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Q&A Spotlight

When It’s Better to Demolish an Old House than to Patch It Up

A question about the merits of buying a tear-down prompt some thoughts on recycling and landfills

Retrofitting a house to improve energy efficiency and comfort may take a back seat to a tear-down and new construction, a GBA reader argues. Photo courtesy Steve Johnson / CC BY 2.0 / Flickr.

GBA readers get a steady diet of advice on how to improve the energy efficiency and comfort of old houses. The list almost always includes basics like air sealing and adding insulation, and may extend to upgraded mechanical systems and windows.

BlueSolar isn’t so sure that makes sense.

Writing in a recent Q&A post, BlueSolar says he’s not finding good building lots in convenient neighborhoods in the two areas he’s considering, Tucson and Las Vegas. So he’s thinking about buying a cheaper house, tearing it down, and building a new one.

BlueSolar can see pros and cons. On the plus side, he’ll get energy efficiency, comfort, roominess, and all the building details he wants. On the downside, this will probably cost more and take longer.

“I don’t like old houses in general,” BlueSolar says. “They tend to be ridiculously inefficient, uncomfortable, and low tech. I think landfills are fabulous, so I have no problem with sending a bunch of debris to one. I actually think a lot of houses should be torn down and replaced with much improved ones, just like that federal program that encouraged people to junk their old, high-polluting cars.”

So what’s the best route: raze and replace, or fix what you’ve got? That’s the topic for this Q&A Spotlight.

There’s no single answer to that question

That all depends on what you’re starting with, Akos replies. If an existing foundation can be reused it could save a lot of money. If the house is balloon-framed with clapboard siding, demolishing it and rebuilding would be cheaper than trying to make it energy efficient.

“All brick is a bit different,” Akos adds. “Tearing down and rebuilding brick is not cheap. Generally you want to re-use as much of that and only demo the rear wall to extend.

“Around me there are a lot of mid century cinder-block+double brick mini bungalows,” he adds. “Those are built like a tank and can easily take 3 stories. With those it is cheaper to build on top.”

In Tucson, BlueSolar says, construction tends to be wood frame with stucco, brick, or a material he calls “slump block” (large brick-like components). In Las Vegas, houses are mostly wood frame plus stucco or siding.

“We’d be true to the community and context as far as style of home, though I think we could do virtually anything for the underlying structure,” BlueSolar says. “Though I wouldn’t feel bound to use the same structure or veneer as the old home. It would depend somewhat on the community and context, history, etc.”

Lack of wall insulation not a big deal

In a warm climate, says Akos, lack of insulation in the wall is “not as big of an issue.” Even an R-5 wall “gets you most of your energy savings,” and block walls are easy to air seal and insulate.

Cooling loads will come mostly from the roof and windows, he says, with the R-value of the walls having very little impact. Akos cites as an example a single-story house of about 2,000 square feet, its 9-foot-tall walls adding up to about 1,700 square feet.

Suppose the temperature is 70°F inside and 95°F outside.

“With an R-5 wall you loose 8.5k Btu,”Akos says. “If you go up to R-11 (2×4 with batts) that drops down to 4.3k Btu, about 1/2 ton, not that much difference. Instead of insulating the walls, you can probably get more energy savings from better window coatings/shading or a cool roof.”

In order to get lower air conditioning bills, Akos adds, insulate the roof, get a correctly sized and efficient air conditioner and keep the ducting inside the house. Make sure to air seal properly.

“Southern construction seems to be notorious for not having any of the above,” he adds. “Wall insulation is a good thing but would be very low on my priority list.”

Are landfills really fabulous?

Zephyr7 suggests that BlueSolar consider an estate sale before demolition. Selling bits and pieces of the house—old circuit breakers, switch plates, fixtures, and the like—could help offset the costs of new construction.

But it is BlueSolar’s assertion that landfills are “fabulous” that really catches his attention. He predicts the comment will draw some surprised reactions from other GBA readers.

“About the only good thing about them is that they’re using the methane for electrical generation on many of them now instead of just flaring it off,” Zephyr7 says. “I’ve always hated seeing anything get flared off, except in emergencies. At least do something useful with the stuff you’re burning!”

Indeed, BlueSolar replies, landfills really are great.

