Thursday, January 13, 2011

Recycling Lumber and Lives

By Beth Herman

For those of us who forfeited innumerable Sigma Chi blowouts to spend a hair pulling, head banging, nail biting, teeth grinding mandatory semester of our otherwise carefree college years in the library, grappling with philosopher Jacques Derrida’s concept of deconstruction, aka deconstructionism (guilty as charged), good news abounds.

At the more contemporary Al Gore School of Global Warming, deconstruction has come to mean something other than Derrida’s multitudinous interpretations of a single text. In fact, today’s deconstruction, as it applies to taking down a house piece by piece, and recycling or repurposing hundreds and thousands of components as opposed to outright demolition, is something that benefits its “students” both morally and often financially. Its principles, though earth-friendly and entirely transformative, are simple, even leaving time at the end of the day for that sorely missed bottle of flat frat house beer.

For environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hughes, the decision to transition from a career as a nonprofit grant consultant to the founder and president of Fairfax, Va.’s DeConstruction Services, LLC followed a period of painstaking due diligence, in which he admits investigating about 60 different environmentally-oriented businesses. “I looked into everything from catfish farming to investing in alternative fuel vehicles,” Hughes said, explaining that he and wife Linda, a high school history teacher of international baccalaureate seniors, wanted a green business that wouldn’t require traveling all over the country and where they could “make a difference in (their) little piece of green earth.”

A member of the Renewable Energy Business Network, Mid-Atlantic Chapter, Hughes attended an Annapolis meeting in 2003. The speaker, as the fates would have it, was a representative of a Portland, Ore. deconstruction nonprofit successfully operating there since the late 1980s or early ‘90s. Subsequently exploring the mid-Atlantic market for deconstruction, Hughes launched his own DeConstruction Services, LLC in August, 2004, an operation which, nearly seven years later, is still without competition.

Harvesting Hope

“That’s because it’s going 180 degrees against the trend,” Hughes said of his multifaceted green business which focuses on recycling human beings as much as materials. “Most contractors are trying to get away from employing a lot of people…so they can offload expensive liability costs, worker’s comp and matching social security. They contract everything out to subcontractors and let them worry about where to get laborers (often just day laborers to whom fewer laws apply).”

To that end, DeConstruction Services, LLC, whose work in disassembling residences from roof to basement and everything in between is highly specialized, frequently employs workers with what Hughes calls previous “ad hoc employment situations.” Many were day laborers with little hope of consistency and its accruing benefits in their lives, but even more, some employees were graduates of drug rehab programs or had court judgments against them for child support delinquencies because of their economic situations. According to Hughes, one candidate applied wearing an ankle bracelet during his probation. “They were non-violent offenders,” Hughes was quick to point out, “and they were really looking to work.”

Dissecting deconstruction, Hughes explained that in a personal sense “it is grubby work. In the summer it’s hot; in the winter it’s cold to be taking down a roof–shoveling the snow off to be able to begin taking the shingles off.” But the satisfaction of clearly seeing the results of a two- or two-and-a-half-week effort that will keep hundreds of elements out of landfills, and knowing their work and paychecks will continue, is positive for everyone, Hughes affirmed.

Benefits of Conscience

Where the process itself is concerned, Hughes said deconstruction generally starts with a call, often where the client – either a homeowner, builder or architect – wants a quote over the phone. “We have to actually see the inside of the house first to get a sense of what the quantity and quality is of the material is on the inside – the building components,” Hughes explained of the assessment phase, adding that logistics such as how far materials must be carried down extreme driveways, vs. hoisted right out of a window into a waiting roll-off (a long dumpster that slides onto the back of a truck) also factor into costs. Photographs are taken for documentation and an itemized proposal is put together for the client, and for tax auditing purposes should they arise. If the proposal is accepted, Hughes asks that the client also enlist the services of an independent appraiser so no stone remains unturned. “It does require that the client put money upfront but is heavily driven by tax benefits which may yield a profit,” Hughes said, citing benefits that have ranged from about $2,000 to, in one extreme case, $60,000 for the homeowner. For many, keeping the contents and materials from a 2,000 or 3,000 s.f. house out of a landfill are the benefits of conscience they really seek.

