Deconstruction: Beyond the Bang

$1.5 Million Saved on a Single Building Complex

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Kevin Eipperle is a principal at FEH Design, based in Dubuque, Iowa.

Don Seymour is a principal at FEH Design, based in Dubuque, Iowa.

Posted: Wednesday, November 23, 2016 11:49 am

An unsafe or unrepairable building doesn't have to be a burden. In the right hands, it's a treasure trove.

How do you make money from a crumbling residence hall or hospital? "It's what you know, and it's also who you know," said Don Seymour, principal at FEH Design.

Seymour and Kevin Eipperle, also a principal at FEH Design, told attendees at the 2016 Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque, Iowa, how their firm has found unexpected income in everything from crushed concrete to window glass. With a broad enough network of buyers, it's worthwhile to take a building apart from the top down rather than demolish everything indiscriminately.

Of course, the greenest thing to do with a building is to keep on using it. But owners of older buildings often face dangerous disrepair and expensive safety issues. In public buildings there's the additional difficulty of upgrading to modern standards of accessibility. Deconstruction can save waste and money and allow the community to salvage memories of buildings once they can no longer be used.

Gage Residence Hall, at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minn., is a good example of FEH's methods. The budget for removing the building was set at $2.8 million. Deconstruction brought the price down to $1.3 million, diverted nearly 26 tons of material from the landfill, and benefited a number of service organizations.

Where did the savings come from?

- Landfill diversion. Use of landfills isn’t free; disposing of unwanted materials is a substantial cost of building demolition. By reusing, recycling, and selling materials, builders saved $160,000 in landfill fees.

- Sale of unwanted items. If Gage Residence Hall had been conventionally demolished, the dormitory’s kitchen and laundry appliances would probably have been destroyed with it, but instead they were sold, along with file cabinets, lockers, tables, chairs, doors, and so on. Those that couldn’t be sold were donated to homeless shelters and Habitat for Humanity resale stores. Equipment from the heating, cooling, and elevator systems was also sold.

- Sale of recycled materials. One of the best bargains is concrete: crush it onsite, and you have a pile of gravel that can be used to fill gaps and level the lot for the next building. Many buyers are available for what’s left. Likewise, recyclers were found for stainless steel, window aluminum, metal from roofing, and the parts from hundreds of mattresses.

- Grants from organizations that value keeping useful materials out of landfills.

- Fund-raising. Buyers are available for recycled bricks, but a brick from the old college residence hall isn’t just any brick. (Similarly, when the Mitchell County Courthouse of Osage, Iowa, came down, wood from doors and stairways was repurposed into furniture and sold.)

The use of materials for fund-raising demonstrates another advantage of deconstruction: improved community engagement. Just because a building is no longer usable, this doesn’t necessarily end the community’s affection for it. Deconstruction means that memories can be shared with the community in the form of a salvaged architectural element — or even a simple brick.

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