Deconstruction and Sustainability
Last weekend, I went to the bi-annual Texas Antique Week, “Blue Hills at Round Top”. Boasting their standing as one of the biggest vintage and antiques fairs in all the USA, I realized that more than half of the vendors offered architectural reclaimed pieces. I found joy among the beauty of salvaged windows, doors, and wooden pieces like beams, with their intrinsic storytelling from other times and lifestyles.
The saying “old is better than new” is acquiring a new and profitable meaning in construction, as the new luxury trends incrementally call for including vintage wooden or forged-iron elements for homes or restaurants and cafes all over the world. In fact, a growing number of cities in the US are implementing new policies that demand tearing down structures apart by hand, gently, in what is called “deconstruction”. The purpose is not to engage in demolition, a practice that sends all materials from old houses to landfills.
Recycling, re-using and re-purposing materials from old houses enables to take advantage of salvaged materials, eliminating emissions associated with making and transporting new construction materials. In addition, deconstruction is not so noisy, and does not discharge toxic materials into the air (like asbestos or lead dust). It requires more manual labor work, which is more expensive than demolishing, but it helps communities learn new skills via training, and more active opportunities for jobs.
Portland, a city in the state of Oregon, is the first city in the United States to issue an ordinance about deconstruction, requiring houses older than 90 years to be teared down “by hand”. The state has now (2022) 19 contractors licensed for deconstruction work. In 2018, Milwaukee demanded city’s older structures to be deconstructed instead of demolished.
The estimation of the energy impact of deconstruction per average house is -84,897 MJoules vs. demolition, estimated at -115,762 M Joules, as per a report prepared for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Furthermore, the GWP (Global Warming Potential) of deconstruction reuse is -8,589 kg of CO2e, in comparison with demolition that implies zero (Figure 2).
Deconstruction firms are flourishing in many locations not only in the USA, but also globally, as it makes sense to scrap old houses extracting cabinetry, windows, doors, beams, marble, bricks, and beautiful reclaimed woods of all sorts, iron pieces, and other architectural elements that will then be sold and re-used locally. Old can be beautiful.
Near home, in San Antonio, Texas, the Office of Historical Preservation, as cited by an article from February 2022 “has as spearheaded the city’s deconstruction efforts, plans to propose an ordinance to city council later this year. In the meantime, it’s helping with demonstration projects, including one on a 1930s homestead that uncovered a basement full of moonshine bottles—something that might have otherwise been crushed in a demolition”. A collector of old bottles myself, along my husband, I was shocked to read this!
I went back home very glad from my visit to Blue Hill Round Top antiques fair. I purchased a 1939 paper-label, family sized, green bottle of the pop soda 7Up, to add to our collection, and I saw many salvaged house elements, that triggered my curiosity about deconstruction vs. demolishing.
To know more:
Deconstruction vs. Demolition: An evaluation of carbon and energy impacts from deconstructed homes in the City of Portland; City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS). Andey Nunes, Jordan Palmeri and Simon Love, March 2019DeconstructionReport.pdf (oregon.gov)
Aarian Marshall, “Why Cities Want Old Buildings Taken Down Gently”, February 2022, Wired posts aas downloaded on November 1, 2022 Why Cities Want Old Buildings Taken Down Gently | WIRED