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Deconstruction keeps value and dollars in DC's neighborhoods

A Community Forklift staffer loads a toilet from a NW home onto the Forklift's truck

These sink knobs are in good shape and can be reused

While parts of this master bathroom won't be saved, much of it--including the toilet, sink and more, will be salvaged

Julianne Yurek, brand manager with design/build firm Carnemark, helps carry doors from a built-in closet system out to the Community Forklift truck

Tear down a house and you'll end up with tons—literally—of garbage.

If a 1,500-square-foot home is demolished, it generates 37 tons of waste--drywall, insulation, flooring, brick, and more.

Much of that garbage goes straight to the landfill. But a movement is slowly growing--helped by industry as well as the nonprofit sector--to save parts of an old home from the landfill. Builders who support this movement say that the extra hassle of "deconstructing" rather than demolishing a home is more than offset by the goodwill it builds among clients. Nonprofits say that deconstruction represents an unprecedented economic opportunity.

Jim Schulman, president of the nonprofit Sustainable Community Initiatives, says that Community Forklift, the 34,000-square-foot reuse warehouse and store it owns, is on track to do $1.7 million is sales this year. Multiply that by the other hundreds of reuse centers nationwide, and he says the deconstruction industry could be a $500 million-per-year economic engine.

Truly, salvaged stuff doesn't have to mean "junk." Among SCI's projects have been job-training programs where at-risk youth or chronically unemployed adults can learn deconstruction skills. In one instance years ago, Schulman says, when trainees were deconstructing abandoned public housing in Ward 8 (now renovated and known as Henson Ridge), they discovered the floors of the old buildings were high-quality beechwood. "We pre-sold it, sight unseen." The sale of the flooring paid for the costs of running the entire job training program.

Yet SCI has shifted its focus toward training contractors to add deconstruction to their skill sets, Schulman says.

"It makes us sick to think something that beautiful would be just thrown in the Dumpster."
Ruthie Mundell, director of outreach for Community Forklift, says that the training may have given underemployed people a new skill set, but not necessarily a new job. "When they're done with the program they turn around and say, 'Ok, are there any deconstruction companies that will hire me?' The answer is no. There aren't many private sector jobs in this region yet." (Schulman adds that deconstruction training by nature involves construction training--"if you're taking a building apart you kind of know how it goes together"--so some trainees may stay in the industry, if not the particular profession.)

Tear down this wall
In a normal deconstruction job, "we remove everything by hand," says Frank Sis, lead project manager at Carnemark, a design-build contractor based in Bethesda, Md. "Tile flooring, parquet flooring, hardwood, all that stuff that would normally be going to a landfill is staying in the community." Many times the material being removed from a house is perfectly good, just dated or not to the owner's taste.

Deconstruction is not always easy. Sis mentions a recent job, where the home had a large amount of "beautiful" hardwood flooring. "That floor came up with a lot of nails in it, which Community Forklift would not take," Sis says. Still, "It makes us sick to think something that beautiful would be just thrown in the Dumpster and thrown in a landfill," so a Carnemark employee spent hours removing the nails. It cost the company time and money, he says, but it was worth it, and the client appreciated it too. "Our clients...are very green oriented. They're willing to pay a bit more." 

Sometimes, it doesn't even cost more. Elizabeth Whittle, a partner in the energy practice at D.C. law firm Nixon Peabody, had her Bethesda home "deconstructed" by Second Chance Inc., a Baltimore nonprofit that does deconstruction training and sells the reclaimed materials in its 200,000-square-foot warehouse. (Disclosure: Nixon Peabody is a sponsor of Elevation DC.) Whittle says she and her husband were asked to make a charitable donation to Second Chance that cost roughly what it would have paid to hire a demolition company, "but it turns out to be cheaper when you consider the tax benefits" of donating to a nonprofit, she says. Second Chance didn't make out too poorly, either—they got "stone fireplaces, copper pipes, beautiful oak floors," Whittle says, even the 2x4s inside her old home's walls.

The future of old stuff
"In the long run, I foresee that deconstruction will be offered by demolition companies," Schulman says, even if right now it's more of a limited service offered by select contractors and nonprofits. "I think it's the wave of the future." Some certifications in the increasingly complex LEED rating system give points for using salvaged materials or keeping construction waste out of landfills, and Schulman thinks this will go further in the future. And someday buildings may be designed in a way that they're easy to take apart, making deconstruction a snap.

Ultimately, it's about changing the perception of "old stuff." "People don't see value in old things in our country," Schulman says. "They don't see them as assets. I see all that wood and lumber and doors and windows and plumbing, and I can see that it's a goldmine."

Read more articles by Rachel Kaufman.

Rachel is the managing editor of Elevation D.C. She also covers tech, business and science for publications nationwide. She lives in Brookland.
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