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Deconstruction or Demolition? What to Know Before you Bulldoze

Posted by Lorenz Schilling, DRN President

window removal_original copyIn parts of the U.S., namely large urban centers, there’s a growing awareness that deconstruction can be a rational alternative to traditional demolition.

As deconstruction resides in the realm of the un-building profession, its definition has never been completely nailed down. Where we at DRN may narrowly define deconstruction as necessarily incorporating human hand labor to carefully dismantle above ground structural improvements to real property for the purpose of reclaiming various types of building materials for reuse, others loosely bundle and duct tape the term deconstruction with a broad variety of salvage and/or recycling activities.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPartly because deconstruction lacks a clear definition, parties that are directly or indirectly involved with, or are considering a deconstruction effort, often have unrealistic expectations about how long it will take and/or its costs.

Some believe deconstruction shouldn’t take any longer or cost any more than traditional demolition. Others have the idea that when working with a non-profit, deconstruction should happen entirely for free. Yes, some property owners are even of the mind that since they’re donating their building materials, in exchange, the labor to deconstruct should be gifted back by volunteers.

cabinetsAlthough the last example is at the extreme fringe of the false expectations spectrum, and is a separate blog topic on to its own, it underscores the challenge for those groups, especially non-profits who manage deconstruction projects, to establish clear and realistic expectations early on about their processes.

So what should the typical owner with a 1,600 or 16,000 square foot home ask prospective contractors when considering deconstruction?

1. For starters, clarify what definition of deconstruction the contractor uses. Some contractors call what they’re doing deconstruction, but its actually done for recycling purposes rather than reuse, so material source separation is the goal rather than removing things carefully for reuse. Other groups call salvaging nothing more than kitchen cabinets, deconstruction. We call that selective-salvage, where nothing structural is being reclaimed. But that’s just our definition, and we don’t make the rules, but we also don’t cut any corners either.

2. Confirming what will be salvaged is essential and what will be done with the items. Are the items being reclaimed for reuse or recycling?

3. Solidify the time it takes the contractor’s crews to deconstruct 1,000 sq ft and what is the crew size they intend to use for your project? Depending on your home’s construction, the deconstruct timeline varies. Homes on a slab foundation are deconstructed faster than those on a raised foundation; newer homes with sheer walls and lots of glue and nails slow the process down a bit. Some homes have lots of other items to save like cabinetry, windows, or vintage architectural elements, while others have a lot of lumber, which can make the time frame a bit longer.

Our very general rule of thumb is, for complete deconstruction including lumber (DRN takes all lumber over 6-feet, the rest is recycled) is one working week per thousand square feet, per crew. So how big is a crew? Well, crew sizes do vary from contractor to contractor, and sometimes from region to region, but the typical crew sizes we see in California are from five to seven crewmembers.

Armed with this information, you should have what you need to decide whether to carefully deconstruct or bulldoze.