“Yeah, I figured my views on landfills (good) and recycling (irrational) would be idiosyncratic here,” he writes. “I’m a social psychologist, and I’ll be researching the psychology of environmentalism over the next few years. I think landfills in modern countries are great engineering achievements (and they’ll be thoroughly mined—by robots—within the next 50 or 100 years), and I haven’t yet encountered any compelling reasons to not fill them.”

The urge to recycle, he adds, “taps into a powerful moral intuition against perceived waste.”

The real benefit of recycling, adds Brendan Albano, is not so much about diverting materials from a landfill but about reducing the amount of new material that must be produced. Even better than recycling is reusing.

“Perhaps you’re just overstating your love of landfills to have some fun and ruffle some feathers,” he adds, “but landfilling an entire house when there are plenty of parts in it that can be productively reused or recycled seems pretty silly.”

Recycling is a ‘strange ritual’

Landfills are not only well engineered but also take up a trivial amount of land area, BlueSolar says. Recycling, on the other hand, has some serious drawbacks.

“Recycling looks ridiculous when I see these enormous trucks guzzling diesel and polluting the air, crawling incredibly loudly though neighborhoods, **stopping at every house**, picking up morsels of detritus, a few cans here, some newspapers there, etc.” BlueSolar writes. “Then they truck it to recycling centers where people sift through all the detritus, throwing a lot of it into the trash because it’s not recyclable, and then truck it to more specialized processing facilities where all kinds of energy-intensive, elaborate processes are used to break stuff down and make it into something useful. It’s a strange ritual from an anthropological perspective.”

That said, BlueSolar is himself a recycler even though it pays him nothing. “It strangely feels good,” he says, even though he’s always on the verge of giving it up.

Sometimes demolition makes sense

DCContrarian is in the process of deconstructing a 100-year-old house built and enlarged by amateurs, with the hope of keeping the original foundation for a new house.

With the help of his sons, DCContrarian has been stripping the house and donating as much as possible to a local non-profit. “It is dismaying how little in a house is reusable,” he says.

So far, he’s donated two truckloads of materials and put 12 tons of material into Dumpsters.

“As I deconstruct the house I just keep uncovering more an more concealed problems, with the mechanical systems but also the building envelope,” he says. “The insulation is uniformly atrocious. The roof leaks, the siding leaks, the basement leaks. There are big gaps in the building envelope. I don’t feel bad about tearing the house down and building a better one.”

If you buy in the right neighborhood, says Walter Ahlgrim, a tear-down and rebuild can make financial sense. Developers may look for a small house on a big lot, meaning they can build two big houses.

“Would I call it green to tear down a old house to build a new one?” Ahlgrim asks. “No but that is me. Most of the houses that were torn down were run down, small and unremarkable building[s]. A few were nice houses but on very big lots or had commercial zoning.”

There’s also a good case to be made for modernizing an existing structure, says Doug McEvers. He’s done that in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to a number of existing homes. The advantages include being in an established neighborhood, close to schools, with infrastructure in place.

“I would look for a solidly built existing home that can be brought up to modern standards with possibly just some TLC or an addition,” McEvers says. “A lot of floor plans are basically sound but maybe just lack kitchen space or a big of living area.”

Our expert’s opinion

Spruce up or raze? Here’s what GBA Technical Director Peter Yost thinks:

There are quite a few ways of looking at this question. One perspective takes embodied carbon into account. The graphic below is from Bruce King’s book, The New Carbon Architecture (see Martin Holladay’s review of the book here). It illustrates one approach to tear-down-build new versus renovate. The embodied carbon sink in existing buildings strongly favors honoring that investment by renovating rather than tearing down and building new.

This illustration from Bruce King’s book The New Carbon Architecture suggests that renovating an existing structure is better than razing and rebuilding from a carbon point of view.

I also have my own experience to draw on. When we moved to Brattleboro, Vermont, nearly 20 years ago we knew we could not afford to buy anything but a fixer-upper (and we knew who that fixer-upper would be….me). We found an existing home (see this GBA case study). The house had some positive features: it was in a great neighborhood; it was within walking distance to work, the grocery store, and both a doctor and dentist; it had good bones with a solid foundation and on a well-drained lot; and it had a decent layout inside (except for the kitchen…see this case study for more on that).

