Felix Heisel, director of the Circular Construction Lab at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning, once said, “Today’s waste is only called that because we’re missing the tools to understand it as materials.”
Chattanooga resident Pat Smith and the Deconstruction Advisory Board have taken on the challenge of changing this state of affairs locally. Smith, a retired building industry professional who moved to the city in 2019, formed DAB in 2021 as a first step toward exploring how Chattanooga and Hamilton County can benefit from not throwing usable materials away.
Consisting of nearly 20 individuals from various entities, including the Regional Planning Agency, green | spaces, Habitat for Humanity, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and more, the board aims to bring awareness and understanding of the benefits of deconstruction to the city.
“We’re a diverse group of like-minded individuals, many of us experts in our fields, who want to help Chattanooga to stop throwing it all away and progress toward zero waste,” says Smith.
DAB begins its work in earnest as enterprises in Chattanooga plan to add more commercial buildings and houses to the city, whose decadeslong growth spurt shows no signs of abating. A 20-story office tower planned for the city center, the construction of an 186,000-square-foot federal courthouse and the assembly of a new stadium for the Lookouts are examples of three future projects that will alter the local landscape.
What’s more, a planned 430 single-family housing development at the former Cigna office site in East Brainerd is just one of many residential communities that could sprout up throughout the city.
To local officials, businesses and residents, these edifices represent economic growth, as well as home and hearth. But Smith is looking even further into the future, to when these nascent projects will be demolished and sees landfills spilling over with waste, she says.
“We need to work now to develop a viable deconstruction option for Chattanooga and Hamilton County,” insists Smith.
The math appears to support the endeavor, Smith adds. For instance, the National Association of Remodeling Industry estimates that every 2,000-square-foot home that’s demolished adds about 10,000 cubic feet of debris to a landfill.
However, the careful disassembly of a building allows 80% or more of its material to be saved, thereby maximizing its economic, environmental, educational and cultural value to the community, Smith claims.
Challenges abound. At the top of this list is a simple, indisputable fact, says Smith: Chattanooga’s current stock of construction was not built to be disassembled.
Dave Bennink, director of the Building Deconstruction Institute and owner of Bellingham, Washington-based Re-Use Consulting, agrees that architects and builders did not design modern buildings to be disassembled, leaving demolition as the only option when removing a structure from the landscape.
“Buildings seem to be designed for demolition,” Bennink says. “Architects and builders are generally focused on design, and tend to forget that a structure might need to be removed someday.”
Formed 30 years ago, Re-Use Consulting takes buildings apart and saves the pieces from being junked. To date, Bennick’s company has completed 5,000 projects throughout North America and diverted 100 million pounds of materials from landfills, he estimates.
This work would be easier and more economically feasible if builders didn’t impair their efforts in advance, Bennink says. Glue, spray foam insulation and torch down roofing are just some of the construction techniques that can make disassembling a building impossible.
“When a builder glues the parts of a house together, we can’t take them apart, or we’ll damage them if we try, rendering them useless,” Bennink adds. “Spray foam insulation is just as bad. Once you spray foam on something, we can’t get it off. It turns your building materials into garbage.”
These roadblocks can make deconstruction a less attractive option for potential clients, Bennink adds, because demolition traditionally has been cheaper and faster. They can also make deconstruction a dicey business proposition, as they drive costs upward, Bennink says.
“We have to compete against machines that are very good at destroying a building in a very short amount of time. So, people say, ‘You’re not fast enough and you’re not cheap enough.’”
Bennink says Re-Use Consulting has been working to change this. Improved logistics can allow his company to schedule a deconstruction job – which can take from three days to two weeks to complete, depending on the size and complexity of the structure – to begin earlier than a demolition contractor, for instance. In addition, the company has improved its deconstruction processes, which has enabled it to take buildings apart faster.
The financials have also improved, Bennink says, as Re-Use Consulting has devised ways to sell the materials they acquire, which allows the company to occasionally underbid demolition contractors.
“When we do a project, we get paid twice: The owner of the building pays us once and, when we sell materials, we get paid again.”
Smith says DAB’s efforts to spur a deconstruction movement in Chattanooga are beginning with an analysis of what has not worked in other cities.
Efforts to encourage deconstruction in Muncie, Indiana, for example, failed because the city did not establish a pipeline for reusing reclaimed materials, Smith says. Although local crews learned how to disassemble a building, the materials languished unused.
Smith says one possible solution would be the creation of a Reuse Innovation Center in Chattanooga, which would serve as a hub for local deconstruction contractors and businesses that purchase and use salvaged materials.
“I’d like to see the new Construction Career Center open a Reuse Innovation Center where the students are in charge of taking requests for salvaged materials. This would teach them about business logistics, marketing and community stewardship.”
The Reuse Innovation Center concept is gaining momentum in North America. Bennink’s company has opened four centers in the U.S. and is working on three more; Re-Use Consulting is also in discussions for three additional sites in Canada.
“Working together adds value to salvaged materials,” Bennink says. “We take buildings apart, and then someone else makes reclaimed wood furniture. These connections are made and the materials are sold at the reuse center.”
When Bennink’s company opens a Reuse Innovation Center, it usually helps to connect 10 businesses, he says. Some of these endeavors take buildings apart, which generates supply, while others make furniture, or sell antique wood flooring to the owners of older houses, which generates demand.
The collapse of a deconstruction program in Milwaukee brought another potential pitfall to light. Although the city rallied behind the effort by enacting policies intended to encourage deconstruction, Smith says, lack of training brought it to a screeching halt.
To preempt a similar fiasco in Chattanooga, DAB has made education a key priority. To that end, the board will host a two-day deconstruction workshop at the Edney Innovation Center in March. The event will be open to the public. The Department of City Planning and the Regional Planning Agency are funding the seminar. (DAB will release specific details in the near future.)
“Every successful deconstruction program has to begin education and training,” Smith notes.
DAB is also looking at deconstruction programs around the U.S. that are working. Among these is the program in Hennepin County, Minneapolis, which has established a grant program that offers homeowners and developers of residential properties up to $5,000 to help offset the costs associated with deconstruction versus demolition.
Architects are also beginning to consider the life span of a building and planning ahead for its dismantlement, says Bennink. “They’re asking, ‘How can we design a structure so it’ll be easier to take apart?’ Maybe it’s prefabricated walls we could easily pull out because they’re bolted together. This gives us hope for the future.”
The benefits will also abound, Bennink says. Working together, the building and deconstruction industries can help reduce climate change, promote affordable housing, and help lower income families maintain their homes.
As part of DAB’s education efforts, Smith recently met with participants in green | space’s Built it Green program, a workforce development endeavor geared toward job training in sustainable construction. As she spoke with the group of young people, she showed them a photograph of a dilapidated staircase and asked them what they would do with it.
Smith says their answers gave her hope for the future. One participant said he’d build a custom bookcase, another said he’d assemble a wheelchair ramp, while a third expressed an interest in creating art.
“These young people saw an opportunity in the stairway. I envisioned the first one becoming a custom furniture builder with a shop at a local Reuse Innovation Center. Every label on his furniture would say, ‘Handmade from reclaimed materials in Chattanooga, Tennessee.’ That’s economic development.
“I saw the second young man becoming a certified aging-in-place contractor who’s skilled at retrofitting homes for the elderly. That’s community service.
“And I imagined the last one opening a design firm that would beautify our community. I believe these young people, if given the right tools, will build a future for themselves in Chattanooga, and we’ll all benefit from their creativity.”