Domicile Dissection

In an effort to think green, local builders look to deconstruct homes one board at a time

By Christine Mehta

Grant Meacham held an innocent-looking piece of cardboard up to his webcam. “Watch this,” he said. Suddenly, swirling images and a 3-D model of a house popped out of the cardboard while he stared at it on his computer screen. “Augmented reality,” he said over his shoulder as he manipulated the cardboard and made the pieces of data dance across the screen.

Augmented reality is just one futuristic tool Meacham and his two D-Build colleagues, industrial designers Rob Englert and Carlos Suarez, plan to use to launch the housing industry into the high-tech world of virtual reality. “Our plan is to give every material a story, and then make that story accessible to the public online,” Meacham said.

Deconstruction, the “greenest” alternative to demolition, means completely disassembling a building piece-by-piece, often saving 99 percent of the house from the landfill. Although deconstruction is the most effective method of salvaging the largest quantity of reusable materials from an old building, it is a time-consuming and expensive process. Green demolition is a faster and cheaper process advocated by the designers at D-Build.

The company began constructing an online network to connect the disjointed industry of “reclaimed” materials, or materials salvaged from the destruction of old buildings to be resold. “D-Build is a national idea, just one that few people have acted on,” Englert (pictured below) said. Selling reclaimed materials is projected to become a $31.4 billion industry by 2014. “We’re sort of at the ground floor in helping to make this happen,” Englert said about his one-year-old startup.

As industrial designers, architects, and contractors look for “greener” ways to build, they’re increasingly discovering reclaimed materials. Concentrating on marketing recycled materials as components of an artisanal craft, D-Build has built a website to sell reclaimed lumber, brick, and other materials, as well as products like high-end furniture built from reclaimed materials. D-Build wants to erase the stigma associated with buying used materials, such as lumber or kitchen appliances. By compiling a database of information about the materials reclaimed from deconstructed buildings, they turn scrap material into vintage, usable material. They have supplied several local projects, including an organic food cafe in Clay, N.Y., and a furniture display at the Everson Museum in downtown Syracuse.

The company’s innovation has earned recognition on a national scale as well. Companies in Silicon Valley asked D-Build to supply reclaimed materials for a new project over the next year. “We want to show the potential for materials keeping their life and being able to give them new life,” Englert said.

Two alternative methods to traditional demolition—deconstruction and green demolition—garnered more attention from industrial designers and urban planners as the number of vacant houses rises in urban centers across the United States.

Green demolition teams make strategic cuts designed to save large sheets of lumber, concrete, and other materials for reuse. “A team of three people can take down a house in three to five days,” Meacham said.

While green demolition does not salvage as much material as deconstruction, Meacham and Englert agree it is not cost-effective to continue extracting materials after a few days of deconstruction. “In five days, we can reclaim 25 tons of materials,” he said. “After that, your gains get less and less. A lot of people think that deconstruction can only be this ‘save everything method,’ but right now it’s not feasible. You have to take the construction firm’s and architect’s budgets into account.”

Statistics reveal that thousands of homes sit unoccupied in cities across the U.S., including Syracuse. Out of the 68,196 housing units in Syracuse, 8,709 of them are vacant, according to statistics reported in the 2010 Syracuse Housing Plan. While Syracuse’s numbers pale in comparison to the 33,000 vacant houses in Detroit, Mich., or the 25,000 in Columbus, Ohio, Englert and Meacham said Syracuse needs to address its stagnant housing sector.

They also said that thousands of these homes need to be taken down, but admitted that not all the houses should be demolished. The National Association of Home Builders reported that an average of 300,000 houses are demolished and thrown in landfills each year. “That creates huge amounts of greenhouse gases and affects the environment as a whole,” Englert said.

D-Build, along with an emerging number of contractors, architects, civil engineers, and industrial designers dedicated to “green” construction and deconstruction, collaborated for Design for Disassembly (DFD) and are looking for ways to save thousands of tons of usable materials from clogging landfills and causing unprecedented environmental degradation.

