The Science of Sustainability

Recycling a House

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When you think about recycling, you may picture newspapers stacked neatly on your curb for pickup, or those ubiquitous blue bins around your office filled with bottles and cans. But items like papers, plastics and glass represent only a fraction of what we could be recycling. Across America, landfills are still expanding rapidly. One of the major culprits is the debris from housing construction and demolition—much of which could actually be recycled.

“People understand it’s not right to just throw things away,” says Robert Chapman, Executive Director of WARM Training Center. “If you’re going to recycle a water bottle, how about recycling houses? It’s the same idea.” WARM Training Center is a Detroit-based nonprofit that trains building professionals and others in an effort to establish a local green-building workforce. In 2011, they founded Reclaim Detroit, a subsidiary nonprofit with a mission to divert construction and demolition material from landfills.

A worker from Reclaim Detroit salvages wood from a vacant home.  Image Courtesy of Reclaim Detroit.

A worker from Reclaim Detroit removes wood from a vacant home. Image Courtesy of Reclaim Detroit.

In Detroit, a city that epitomizes the slow and steady decline of the U.S. manufacturing industry, the residential vacancy rate hovers near 30% and neighborhoods have been hollowed out. “Detroit, in 1960, was a city of almost 2 million people. Right now, it’s estimated around 750,000,” says Chapman.  Left jobless by shuttered manufacturers, people fled, leaving tens of thousands of vacant homes in their wake. In this context, demolition is often seen as a welcome alternative to blight.  But, according to Chapman, demolition is not the only solution. “There are a lot of homes that were built in the 1910s, 20s and 30s—when Detroit was really booming—that were really solidly built. Instead of pushing a house down and throwing it into a big hole, if we can take it apart carefully and find ways to reuse that, we can give them new life.”

What parts of a house can be recycled?

As opposed to demolition, which implies reducing a structure to rubble, the process that Chapman’s company employs is more like reverse assembly. It’s a careful and time-consuming approach, which is being dubbed as “deconstruction” by practitioners.  “Deconstruction is more of a hands-on approach to razing a structure,” says Igor Rae. Rae owns Green Deconstruction further south in Cleveland, a city which has also felt the effects of population loss. “It’s all being done by hand and you’re really kind of reverse-engineering a house. You’re taking things apart in a backwards way from how it was built.” Rae, who has worked in residential restoration and remodeling for 25 years, started Green Deconstruction for projects that range from “soft stripping” —salvaging a few prime architectural elements—to a full home deconstruction, which can recycle as much as 250-300 tons or 85-90% of a house. “This is a good way of handling old items without clogging up landfills. I’ve always hated, in the decades that I’ve been in the construction business, throwing out certain things,” says Rae.

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Salvaged wood in the Reclaim Detroit warehouse. Image Courtesy of Reclaim Detroit.

One material that’s especially hard to part with is the old-growth lumber found in many older Rustbelt homes.  “I heard someone say once that our old-growth forests are still standing, but they’re standing inside of houses,” says Robert Chapman. Rare timbers like Douglas fir, poplar, cherry and oak line windows, make up doors and often form the frames of older homes. According to Igor Rae, old-growth timbers are extremely stable dimensionally, are more rot-resistant and have a lifespan that far exceeds the fast-growth wood that is prevalent today.

For the right person, these homes are a goldmine, but finding the right person—or, more accurately, the right people—is still a challenge. Says Rae, “We’re doing our little part, but there’s a whole world out there.  Frankly, we need more people that want things made out of old stuff or who want to recycle things. That’s what is, ultimately, going to drive the business.”

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Category: Blog, Climate, Engineering, Environment

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Mary Fecteau

About the Author ()

Mary Fecteau is an Educational Multimedia Producer at WVIZ/PBS ideastream. A native of Rhode Island, she began her career in 2007 at ThinkTV in Dayton, Ohio. Traveling the state for the magazine program Our Ohio, she’s covered everything from chili in Cincinnati, to coral farms in Columbus, to the infamous Cuyahoga River in Cleveland – and was awarded an Ohio Valley Regional Emmy for her work in 2010. She’s currently concentrating on web-based science and educational media, having completed several STEM-focused videos for ideastream. Mary holds a BA in Film from California State University, Long Beach and an MA in Public Media from Ohio University.