On a pleasant day in one of Chicago’s suburbs, a deconstruction contractor and his crew remove an original, custom-made window for salvage from a 1923 home. Using simple pry-bar tools, a team member loosens the window from the inside while the crew chief helps from outside, so the sills and jambs are not damaged. Within minutes, the window is removed and carried out of the house where it is packaged and secured for transport to Chicago’s newly opened ReBuilding Exchange, a materials-reuse facility operated by the nonprofit, Chicago-based Delta Institute. Chicago now joins cities, like Kansas City, Kan., and Portland, Ore., in benefiting local homeowners and remodelers by having a location to accept and repurpose quality, low-cost reclaimed building materials.

This process systematically is repeated to remove and salvage appliances, fixtures, equipment, trim, finishes, casework, flooring, windows, doors, roof shingles, siding, framing and masonry until the site is empty. Depending on the type of construction, rates for salvaging material from a building for reuse range from 75 to more than 90 percent. The rate can approach 100 percent when additional recycling, such as crushing concrete foundations, is implemented. THE WHY OF BUILDING DECONSTRUCTION

The growing deconstruction industry, which practices the systematic disassembly of buildings to recover materials for reuse or repurposing, is gaining ground as an alternative to demolition. Deconstruction is, however, only one component of a broader strategy for a more sustainable economy and communities. The strategy also includes preservation, aggressive and comprehensive energy-efficiency and design standards, modest density-based zoning, mixed-use development models and robust materials-reuse infrastructures. It is a strategy that requires us to re-imagine our homes, buildings and communities as assets and inspirations, rather than commodities. According to the Santa Fe, N.M.-based Architecture 2030, by 2035, of the 300 billion square feet (28 billion m2) of existing buildings in the U.S., 50 billion square feet (5 billion m2) will be demolished and 150 billion square feet (14 billion m2) will be renovated.

This leaves 100 billion square feet (10 billion m2) remaining. Buildings that are too costly to rehabilitate or adapt to a new use or are nonfunctional from a fire or structural deficiency are excellent candidates for deconstruction. On average, single-family homes divert 25 to 30 tons (23 to 27 metric tons) of materials from landfill, which limits the emissions typically expended in demolition and waste-hauling processes. The ReUse People of America, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit that has completed thousands of deconstructions since 1993 and specializes in deconstruction training and consultation, notes that persons who may be otherwise difficult to hire directly into the construction industry can take entry-level deconstruction jobs and be well trained quickly. Deconstruction exposes these workers to all facets of construction and trains them in safety and the use of tools, which transfers well to traditional construction jobs. Thus, the deconstruction industry is unique in meeting the challenges and tremendous opportunities represented by older buildings while creating green-collar jobs and ensuring higher environmental quality in the process.

GETTING INVOLVED The following 10 steps will promote deconstruction and building-materials reuse:

1. Architects and design professionals: Re-title your “demolition” sheets. Your clients and building-code officials need to become familiar with the term “deconstruction.”

2. Add deconstruction literature to your local demolition and permitting offices. Include deconstruction requirements in bidding procurement for municipal projects.

3. Reach out to owners of buildings not covered by construction- and demolition-debris diversion ordinances.

4. Actively encourage deconstruction instead of demolition by shortening permit times and/or waiving fees.

5. Select a highly visible project slated for demolition. Make it a showcase for deconstruction instead.

6. Develop your local-materials-reuse infrastructure by creating a salvage and materials resale facility.

7. Challenge your municipality to improve ordinances and energy and building codes, as well as reinforce modest density-based zoning. Educate clients, developers, business owners, legislators and students about deconstruction and materials reuse.

8. Resolve the concerns organized labor has with deconstruction.

9. Stop encouraging demolition and cheap landfilling.

10. Design better buildings. They’ll last longer and inspire us to keep, reuse or adapt them.


Our homes, businesses, houses of worship and places of government literally are America. All buildings—from earthen burial mounds to humble homes to stately capitol buildings topped by soaring domes—are inherently products of the land. They are resources that have been shaped throughout the years and deserve respect and consideration. When their serviceable lives are through and they cannot be preserved, repaired, restored or adapted for reuse, building deconstruction gives structures a chance for renewed life.

DAVE HAMPTON is a principal of Chicago-based Hampton Avery Architects and a founder of Urban Habitat Chicago, which advocates for building deconstruction and materials reuse in the Chicago area. Hampton can be reached at dave@hampton-avery. com or (312) 316-7464.