But my brother took one look at it and pointed out that the knob-and-tube wiring had just three circuits and a 60-amp service; the house needed 1,500 gallons of fuel oil a year to stay warm; it had a butt-ugly split-faced architectural block exterior and a damp basement; and it had dark, walnut sheet paneling throughout over failing plaster.

“Tear it down and build new,” my brother advised.

The moral: if you find an existing home you like, it’s probably worth fixing up.

Here’s another perspective, this one from a recent client of mine. Their recently purchased home had these characteristics:

  • Really lousy layout, including two huge storefront windows facing the street in a downstairs bathroom
  •  Vermiculite insulation in attic
  •  A water table within inches of the dirt floor in the basement
  • An unvented, uninsulated, crawlspace underneath the kitchen addition
  • Frozen pipes running up a leaky chase to the second floor
  •  Intense efflorescence on rubble foundation with at least one rot-compromised sill

The moral: if you hate the building, it’s not worth fixing up.

A ton of research has been done on this issue, including work that I did for the EPA while at the then NAHB Research Center. Also have a look at this from the Building Materials Reuse Association. The economics of deconstruction versus demolition can be complex and daunting. It’s very dependent on labor rates, local demolition tipping fees, markets for finished versus structural components, hazardous material content, re-grading issues for used structural components, and for-profit vs. non-profit deconstruction companies (the latter involving tax deduction value of donated materials).

Just around the corner from where I live, the company Deconstruction Works is stripping out as many finish and structural components as possible before the wrecking ball goes to work.

About the landfill perspective: If you think the economics of commingled recycling are questionable, they are dwarfed by how hard it will be to mine landfills for “valuable” materials. Separating out plastics, glass, and newsprint—already made challenging by relatively low landfill tipping fees and highly volatile markets—is child’s play compared to mining landfills. We have likely topped out the highest and best use of our landfills with methane recovery and superior PV array locations.

I agree that R-values won’t drive performance in mild, sunny climates. When evaluating the energy retrofit priorities for these climates, it’s all about air tightness and the amount/cardinal direction and shading of glazing.

–Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at Green Building Advisor and Fine Homebuilding magazine.

19 Comments

  1. James Howison | | #1

    Any sign of carbon negative builds? So the building sequesters more carbon than used in constructing it? That would add a new line to Bruce King's figure there. Very likely keeping the foundation would be key (since concrete is so high in embodied energy). Then wood throughout. Of course there is also the embodied energy of the deconstruction (and rotting of the materials in the landfill). Would appreciate any pointers to models going this direction.

    1. User avater
      vap0rtranz | | #12

      There's a flawed premise in the comparison of old vs new by GBA: new homes are assumed to be far more efficient.

      How many Net Zero new builds are now in the housing stock?! Pitifully few, if I count the examples on NREL and EPA's websites. Even fewer are Passive.

      Far more people drive EVs than live in Net Zero homes -- OK unfair apples-to-oranges comparison, I know! But how about this: both Net Zero and EV/PHEVs target the conscientious consumer, both are new, some of these cars cost FAR more than their (old) conventional gas guzzlers ... So there's a monetary point when folks say Net Zero homes aren't significantly more expensive than conventional; YET the electric car adoption has beat out the efficient home. There's >1Million EV/PHEV cars already on the road in the US.

      Again, how many Net Zero/Passive homes are there? It's safe to assume new builds are just meeting code minimum, so if someone can retrofit to code minimum, then the comparison of old vs. new is awash.

      Perhaps we should be asking more questions.

  2. User avater
    BlueSolar | | #2

    Nice! I was puzzled by the setup on Peter Yost's example. It reads:

    But my brother took one look...
    “Tear it down and build new,” my brother advised.
    The moral: if you find an existing home you like, it’s probably worth fixing up.

    Say what? This was an apparent tear-down candidate from everything that preceded the moral. How is the moral to fix it up? I feel like maybe a stray edit deleted a key part of the setup.

    1. User avater GBA Editor
      Brian Pontolilo | | #3

      I think Peter's point was that for him and his immediate family, the house had enough positive attributes to keep it and remodel. To his brother, it was a tear down. In other words, differing opinions based on the perceived merits of the house can make it a tear down to one person and a keeper to another. Maybe I read it wrong and should have asked Peter, but he comes by here often enough that we'll probably hear from him soon.

