Deconstruction vs. Demolition
How To Take A House Apart Gently

IF YOU'RE WONDERING ABOUT THE ADVANTAGES of deconstruction vs. demolition, or if you're wondering what deconstruction is and how to go about it, read on.

No matter how pure your intentions, the bad news is that you will probably have to deal with a certain amount of demolition if you want to achieve your energy efficiency goal for your green home.

You can't always just apply standard home efficiency improvements such as additional insulation and draft-proofing to an old house like mine.

*** Click on any picture to see it enlarged,
or to view the entire photo gallery.

You just have to gut it.

That's my gutted house in the photo on the left.

And if you're going to do that, you're going to fill a dumpster or two. I know I did.

It was the compromise I had to make in order to achieve the goal set for me following the energy audit that was carried out beforehand.

I also wanted to take advantage of the grants that the different levels of government were offering for making our homes more energy efficient.

I was determined to keep my ecological footprint to a minimum. In realizing my dream of living in a greener home, an important part of the scheme was to try to keep as much of the demolition debris as possible out of the landfill.

Knocking everything down brutally with a sledgehammer may be a way for guys to show off their manliness - sorry, guys, but that's the impression I get from watching Mike Holmes' show! But sending the components of a house to the landfill as truckfuls of smashed building materials is not my idea of treading lightly on the planet.

Luckily, I heard of the technique known as"deconstruction".

Along with a minimum of noise and violence, I knew I wanted to salvage as much building materials as possible. There was no doubt that building deconstruction seemed the way to go.

Therefore, although gutting my house involved quite a bit of conventional demolition - and an embarrassing amount of debris destined for the landfill - what I'd like to emphasize here is the deconstruction part of it.

What Is Deconstruction?

A definition of deconstruction (a.k.a. disassembly) could be: a process by which a house is taken apart - either wholly or partially - with the intention of salvaging all or part of the building materials.

You might say it's green demolition.

In this way, a good proportion of those materials can be reused or recycled. That is quite different from demolition. (Some of the claims seem exaggerated, though. 85% salvage? I'd like to see it! In my home deconstruction project, if I'm lucky I'll achieve 15% salvage and that will require much vigilance and a lot of work.)

According to 3R Demolition, a Burnaby, B.C. deconstruction specialist:

The evolution of both recycling and the environment regulations have created a new vogue word, "deconstruction". Deconstruction has revolutionized the demolition industry. This new trend is making conventional demolition a thing of the past - it's no longer just a traditional material removal and disposal industry. Rather, it has progressed to a highly sophisticated, environmentally friendly deconstruction, recycle and salvage opportunity.

In summary, according to these Canadian experts, building deconstruction:

* Is environmentally friendly
* Reduces greenhouse gases
* Offers the opportunity of increased materials for a second future use

* Reduces materials to landfill
* Increases materials to recycle facilities
* Exposes the possibility of unforeseen hazardous waste
* Creates jobs

While some materials are finding a new vocation in this environmentally conscious era, others have a long tradition of being reused in their primary state.

Bricks - Hewn Stone - Beams Trim and Moldings - Wood and Lumber

Here's a list taken from a building materials salvage company's website:

Antique Plumbing - Boilers - Cabinets - Closet Organizers - Collectibles - Doors - Interior Doors - Exterior Electrical - Industrial Elevators - Flooring - French Doors - Front Entrances - Garage Doors - Industrial Equipment - Lighting - Lumber - Mantels - Metals & Pipes - Rock & Marble - Security Vaults - Staircase Entries - Toilets - Wainscoting - Wrought Iron

At the upper end of the business we find the architectural salvage people, who specialize in fine and/or vintage architectural objects found in the more refined homes. They are, no doubt, the original "deconstructors". They deal in:

Windows - Doors - Lighting - Columns - Mantles - Hardware -
Garden Items - Bathroom fixtures - Etc.

Some materials are good candidates for new uses, limited only by our imagination:

  • Boards can be planed and routed and recycled as flooring, ceilings, wainscoting
  • Plastic pipes can be used as watering aids for newly-planted trees
  • Carpeting can be used as mulch on garden beds or as part of a soil-building system

The reason I list all these items is so you won't overlook anything during your own deconstruction project. This doesn't mean you have to keep everything, perhaps just a few pieces.

For instance, when we installed the rain gutters I was glad that I had salvaged a few pieces of vinyl siding -- it was exactly what we needed to insert under the drip edge, to keep the rainwater from getting in behind the gutters. (According to the contractor, that system works much better than caulking, and it's more permanent too.)

Why Should We Deconstruct?

