The End of Demolition

By Dave Hampton

Late on a Thursday night in June 2005, the local fledgling environmental advocacy group, Urban Habitat Chicago (UHC), got a call about a home that was slated for demolition the following Monday morning. The caller heard we were those enthusiastic young folks who tried to reuse building materials to make new things, and thought we might be able to salvage some things from the house.

Our first visit revealed an unsung, minor Modernist gem. The house had been the home of a watercolor artist from Japan, Atsushi Kikuchi, who designed and largely built it himself in 1954. By all accounts, he was an intelligent, gentle man who tended his garden in later years. His home still exhibited the best traits of that style and era, as well as of Japanese building tradition: economy of space and material, straightforward construction and an uncluttered aesthetic.

Our reactions were more emotional than anything else. We  couldn’t stop or fight a demolition crew, but we could fight the clock. We resolved to save as much of this unique home as quickly as we could in the time we had.

With little planning but plenty of can-do spirit, members and friends worked to salvage anything that could be removed with simple hand tools. We removed wood paneling, studs, fixtures, appliances, a hot water tank and even roof joists and oversized windows before the bulldozer arrived.

Along the way, bumps, scrapes, cuts and even airborne hand tools were sometime occurrences. In the end, the materials we saved were mostly lost because we did not adequately plan for where they would go. Granted, we had only three days to react, but this illustrates the careful planning and implementation a real deconstruction project requires.

From a Hand-Made Home to a Movement

Deconstruction is anything but a haphazard process, and we are fortunate as a group to have since formed partnerships with those who approach deconstruction as a surgeon might approach a patient–with professionalism, skill and no small bit of artistry.

This early experience also taught us that in taking apart a building, one learns how it was put together; a valuable lesson for anyone, especially an architect like myself. I still recall the intricate joinery and wood veneer paneling supported by very small wood members that formed the strong, lightweight partitions between rooms. My friend, Derek Ottens, who removed a very large window for reuse as the centerpiece of an addition to his home, still marvels at the tightness of construction and the effort it took to take the window out without damage.

This home put much of contemporary construction to absolute shame and was built to last. Mr. Kikuchi, received no LEED points for his economic use of material. He received no rave reviews from critics by siting the home correctly (an arbor to the south, where deciduous vines grew, provided shading in summer for large windows and solar gain in the winter). He had no exposure in design magazines for his deft detailing or skill at laying out space efficiently, and no “green” awards for the use of natural light and operable windows were bestowed. He did, however, likely gain the satisfaction from a job well-done.

He certainly earned, over a gulf of 50 years, the respect of new generations who reversed the construction process and learned a lesson in history about things which might hopefully lead the way forward to better buildings, and a love for some of those already lost.

Forming Partnerships

As a result of our experience, I began to research building deconstruction, which a few architect friends introduced me to several years before when they were considering starting a deconstruction company. I uncovered a robust industry that had been developing for years, and was quickly gaining ground as an alternative to building demolition. UHC gave presentations to the Chicago Center for Green Technology in August 2006, which introduced the concept and basics of deconstruction to the local public.

Following this, I was contacted by Ted Reiff, the President of The ReUse People of America (TRP), an organization that had conducted many successful deconstructions of all types and sizes since 1993. TRP had been considering coming to Chicago for some time, so the connection was serendipitous.

Ted and I recognized the synergies between UHC and TRP, and we continued to correspond over the coming months. UHC was a small organization incapable of actually taking on deconstructions, but because of our familiarity with the workings of the city, we could certainly help introduce TRP to the right people and encourage deconstruction locally. As an architect, I was well aware of some of the challenges in terms of permitting and lack of awareness which might be transformed into opportunities given the right circumstances. As I like to say, Chicago often leads by example—as long as others have proven it can be done elsewhere first.

In TRP, we found an organization that had an impressive track record that could make a success of deconstruction here in Chicago. Something was needed to recapture the imagination of a public weary of the overexposure of this or that isolated LEED-certified building or inaccessible green roof—a next, truly sustainable step that would help fulfill UHC’s mandate and make a real impact in the reduction of waste, conservation of our valuable resources, maintain a better environment and create meaningful jobs in the process.

A Material Concern

Meanwhile, the other essential component to the success of deconstruction was forming. Remember how materials were lost from the Kikuchi house because their second life hadn’t been planned? The ReUse People had it covered. TRP had begun talks with Elise Zelechowski of The Delta Institute, a well-established local nonprofit, over the creation of a building materials reuse center that would be modeled on other facilities, such as Habitat for Humanity ReStores, across the nation. This would be a much-needed collection point for used building materials and components such as windows, doors, and appliances, which could be sold to the public at low cost.

As we continued to meet with TRP, my presentation on deconstruction was expanding to include more information and successful case studies. I gave the talk at every opportunity to get the message out to the general public, policymakers, architects and design professionals, community colleges, ex-convicts, friends, relatives—you name it, they’ve gotten an earful.

Through UHC’s website, we continued to update the public on the progress of deconstruction advocacy in Chicago, and began to get some notice from prospective clients as well as fledgling interest in local government. We also began to get inquiries from potential clients, and after TRP had trained a local builder, Ken Ortiz of OBI Deconstruction, we could now begin to direct them to an area deconstruction contractor. A recent call to Ken to ask if I could keep referring clients who needed a builder confirmed he’s totally focused on deconstruction–he’s too busy to build! It wasn’t always this way.