      1. User avater GBA Editor
        Peter Yost | | #5

        Brian nailed my intent. We liked enough things about the house, including the mostly dry and sound basement/foundation, that we wanted to put the work into it.

        I got the impression that BlueSolar either did not or could not find a home that he liked, so that is just too much of an uphill battle.

        Thanks Brian - Peter

  3. User avater
    BlueSolar | | #4

    FYI Scott Gibson, the first instance of Tucson is spelled Tuscon (third para). Common typo. I find that knowing the Spanish pronunciation always clarifies the spelling (tuk-sohn).

  4. Marc Bombois | | #6

    On the subject of future recycling, does anyone else question the use of spray foam? Should a decision on whether or not to use spray foam include the thought that it will make future recycling of wood components difficult or impossible? And do the benefits of spray foam today outweigh the future considerations? I'd love to hear thoughts on this.

    1. User avater
      BlueSolar | | #7

      Does it stick to the wood? (I've never used it.)

      1. User avater GBA Editor
        Brian Pontolilo | | #9

        Hi BlueSolar.

        Yes. Properly cured polyurethane spray foam is a tenacious adhesive that basically glues the assembly together.

        1. User avater
          Dana Dorsett | | #10

          Spray polyurethane foam has a nearly identical chemistry to Gorilla Glue.

          But it burns great once you get it hot enough, with combustion products comparable to burning wood. Even the HFO blowing agents used for some closed cell foam burns pretty well, and might be disposable in a biomass-energy power plant scheme (TBD.)

          HFC blown polyurethane releases the remaining (not combustible) HFC blowing agents as it burns, leaving it to do it's extreme greenhouse gas thing if vented to the atmosphere.

    2. User avater GBA Editor
      Brian Pontolilo | | #8

      Hi Marc.

      Not only will it make recycling challenging, it can make remodeling and repairs challenging. Between these facts, the cost, and the fact that it is one of the less environmentally-friendly insulators, I think we should be reserving spray foam for very specific situations where is helps us solve a problem that other options can't. There's certainly no need for it in new construction.

      1. Marc Bombois | | #11

        Hi Brian,

        I agree. Unfortunately though, it seems there's a lot of support for spray foam among building scientists. If they're focusing solely on energy conservation, fine, but it's short-sighted and they should include future considerations in their analyses, or at least mention them as a caveat.

    3. User avater
      BlueSolar | | #13

      Marc, I should have asked before -- why do you want to recycle wood?

      1. Malcolm Taylor | | #14

        Why would you not?

        1. User avater
          BlueSolar | | #15

          An action always requires justification – or at least more justification than a non-action.

          1. Malcolm Taylor | | #16

            I think I misunderstood. You are asking why someone would recycle, not reuse, wood.

          2. User avater
            BlueSolar | | #17

            That too. I actually don't know how wood would be recycled. I've only seen it "reclaimed", which seems like an elegant form of reuse. But I don't know of any good reasons to recycle in general, or reasons to recycle wood in particular – I've asked maybe nine environmentalists at this point, and most had a false belief about landfill scarcity or landfill overuse.

          3. Malcolm Taylor | | #18

            I understand your arguments for not recycling, but if as you suggest it makes more sense to landfill and mine them later, it's still a good idea to do some segregation of materials at the landfill. Things like wood waste don't break down in an anaerobic environment, and are simply taking up space, but will be unusable in the future. Similarly chemical waste just makes the whole thing one big toxic soup and may preclude the future use of anything in the dumps. It also means that the leachate becomes both harder and more important to contain as the size of the landfill expands.

          4. Tyler Keniston | | #19

            Blue, throwing out wood is also an action, not a 'non-action.'

            I don't know much about wood recycling, but it is done.

            Can you elaborate on your comment about landfill scarcity and overuse? It sounds like you're suggesting we have no waste management issues. I mean, there's plenty of physically unoccupied space we can dump trash on, but that's not really the point. What's the story here? (for clarity, I'm wondering if you have resources that discuss this, or something concrete beyond a feeling).

            edit: I live in Maine, you in Arizona. I wonder if that informs our perspective. Is there a lot of open land with little more than dirt there in Arizona? The airplane graveyards of Cali's desert comes to mind as something that doesn't appear all that intrusive (at least to things trying to grow).
            In Maine, its different. Nearly any form of land use is displacing a forest.

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