January 9, 2024

Deconstruction – What is it?

Deconstruction on a house. Worker is removing a window from the exterior by using a pry bar.

Deconstruction is a green alternative to demolition.

Everyone has seen images of a typical demolition. First, a wrecking ball or backhoe knocks over a building. Then, bulldozers scoop up the debris and drop it into a dumpster. Finally, a truck hauls the dumpster to a landfill where the material sits until the end of time. (Typical demolition can also happen on a smaller scale, where a worker smashes everything to bits with a sledge hammer.) With demolition everything goes to a landfill.

Deconstruction, however, involves taking apart a building by hand, piece by piece. Building materials are then salvaged for reuse and waste debris is recycled as best as possible. It is the reverse of construction. With deconstruction, what was last to be installed is first to be removed. It is the careful dismantling of a structure with an emphasis on recycling and salvaging for reuse.

What parts of a building can be deconstructed?

You can use deconstruction to take apart almost every part of a traditionally framed building! You can use it for a single bathroom remodel all the way up to the removal of an entire building. The only part of a building that cannot be deconstructed by hand is a concrete foundation.

With a traditional mechanical demolition, 100% of a building goes to a landfill. When deconstructed, only about 20% of a building goes to a landfill. The rest is either salvaged and repurposed, or recycled. 

What materials can be salvaged?

The beauty of deconstruction is that many of the materials removed from a building can be salvaged and reused. These include:

  • Lumber
  • Wood trim
  • Wood siding
  • Wood flooring
  • Doors
  • Windows
  • Glass and mirrors
  • Wood stoves, furnaces & appliances
  • Cabinetry
  • Hardware including door knobs, cabinet pulls, and bathroom accessories
  • Bricks and pavers
  • Plumbing fixtures including tubs, toilets, sinks and faucets
  • Light fixtures

In the Portland Metro area, salvaged materials often end up in various resale shops, including the ReBuilding Center, the Lovett Salvage Shop, and the Habitat ReStore. Further, all materials removed during deconstruction and donated to a non-profit reseller qualify for a tax deduction for the building owner.

What materials can be recycled?

Materials that can’t be salvaged or reused in their current state can often be recycled and made into new materials. These include:

  • Metal
  • Wood debris
  • Plaster
  • Concrete
  • Uninstalled drywall

In Portland, Metro offers an excellent online search tool to find where you can recycle almost anything.

What happens to everything else?

Some materials are in such poor condition that no one wants them anymore, while others simply do not come out in such a way that would allow for reinstallation. These materials include:

  • Vinyl sheet flooring
  • Carpet
  • Installed drywall
  • Anything containing hazardous waste, such as lead or asbestos

These materials end up in a landfill.

What if there are hazardous materials in my building? Can I still use deconstruction?

Yes! But first, but you need to remove the hazardous materials (likely lead and asbestos). After that, deconstruction can begin.

Am I required to use deconstruction?

If you are remodeling your kitchen or part of your home, you are not required to use deconstruction (although it’s not a bad idea). However, in Portland, if you want to fully demolish a house built prior to 1940, you must use deconstruction.

Really? Why?!

Well, in 2009, contractors demolished 125 houses in Portland. In 2016, they demolished 375 houses. And most of those demolitions were full mechanical demolitions where everything went to a landfill. Portlanders started to worry, not only about losing their old housing stock, but also about where all this demolished material went. In response, the City of Portland enacted the Deconstruction Ordinance.

The ordinance applies to full structure demolition of 1 and 2-family homes built prior to 1940. Typically, these houses are easy to take apart and loaded with salvageable and recyclable materials. For houses subject to the ordinance, homeowners MUST hire a licensed deconstruction contractor to do the work – they may not deconstruct their own house.

While there is no set timeline, Portland plans to expand the ordinance to homes built at later dates, as well as to commercial buildings.

Does it cost more than traditional demolition?

Yes. But if you’re concerned about what goes into a landfill (and what doesn’t), deconstruction is the obvious choice.

Additionally, deconstruction tends to have a white glove approach. There is less dust (almost none) than traditional demolition and deconstruction workers carefully handle removed materials. That translates to a cleaner job site with less likelihood of accidentally damaging other parts of your home. Further, projects that use deconstruction rarely have a dumpster sitting in the driveway for months. These benefits add up over the course of your project, especially if you’re living in your house during your remodel. And, as mentioned above, all materials donated to a non-profit salvage shop qualify for a tax deduction for the building owner.

If you hire a general contractor to do your remodel, make sure to ask them if they plan on using traditional demolition or deconstruction. Better yet, specify what you want up front.

Who does deconstruction?

If you’re self-performing your own remodel, you can do the work yourself. It may take a little more care than just swinging a sledge hammer, but the reward of knowing that the materials coming out of your home will receive a second life is likely worth it.

If you’re not into sweat equity, you can hire a licensed deconstruction contractor. And in Portland, we have an abundance of deconstruction talent. One of Christie Architecture’s favorites, who seems to show up on almost all of our projects, is Lovett Deconstruction. With a passion for reuse, as well as a love of old houses, LD opened for business in 2005. And to emphasize how much deconstruction has become mainstream in Portland, owner Der Lovett says, “I never have to explain what ‘deconstruction’ means anymore. 20 years ago, I had to explain it 5-10 times a day.”

Both contractors and homeowners hire LD. Lovett states, “We have a large client base of contractors who use us on a repeat basis. We’re part of their team of trade contractors. But we also work directly with homeowners, usually on smaller projects like bathrooms, kitchens, chimneys and garages.”

Christie Architecture is definitely a fan of deconstruction.

When remodeling, the demolition phase is unavoidable. However, approaching it with deconstruction in mind can make it more palatable. While we don’t handle the process ourselves, we help specify it for projects. We look forward to sharing more deconstruction details and resources with you. If you’re ready to tackle a remodel, give us a call.