• Luna Oiwa

Demolition, Deconstruction, and Discussion

Updated: Feb 18

In my previous post, I proposed that the building sector focus more on reuse. How do we even begin with that?

Currently, the vast majority of construction projects are demolished. Demolition looks like this: [1]

Demolition equipment rips through buildings and tears them down.

An alternative and much more methodological approach is deconstruction.

Deconstruction may look similar to demolition at first glance. You'll still see piles of debris on the site, and depending on the size of the deconstruction project you may still see some heavy equipment. The difference is that with deconstruction, the building is taken down in two phases: first, the mechanical arm of the construction equipment "gently" taps and coaxes material out of the structural frame of the building, and second, the mechanical arm carefully lifts the structural components out little by little. For smaller projects, deconstruction can be done through manual labor. As you may imagine, either way this process can take a long time.

Every standing building has some amount of salvage value, but this value varies greatly from building to building. In some high-quality buildings, the bulk of materials can be reused as is; in other buildings, the presence of adhesives may cause a project team to decide that only the windows and doors are worth salvaging [2]. However, these issues could be avoided if we planned for deconstruction from the very beginning of a building project— the design stage.


I first heard about design for deconstruction (DfD) maybe two years ago, and from the start the concept had me hooked.

So what is it? I like explaining it through a Lego analogy. When you are done playing with Legos, you usually don't whip out a hammer, pulverize the plastic, bury the pieces in your back yard, and go out to buy a new set of Legos for the next time you want to build. So why do we do this with real buildings? Obviously real buildings are more complicated than Legos, but to "design for deconstruction" means to draw some lessons from this alternative mindset.

This concept is not new to construction: one of the most well-known examples of DfD is the Crystal Palace by architect Sir Joseph Paxton. This building was constructed in London’s Hyde Park in 1851. Six months later, the structure was disassembled and reassembled at the nearby Sydenham Hill, where it remained until a fire in 1936 [3].


A personal note: I graduated from Cornell University (twice) just last year and as I write this am still job-hunting. Now, as much as I would like to get employed in the near future, one thing I have grown to appreciate in my joblessness is that it is much easier to chat with people randomly on LinkedIn as a student or recent grad than it is when you are affiliated with a company. [My theory is that when you are simply a floating observer of the job market, people don't have a conscious or subconscious suspicion that you are seeking information to undermine their company, and thus are more willing to chat.]

I knew from the point of starting my job search that it would be highly, highly unlikely that I would find an entry-level job in this still-very-niche field of DfD. But I have been bringing this topic up a lot with the various recruiters, project engineers, structural engineers, architects, etc., whom I speak with throughout my job search. Hardly anyone I've spoken with has claimed to know about "design for disassembly." And yet they are interested, even excited to learn about it.

And as I keep digging, I've been able to pinpoint and peek into the niche community of people who do know about DfD, and who are very passionate about this topic.

THE DFD COMMUNITY (In the US, that I Know Of)

Here's how the journey went, if you care to read about it in all of the boring detail. When I first heard about DfD, I looked up "design for deconstruction," found a website that collects articles about material reuse called the "Reclamation Administration," and read up on an expert in this field by the name of Bradley Guy.

I later joined the LinkedIn page for Build Reuse, a community of individuals in professions involving deconstruction and building material reuse. This led me to contact Sara Badiali, an independent consultant who as it turns out played a key role in pushing for the first deconstruction mandate in the US (in the City of Portland, in Oregon) AND was the founder of the Reclamation Administration site AND personally knows Bradley Guy. Sara was kind enough to direct me to the Bay Area Deconstruction Working Group, a community similar to Build Reuse but more geared towards the Bay Area.

Separately, I chatted with a member of the sustainability team at Turner Construction who informed me of the Bay Area Sustainable Construction Leaders (BASCL). This group brings together representatives from the leading "sustainable construction companies" in the Bay Area to share knowledge regarding a wide range of topics in sustainability (not just waste management). It turned out that another company within the group, GCI General Contractors, was also part of the aforementioned Bay Area Deconstruction Working Group.

Curious about the architecture perspective on DfD, I read up on resources published by the American Institute of Architecture. They led me back to Build Reuse.

I also saw at some point that the US EPA had funded DfD research back in the early 2000's. When I reached out to them, I was redirected to Bradley Guy.

Blah, blah, blah. Here's a summary chart:

Even before diving into the content of what I found out, I'd like to bring up a few interesting takeaways. First, it seems to me that there are still relatively few people talking about DfD in the US. I say this because I kept bumping into the same few people and organizations, even when approaching the research process from different angles.

Second, I noticed that the majority of members in the two deconstruction/material reuse communities I mentioned— Build Reuse, and the Bay Area Deconstruction Working Group— are primarily comprised of small-scale deconstruction and reuse organizations that can handle only a handful of relatively small projects on an annual basis.

Third, it intrigued me how often this one Mr. Bradley Guy was being cited. But more on this later.


[1] This is the old Collegetown Bagels, for the Cornellians out there.


Separately, I would like to thank Sara Badiali for helping me edit this paragraph.


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