DUBUQUE, Iowa - If you needed to tear down 44 vacant homes in an historic district, get the job out for bid, hire the contractors, and divert more than 80 percent of the demolition materials from your landfill - all within three month's time - how would you do it?
Chuck Goddard and Kyle Fitzgerald might answer: One board at a time.
Goddard, Dubuque's solid waste administrator, and Fitzgerald, the deconstruction manager for one of the city's contractors, told the story of just such a project at the Iowa Recycling & Solid Waste Management Conference held recently in Dubuque.
Goddard said construction and demolition material is one of the three primary categories of waste that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has targeted for diversion from landfills - the other two being organics and electronics.
He's measured diversion stats for 98 construction and demolition projects since 2003 - 20 commercial buildings and 78 housing projects that have generated 193,549 tons of waste. More than 94 percent of that waste went somewhere other than the landfill, saving a total of $5.9 million in landfill fees.
Forty-four of the buildings were deconstructed in 2010 over the course of just a few months to make way for the restoration of a 4,500-foot creek named Bee Branch. The $47 million project is reopening Bee Branch Creek, which years ago was converted into an underground storm sewer spilling into a detention pond on the city's northeast side. The project will return the creek to its natural state, its banks developed into a linear park that city officials say will enhance livability in some of the city's oldest and most "challenged" neighborhoods.
In all, more than 80 buildings had to be removed to make way for the project, and city officials decided early on that the buildings should be deconstructed rather than demolished, salvaging a minimum of 60 percent of the materials for reuse or recycling. After all, Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol and the city council had identified sustainability as one of the city's top priorities. But, in the early stages of the Bee Branch project, the city asked for separate deconstruction and demolition bids so comparisons could be made.
"What we found out was that these contractors actually made money at deconstruction, so now we don't even talk about demolition," Goddard said. "We just talk about deconstruction and that's the way you're going to do it."
About two years ago, the city removed the demolition option altogether, increased the diversion mandate to 85 percent, and added a requirement that contractors must provide third-party verification that the minimum salvage standards have been met.
In 2005, the city began acquiring properties in the Bee Branch basin. But two years later, Goddard said, the project began to hit "some glitches" when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Iowa DNR and the Iowa State Historic Preservation Office began to grapple over which agency would take the lead and make certain decisions regarding buildings in two designated historic districts nestled in the path of the Bee Branch project. As a result, the 45 buildings that had already been acquired and vacated had to be boarded up and sit in limbo until the issues were resolved. The debate plodded along from more than three years!
In the meantime, the vacant properties began to fall victim to blight, vandalism and theft. When a "programmatic agreement" was fully executed in May 2010, the Iowa DNR became the lead regulating agency and the city finally began the process of removing the remaining buildings. By then, urgency had set in and the city launched an aggressive campaign to have 44 of the buildings deconstructed in three month's time. (One of the houses was sold and moved.)
To get the job done, city engineers abandoned the typical Request-for-Proposal process and instead broke the project into 15 separate bid lettings - a few larger jobs that would be attractive to established deconstruction contractors, and progressively smaller jobs that would promote the growth of small, local deconstruction firms. Six of the projects sought bids for the deconstruction of a single house.
To attract bidders who might have no experience in deconstruction, Goddard said the city required that only 60 percent of the materials be salvaged, but offered performance incentives for achieving higher diversion rates.
The city accepted the bids of three different contractors. "One was a brand new contractor who had never done a deconstruction before; one was an established demolition contractor who had never deconstructed before; and then we had an experienced deconstruction contractor."
The results: the experienced deconstruction contractor took down 15 buildings with an average diversion rate of 86 percent; the newcomer dismantled four buildings averaging 84.6 percent diversion; and the demolition contractor removed 25 buildings with an average diversion rate of 81.9 percent. All told, the contractors diverted 6,882 tons of material from the landfill, Goddard said.
"There was a learning curve for everybody," he said. The demolition contractor essentially knocked down the buildings, ground up the wood for use as a biofuel, and salvaged as much as they could from the remaining debris. "There were some safety issues," Goddard said. "The problem is, they keep going back to the way they learned how to do it. But, the whole idea was to learn from it," he said.
The experienced deconstruction contractor - Gronen Restoration of Dubuque - had the appropriate safety equipment, removed the roofs and siding, de-nailed the lumber and saved most of the bricks, Goddard said. "They have experience doing this and they did an excellent job," he said.
Fitzgerald manages deconstruction projects for Gronen. He said that even though the city required every building to be deconstructed, he believes not all of them were good candidates for it.
"A lot of times, you can only do so much," Fitzgerald said. "There was a house that was part of the Bee Branch project that needed to be taken down. It had been inhabited by a boarder who had large amounts of cats and other animals. I couldn't walk into it for more than five minutes without gagging, and it was just a building that I would have no problem seeing an excavator crush. But I've learned from all these projects that materials have a value and as long as it makes sense to do it, there's a way to do it right," he said.
"Deconstruction provides a lot of jobs," Fitzgerald said. He said Gronen Restoration took advantage of grants through a local community college to provide deconstruction training to low-income and unemployed workers. Eighteen trainees worked with the Gronen crew during the Bee Branch project, and four of them continue to work for the business now, he said.
Besides creating green jobs for the local economy, Goddard and Fitzgerald said deconstruction also provides valuable building materials for resale.
"You'd be surprised," Goddard said. "Bricks here in the older part of Dubuque are old-style Chicago bricks. You can take them to Chicago and sell them for a lot of money. And there were some beautiful beams taken out ... without a knot in them. It's old-growth lumber because these homes were about a hundred years old."
Goddard said newer bricks are typically softer and have little value except to be ground up and used for fill.
But Fitzgerald said some of the materials in older buildings contain hazards that need to be abated prior to deconstruction. These include asbestos and lead.
"We didn't find a ton of lead (paint), but there was lead in almost every house in that district," he said. Each board of painted wood was tested for lead. When lead was detected, the wood had to go to the landfill. But not all the painted wood tested positive for lead. Although the testing equipment is expensive, Fitzgerald said it was cost effective on the Bee Branch project because of the city's financial incentives that paid bonuses for diverting more materials from the landfill. The other contractors sent all painted wood to the landfill, which was one of the reasons they were not able to divert as much, he said.
Fitzgerald said finding markets for the reusable construction materials and packaging them for resale is half the battle in deconstruction. "The goal would be to get things packaged like a lumber yard, but you can't always do that on job sites," he said. The trick is to designate separate staging areas for each type of material, create appropriate signage, and then strictly police workers to make sure they follow the procedures so materials don't get contaminated with incompatible matter.
He said manufacturers often reject recyclable material if it contains even small amounts of contaminate.
The bottom line: all the buildings were removed on deadline and the Bee Branch Project was allowed to proceed. Intended to reduce the risk of stormwater flood damage to 1,155 properties and serve as a catalyst for economic development, the open waterway will include amenities such as an amphitheater, bike/hike trails, benches, bridges, lighting and landscaping, according to Dubuque city officials.