Blog Post

The US EPA estimates that approximately 500 million tons of demolition waste are sent to landfills each year, yet much of the ‘waste’ is reusable material. Over the last several decades, a growing network of businesses are realizing the significant opportunities in reclaiming valuable resources through the careful disassembly of buildings. A recent Ensia article describes the growth of the building deconstruction industry, highlighting the promising prospects as well as market barriers in the current landscape.

Deconstruction involves taking a building apart, piece by piece. This can range from a soft strip, in which only the most high-value and easy-to-extract materials are removed intact, to a full deconstruction, in which the entire structure is “un-built” to maximize reuse of existing materials. Deconstruction can be a good fit for buildings with valuable salvage materials, such as rare wood species or intact bricks.

Since many old buildings are full of valuable materials, several cities have adopted ordinances requiring pre-1940s built structures to be deconstructed. Vancouver, BC, Portland, OR, and Milwaukee, WI are among the first cities to enact deconstruction ordinances, and have already seen notable results. In Portland’s first year after enacting the ordinance, 80 homes were permitted for deconstruction, diverting an estimated 2,500 tons of building materials and resulting in the creation of 15 new deconstruction contractor businesses. The Building Materials Reuse Association, a national non-profit education and research organization working to advance the recovery, reuse, and recycling of building materials, now has over 100 member organizations.

Despite the environmental and economic benefits, there are some barriers that limit the widespread transition towards deconstruction as standard practice. Often, deconstruction requires extra time and effort, which can be a deterrent for projects with constricted timeframes. Additionally, cheaper materials and chemical based glues used in post-1950s construction are often unable to be reused or are too costly to process. Additionally, contractors must meet specific EPA and state requirements for dealing with contaminants such as asbestos, lead, PCBs, and mercury during deconstruction.

Using information gained from diverse industry stakeholders, RecyclingWorks in Massachusetts (RecyclingWorks) has developed a set of Best Management Practices for recycling construction & demolition materials, which includes a directory of deconstruction contractors, wood and architectural salvage companies, material brokers, and nonprofit reuse outlets operating in Massachusetts.

RecyclingWorks is a Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection program designed to help businesses and institutions maximize reuse, recycling, and food waste diversion opportunities. See the RecyclingWorks construction and demolition materials webpage for two case studies featuring deconstruction projects. For free assistance, call our hotline: (888) 254-5525 or email us at