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

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.

Third, the reusing and recycling will keep this material out of landfills. In the United States, 30 to 40 percent of all landfill waste is construction and demolition debris, Falk said. Only 9 percent of this waste is generated by new construction. The rest comes from renovation and demolition of existing buildings.

To increase the likelihood that teardowns will be deconstructed instead of destroyed, Bennick has developed ways to speed up the process and reduce his labor costs, which has made him more competitive with conventional "smash-and-dash" firms. Rather than take a house apart piece-by-piece and stud-by-stud -- the usual way -- he often dismantles houses initially in sections and then his crews take each one apart. For example, he might cut a roof into four sections, bring each one to the ground with a crane, and then dismantle it. Not only is this faster, it's also much safer.

The work goes faster still, Bennick said, when he can bring down a house in sections and then immediately reuse the entire piece, without having to take anything apart. For example, with a one-story, Four-Square house that is 30 feet on a side, he can remove each exterior wall in two sections, producing eight, 15-foot-long "panels." The intact wall sections, with their door and window openings, can be reassembled into a farm or storage shed or a detached garage that could be connected to the new house by a breezeway.

One of the rewards of his job is getting to see the fruits of his labors incorporated into new houses, Bennick said. In one memorable case, he removed an 8,000-square-foot high school gym floor in sections and sold them. Some months later, he encountered a section of the flooring in a homeowner's living room, with the foul line markings still clearly visible.

For a deconstructor, the ultimate in time savings and materials salvaged is to move an entire house, Bennick said. He's moved about 20 houses, some as many as 20 miles. He said he feels enormous satisfaction when the old building is moved onto its new foundation, but local building officials often require that all the wiring, plumbing and insulation be updated, and this often necessitates tearing out much of what he worked to save.

For more information on building deconstruction and reuse of materials, contact the Building Materials Reuse Association,

Katherine Salant can be contacted via her Web site,

© 2008, Katherine Salant

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