Encouraging and Mandating Building Deconstruction

Deconstructing buildings amplifies the marketplace for used goods, helps create new jobs, and limits new materials production.

“Deconstruction is a new term to describe an old process—the selective dismantling or removal of materials from buildings prior to or instead of conventional demolition,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.[1] Deconstruction gives used building materials “new life” when a building has been decommissioned, harvesting what would have become “waste” in a conventional demolition process. Many components from old buildings are still usable and valuable, and are sometimes more valuable than at the time of original construction. Materials may be salvaged or reused in their original form or recycled into new building materials.

Local ordinances create incentives and penalties to encourage the demolition of buildings. Several states have passed laws requiring such ordinances and other cities are leading their states by passing them. Most construction and demolition (C&D) reuse and recycling ordinances or policies include the following:

  • Recycling of C&D debris
  • Reusing building materials on the project site
  • Deconstruction to maximize reuse
  • Specifying types and quantities of materials recovered for reuse and recycling
  • Reporting requirements
  • Compliance tools, including fees and penalties for non-compliance


  • Many communities in California have adopted ordinances that require recycling of construction waste. Foster City’s ordinance[2] requires at least 50% of C&D tonnage to be diverted from landfills.
  • The Town of Chapel Hill, NC[3] provides builders with a list of building materials that are required to be recycled or salvaged when a building is being torn down and requires documentation of material recycling or salvage.
  • Portland, OR requires full deconstruction,[4] versus mechanical demolition, for houses and duplexes that were built in 1916 or earlier, or designated historic regardless of age (source 3). Approximately 33 percent of single-family demolitions will be subject to the deconstruction requirement. Increased deconstruction will:
    - Divert 8 million pounds (4,000 tons) of materials for reuse (annually).
    - Create job opportunities that act as a pathway for construction careers.
    - Increase the likelihood of discovering materials containing lead and asbestos for safe removal and disposal.

Value Proposition for Sustainable Consumption

  • Greenhouse gas reductions: The salvage and reuse of building materials resulting from deconstruction reduces GHG emissions by: 1) Bypassing the need for new building materials to be produced and transported, and 2) Preventing decomposing building materials from releasing methane in landfills.
  • Reused building materials marketplace: Deconstruction yields a larger supply of salvageable and reusable building materials than conventional demolition. By incentivizing or regulating building deconstruction salvaged, reused and recycled building materials become more viable and more normalized in the commercial marketplace.
  • Reduced impact to site: Deconstruction results in significantly greater protection of the local site, including soil and vegetation. In addition, deconstruction creates less dust and noise than demolition.  
  • Job creation: Manual disassembly of buildings offers an excellent opportunity to identify and train minimally-skilled workers with an aptitude and interest in the building trades. Job creation is often an important policy consideration for federal agencies, as well as for communities interested in developing economic opportunities.

Potential City Roles

  • Make major policy adjustments—Adopt a building deconstruction ordinance.
  • Convene—Create an advisory committee[5] composed of building professionals to provide input in crafting your community’s ordinance.
  • Enforce—After passing an ordinance, have building inspection staffers visit sites to ensure deconstruction techniques are being used and issues fines if builders are not in compliance.
  • Educate/outreach—Inform local building professionals about the deconstruction process and provide resources for technical assistance and locations for materials recycling, donation or resale.
  • Fund—Provide funding for demonstration projects and workforce development training.
  • Demonstrate—Deconstruct civic buildings rather than demolishing them, even before an ordinance is passed.
  • Incentivize—Provide financial incentives to builders or property owners for using deconstruction instead of demolition. Disincentivize demolition by increasing tipping costs. Incentivize use of building techniques that consider deconstruction in new designs.
  • Advocate—Lobby state legislatures to pass statewide deconstruction legislation.
  • Promote and partner—Help to grow or create a market for deconstructed building materials by partnering with or promoting local salvaged building materials retailers.[6]

Implementation Challenges and Potential Solutions

Deconstruction takes more time to implement than traditional demolition because it requires a building to be carefully disassembled. And because deconstruction is time intensive it is also labor intensive. What could be demolished by a piece of equipment in a few hours, may take a crew of ten to twelve workers two weeks to accomplish. When these two factors are combined, it may appear that deconstruction is more expensive than conventional demolition. In actuality, opportunities for tax deductible donations, income from material salvage and resale, and savings from land disposal costs work to offset the higher labor costs associated with deconstruction.

Another potential hurdle to deconstruction is the actual “deconstructability” of a building. While a new movement towards “designing for deconstruction” is currently taking place, many older buildings are secured using engineered materials, industrial adhesives, and other building techniques that can damage building components during deconstruction. Similarly, the use of materials containing toxics such as asbestos and lead can cause a hazard for workers, neighbors, and passersby in the deconstruction process.

While these issues cause serious concerns for the safety of people and the environment as well as the viability of deconstructed building materials, they also present opportunities to train minimally-skilled workers in hazardous materials management and construction and to create new jobs within a community. Cities can provide training[7] for both contractors and deconstruction workers to build capacity and prepare the workforce needed to effectively implement deconstruction ordinances.


A 2012 Williams College study[8] showed that the deconstruction of two small campus buildings (totaling 7,000 sf) prevented 66 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Ninety-two percent of deconstructed building materials were recycled, salvaged or otherwise diverted from a landfill or incinerator. The authors concluded that a variety of on-site issues contributed to lower-than-expected GHG savings, and that future projects could benefit from greater expertise. Transportation emissions for most materials, except concrete and drywall, were insignificant and the authors found that salvaging and recycling metal building materials provided the most promise for GHG savings. The study used the US EPA’s Solid Waste Management and Greenhouse Gases: A Life-Cycle Assessment of Emissions and Sinks and the EPA’s Waste Reduction Model (WARM) methodology to calculate GHGs.

Further Resources