Deconstruction Fits the Bill for Businesses


Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

While deconstruction has become a hot topic in the recycling and demolition industries lately, it is anything but a new discovery. Salvaging materials from buildings has been going on for a very long time. Just a few decades ago, some demolition contractors only did hand wrecking of buildings, selling the reusable materials. As construction firms’ interest in speed overshadowed the value of materials that could be recovered, deconstruction was pushed into the background. But the concept never totally disappeared. Some in the demolition business kept pulling out higher-value products and materials from jobs prior to the wrecking ball’s swing. There also have been firms specializing in salvaging specific types of materials (flooring, timbers, steel beams, etc.) or specific types of buildings (barns, log homes, etc.).

Harry Bohna founded Happy Harry’s, a Canadian salvager/reseller of used building materials, back in 1989. He notes that traditionally, there are two types of salvagers in the building trades: those pulling architectural features (doors, fireplace mantels, etc.) from buildings, and those involved in a more general type of building salvage. Bohna estimates that since 1990, the number of North American firms involved in deconstruction has increased from 150 to 600. “Most are smaller companies in the $250,000 to $3,000,000 range,” he says, adding that the organizational structure of those involved has changed. “Until about 1996, almost all were for-profit businesses. Now about half are nonprofits.”


One of the older generation of firms involved in deconstruction is D. Litchfield of Vancouver, British Columbia. Litchfield, which has been in business for more than 40 years, does both demolition and salvage work on projects ranging from residential units to large commercial buildings.

Litchfield started its first salvage yard in 1972. Originally, the company focused on retrieving and selling only a limited number of products such as heavy timbers and bricks.

While to a large degree, the economics of deconstruction is dominated by the value of the products pulled from the buildings, it isn’t wholly predicated on it. “It’s ‘smash and dash’ versus deconstruction,” says Corinne Fulton, who heads up Litchfield. “And in our area, it’s much cheaper to recover materials.”

Because disposal costs are fairly high in the Vancouver area, Litchfield is able to recover an extensive list of materials and fixtures. At one recent project, Fulton notes that the firm salvaged and recycled 36 out of 37 trailer loads (with each load containing 60 cubic yards of material). “The only thing that went to the landfill was roofing,” she says.

Litchfield recovers a wide variety of materials and fixtures from many of its deconstruction projects. In the general building material category, some of the principal items include flooring, timbers, and structural steel. But it also pulls out and bags insulation for resale. Products such as doors, windows, cabinets and lighting fixtures are other prime targets. “This area has a strong recycling infrastructure, so we also do a lot of recycling,” says Fulton, noting that Litchfield targets concrete, drywall, steel and wood.


There is a lot more to deconstruction than pulling materials out of buildings, and Litchfield has been pretty astute about selling what it salvages. The base of its sales operation is a three-acre yard. But it doesn’t just wait for contractors and do-it-yourselfers to come in off the street. Because some of the timbers it recovers are old growth Douglas Fir and other woods in short supply, Litchfield has been able to build up an export business, selling to firms as far away as Taiwan and Chile.

Since some of the buildings the company deconstructs are older, another element of the business is reselling architectural antiques. Litchfield does this through a new store (constructed with recycled building materials, of course). It also sells the antiques and general building materials through an Internet website. To further its market reach, Litchfield recently installed a sawmill to rework larger timbers into products such as flooring, laminated beams and fencing.

While much of the material it sells through the yard and store is from salvage work performed by Litchfield’s own crews, that isn’t its only source. “About 75 percent of the material is from our own projects,” says Fulton. The other 25 percent is from contractors and homeowners that bring materials for salvage.

At Happy Harry’s, more than 50 percent of the materials are from outside sources, with the remainder coming from crews that work for the company. The reliance on others for the bulk of its used building materials may well be rooted in the start-up of the company.

Unlike Litchfield, Harry Bohna’s background wasn’t in demolition, but rather in construction and building management. He developed Happy Harry’s during a downturn in the construction business as a means of keeping food on the table and hasn’t looked back.

The original store and yard, now closed, were located in Manitoba. Bohna moved his headquarters to British Columbia and has licensed 11 stores throughout Canada, each with individual owner-operators.

All of the operations function in a similar manner. In addition to the walk-in trade, crews work with contractors to procure material. While Harry’s does salvage and sells timbers, flooring and other wood, it concentrates more on products like windows, doors, toilets and kitchen cabinets.


Many deconstruction companies specialize in specific types of projects. Bob Johnson started one such company about 12 years ago in Wisconsin. “I was looking for something different,” he says.

Johnson’s firm, North Coast Enterprises, focused on removing lumber from homesteads at least 75 years old. He and his crew of four to five people spend the summer months razing 20 to 30 buildings. Recently Johnson has been working on a deal with a firm that would take the bulk of the wood reclaimed each year.

Two other firms that take things a few steps further are Aged Woods of York, Pennsylvania and Mountain Lumber of Ruckerville, Virginia. Aged Woods purchases timbers and siding from barns being dismantled throughout the East. It then inspects the wood and remills it. The lumber, much of it chestnut and heart pine, is sold as premium flooring, panel- ing and molding. Mountain Lumber has a similar operation, but it actually salvages much of the wood it remills and doesn’t deal exclusively with barns as a source of material.


One of the keys to renewed interest in deconstruction is the involvement of the federal government, both as a source of materials and as a catalyst. On the supply side, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is constantly pouring dollars into renovation and demolition of the residential building stock it controls. And with the closing of military bases around the country, the Department of Defense (DOD) may be required to remove many of the buildings on those bases for safety reasons before the property is used for other purposes.

This involvement with building renovation and demolition has caused the two agencies to test the viability of deconstruction. For instance, the DOD has been involved with pilot projects at several of its facilities, including Fort Ord (see “Deconstructing Buildings At Former Army Base,” November, 1998) and the Presidio in California. HUD’s work in the field includes a pilot deconstruction of six housing units at the Stowe Village Housing Complex in Hartford, Connecticut.

What’s exciting about the Hartford project is that it demonstrates that deconstruction can go beyond straight salvag- ing to job creation and economic development. “Deconstruction offers the biggest opportunity in recycling and economic development,” says Neil Seldman of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Washington, D.C., which worked on the under- taking with HUD. “We demonstrated how deconstruction allows for job train- ing and placement and start-up of resident-owned companies — for deconstruction services and for resale of recovered, used building materials.” (See next month’s BioCycle for a full report on the Hartford project.) — J.M.G.

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