Who wouldn't want to save money while caring for the environment?

As far as green building techniques, deconstruction is way up there with the best of them.

Deconstruction is also a safer, more satisfactory way of demolishing a house.

In my project, seeing the paneling, the moldings, the two-by-fours piling up has been like receiving a great gift.

The salvaged materials shown above are but a small part of what we rescued at my construction site during deconstruction.

What could be more satisfactory for a builder than free building materials?

The SEVEN "R's"

Remember the 3 R's? Well, now there are seven:

  • Refuse
  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle
  • Repair
  • Restore, and, of course
  • Rehabilitate!

I try to apply them all in this project. I REFUSE to fall for today's fad for huge houses and luxurious materials brought in from the other end of the world; I REDUCE my use of resources by REUSING everything I can; by RESTORING and REHABILITATING this abandoned house I'm RECYCLING it; and instead of throwing things away, first I try to REPAIR them.

Deconstruction helps me achieve these goals.

Saving money feels nice, and so does saving the planet. Nowadays, with global warming, climate change, environmental degradation and deforestation on the daily news, well, it just makes sense to avoid waste.

And if you have no use for it you can always list it on your local Freecycle.

Our Favorite Deconstruction Tools

Okay: so you've got the house, you've had your energy audit, you have a plan and you've lined up the help.

Now you're ready to do some deconstructing. You'll want to make sure you have all the proper tools and equipment assembled beforehand. Don't attempt this job without them!

These are practically the only tools we needed for all the deconstruction operations mentioned here.

(Click on image for a larger view.)

Missing from the photo: goggles, respirators, hard hats, and a roll of heavy plastic that we used for all sorts of things.

The stepladder in the picture is the only kind I use now: it has big feet for stability, wide treads for comfort, and the tray is fabulous for tools, fasteners, etc.

The folding workbench is the kind I refer to further on. They're so cheap you can have several of them. For instance, use two to rest both ends of a long board that you're working on.

Our Favorite Deconstruction Techniques

Most of the following jobs you'll have to do yourself or with unpaid or unskilled help. Contractors' rates make these operations rather uneconomical - assuming, of course, that your contractor is even willing to undertake what he is likely to consider an absolute waste of time. Good ol' demolition, yes! Deconstruction? No thanks.

Your contractor might even take a bit of persuading to get him to agree to use salvaged materials. For one thing, that complicates their estimate calculations.

Be sure to tell your helpers what it is you want to salvage, and show them the proper way to do it and where they should stack things. Otherwise, they may assume that you're planning on throwing everything away (I mean, everybody else does!), so they'll think nothing of damaging your precious materials in the process of removing them, of strewing them about the floor and of stepping on them!

Preparation. Start by removing lighting fixtures, switch and outlet covers, etc.

a) Dealing with wooden trim. If you aim to preserve and reuse wooden trim - from around doors, windows, baseboards - first check to see if there's caulking. If so, cut it away with a cutter blade held nearly parallel with the wall; repeat on the trim side.

Then, insert a rigid flat tool between the trim and the wall (here he's using a hammer but a paint scraper is better at the beginning, or a small pry-bar) -- and lift gently. Start at one end and repeat a few inches further, then a bit further.

Don't try to detach the trim completely at this point or you'll break it. Then go back to the end and pry a bit more.

The important thing is not to pry a bit here and a bit there, but do it systematically, inch by inch.

This may be enough, depending on the length of the nails. At this point we can usually pull the whole section away with our (gloved) hands or with the help of a tool like in the picture.

When it comes to deconstruction, "gently" is the key word. This may sound slow but in fact it's quite fast once you get the hang of it, and it's worth taking extra care to ensure that the molding doesn't get damaged. Just think of all the trees you'll save! And the money, and the chemicals and the energy used to manufacture and ship new materials.

We pile all the molding near a spot where we can set up a portable work bench and remove the nails. No need to waste steps by moving it again and again.

b) Nail removing. My helper and I have found that it's better to do this job periodically instead of waiting until have a great big pile. This allows us to move the processed materials out of the site and to a storage place. The less stuff lying about, the safer the job site!

We use a small portable bench, a hammer, pliers and a can for the spent nails.

(By the way, if you're a woman, the lighter work benches are fabulous and they're also cheaper. I bought two at $10 on sale at Canadian Tire.)

The piece of trim is flipped upside-down and the nail is gently hammered out. If the nail is very crooked, place it sideways on a block of wood and straighten it with the hammer. This is more effective than hitting it in the air.

Here's a clever trick: position the nail over the gap in your work bench, as in this picture.

