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Posts Tagged ‘demolition’

Photo: Econ.
Thomas Rau and Sabine Oberhuber are prominent proponents of creating a circular economy for a sustainable relationship between humans and the Earth. One approach is to reuse building materials that are liberated during demolition.

In the interest of bringing you some of the latest ideas in sustainability, here is a story on reusing building materials, leasing instead of buying products, and other ideas to lighten the planet’s burden. And they are not just ideas.

Jessica Camille Aguirre reports at the New York Times, “When the Dutch National Bank moved into its Amsterdam headquarters in 1968, the new buildings were epic and stylish. A sprawling Modernist landmark that took up an entire city block off the banks of the Amstel Canal, it was distinguished by a towering high-rise of polished ochre tile. …

“A few decades into the new millennium, the entire complex began to show signs of wear. Tiles fell off the facade. Pipes began to leak. And, perhaps most troubling in a country that prized itself on environmental innovation, its overextended heating systems burned too much fuel.

“In 2020, an architecture firm completed a design plan that would update the original structures and transform the inner courtyard into a public garden. …

“Typically, the fate of a building that has outlasted its usefulness is demolition, leaving behind a huge pile of waste. The Netherlands and other European countries have tried to reduce that waste with regulations. Buildings there are often smashed to pieces and repurposed for asphalt. … A Dutch environmental engineer named Michel Baars thought he could do better than turn [a building] into material for a road.

Mr. Baars considers himself an urban miner, someone who extracts raw materials from discarded infrastructure and finds a market for them. …

“Lean and no-nonsense, Mr. Baars belongs to an emerging group of architects, engineers, contractors and designers who are determined to find a new way to build. This group shares a philosophy rooted in a set of ideas sometimes called the circular or regenerative economy, the cradle-to-cradle approach, or the doughnut economy.

“There are two main tenets to their thinking: First, on a planet with limited resources and a rapidly warming climate, it’s crazy to throw stuff away; second, products should be designed with reuse in mind. The first idea is a recognizable part of our everyday lives: Recycling has retrieved value from household trash for a long time. More recently, the approach has started to gain a toehold in industries like fashion, with secondhand retailers and clothing rental services, and in food production, with compostable packaging. The second takes more forethought and would require companies to rethink their businesses in the most basic ways. Translating either concept to the infrastructure of human settlements requires considering reuse in much longer time scales. …

“Buildings use a prodigious amount of raw materials and are responsible for nearly 40 percent of the world’s climate emissions, half of which is generated by their construction. The production of cement is alone responsible for eight percent of global emissions.

“In recent years, concern about waste and the climate has led cities like Portland, Ore., and Milwaukee to pass ordinances requiring certain houses to be deconstructed rather than demolished. Private companies in Japan have spearheaded new ways of taking high-rises down from the inside, floor by floor. China promised to repurpose 60 percent of construction waste in its recent five-year plan. But perhaps no country has committed itself as deeply to circular policies as the Netherlands.

“In 2016, the national government announced that it would have a waste-free economy by 2050. At the same time, the country held the rotating Council of the European Union presidency, and it made circularity one of the main concepts driving the industrial sector across the bloc. Amsterdam’s city government has set its own goals, announcing plans to start building a fifth of new housing with wood or bio-based material by 2025 and halve the use of raw materials by 2030. Cities like Brussels, Copenhagen and Barcelona, Spain, have followed suit.

“Even in the Netherlands, though, creating a truly circular economy is challenging. Nearly half of all waste in the country comes from construction and demolition, according to national statistics, and a stunning 97 percent of that waste was classified as ‘recovered’ in 2018. But most of the recovered waste is downcycled — that is, crushed into roads or incinerated to produce energy. A 2020 report by the European Environment Agency pointed out that only 3 to 4 percent of material in new Dutch construction was reused in its original form, which means that trees are still being cut for lumber and limestone still mined for cement. …

“Mr. Baars, who runs a circular demolition company called New Horizon, sent a crew of around 15 people to take down the office partitions [in the bank tower]. They packed off interior glass and plasterboard to companies that could make use of the materials. Then, starting at the top of the 86,000-square-foot tower, they began removing the glass facade. A crane lifted pieces to a quay, where they were loaded onto barges in the Amstel Canal for the seven-mile trip upriver to Mr. Baars’s warehouse.”

A 2012 McKinsey report presented at the Davos World Economic Forum suggested that companies were missing out on opportunities to create new business models. “What if, for example, manufacturers could make more money by leasing, rather than selling, their products?

“Thomas Rau, an architect in Amsterdam, is a leading proponent of this idea. In 2015, he appeared in a Dutch documentary called The End of Ownership, in which he didn’t argue for abolishing ownership so much as for shifting it from individuals to manufacturers.

“If manufacturers retain ownership of their products, he argued, they will want to make products that last longer and need fewer repairs. Just as significant, they will want to design stuff that can be easily taken apart and used again. Theoretically, this could help consumers, too. No one wants to own a computer or television or washing machine, Mr. Rau claimed; they just want the services those products offer: computing ability, visual entertainment, textile cleaning. … Think about the speed with which subscription music-streaming services replaced ownership of CDs.” More at the Times, here.

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Photo: City of San Antonio.

