A New Beginning

The cliché “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” couldn’t be more true than in the practice of deconstruction. Deconstruction, the act of disassembling a building so components, such as joists, flooring, siding and fixtures, can be reused is an alternative to building demolition in which the materials are landfill-bound.

Tom Miller, CR, CKBR, president of Tom Miller Remodeling Inc., Portland, Ore., has practiced deconstruction since recycling has gained more traction in the past 10 to 12 years. “We took so many trips to the landfill with materials we had hauled out of remodeling projects,” he recalls. “It took a lot of time and expense and always seemed like a waste of materials. Once we started thinking about it, we started reusing more materials on-site.”

The Portland area has a lot of houses built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Miller says. When Miller and his team work on remodeling jobs where they pull lumber, there’s often nothing wrong with it. In fact, Miller says the old-growth lumber he’s deconstructing is sturdier and straighter than lumber he can buy new in stores. “We started with that and then started looking for ways to use other materials,” he explains.

Rather than sending salvageable materials to the landfill Miller doesn’t have design use for, he often donates them to local organizations, such as the Rebuilding Center, a Portland-based nonprofit that accepts salvaged materials, and Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores. The stores accept almost any building component, including appliances, lumber, siding, toilets, sinks and faucets. Miller receives a donation receipt he passes to his clients so they get a tax incentive. “A lot of times, clients are not interested in reusing the material in their own home, but they’re happy with the idea that it will be of use to somebody,” Miller says.

When it comes to wall components, sheetrock and plaster cannot be saved. However, wood trim can be salvaged even if it is contaminated with lead. “All of my people are RRP-certified so we test for lead if the home is older than 1978,” Miller explains. “If we find lead present in the paint, we can still reuse the interior wood trims; we just have to follow protocol in removing it, cleaning up and ensuring lead dust is cleaned up and contained. Then the trim can be reused and repainted.” (For more information about how RRP affects reuse of building materials, see the May issue, page 40.) Old hardwood flooring also can be removed and refinished. Miller often hires deconstruction specialists because of their efficiency and training at salvaging materials.

Most components in a room can be saved, such as cabinets, counters, plumbing and lighting fixtures. “If we can get it out intact, it’ll be reused on-site or taken to Habitat or the Rebuilding Center,” Miller says. He sometimes has clients who want to save old kitchen cabinets to put up for storage in their garages or old vanities they save for a future basement bathroom build. Because toilets have evolved to low-flow models, he rarely reuses them and often sends them to the landfill unless a toilet has historic value. In those cases, he donates the toilet to an organization that can give it to someone who is working on a historic renovation and is looking for dated material.

Miller estimates deconstruction takes 25 to 30 percent longer than demolition when just starting out, but as contractors find ways to streamline operations, it goes faster. For example, Miller trains his team to pull nails from wood as they go rather than making a pile of lumber with nails that need to be pulled later. “Simple things like that help,” he asserts. “If you do it as you go, you eventually become good at it. The first time you do anything takes twice as long as the second.” Eventually, it takes almost no extra time to deconstruct and can have a positive effect on profits by reducing expenses and enhancing credibility to clients because you’re showing them you practice a green-minded approach to remodeling.

For remodelers interested in deconstructing within their practices, Miller recommends contacting a local recycling center or Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore to find out what materials are valuable in specific areas. “Contractors have a hard job, and labor is where you usually make or break a project so you don’t want to waste a lot of time doing something that is not going to turn out in the end,” he says. “Having the knowledge ahead of time about what kinds of things are useful for repurposing in your area will keep you from putting a lot of effort into saving a fixture just to find out you need to take it to the dump anyway.”

After research, Miller says the rest is common sense. “If something looks good enough that you think you can reuse it but don’t want to keep it, then pass it on to someone else who will reuse it. Then instead of mountains in the landfill, we just have hills.”

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