Identifying elements that run the gamut from switch plates to appliances, interior and exterior doors, windows, wires, bathroom and light fixtures, wood flooring, kitchen cabinets and bathroom vanities, all of which are reclaimable, Hughes said his firm also looks for material like asphalt shingles which can be “crumbed” at an asphalt plant and used in road patch on highways and in parking lots. Wood can also be ground up for bike paths and mulch. In short, nothing is left of the house except the masonry walls and a broom-swept basement, if there is one Hughes said, adding that when the excavator comes in behind them, masonry that includes concrete, bricks, cinderblock, kitchen and bathroom tiles–considered “clean masonry”–can also be recycled.

A Home for the Hardware

According to Hughes, finding a home for deconstructed items became an evolving, major issue existing almost from DeConstruction Services’ inception. Content, initially, to contract with Virginia’s Alexandria and Chantilly-based Habitat for Humanity, which would send volunteer-coordinated and driven trucks to pick up extracted elements, Hughes said he quickly learned that depending on volunteers, though they may have the best of intentions, can be challenging at best.

“We were taking down these houses and perfecting it to a point where it’s all like clockwork,” Hughes recalled, noting that sometimes the truck didn’t come, his crew forced to stack disassembled kitchen cabinets and counters in the middle of the floor while taking down the drywall and ceiling plaster above them. “Even with tarps, it wasn’t helpful for the product,” he said of the thick dust and debris that accumulated. Switching over time to Hyattsville, Md.’s Community Forklift, which sells new, used and recycled building materials and more to the D.C. metropolitan area at fractional prices, problems arose when they couldn’t always accommodate lumber due to limited warehouse space. “We’d have taken the whole framing package down on a house–got it de-nailed and everything else–rafter length pieces, joists, 2x4’s, all of it–and had it sitting in the front yard,” Hughes said. “We had a couple of times where we had to bite the bullet and it went to the dump.”

Confident there was a better way to ensure the fruits of their labor would circumvent the landfill on their way to the public, in 2008 Hughes founded ReBuild, a 501(c)(3) organization that recycles and repurposes deconstructed material at greatly reduced prices through its Springfield, Va. warehouse, and which opened for business in March of 2009 (wife Linda often pinch hits as a cashier on busy Sundays). Not content to stop there, ReBuild’s multi-mission agenda includes community education in the form of weekly green workshops on weatherizing, beekeeping, repurposing kitchen cabinets, organic gardening–anything to do with affordable sustainability. “The other idea is to make money off of ReBuild and use that to train at-risk workers in green collar jobs,” such as geothermal system installation, storm water management, wetlands restoration and asbestos abatement, Hughes explained, saying there are currently about 10 jobs offered for training on their list, with programs in four or five already executed.

“The heart and soul of what we’re all about is more than keeping materials out of landfills and reclaiming it for all the reasons you’d think of,” Hughes said. “We’re also about saving people’s lives.”


Anonymous said...

This is a great service to the community and to the earth!

Anonymous said...

Haven't you ever heard that the greenest building is the one already built? And look at the first example used in this sure looks like a handsome historic building to me that should have been saved for any number of reasons. Why isn't more emphasis placed on putting good new uses into already existing buildings rather than demolishing them, "repurposing" their materials and building a new? There is considerable embodied energy in traditional building materials already in place and people rarely think about the excessive amount of energy it takes to manufacture, transport and construct supposedly "green" new construction. Not to mention the energy this gent uses to demolish and redistribute components. Yes, we want to stop filling landfills, but common sense tells me that recycling/reusing a whole building is a much more sustainable action than the approach discussed here...

Unknown on Jan 17, 2011, 4:24:00 PM said...

Our architectural firm has been successfully implementing this concept on major residential projects, including working directly with Deconstruction Services, and if there were ever a “Win Win” scenario for the homeowner, construction industry and the environment, this is it.

Robert Wilkoff, NCARB, President
Archaeon, Inc., Architects

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