Last month, we came across a very interesting article in the Portland Business Journal featuring Aaron Fairchild and his Seattle based sustainable infill development company, Green Canopy Homes. In the article he discusses the company’s goal to recycle, reuse or repurpose 100 percent of its deconstruction waste. Naturally, this piqued our interest and we couldn’t wait to reach out to Aaron and learn more about it.
Aaron: Well as it goes for most companies, the market just pushed us there, but it’s different for different reasons. We are a mission-driven, for-profit company and we have over 40 shareholders in our company. Yet, it is our mission to inspire resource efficiency in the market. How we historically have gone about doing that is to buy homes that typical builders would tear down to build new ones, however we would buy that home and figure out how to fix it.
The first thing we do when we buy the home is to have a third party conduct an energy audit on the property, then we do our remodel work on it and then when we are done, we have another third party come conduct another energy audit on the property. We book-end the construction process with energy audits like that because it allows us to calculate the operating cost efficiency for the person buying the home and to help record the corresponding greenhouse gas emissions production as a result.
In our market our DPD [Department of Planning and Development] has actually made it much more difficult through code to save these houses. One of the huge advantages to saving an existing structure is we get our permit much quicker because it’s a remodel permit. However our DPD is limiting the extent to which we can remodel our homes and still be able to get a quick turn around on our permit. If we can’t get our permit any quicker than we could get a new construction permit, it completely makes those remodel projects unbuyable. So we’re doing much more new construction right now as an organization and we are going to continue to do more new construction as we go forward.
Additionally, completely remodeled homes are not yielding the same as new construction. This was not the case in 2009 when we started. Since then, the premium on new construction over the price paid to buy existing homes has hit an all time high and buyers have pushed back on the price they are willing to pay for a newly remodeled home. So the market is pushing us toward developing new construction and away from remodeling existing homes for sale. But we are still a mission-driven company and we’ve come together because of a shared understanding that our resource scarcity issues are huge and we can make a difference slowing down and lessening the impact of resource scarcity, climate change and the wreckage of the environment. I think the problem is that there are demo companies claiming to recycle 95% of everything that is put into a bin, and this is just not true.
We know that they don’t recycle 95% – a lot of the stuff just sits on top of the landfill site while the rest sinks, or gets shipped overseas. Who knows what happens to it though? So we started thinking about who in our market can help with responsible deconstruction, hand by hand. Is there anybody? We could only find two or three resources and they were extremely picky. There are a lot of projects that they just will not touch and there is more than enough business for the two or so small organizations and individual players in our marketplace to handle. So they can afford to be picky.
We decided that since we are constantly buying product, we can do this and we can do this on a bigger scale and we can do this in a way that aligns with our mission and beliefs. We did all the research about what is required from us, formed the company, got the insurance and started testing this on homes. We wanted to see if we could actually responsibly deconstruct property with the target of recycling, repurposing and reusing 100%. We’ve done that with varying degrees of success on a handful of projects, and we’re getting better at it and learning more about it with every new project. We’ll continue to see where it goes.
DRN: Armed with that knowledge and experience, how are you educating others?
Aaron: We just did a panel in September at a local building conference. They invited us to come share what we are doing and the lessons we were learning. A representative from our DPD was there and we got to talking and they just came to our offices recently to meet with our team. I think we’re in the forming stages and we don’t know what we don’t know at this point. But we are learning and we are excited about it.
DRN: You mentioned that you’re successfully repurposing, reusing or recycling 100% – that is very exciting.
Aaron: That’s our target and we were able to do it on our first two projects. We don’t know if we’ll be able to keep that up. But we’re targeting it and we’re going for it.
DRN: Do you think you’ll ever become a for-hire deconstruction organization?
Aaron: That is absolutely the goal! We want to learn the business on our projects where we can control the variable much better and then we would like to rotate that outward. We do new construction so we are a homebuilder, but we also have a custom construction arm and we are currently under contract to do deconstruction projects for custom clients.
DRN: Do you see an opportunity in the marketplace for deconstruction?
Aaron: There is a big opportunity in the marketplace, but just because there is business doesn’t mean you can tackle it profitably. So we are trying to understand the opportunity in the market place. We know that there is plenty of business but we’ve got to figure it out beforehand.
DRN: One of the biggest challenges we face is the upfront costs and time it takes to deconstruct versus demolish.
Aaron: Right! And that’s a challenge. Our last project was done in three weeks, which was twice as fast as our first project. Fortunately, we can get our deconstruction permit before our building permit so that allows us to start deconstructing while we are still waiting to get our building permit, and that’s part of the incentive program at the city.
As far as the upfront costs – this is the challenge we put up to our company. We know what the cost is to take down a full house and have an excavator come out there and pack it into a “recycle” bin and then take it away. So the challenge to our organization was to do it for the same amount or less. Not the same time, but the same amount or less. And out of four projects we’ve done it successfully three times. One time it was under our estimate but over the live bid to demo. Which is still not acceptable, it’s got to be the same as a demolition or less. If we want to do that routinely well that’s what we have to do, lower the marginal cost differential. For example if it costs us $10,000 to demo and $13,000 for us to do it by hand, well we just have to figure how we lower that $3,000 dollar marginal difference. So its not about the burden of $13,000 dollars, we are focused on the marginal difference. And so far we’re doing fine and we’re committed to continue to do this and learn because we know we are going to get better and better over time. As soon as we get that down we’ll absolutely roll it out to the market.
DRN: Do you have any thoughts about the future of the deconstruction industry that you’d like to share?
Aaron: Deconstruction and construction waste accounts for about 25% of all waste in the United States. But it is such an enormously huge part of the problem and the glitz and glam of net zero and solar panels in some ways takes away from our resource constraint issue, which may prompt climate change and climate change feeds into resource scarcity and I just wish it were on more peoples’ radar. We need to tackle these challenges of our era. We’re homebuilders but we are more than that. I am really excited you reached out to me and I’m glad there are organizations like DRN out there that are trying to be part of the solution.
We are grateful to Aaron Fairchild for his time and for sharing his insights with us. If you’d like to learn more about what Green Canopy Homes is doing, we encourage you to visit their blog.