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Sep 29

This Old Recyclable House (Jon Mooallem, NYTimes Magazine, 9/28/08)

Yesterday, the NYTimes Magazine featured an in-depth look at “deconstruction” — tearing down old houses and buildings in order to reclaim virtually 100% of the building materials. It’s an intriguing concept — with complicated economics and market forces at work. On the surface of it, demolition is faster and cheaper. But deconstruction could contribute in significant ways to sustainable building practices. To start with, we could keep an amazing amount of stuff out of landfills.

Here are a few paragraphs:

A quarter of a million homes are demolished annually, according to the E.P.A., liberating some 1.2 billion board feet of reusable lumber alone. For the most part, this wood has been trucked out to a landfill and buried. Remodeling actually ends up generating more than one and a half times the amount of debris every year that demolishing homes does. (America generates a total of 160 million tons of construction and demolition debris every year, 60 percent of which is landfilled.) The Stanford archaeologist William Rathje, who spent decades excavating landfills, has estimated that construction and demolition debris, together with paper, account for “well over half” of what America throws out. He called it one of a few “big-ticket items” in the waste stream actually worthy of the debates we have over merely “symbolic targets” like disposable diapers.

At the same time, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, new construction consumes 60 percent of all materials used in the nation’s economy every year, excluding food and fuel. Few of those resources are renewable. Older homes are among the last repositories of old-growth timber, like heart pine or cypress, and keeping even the most mundane building materials in circulation at the end of a house’s life preserves their “embodied energy” (the energy expended producing and shipping natural resources in the first place) instead of drawing new resources to replace them.

“This is a manufacturing process,” Guy told me. “That’s the way you should look at this. We are making building materials.” In fact, the aim of deconstruction has always been more socioeconomic than environmental: employing local people to harvest a stock of low-cost materials so that lower-income homeowners and rental landlords in the same area can afford to maintain their properties. Denhart talks about houses as being part of a community’s collective history and wealth. Deconstruction maintains and redistributes that wealth.

Smart stuff, and well written. Read the article here: This Old Recyclable House