Making ecological sense of building deconstruction has been easier than reckoning with its economics. But the Seattle area is giving salvage a serious shot
Financial considerations aside, it isn’t that hard to come up with good reasons, including ecological ones, for salvaging material from buildings that would otherwise be demolished and end up in landfill.
Lumber, fixtures, and decorative artifacts pulled from existing buildings can be reused locally, often to the immense satisfaction of builders, remodelers, and homeowners who prize the stuff for its beauty, high quality, practicality and, in some cases, historic value. It’s the recycling ethic in fine, glorious form.
But then there’s the economics of it all. The speed of straightforward demolition can be attractive to builders who don’t want to spend the money on labor and take the time needed to deconstruct a building for salvageable and recyclable materials.
A code adjustment
Expedience is a powerful motivator. The Seattle area, however, has turned into something of a proving ground for alternative approaches. Deconstruction specialists in the region, including RE-USE Consulting, based in Bellingham, Washington, and Earthwise Architectural Salvage, based in Seattle, likely would argue that the ultimate cost of harvesting reusable and recyclable materials on a project may be competitive with that for demolition, particularly when efficient disassembly techniques are used and dump fees for heavy materials are factored in.
Seattle is relatively accommodating to deconstruction firms, although it wasn’t always that way. One constraint for builders was a code regulation that allowed a residential demolition permit to be issued only when an associated permit for new housing had also been issued. That meant little time for deconstruction – if that was a consideration for the project – and left builders more inclined toward demolition. In March, however, Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development created a permitting option that allows a demolition permit to be granted well in advance of a housing permit to contractors who want to salvage and/or reuse materials from the existing structure.
“We have a minimum percentage of materials that need to be salvaged and reused or recycled with the goal that we’re diverting materials from the landfill and encouraging the use of the materials,” DPD official Sandra Mallory told the Ballard News-Tribune.
An extensive look at the Seattle area’s deconstruction movement, published this week by the Seattle Times, notes unswerving enthusiasm for the process among some builders, such as Greenleaf Construction, and of course local salvage retailers such as the RE Store and Second Use Building Materials, both based in Seattle.
“I’m an old-fashioned redneck,” Greenleaf owner Jim Barger told the paper. “I used to be ‘Yahoo! Bring ‘er down!’ But I can’t do it anymore.”
Indeed, the salvage bug can bite at any time. Early this month, GBA posted a blog about two brothers who bought a 100-year-old home in South Chicago and decided, after checking out the condition of its foundation, to reconstruct the house to deep green rather than raze it. One of the brothers, Tim Heppner, is a carpenter. He did much of the work on the building and found plenty to like as he deconstructed the interior.
In the home’s detached garage, Heppner stored all of the useable wood he extracted from the house. Most of it has since found its way back into the home’s reconstruction. “The wood came from old-growth forest,” Heppner marveled. “It was amazing to see 2x4s with 65 grains across.”