The Social Component of Building Deconstruction

I could talk about the benefits of deconstruction all day. When I started deconstructing buildings 19 years ago, my company had to be self-sufficient and competitive because I couldn’t rely on our ever-growing role in “green” building or receiving funding to help with workforce development. Today, green building and workforce development have become important reasons to deconstruct instead of demolishing, but they are not the only reasons.

When it comes to green building, if you compare new flooring to reclaimed flooring or new framing to reclaimed framing lumber, it takes about 11 to 13 times less energy for us to reclaim it than to manufacture it new, and three to five times less greenhouse gases are generated when we reclaim it than manufacturing it new. The green benefits of deconstruction are only part of the story. There’s this whole social component to it a lot of people don’t even know about.

We’re desperately trying to create jobs in this country, especially in construction.

Sure, we could be training people to be plumbers for when the economy gets better, but there are thousands of plumbers out of work right now and we don’t know when they’ll get back to work. We could train people to be roofers, but there are thousands of them out of work, too. Deconstruction is a great opportunity to get people back to work because we are talking about jobs that didn’t exist prior to the economic slowdown.

Every job we create in deconstruction is new. For every single demolition operator, we need as many as 25 deconstruction and reuse workers, taking apart buildings by hand, driving the trucks to the reuse store, managing the reuse warehouse and running the store, etc.

Demolition—not demolition contractors—is a way to throw jobs in the landfill and that’s what everyone seems to be doing. They’re throwing materials in the landfill, resources in the landfill, “trees” in the landfill. I hope demolition companies will do a lot of this hiring and have already begun training some to deconstruct.

I’ve tried to figure out what the downsides of deconstruction are. We have gotten it to the point where it costs less and it takes about the same amount of time as demolition, so what is the downside? I guess the landfill goes on a diet, and the landfill owners are losing out, but I’m OK with that. I don’t actually consider that a downside. The other downside, I guess, is the Chinese factories are going to slow down a little bit because all the items they’re producing and sending over here (not creating any American jobs) are replaced with our materials. I teach deconstruction classes and tell the students, who often are out of work because their job was exported, that deconstruction jobs will never go overseas.

My company now is winning about 85 percent of our bids, but I’m not saying you have to deconstruct every building every time. I’m not going to guilt trip you for not doing it either, but as long as you know how to do it in a timely and cost-effective way (ask me; I’m happy to provide training), then you won’t have to pass on an opportunity to provide gainful employment to your valuable employees and subcontractors. How about trying to invest that project budget in workers instead of in landfills? Let’s say the deconstruction and building material reuse industry has 20,000 workers in it now. We are only deconstructing about 1 percent of the buildings being removed each year and selectively salvaging only a few percent more. If I could just get us to 6 percent deconstruction (where we deconstruct one building and someone else demolishes 17 buildings) we would have to hire about another 100,000 employees! So the next time you are asking yourself how to find more work for your crew so they don’t find somewhere else to work, consider deconstruction instead of demolition.

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