Demolition's Thoughtful Cousin

Unbuilding: Salvaging the Architectural Treasures of Unwanted Houses
by Bob Falk and Brad Guy.  2007.  The Taunton Press, Newtown, CT.  248 pp.

Sometimes things have to go.  Starting over fascinates people.  Perhaps the uptick in media attention to demolition these days is attributable to teardown economics in the Northeast and boom cities, and right-sizing and re-sizing strategies in the Rust Belt and New Orleans.  Whatever the case, in real estate, something gets removed so that something else can take its place, even if that something else is nothing but vacant land in the near-term.  But demo isn't the only way to go.  A more thoughtful undoing of a building is referred to as deconstruction.

Wood-framed buildings are the subject building type in the book Unbuilding.  Authors Bob Falk and Brad Guy pace readers through planning for deconstruction projects, health and safety issues, and actual methods of dismantling for building materials salvage, including soft-stripping which is the nonstructural stage.  The authors don’t promote deconstruction over preservation.  Rather, when buildings have to be taken apart, they teach how to save what otherwise might have been deemed waste during renovations and entire demolitions

The concise tips and color photography make Unbuilding an approachable book and a vital part of a deconstruction project.  For instance, mortar with a high lime content and powdery consistency can allow for an easier time when salvaging bricks--but I might suggest using a different tool than a key (as shown in the book) to test the mortar, since you'll need that key for a lock.  More tips: read the rule of thumb for positioning a ladder.  Set up a denailing station close to the building to prevent loose nails from puncturing car and truck tires.  A flat-bladed prybar and a solid-steel hammer will serve as the most frequent pairing of tools.  Also, the authors caution that flooring and structural timbers may be rotted if roofing is missing from barns and houses.  And, there are adequate reminders about hazardous materials, shutting off utilities, and pulling permits. 

The quantity of wasted resources is piling up.  Falk and Guy cite numbers from a 1996 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, that the equivalent of a quarter-million single-family houses are demolished every year.  From “Recover Your Resources,” an online brochure from the EPA, in 2003 the U.S. generated “more than 160 million tons of building-related construction and demolition materials.”  96 million tons were discarded in landfills.  Reclaimed materials can participate in new construction, in rehabilitation of other buildings, in furniture, and the like, with a new lease on life rather than devouring critical space in landfills.

If you are a city council member looking from the outside in at other communities pursuing contraction strategies; if you are starting a new job as a building inspector this month and your town just got hit in the path of Hurricane Irene or Tropical Storm Lee; or, if you’re about to do selective demolition at your own house and you want to learn deconstruction instead, read Falk and Guy’s Unbuilding to get understandable instruction on disassembling structures in an environmentally conscious manner, to mitigate today’s problems and tomorrow’s problems.

- September 2011