To pull the nails out, use the hammer's claw or the special hole in the pry bar. Some finishing nails have no head or such a fine one that you'll have to use pliers. Others comes out easily, with the fingers.

Here again, "gently" is the key word. With a bit of practice, you can be both gentle and fast!

c) Sanding/Refinishing. These steps are for later. You don't want to spend time on something you might not use.

Storing. Store in a dry place, horizontally. Don't stand them up: they will buckle and bend.

You might want to make bundles according to style, width, length, and/or finish. If you need to tie them, use string, not tape, which might leave a sticky residue. String is natural, so you can compost it when you're done with it!

d) Dealing With Panelling. Skip this section if there's no old panelling in your house.

There was a time when all the houses around here were panelled. For DYI home builders, it was an easy wall finishing solution or a way of covering up the deteriorating lath and plaster walls. At one point it was even fashionable to cover your walls with fake knotty pine. Chacun son goût!

My commitment to reuse everything possible includes panelling. You'd be surprised how pretty it looks with a coat of paint. But it's important to caulk the joints really well before painting or you'll be creating air leaks.

e) Removing Panelling. Even glued panelling can be removed successfully, because chances are the old adhesive has dried out. It's just as likely to just be fastened with small finishing nails.

First, remove all the moldings and trim at the ceilings, windows, doors and baseboards. If you want to reuse the small quarter-round or "J" angle moldings, remove them by following the directions for trim, above.

Remove electrical switch and outlet covers (turn off the current). Those can be salvaged as well, so put them in a box along with their screws.

Starting at an edge, insert a flat rigid tool and pry. Move a few inches, and pry there. Repeat this systematically. Pull the panelling away with your hands as soon as you can get a good grip: the whole sheet will come away.

Some pieces will be too small to keep and others will break as you pull. Don't fret over this.

Store the panels flat on the floor. When you have a good pile, remove the nails by placing the panels upside-down on a large work surface (which can be a combination of several small work benches) and pushing the nails through to the good side. Pull them out by hand or with pliers - they will come away easily.

f) Dealing with Drywall. The only way to reuse drywall is if it's been attached with screws. If it's been nailed, be prepared for clouds of dust and lots of rubble to dispose of. That definitely does not fit under the "deconstruction" category!

In the original part of the house, we found drywall under the panelling and under the ceiling tiles. We had to remove it in order to properly insulate everything. Don't be tempted to just break it up by hitting it! If you do, you will spend the rest of your life picking the residues off the beams.

The best way to remove drywall is to start lifting the panels away at the seams, and as soon as you have created a long enough gap where you can get a two-handed grip, pull hard and chances are most of the panel will come away. Don't forget to wear your gloves, respirator and goggles! (Old walls are incredibly dusty on the inside - how on earth does the dust get in there?)

g) Dealing With Lath And Plaster. Lath and plaster are impossible to deconstruct, but mercifully, my house was built after the lath and plaster era.

If your walls are lath and plaster, I have no experience with them, but you can find help at this site.

Don't forget to wear protective face gear!

On the other hand, if you have some experience with the deconstruction of lath and plaster that you'd like to share, please contact us and we will include it here.

h) Dealing With Insulation. I'm allergic to Fiberglass so I didn't stick around when the insulation was being removed.

Once a wall had been stripped, I would visit briefly (wearing a special respirator) to check on its condition and decide what to do with it. If it was tattered and/or moldy, it would get bagged for the garbage truck. If it was in good condition, it was wrapped in large sheets of plastic and stored in the attic until it could be reused.

The original part of the house was insulated with mineral wool. We disposed of all of it because it was extremely dusty and difficult to handle, and its insulating value is negligible.

i) Dealing With Ceiling Tiles. Along with panelling on the walls, many houses still have old-fashioned tiles stapled to the ceiling.

Ceiling tiles are the easiest thing to remove - just get one off and the rest will come down with minimum prodding. Unfortunately, they will leave behind a million staples!

Some of the ceilings had drywall under the tiles and others had the tiles applied directly to some wood strapping. Everything had to come off, including the strapping. The latter was a very time-consuming job because of the long nails that had been used to fasten them. If only they'd had our electric screwdrivers back then!

j) Dealing With Lumber. If you knock down walls, you will find yourself with an abundance of good lumber. You just have to figure out how the parts were assembled, and reverse the process.

If your house is old, the lumber will be of better quality than what's available today.

However, please don't expect your contractor to reuse short pieces of lumber. They are really of no use to anybody, so find someone with a fireplace or a wood furnace. Set aside only the nice long pieces of four feet or more.

