is called, is starting to catch on. About 1,000 homes a year are disassembled this way, according to the Building Materials Reuse Association, a nonprofit educational group in State College, Pa., which reports growing interest in the practice.

Fueling that interest are efforts by cities and states across the country to stanch the flow of demolition rubble into landfills. Some 245,000 houses in the United States are razed each year, generating nearly 20 million tons of debris, according to a 1996 report from the Environmental Protection Agency, the most recent data available.

Confronted with mounting waste, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has banned brick, concrete, metal, wood and asphalt from landfills.

In San Jose, Calif. — where construction and demolition refuse accounts for 30 percent of landfill waste, according to official estimates — homeowners who apply for a city permit to demolish, remodel or build an addition have to pay a deposit based on the size and type of project. To get the money back, they must show that 90 percent of the material generated has been reused or sent to a certified recycling or reuse center. Cities including Seattle, and Chicago have also introduced measures to reduce construction and demolition waste.

Using old materials for new buildings isn’t a new idea. The Coliseum in Rome was used as a quarry to build St. Peter’s Basilica and other Roman landmarks. In the United States, families often reused building materials to save money in the early part of the 20th century, a custom that fell out of favor as the country grew wealthier in the 1950s.

Today, according to the Building Materials Reuse Association, up to 85 percent of the average house can be recycled or reused; the hard part is harvesting the materials in a way that preserves their integrity.

Unbuilding a home takes longer than leveling it the usual way and often costs more, at least initially. While almost anyone who’s watched a TLC rehab show can rip out a kitchen cabinet, unpiecing an entire house without having the roof collapse isn’t a job for the uninitiated. The Building Materials Reuse Association, which introduced a deconstruction training program in May, has certified 60 builders so far.

When Carolyn Bronstein and John Tapper wanted to dismantle a 2,500-square-foot Victorian adjacent to their house in the Southport section of Chicago, they could not find a local deconstruction contractor. They recruited Ted Reiff, a contractor and the president of a group called the Reuse People of America, based in Oakland, Calif. The couple bought the house for about $800,000, intending to knock it down so their children could have more space to play, and to make sure a developer didn’t snap up it up.

While the standard demolition quotes were around $25,000, the couple spent $38,000 to have a contractor trained by Mr. Reiff unpiece it over six weeks last summer. They expect to come out even or better after selling door hardware, windows, appliances and other components at a salvage auction and reaping a tax deduction by donating the rest to a reuse store.

“It was cleaner and quieter than demolition,” said Ms. Bronstein, an assistant professor of communication at DePaul University in Chicago. “We didn’t have dust flying everywhere.”

Usually, the real savings comes in the reconstruction phase. Paul Pedini, the owner of the Big Dig House in Lexington, Mass., possibly the country’s most celebrated recycled dwelling, estimates he shaved at least $200,000 from his materials costs by using concrete on-ramps and steel beams recovered from the Big Dig highway project in Boston for his modernist structure.

“There were these materials and we wanted to build a house. We just put two and two together,” said Mr. Pedini, a civil engineer who was a contractor on the Big Dig. “I told them, why not keep the money you’d pay in disposal costs and give the materials to us to reuse?”

Although few home builders have access to the remains of a $14.6 billion highway project, many cities now have “reuse” stores, which sell salvaged goods — from wall sockets to vintage redwood floorboards — for 50 to 75 percent off what similar products would cost if purchased new.

There are about 1,000 such stores nationwide according to the Reuse Association, most of them nonprofits that offer tax deductions in exchange for donations of used housing materials. Habitat for Humanity International, the affordable housing organization, runs 500 such shops in 45 states, mostly selling easily recoverable accessories like cabinets, doors and flooring. Unlike architectural salvage stores, which sell marble fireplace mantels, stained glass and spiral staircases, reuse stores generally traffic in mundane items like light switches and insulation.

As with buying secondhand clothes, the challenge — and potential charm — of reuse shopping is its unpredictability. Build it Green! NYC, a reuse shop in Astoria, sells sets from nearby film studios alongside items rescued from residential demolitions. Recently, $25 diner stools from “The Knights of Prosperity,” a short-lived ABC show, were for sale alongside $40 doors from “The Sopranos” and a set of cherry-finish kitchen cabinets removed from an Upper East Side apartment. The original owners paid $18,000 to buy and install the cabinets, according to Justin Green, a founder of the store, who was asking $1,200 for the set — top and bottom cabinets as well as counters.

“I love shopping there,” said Timothy Etienne of Garden City, N.Y. “You never know what you’re going to find.”

He has purchased windows, doors and paint at the store for a second home upstate, along with a six-foot-tall wooden tepee ($30) that is now a backyard playhouse for his four daughters.

Ms. Keller, meanwhile, has been combing the RE Store in Seattle for months, trying to find secondhand glass blocks for the master bath in her new 1,600-square-foot home. She recently scavenged a double-pane glass door for her balcony and a cast-iron double sink for a craft room.

To outfit a home this way, it helps to have a retiree’s schedule.

“You have to be patient,” Ms. Keller said. “It’s the thrill of the hunt that keeps me going back.”

October 18, 2007
Preparing to Deconstruct: A Primer

RE-USE Consulting in Bellingham, Wash., trains builders to deconstruct houses and may be able to offer referrals to contractors who do it; or (360) 201-6977. Its Web site,, also connects buyers and sellers of used materials, from skylights to structures including a 1914 steel bridge from the Snoqualmie River near North Bend, Wash., currently on offer from the King County Department of Transportation.

Habitat for Humanity runs deconstruction crews in 48 states, not including New York. For a fee (based on square footage), which varies from state to state, Habitat’s workers will take apart a house and haul away the debris to sell in its ReStores. The owner gets a receipt for a tax deduction. Locations of ReStores, including one in New Rochelle, N.Y., and several in New Jersey, are listed at Habitat’s Web site,

The Building Materials Reuse Association, deconstruction contractors and reuse stores, which generally accept and sell items in good condition including appliances, wood flooring, doors, windows, plumbing and electrical fixtures, cabinets and sinks. The only not-for-profit reuse store within New York City limits is Build It Green! NYC at 3-17 26th Avenue, Astoria, (718) 777-0132 or

Some construction materials, including metals, glass, drywall, concrete and asphalt shingles, can be recycled. While New York City does not have dedicated recycling plants for construction and demolition waste, the private transfer stations that accept the debris recycle around 35 percent of it, according to the city department of sanitation. Centers in many cities are listed at Information may also be available from local municipal waste departments. Items not generally recycled or reused include asbestos or wood with peeling lead-based paint.


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