Deconstructing an Old Home Can Give You Building Blocks for a New One

A salvaged staircase from deconstructed public housing in D.C. The deconstructing of homes can serve as employment and job training.
A salvaged staircase from deconstructed public housing in D.C. The deconstructing of homes can serve as employment and job training. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Katherine Salant
Saturday, December 13, 2008

You have decided to build a new house. You weighed all the pros and cons of 15 lots and finally chose one that's near public mass transit, so you'll need only one car. It's a 10-minute walk from a local shopping area, so you can easily incorporate some exercise into your regular routine.

These are the pluses.

The minus is the 1930s Cape Cod that currently sits on your winning location. You'll have to tear it down to build your dream.

But, you can make lemonade out of this lemon-like predicament, save money and end up with high-quality framing lumber that is almost unavailable today at any price.

All you have to do is deconstruct the old house instead of smashing it. This will produce a tidy pile of salvaged framing lumber -- though not all you'll need if you're building a bigger house. You may also be able to save some of the finish materials, including the solid wood paneled doors that were standard in the late 1930s when the old house was built, the wood trim around all the doors and windows, the oak flooring and the funky art-deco kitchen cabinets, and you can incorporate them into the new house as well.

But this solution is rarely implemented because most home builders and homeowners are unaware of the benefits of deconstruction and material salvage, said Bob Falk of the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., and co-author of "Unbuilding," (Taunton 2007, $30).

About 250,000 U.S. houses that are roughly 1,000 square feet in size are torn down every year, Falk said. Not everything in these old houses can be reused, but more than 1 billion board feet of framing lumber is salvageable, enough to frame about 75,000, 2,500-square-foot houses.

Not only is this a vast and untapped resource, "this is what is left of our old-growth forests," he said. "We're throwing away beautiful lumber -- hemlock, doug fir and long-leaf pine. Lumber graders who determine the suitability of salvaged lumber for reuse say the quality is often higher than they have seen in 30 years -- 'free of defects, straight, no knot holes and large sizes.' " In addition, the huge framing timbers that were commonly used in warehouses and old factories that were built at the turn of the 20th century can be sawn into flooring that's worth 20 times their value as framing lumber, Falk said.

Why isn't this resource being tapped? For most home builders, time is money. A two-man crew can smash a 2,000-square-foot-house in a day. To deconstruct the same house and separate out all the salvageable parts would take six men five days, though a really experienced crew of eight could do it in three days, said Dave Bennick of Bellingham, Wash., who's been deconstructing buildings for more than 15 years.

It's easier to make a case for deconstructing when the teardown is making room for a custom-built house on the same site and the salvaged material can be immediately reused, Falk said. When the houses are abandoned ones in inner cities, the benefits are less immediate, but they are significant nonetheless.

First, the deconstructing of houses offers employment and job training in economically depressed areas.

Second, the salvageable materials can be sold through nonprofit stores like Habitat ReStore, which is operated by local chapters of Habitat for Humanity. Habitat ReStore sells used and quality surplus building materials at greatly reduced prices, and the proceeds are used to fund the construction of Habitat houses within the community. Some of the salvaged materials that cannot be reused are recycled.

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