When we asked designers about sustainable renovation practices on social media, one replied, “That’s a tough one, so much of the debris is not recyclable.” Indeed, that’s largely been true—until now.
There’s a new movement afoot to abandon demolition in favor of “deconstruction,” the practice of dismantling building components so they can be used again. It’s happening everywhere across the country—towns include Boulder, Colorado; Minneapolis; and even Erie, Pennsylvania. While the U.S. industry is still nascent, European deconstruction outfits like Rotor Deconstruction, New Horizon Urban Mining and Materiuum point to a future that places deconstruction specialists in every market. (Contractors, if you’re reading, there’s a business opportunity here!)
The push for responsible demolition is not just about the tons of construction and demolition waste that head to landfills each year (nationwide, it is 25 percent to 45 percent of the total solid waste stream by weight; in New York, it accounts for an astonishing 60 percent). The increasingly fast pace of renovation is also responsible for increased carbon emissions due to the new materials’ upfront carbon footprint, which accounts for 65 percent to 85 percent of the total embodied carbon emissions of a building.
The good news is there’s a lot that designers can do to reduce it. We spoke to experts in the field to find out how architecture and design firms can help to stem the tide of construction-related waste and spearhead a more environmentally responsible renovation.
1. Start early
Deconstruction is a relatively new practice. Finding contractors who can successfully deconstruct the existing built environment may take time. You’ll also need to get your clients on board with a new way of renovating and research where the deconstructed materials can go in your market.
2. Seek out a deconstruction specialist
The easiest way to integrate deconstruction into your projects is to find a specialist who is already doing it (search for deconstruction and architectural salvage operations in your area). Stephen Filyo, co-founder of BlueEarth Deconstruction in Chicago, says that because the industry is new, he and his wife have essentially made their business up as they’ve gone along. One of their priorities is to make deconstruction the obvious choice not only for the planet, but also for the client’s wallet. These days, homeowners pay BlueEarth to do the deconstruction (which takes that off the general contractor’s bill); the company’s nonprofit partners then help the homeowner get a tax write-off for the donated materials, further offsetting costs. As Filyo explains, “Our model obviously has a huge environmentally positive impact, but economically, every project we do either saves or sometimes even makes our clients money in the process.”
3. Rehome the kitchen
The kitchen is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to waste reduction: Cabinets, appliances, sinks and hardware are all likely to be desired by other homeowners. Steve Feldman, founder of Renovation Angel, a nonprofit that recycles kitchens nationwide, points out several upsides. “If you are only renovating your kitchen, donating the old kitchen might mean you don’t need a dumpster in your driveway,” he says, and the process is “much neater and cleaner than breaking up cabinets.”
4. Team up with a charitable organization …
Donating salvaged building materials can mean a significant tax write-off for your client. Both BlueEarth and Renovation Angel have a nonprofit component. BlueEarth, a for-profit business, partners with a network of nonprofits in the Chicago area to rehome salvaged materials (these organizations then provide the homeowner with documentation for the write-off). Renovation Angel is structured entirely as a nonprofit: The sales of the kitchens fund the ongoing work of keeping kitchens out of the landfill (if you use their services, you’ll need to hire an appraiser to get your client her tax documentation). If you’re looking for a place to donate materials near you, Filyo recommends Habitat for Humanity ReStore—a national operation—as a great place to start.
5. … Or just give it away
If there’s not a local nonprofit that takes salvaged items (or if your local charity is not taking donations at this time), you can try posting the items on Facebook Marketplace, Buy Nothing groups, Craigslist, Nextdoor and other local sites: You may be surprised by what others will be willing to come take away. Yaiza Armbruster, the founder of the architecture firm Atelier Armbruster, jokes that there’s a whole “mafia” for used appliances in the New York market.
6. Don’t dismiss humble materials
BlueEarth’s first deconstruction job was a single-story ranch house—not the historical house dripping with architectural salvage Filyo had originally envisioned. “Some salvage businesses are looking for stained glass and high-end appliances,” he says, “but one of the nonprofits we work with will happily take a 20-year-old toilet, which means that somebody in that neighborhood can get it for $25 or $50 instead of buying one for hundreds of dollars.” Likewise, Feldman’s firm has successfully removed and resold Ikea kitchens. “The rule of thumb is if it’s a lower-end kitchen, it needs to be more recent and in really good shape,” he says. And remember: The ugly hollow-core doors and dated-but-sturdy windows you see as trash might all be desirable to a homeowner on a budget.
7. Save the wood floors
One thing Filyo hates to see in a dumpster is hardwood flooring. “People are surprised at just how much demand there is for hardwood floors,” he says. “But if you have a historic house and you need to match oak flooring of that age, we’re the ones who reclaim it and preserve it.” Plus, the wood from even just 50 years ago is of a much higher quality than today.
8. Make a schedule to accommodate deconstruction
Responsible deconstruction will add time to your project, but probably less than you think. “The only thing that takes longer in our process is hardwood floors,” says Filyo. “Virtually everything else is the same. To take a bathroom vanity out is about the same amount of time as to smash it and haul it.” Renovation Angel estimates it will take four to five hours to completely remove a medium-size kitchen (you’ll have to arrange for an electrician and a plumber to disconnect everything before they arrive).
9. Preserve materials on-site
Dijana Savic-Jambert, the co-founder of Maredi Design in Chicago, specializes in regenerative design, with projects in both the U.S. and France. “We find that salvaging and reusing or repurposing are concepts that are more widely practiced in France,” she says. There is even a French phrase—“la valorisation des déchets de construction”—that means finding value in what you are deconstructing or repurposing. If you’re taking original elements out of a home to achieve your client’s desired aesthetic, Savic-Jambert suggests saving the materials in a basement, an attic, a garage or a warehouse if available—another homeowner might later appreciate your client’s old paneled doors or midcentury bathroom lighting.
10. Design differently going forward
Become a consumer of salvaged materials. Deconstruction can help reduce waste, but increased demand for salvaged materials will really drive the market, according to Shawn Wood, a construction waste specialist for the City of Portland, Oregon, in an interview with The New York Times. Likewise, when you design, ask yourself if your design or materials are favorable to deconstruction. The more we keep reuse in mind now, the less future waste our industry will create.
Homepage image: ©Adobe Firefly
Laura Fenton is a writer with a special interest in the intersection between homes and sustainability, and is the author of the Living Small newsletter and two interior design books, The Little Book of Living Small and The Bunk Bed Book. She has written about home and design for nearly 20 years, and her work has appeared in many outlets, including Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful, Real Simple, and The Washington Post, as well as online publications and regional design magazines.