The Deconstruction Ordinance

April 7, 2021

Many municipalities are currently considering the adoption of landfill-diversion ordinances requiring deconstruction. The driver of these initiatives is environmental, and they are often promoted by zero-waste organizations. Such ordinances have numerous benefits and beneficiaries. Generally, they …

• Relieve overburdened landfills
• Provide alternatives to the purchase of new materials for home improvement and construction projects
• Save enormous quantities of embodied energy
• Increase economic development in communities
• Foster new employment opportunities
• Reduce noise and dust pollution
• Preserve resources
• Allow historic preservation
• Incentivize private building owners

And undoubtedly I’ve missed a few.

While the benefits are many, the process of getting salvaged materials from deconstructed buildings to consumers requires careful coordination through the entire supply chain. At least five distinct players are necessary to achieve that objective. Below is a quick review of the process and players, beginning with buyers and going back to the origin of the materials. For simplicity, the focus is on residential structures only.

Buyers. Potential buyers need to be numerous enough to consume the volume of materials that the ordinance is intended to provide. With minor exceptions, this level of absorption can only be accomplished in population centers of a half-million residents or more.

Retailers. To meet the requirements of an ordinance, a full spectrum of materials must be salvaged—not just Viking stoves, Marvin double-glazed windows, or old-growth lumber. This spectrum includes single-glazed windows, hollow-core flush doors, blue bathroom fixtures, laminated kitchen cabinets—maybe even MDF trim (yuck!). Consequently, the store needs to be large and capable enough to handle the full range of reusable building materials, with neither restoration nor repairs. While wood is the dominant material most salvagers are after, it also has the lowest embodied energy of all reusable building materials, by a factor of three to ten times. Consequently, retailers must provide a complete, precise inventory of all materials received pursuant to the ordinance. Further, the weights of the salvaged materials must be gauged, because without weights and inventories there can be no accuracy or accountability.

Deconstruction contractors. In the commercial market these might be demolition contractors, but I’ve rarely seen a demolition contractor do a competent deconstruction job on a residential structure. Some municipalities require contractors to be trained in deconstruction, but training doesn’t guarantee competency. Selecting a contractor is like buying any high-end item. It rests on research, referrals and references. Caveat emptor!

Building owners. Blighted and abandoned houses yield lumber, but rarely satisfy the demands of the broader used-materials market. A residence lived in and maintained that is to be renovated or removed will yield more and better materials. And almost any owner remodeling or tearing down an entire house can afford deconstruction because they:
• Have a high enough income to claim tax benefits from donating their salvaged materials.
• Have already experienced a 150% increase in the cost of framing lumber and other wood-made products, plus cost increases for electrical, HVAC equipment, plumbing, windows, various building permits and utility connections. The modest difference between smash-and-dash demotion and deconstruction is, by comparison, minimal

Deconstruction & Salvage Surveys. Prior to any deconstruction project, a survey should be completed enumerating and describing each and every element to be salvaged. This single task is the glue which holds the entire enterprise together. Without it, potential buyers will not know what is available, stores will not be prepared for what is coming, deconstruction contractors will not know what or how much to salvage, and owners will not know what is donatable. To be effective, the survey should be completed by the store receiving the materials, since the store, through experience, knows which materials the community demands.

While all of these factors are necessary for an ordinance to be successful, the key player is the all-accepting store—and the key tool is the survey. Municipalities can’t claim to have met their objectives without measuring performance, and the survey is the yardstick by which deconstruction is measured.

If you are interested in a deeper dive into this type of ordinance, email me. I will send you my white paper on Deconstruction Ordinances.