Remove all the nails (often, there's only two or three at each end) and store the wood boards or two-by-fours flat in a dry place.

k) Dealing With Strapping (a.k.a. furring strips). Even though strapping is very inexpensive, we removed so much of it that I wanted to be able to reuse it, so we tried to keep all the pieces intact.

Afterwards, my helper and I set up an assembly line: he would remove the nails, then pass the boards over to me and I would remove the staples with the head of a screwdriver. A nice, contemplative job.

l) Uninstalling Kitchen Cabinets. Deconstructing a kitchen is quite another matter. For one thing, there are some jobs that one person should never attempt to do alone.

Knowing how "macho" my helper was, I had to watch him closely when it was nearly time to take down the upper cupboards. I was sure he'd attempt it by himself and I wanted no part of that.

Otherwise, everything is quite easy to take apart: cupboards are usually attached to each other and to the wall with a couple of screws. Take them apart in the following order:

1. Assemble the following tools: hammer, pry-bar, putty knife, screwdriver, crowbar, ladder and saw.

2. Remove the sink and its fittings.

3. If the counter top is a simple laminate one, it's just screwed to the cabinets: locate the screws by looking underneath, unscrew them and remove the top.

4. If the counter top has tiles or other heavy material on it, pry that off with your putty knife and whatever else will do the job, depending on whether you want to salvage it or not. If you don't strip it, the counter top may be too heavy to lift. Then unscrew it as above.

5. Remove the base units first. Removing drawers and doors makes the job easier. Look inside to see where and by what means they are attached.

6. Removing top units is a dangerous job, so don't attempt to do it alone.

There is a set of instructions at this ehow page.

At this point, you may be in for a nasty surprise, as I was a few years back, in Montreal. Having removed the kitchen cupboards, I discovered that the kitchen had been renovated without removing the cupboards, so that behind them there was no wall, and under them there was no flooring.

This time around, I was hoping to reuse some of the cabinets, but they were made of very cheap material and had gotten damaged by moisture, so I ended up having to get rid of most of them. The good ones ended up in the basement, where they are spending their very useful second life.

I won't be reusing the copper pipes, but I won't be throwing them away, that's for sure! They are worth quite a bit of money now that copper is so expensive. The scrap iron man who took the old furnace away very kindly cut them up into manageable pieces for me.

Here's a good tip: as you pull out the old copper pipes, bend them or cut them into smaller lengths -- they're easier to manage that way.

A Real Demolition Project

About a month after we finished gutting the house, a local contractor was able to slip me in between jobs (I don't know about your town, but around here if you want construction done you have to get on the waiting list!) so I had him demolish the existing staircase and put in a new one to the basement. (No stairs to the second floor will be required as it's being turned into an attic, with only a hatch and a ladder.)

I was shocked by the amount of debris that this job produced.

Demolition/Deconstruction Safety

  • Never compromise your safety and that of those working for or with you!
  • Always wear appropriate gear: gloves, goggles, respirator, thick shoes or boots and hard hat - depending on the job.
  • Disconnect the power if working with electricity.
  • Keep the site clean and clear of obstacles.
  • Open stepladders all the way and don't stand on the last step.
  • Make sure materials that have nails in them are not left in a spot where someone might step on them.
  • Keep the tools you need nearby so you don't have to stretch too far to get them.
  • Follow the safety guidelines of the tool manufacturers!

All About Deconstruction

If you're planning on getting into deconstruction on a major scale -- who knows, you may enjoy it so much you decide to start deconstructing buildings for cash! -- you should consult the Deconstruction Institute's 93-page Guide. (PDF document)

Want To See More?

It's not easy to find deconstruction examples as inspiring as what this Australian permaculture blogger is doing with his home in Seymour, near Melbourne. Redesigning a Home in the Suburbs is well worth a visit!

(The project is quite advanced by now, so you'll have to use the blog's search box (top, right) to find the deconstruction articles.)




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Prague, Czech Republic


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United States


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Unites States


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United States


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United States


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United States


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United States


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A few years ago, I bought this fixer-upper for $10,000.

It had been vacant for six years, had no water supply, needed a new roof, and was likely to conceal an unsuspected number of nasty flaws.

Don't believe me? See these "Before" pictures.

My intention was to turn it into as "green" as home as I could, within my physical, financial, and geographical limits – and to share this adventure with you, step-by-step and dollar-by-dollar.

I'm not quite finished, but I do have a few "After" pictures to show.

If you want to follow me on this exciting adventure, you can subscribe to this site by RSS feed -- see the box below the navigation bar on the left.