A Beginner's Guide to Deconstruction

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Looking to do some home remodeling in the New Year? Don’t just construct. Deconstruct.

Deconstruction refers to carefully dismantling pieces of a home or building in order to salvage valuable building materials. And it’s a great idea for anyone looking to remodel this year as it saves valuable resources and money.

Statistics show that the demolition of buildings in the United States produces 124,670,000 tons of debris each year, according to the Deconstruction Institute. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It’s no secret that starting from scratch on a home remodel can be daunting, and deconstruction isn’t the easiest way to tear down a home, but these simple tips will get you through the early phases virtually pain-free.

Why deconstruct?

There are many environmental benefits to deconstruction. Building debris accounts for one-third of the solid waste in the United States.

To give a concrete example, consider that one year’s debris is enough to build a wall about 30 feet high and 30 feet thick around the entire coast of the continental United States. So, keeping reusable building materials out of the landfill means a lighter footprint for all.

Since deconstructed materials are recycled and reused, the need for raw materials in new building projects is also decreased. You can often put the materials salvaged from your home right back into your new remodeling projects, or you can donate them to be reused in other projects.

In addition to being great for the environment, deconstruction can also mean cash in your pocket. Reusing old building materials will save you money on your remodeling project, and materials you donate can translate into a big tax write-off.

And we’re not just talking pennies. In 2009, a family in Danville, Calif. recycled their 2,250-square-foot home and received a whopping $100,000 tax write-off. After donation to local nonprofit organizations, more than 80 percent of the home was reused.

Think outside the box

Commonly deconstructed items include doors, windows, flooring, ceiling tile, countertops, cabinets, light and plumbing fixtures, molding, joint fixtures, roofing, blinds and shades. But while some items are deconstructed more often than others, that doesn’t mean you can’t think outside the box with your deconstruction and remodeling project.

If you’re looking to give the bathroom a new look, carefully remove that old medicine cabinet and donate it for reuse. If you want to jazz up the staircase, remove your stair railing to be donated for reuse, and replace it with a brand new look.

With enough patience, practically any material in your home can be deconstructed and reused.

What to do with leftovers

While deconstructed materials from commercial buildings are often sold for reuse, it’s doubtful that you will remove enough material from your home to attract industrial buyers.

You can often sell metals like copper piping for scrap or find other local residential buyers on sites like Craigslist, but generally you want to concentrate on reusing the materials yourself or donating them.

Local deconstruction and reuse organizations or nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity can put your pieces to good use in a new building project. And the tax write-off will likely surpass any profit you’d make from selling pieces individually.

If you’re doing the project yourself and feel like you could use some help, Habitat can also send a professional crew leader and a staff of volunteers to help you deconstruct your materials through its ReStore program.

“We would suggest the homeowner contact their local ReStore as they begin the deconstruction planning process. A number of our ReStores manage their own professional deconstruction staff,” says Drew Meyer, senior director of ReStore and Gift in Kind Support for Habitat for Humanity International.

“This approach allows the homeowner to keep valuable and reusable material out of the landfill. They may qualify for a tax deduction and the funds generated by the sale of the materials at the ReStore allow the local Affiliate to serve more families, build more home and change more lives in the community.”

Getting started

We’re huge fans of DIY, but like all building and remodeling projects, deconstruction can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.

If you want to do your remodeling and deconstruction project yourself but aren’t sure how, ask handy friends and relatives for help before getting started. If you’re still stuck, seek some advice from a professional.

Once you get going, the most important thing to remember about deconstruction is caution. You want to do as little damage to building materials as possible. Every piece should be removed slowly and carefully, and make sure to remove all nails before stacking pieces on top of each other.

To get hard numbers on the resources you’re saving and how you can make the process more efficient, use the Deconstruction Institute’s Benefit Calculator. The main “benefit factoids” are dived into four main categories: land use, economic, energy and greenhouse gas.

You may be surprised at the amount of materials you’ll be saving. For example, if you deconstructed a 2,000-square-foot home, the wood reused could eliminate the need for the harvest of 33 trees, and it could reduce the volume of landfill space by up to 8,420 cubic feet. Now, that’s worth a little door-frame peeling and fixture unscrewing.

Using recycled materials

The best place to use your deconstructed materials is right in your own home. Could that old molding be planks for your new workbench, or could you use some of those old cabinets for extra storage in your basement or garage? Using your deconstructed materials yourself saves money on new materials for remodeling, and it will give your new items a nostalgic feel.

If you need some extra materials for your remodeling project, you can still use recycled or previously deconstructed items. Check out your local business directory or a green directory like EcoBusinessLinks, and search for companies or nonprofits that sell recycled building materials. If you are using a contractor, he or she can also help you get in touch with someone who sells deconstructed material.

Handy resources

Research is key to starting any large project. These reference materials will help point you in the right direction.

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