For a residence in Leawood, Kan., El Dorado went to the same source that BNIM used for its projects: PlanetReuse, a Missouri-based, for-profit consulting and brokering firm that has connected designers to salvaged and excess components since 2008. “We don’t own a forklift or a warehouse,” explains principal and founder Nathan Benjamin. “We just stay in the middle and coordinate details.” In an industry that includes about 1,100 reuse centers across the country, he says, the problem is shortening the distribution pipeline and raising awareness.
To that end, PlanetReuse is on the cusp of launching PlanetReuse Marketplace, a real-time online database and e-commerce site of salvaged and excess materials that could provide one-stop shopping for designers nationwide. The database, along with the BMRA’s efforts and other resources—such as the Design for Reuse Primer, available online from the design advocacy group Public Architecture—is part of the growing ferment to bring reuse into the mainstream.
But a steep climb lies ahead. For the most part, reuse remains the province not of professional design firms, but of private contractors and do-it-yourselfers: “The majority of our clients are just like you and me [individuals and remodelers],” says Leslie Kirkland, director of the Loading Dock, a Baltimore-based reuse center.
A Price for Everything
Cost is an issue for deconstruction. While Benjamin cites prospective savings of as much as 30 to 40 percent on select reused items such as access flooring, he admits, “I would be miscommunicating if I said you could save every time.” And then there’s the simple question of the applicability of used components in high-end commercial projects. As CMRA’s Turley puts it: “My question is always: How many 10-year-old toilets do we want to reuse?”
More questions remain about the fiscal implications of the deconstruction and dismantling processes that are the sine qua non for Turley’s recyclers. The 2004 Northeastern University study “An Analysis of Cost and Duration for Deconstruction of Residential Buildings in Massachusetts,” noted by the blog Real Life LEED, found that deconstruction can cost between 17 and 25 percent more than the demo-and-dump model. The EPA has issued conflicting reports that show at times a net gain, and at others a net loss. A report in trade magazine Remodeling (which, like ARCHITECT, is published by Hanley Wood) concluded that “there is no rule of thumb” in the economics of deconstruction.
While the relative labor and time costs of deconstruction vary widely among projects, in general, the more material one tries to pull from a site, the longer it will take and the more expensive it will become. On average, full deconstruction of a residential structure—in which nearly everything is salvaged—proceeds at the pace of 1,000 square feet per week, per five-to-seven-person crew, says Lorenz Schilling, president of the nonprofit organization Deconstruction & Reuse Network. Meanwhile, a complete tear-down via traditional machine demolition typically occurs at 1,000 square feet per day—a 3,000-square-foot house could be gone, foundations and all, in less than three days. However, Schilling adds, if machines cannot be used, as may be the case in gut renovations, the traditional demolition approach may only reduce project times by one and a half days per 1,000 square feet, versus deconstruction.
“The cost can be many times higher than traditional demolition work,” notes Dan Costello, a CMRA board member and the owner of Costello Dismantling in Middleton, Mass. Though he keeps his firm competitive by utilizing a more selective dismantling process, price remains the ultimate factor for whether a client awards a contract to his company or a conventional demolition firm wins. When it comes to demolition, he says, “It’s the low bid that counts.”
When people ask about cost, Schilling turns to his go-to case study, the demolition of a 2,500-square-foot Southern California residence. He estimates that the up-front labor and disposal costs associated with conventional demolition are substantially lower than that of laborious, complex deconstruction—$15,000 versus $37,000. But after tax deductions, the bottom line actually favors deconstruction by more than $10,000. That’s a cheery prospect for reuse proponents, but even Schilling hesitates to take the hypothetical breakdown as rote fact. Too many mitigating factors, from local dumping costs to home value to labor practices, can intervene to wipe out or reverse the nominal savings of salvage.
As with much of the burgeoning green-design practice, the search for a viable metrics continues on not only the financial side of the ledger, but also the ecological. The prospective advantages of recycling and reuse seem obvious enough. A 2008 report by the Boston-based Tellus Institute suggests that, in concert with other efficiencies in the waste stream, a 75 percent diversion rate could result in the carbon equivalent of taking 50 million cars off the road. But with LEED criteria changing every few years, and designers increasingly looking to go “beyond LEED” with programs such as the Living Building Challenge’s Net Zero Energy Building Certification, a best-practices standard for environmental construction remains in contention.
On at least one subject, however, the USGBC does take a stand that seems to be fairly definitive. The Materials & Resources credit offering the most potential points—up to five in LEED Core & Shell—comes not from the inventive deployment of previously used materials, but from the adaptive reuse of entire existing structures; that is, leaving original walls, floors, and roof intact. The message is well-taken: If architects really want to look out for the ecosystem, they should start by making the most of what they already have.