Paul Crovella, a construction management professor at SUNY-ESF, specializes in research. “It would not be surprising if, in the next generation, houses would be designed for disassembly before they are constructed in the first place,” Crovella said. Houses today are not easily disassembled, which adds to the difficulty of salvaging reusable materials and adds to the enormous waste stream flowing into the nation’s landfills.

The ESF College Foundation, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to helping SUNY-ESF develop and manage its resources, is looking to garner national attention with a groundbreaking deconstruction project, according to its website. Just behind the ESF campus, the ESF College Foundation would simultaneously deconstruct 11 houses and sell the land to SU. “It would set us up for a lot of recognition,” Crovella said. “It’s a model no one’s attacked on that scale.”

The project would expand on another initiative the ESF College Foundation started last year and carried out through the summer. Last spring, the ESF College Foundation purchased 18 houses on Oakland Avenue behind the SUNY-ESF campus in order to build Centennial Hall, a dormitory dedicated to housing only ESF students. The dormitory will house 452 students and ESF plans to complete the building by the summer of 2011. The project drew debate between the project coordinators, who were interested in attempting to deconstruct the 18 houses. “Everyone was interested in deconstruction for those houses, but an evaluation in terms of cost, it would be twice as much to deconstruct and twice as much time,” Crovella said.

Instead, project supervisor Greg Wright from Syracuse’s Habitat for Humanity affiliate brought in teams of volunteers to extract the most valuable materials from each house. The houses were then demolished and the remains hauled to area landfills. The technique employed by Habitat volunteers to salvage high-value materials is known as “soft skimming.” Unlike deconstruction or green demolition, soft skimming only saves the most easily removed or valuable goods such as sinks, countertops, toilets, and stoves from going into landfills.

The main problem with soft skimming is that it doesn’t save lumber, the largest contributor to waste from demolished houses, according to Englert. In fact, lumber can be the most valuable commodity salvaged from buildings.

Crovella recently performed a series of tests involving used, or “old-growth” lumber, and determined that it was stronger than modern lumber sold at Home Depot Inc. or Lowe’s. Lumber cut more than 50 years ago came from trees allowed to grow years longer than lumber cut from modern tree farms. Seventy-five percent of houses in Syracuse were built before 1960, and 47 percent before 1939, meaning that any lumber salvaged from deconstructed houses in the city could be at least 50 to 75 years old and classified as “old-growth,” and therefore valuable.

On Oakland Avenue, soft skimming and demolishing the 18 houses drew some veiled criticism from a few individuals, including Crovella and Michael Rann, an ESF construction management graduate student.

“Habitat did what they could with what they had,” Rann said. “But it’s just the tiniest fraction that they took out. They got the cabinetry, the hardwood flooring, tubs and toilets, and stuff…but that doesn’t even scratch the surface. There’s lumber, concrete, brick, and roofing—stuff like that.”

Habitat took the materials as donations for resale in their ReStore on Otisco Street. The proceeds from ReStore help fund the houses Habitat builds each year. However, to make deconstruction a viable option on a large-scale, Habitat’s model is unsustainable, Rann said, “If you’re just going to give away materials [as donations], it’ll never be economically sustainable.”

Crovella, Rann, Meacham, and Englert agree that the missing link on the chain leading to economic sustainabiliy is the connection between their respective companies to capitalize on the separate niches each company carved out of the fledging reclaimed materials market in Syracuse. Without a comprehensive database to collect information about the reclaimed materials and provide a backstory for each product, it is difficult to redistribute and resell. The story adds value to “material [that] people think is garbage,” convincing the public to buy reclaimed materials instead of the new ones will continue to be an uphill battle, Meacham said.

That’s where D-Build comes in, linking the consumer, producer, retailer, and product through the equivalent of a virtual warehouse of recycled materials nationwide. Through online innovation and the power of storytelling, D-Build plans to bring the housing industry into its next phase of evolution.

By providing a link between scattered industry players and tapping into the wealth of resources stored in the thousands of empty houses in Syracuse and all over the country, D-Build is helping to pave the way for a sustainable future in the housing industry.

Photography by Aaron Katchen