Protect Your Passion

As a construction professional, you have a passion for buildings. After completing a project, you tell stories about the job, enter design and construction contests, and point out buildings to family and friends, saying, “I built that.” Your heart pounds with excitement when you find a solution to a construction problem, and you see the beauty in the parts of buildings consumers may find mundane.

Yet, too often, Americans overlook your passion and choose to demolish a building instead of carefully deconstructing it so parts of it may be used again. True, deconstruction takes longer than demolition, it may cost more, and Americans don’t have a lot of time or money these days. However, there is new evidence that suggests not only will deconstruction allow you to preserve and protect your passion, but it can be done almost as quickly as and less expensively than demolition. In addition, deconstruction can address some of our nation’s current woes, specifically job creation.

Deconstruction Economics

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, deconstruction is defined as systematic disassembly of a building with the purpose of recovering valuable materials for reuse in construction, renovation or manufacturing into new products. Dave Bennink, owner of RE-USE Consulting, Bellingham, Wash., has been deconstructing for 19 years and currently is the Chicago-based Building Materials Reuse Association’s National Building Deconstructor of the Year. Bennink notes the word deconstruction tends to make people think about taking a whole building down, but a lot of his work is in remodeling or renovation. “There are all sorts of opportunities to deconstruct, like when you incorrectly measure for a window and it doesn’t fit and you can’t return it. Or when you complete a ‘pop top’—remove the roof, add a story to the home and put the roof back on. Deconstruction is really about keeping things out of the landfill.”

Bennink travels around the country teaching others how to make deconstruction work financially. “I looked at how people were deconstructing—doing things all by hand, taking forever—and then I looked at demolition and how they follow a routine and take very little time, so I came up with a hybrid of the two,” he says. “What I call hybrid deconstruction is a series of techniques that minimizes time and maximizes landfill diversion. Basically, from the owners’ standpoint, it minimizes the time we’ll be on the project but maximizes the benefits for them.”

In addition to his systematic approach to deconstruction, tax deductions are part of making deconstruction work financially. When remodeling contractors are paid to carefully remove items, such as kitchen cabinets or pre-hung doors, their clients recoup the added labor costs by collecting a tax deduction (and avoiding disposal costs). For example, the Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse, Evanston, Ill., is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and accepts salvaged materials and issues a confirmation letter with an itemized inventory for tax purposes. A typical whole-house remodel includes salvaged hardwood flooring, cabinets, doors, windows and lighting. The appraised value varies widely, but typically is around $14,500. Assuming a federal tax bracket of 28 percent, the after-tax cash value for these materials is around $4,000. Avoiding loading/hauling/disposal costs saves the homeowner another $1,000. Therefore, a homeowner choosing deconstruction would receive a benefit of around $5,000. There may be regional differences in demolition and landfill fees, but the value of the deduction frequently justifies the added labor costs.

Contractors and homeowners should be leery of tax deductions that sound too good to be true. Recent cases of tax fraud connected to deconstruction have occurred in various parts of the country; these may be because appraisers are basing appraisals on the intact home. “Imagine you’re driving a $50,000 sports car to a nonprofit to donate it, and you get hit by a logging truck on the way to the nonprofit,” Bennink explains. “You pick up all the pieces of the sports car and put them in a shopping cart and roll it to the nonprofit. Is it still worth $50,000?”

Make sure you’re working with a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, and if you have any concerns about an appraisal, contact your accountant or the Internal Revenue Service, Washington.

Job Creation

Bennink says the current economic situation has created the best time to get involved with deconstruction. “We have all these people out of work and deconstruction requires many workers. We also have homeowners who need to repair homes but can’t afford it. They could if affordable salvaged materials were available to them.”

Bennink recently taught a workforce training seminar in Evanston where two of 12 students—some of whom had been out of work for three years—already have found work and a plan is in place to have all the students working soon. “I didn’t get into this business to be a social worker or workforce developer, but I find the workforce-development component of deconstruction fascinating,” he says. “A lot of contractors called me when the economy took its downturn wanting to learn about deconstruction. They wanted to know how to provide more paid work per jobsite to keep valuable employees busy and content.”

Every job deconstruction creates is a new job, Bennink adds. “You can demolish a house with one person but you might need 10 people to deconstruct it. Then you need somebody to drive the truck of materials to the store. You need somebody to run the warehouse and somebody to work in the store. You need people to manufacture reclaimed furniture and reclaimed wood flooring. In the end, we need about 25 people to keep up with just one person doing demolition. For every 1,000 demolition workers I’m going to need an army of deconstruction people.”

The Washington-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports more than 300,000 buildings are taken down in the U.S. every year. If, as Bennink suggests, only 1 percent of them are being deconstructed and there currently are 20,000 workers in the deconstruction industry, the number of workers needed would increase to 100,000 if just 5 percent of our nation’s buildings are deconstructed. “I’m not trying to deconstruct 100 percent of the buildings out there,” Bennink adds. “Some buildings have toxic mold and arson damage or have housed meth labs and they’re a worthless mess. However, in places like North Carolina where furniture manufacturing used to be done, we can bring furniture manufacturing back by making high-end reclaimed wood furniture that comes from disassembled buildings in North Carolina. Right now, more than ever, we have a reason to find people jobs and get rid of vacant buildings that are victims of the housing crisis. Deconstruction and job creation intersect perfectly.”

No ‘Away’

Antoine Lavoisier famously wrote in the Law of Conservation of Mass that matter is neither created nor destroyed. In layman’s terms, there is no “away” to which to throw something. You have the opportunity to demonstrate your passion for the buildings that have made up our nation’s fabric by finding another life for their components. (For unique ideas, see “Everything Old Is New Again,” page 20.)

At the site of Chicago’s first residential deconstruction project in 2007, Dave Hampton, a local architect, said it well: “The history of our neighborhoods, our cities, our nations and the world is evident in what we build. Buildings reflect us and our values; they are our legacy. … Our buildings and homes deserve to meet a better end than becoming useless garbage. Deconstruction gives our buildings and homes a chance to live again.”