Instead of knocking down their home and sending it to the landfill, enlightened clients John Tapper and Carolyn Bronstein got wind of deconstruction as an alternative to demolition and in July 2007, the first official residential deconstruction in Chicago began at 3905 N. Janssen Avenue to little fanfare (our press conference was not well-attended). However, as the home slowly began to disappear, looking more and more skeletal with each passing week, neighbors began to take notice of this building-in-reverse.

Deconstruction: The Basics of How it Works

The process on the Janssen project, typical for any such residence of its modest size, went something like this:

Planning. Deconstruction doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not a good time to consider deconstructing after demolition permits have been issued or things must happen immediately. Deconstruction takes eight to ten times longer than demolition, but in the lifespan of the average construction project, this is usually negligible. Assemble a good team you’re comfortable with. If the project is more complex, hire an architect or engineer, especially those that specialize in deconstruction consultation.

Bid and materials appraisal. Does deconstruction make sense for you? A deconstruction contractor will give a bid for doing the job for you to evaluate. He or she will take into account the complexity of the job, site conditions such as where staging and materials separation can occur and scheduling.

You’ll get an idea of the savings. In TRP’s model, the client receives the benefit of a tax donation since material from the project is being donated to The ReUse People, a nonprofit, environmental organization. An IRS-qualified professional appraiser will value the salvage materials for donation purposes. Remember, to be successful, any deconstruction must move the most materials into the hands of new users in as pristine a condition as possible.

Deconstruct and salvage. The most fun and interesting part! Be sure to invite the neighbors to pull up a lawn chair (outside the safety area, of course). Set up a video camera to take time lapses–those are totally cool.

We get to see the construction process roughly in reverse order, as materials, components, appliances, and equipment are removed and salvaged for later reuse:
—    Landscaping
—    Furnishings
—    Fixtures
—    Trim and molding
—    Cabinetry
—    Windows and doors
—    Flooring
—    Non-load-bearing partitions
—    Piping and conduits
—    Exterior cladding
—    Structural framing
—    Foundations

Materials are moved offsite as appropriate to the staging, which requires the thoughtful planning of professionals. You’ll find no good deconstruction contractor stumbling over pallets of brick while trying to remove windows or scraping nice old oak floors while trying to drag out an air conditioner. When the deconstruction crew is finished, ideally all that is left is a clean site ready for a new building.

Final appraisal, report, and benefits. The appraiser re-evaluates the types, quantities, and conditions of materials after they have actually been removed and adjusts for damage. Again, a successful deconstruction contractor makes a living ensuring that material isn’t damaged, and have come up with ingenious ways of removing them to make sure this happens.

A report is prepared and IRS Form 8283 is given to the client for filing with the IRS along with their taxes. Then the client sits back, waits for the wheels of the IRS to turn and sees the benefit. They can feel good that they’ve done the right thing and saved some money in the process.

Decon: Movin’ on up in Chicago

In November 2007, I reached out to the City of Chicago’s Chief Environment Officer, Sadhu Johnston, regarding UHC’s sincere hope that the city would accept our own challenge of choosing one large, high-profile project slated for demolition in 2008 as a viable example of the deconstruction process instead, bringing more attention to this great alternative to the wrecking ball in America’s greatest (and hopefully someday greenest) city.

Johnston expressed his enthusiasm for deconstruction and after presenting our recommendations and progress on deconstruction to the city in January 2008, along with The ReUse People and The Delta Institute, Chicago was now officially on board with deconstruction, giving steady, if cautious, support. Our team began to address concerns such as hazardous materials abatement, progress on a local building materials reuse center, as well policy recommendations such as recognition of deconstruction as an industry in its own right, permitting and other incentives for deconstruction, promotion and education.

Over the next year, our team saw great leaps forward in terms of actual deconstructions completed, bringing the number to 16, as well as increased outreach with more presentations. Coalition-building included reaching out to more architects, design professionals, prospective clients, the preservation community and the existing materials salvage community. Funding was secured for a marketing and policy study to be undertaken by the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), which would further justify the need for the facility.

Finally, after years spent advocating for deconstruction and materials reuse, many of us in the still-growing coalition drawn from the nonprofit, design, education, business, governmental and even armed forces communities are gratified to see Chicago joining cities like Portland and Kansas City in a nationwide network of materials-reuse facilities that divert building materials from the waste stream, make them accessible to the public for reuse, protect community health, create jobs and save resources.

The ReBuilding Exchange, operated by The Delta Institute, opened to the public on February 13, 2009. The ReBuilding Exchange will become more than just a place for used sinks and lumber. We intend it to be the flagship of Chicago’s materials reuse infrastructure and a resource center to promote sustainable deconstruction practices, provide educational resources and create programming that builds community and rebuilds Chicago’s neighborhoods.

UHC will also maintain a presence. I plan to stay involved with The ReBuilding Exchange to help educate the public, design professionals and students on materials reuse, deconstruction and the design of better buildings.


Dave Hampton is a principal of Hampton Avery Architects, a Chicago-based firm providing architecture, planning and sustainability consultation services. A founder of Urban Habitat Chicago, he has been instrumental in advocating  for building deconstruction and materials reuse in the Chicago area.

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