The Trashblog: Don’t bulldoze, deconstruct

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The Durham News

If you want to get rid of a house, you can drive a bulldozer into it, push it into a messy pile and burn it. If there are laws against burning it (which usually there are) you can pay to have it taken to a landfill and buried.

This happens to more buildings than you think: more than 270,000 homes and 44,000 commercial structures are demolished each year in the US. Each year we demolish about 1 billion square feet of building space. Most of this debris is sent to the landfill.

As virgin materials become more expensive and transportation costs increase, salvaging materials from C&D waste is becoming an attractive alternative. A new industry, called deconstruction, is being born.

I wanted to get the low-down on the deconstruction industry, so I tagged along with Christian Pikaart for a day. Christian runs Habitat for Humanity of Durham County’s deconstruction program. He was working at a house in Chapel Hill, removing hard wood flooring, cabinets, doors, and a few other items that he thought would sell well at Habitat’s ReStore.

He gave me a crowbar and hammer and showed me how to use the tools to pop the floor boards up without breaking them. It takes a little finesse since flooring is tongue-and-groove, and people don’t usually build things to be un-built.

Along with five or six volunteers, I spent the day prying up the flooring and tossing it into a pile. Christian told me he would have the next crew take out the nails and bundle the flooring for sale at Habitat’s ReStore.

Deconstruction isn’t the default option, yet. Surprisingly, earning tax credits, reducing expenses on tipping fees, and saving perfectly useful materials isn’t something people think about when they remodel or demolish a house. The construction industry is still dominated by the idea that old building materials can only be trash.

When he isn’t salvaging materials, Christian is trying to drum up more business: he calls contractors, speaks at industry association meetings, and tries to spread the word on deconstruction. Since salvage is an idea that’s always been around, you would think more people would be on board, already.

So far, Christian is able to make the deconstruction program work on the strength of his volunteers and Habitat’s name. Deconstruction is labor intensive, but does not always require a lot of skill. Volunteers can quickly be trained to take the nails out of boards. Habitat for Humanity has a well- established network of ReStores where salvaged items can be sold. The organization’s non-profit status also helps to encourage potential donors to consider deconstruction. Not only do donors receive a tax credit for items that can be salvaged, they also contribute to building affordable housing.

Philip Corrigan and his wife Margaret Morales are on a three-month road trip learning about waste and recycling issues. This article is republished from their blog Finding Away: The Trash Blog at

Habitat Success Stories

Lal is a Burmese refugee who came to Durham after stops in India and Thailand. Lal partnered with Habitat and the Durham Literacy Center to renovate a historic home in East Durham. "There is no more fear," Lal said. "We won't have to move again because the home belongs to us."