There are so many beautiful pieces of buildings that end up in the dump when individuals or municipalities choose demolition: “wavy” glass from old homes, priceless woods, marble, stained glass, historical artifacts, and more. Fortunately, in the spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, a different approach is being tested around the country.

Aarian Marshall writes at Wired, “Emily Christensen knows this sounds a little West Coast, but when she enters the old houses her company has been hired to take apart, she senses an energy. ‘It’s intense,’ she says. ‘These houses have seen decades of human drama.’

“Christensen and her partner, David Greenhill, started their firm, Good Wood, in 2016. Portland, Oregon, where they live, had just become the nation’s first city to require houses of a certain age to be deconstructed rather than demolished. That means that, instead of using an excavator and backhoe to crush an old building, anyone scrapping an older structure in the city must hire a deconstruction crew, which takes it apart delicately — almost surgically — by hand. Rather than a jumble of smashed wood, plaster, fixtures, insulation, concrete, and dust, deconstruction firms can extract cabinetry, masonry, windows, marble, brick, and beautiful old-growth lumber. The idea is that these materials can be sold and eventually reused locally. …

“Using old materials to make new things feels meaningful. It helps, too, that reclaimed wood tends to be very pretty. But a growing number of US cities think the idea makes good policy too. In the past five years, cities as disparate as Baltimore, Cleveland, Boise, and San Jose and Palo Alto in California have adopted their own deconstruction policies; San Antonio has been working on one for four years.

“Deconstruction, city officials say, is a green alternative to demolition, sending up to 85 percent less material to landfills. Building materials and construction account for just under 10 percent of the world’s energy-related global carbon emissions, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Using salvaged materials eliminates emissions associated with making and transporting new building materials. Plus, it’s not as noisy as knocking down a house, and doesn’t spew dust or toxic materials, such as asbestos, into the air.

“Backers say it creates jobs even for those without high-tech skills, while highlighting the importance of sustainability. As the climate warms, ‘the circular economy is one promising alternative,’ says Felix Heisel, an architect, assistant professor, and director of the Circular Construction Lab at Cornell University.

“Good Wood illustrates Portland’s success. Over the past four years, the city has deconstructed more than 420 single-family and duplex homes that were registered as historic places or built before 1940. Good Wood has taken apart 160 of them. Today, 19 contractors are licensed to deconstruct in the city, thanks in part to a city-sponsored training. …

“But all that manual labor comes at a cost. Deconstructing a building can be more than 80 percent more expensive than demolishing it, according to a report from Portland State University, though selling some of the recovered material can offset part of the cost.

“And sometimes the labor isn’t available. In 2018, Milwaukee required many of the city’s older structures to be deconstructed instead of demolished. But the rule is still on ice, through at least 2023, as officials still struggle to find local contractors who can take apart homes by hand.

“The delay ‘is in hopes of building a bigger pool of potential contractors,’ says Chris Kraco, supervisor of the condemnation section at the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services. Kraco and his colleagues continue to hold training sessions. … Many places also need to update their local building codes to allow contractors to build with salvaged materials.

“The complexity has prompted some cities to tackle deconstruction slowly. Pittsburgh just launched a year-long pilot project, in partnership with a local nonprofit construction materials and appliances business, to see whether taking apart old, condemned structures on city land makes financial sense there. …

“San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation, which has spearheaded the city’s deconstruction efforts, plans to propose an ordinance to city council later this year. In the meantime, it’s helping with demonstration projects, including one on a 1930s homestead that uncovered a basement full of moonshine bottles — something that might have otherwise been crushed in a demolition. …

“Most cities, Portland included, have targeted old buildings for deconstruction. It’s partly because limiting the pool of homes required to use the technique gives local deconstruction economies time to develop. But also, starting in the 1970s, builders tended to use materials that haven’t held their value, like second- or third-growth lumber, or particle board. Construction also used more glue, spray foam sealant, and other adhesives, which make it harder to take apart new buildings by hand.” More at Wired, here.

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In her comment at my post about artists returning a discarded museum to life, KerryCan wondered if all the old, weird museum collections ended up at the dump. All is not lost if they did, as dumps seem to attract amateur archaeologists with a nose for uncovering treasures.

Eve Kahn wrote recently in the NY Times about collectors who look for terra cotta shards in the Staten Island landfill and poke around promising demolition sites.

“This summer, true shard collectors [led] me into the weedier parts of the Northeast, where slag heaps and demolition debris survive from the long vanished factories that once thrived.

“These particular experts are interested in manufacturers of windowpanes and architectural ornament. They write books and lead tours, but they also pack their homes and workplaces with excavated artifacts from what seems to be a limitless supply. Anyone can follow in their trail and gain an understanding of American ingenuity as well as accumulate booty for gardens and windowsills or even more ambitious art projects.

“You must stay off private property, of course, but I also recommend that you avoid the comical errors that I made on my early expeditions. … I was so bedazzled by glass that I was about to sit down with shards in my front pockets.”

More on Kahn’s scavenging adventures, here. You might also like the blog “Tiles in New York,” here.

Photo: Agaton Strom for The New York Times
Tina Kaasman-Dunn searching for terra cotta shards on Staten Island.

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