Deconstructing Houses

A question from this comment thread:

Hi there Conrad, I am in the early stages of my Environmental Design (architecture, interior environments, landscape architecture, city planning) degree and I happen to be writing a paper on your project for an ecology I have been reading all about it and I am quite inspired! So much so that just emailed a green design/builder to ask about summer employment :)

I have some questions about demolition. (I have no idea about this stuff yet, but it is the sort of thing I plan to do in practice eventually.) I know you salvaged a lot of stuff from the old house, and I see that it took you a huge amount of time, but I am wondering if more was possible? Not as a criticism, but as a query about just how much potential there is in demolition projects.

In an ideal situation where time/labour/cost were not issues, could this entire house have been salvaged with close to zero waste? Is there reuse/recycle potential in insulation, drywall or plaster, linoleum, nails, siding, window frames,shingles, fascia, soffits, etc.? And I'm even talking stuff that's not necessarily in a condition to just shine up and reuse/reinstall. I'm talking about stuff that may be damaged or completely there any productive way at all to prevent these from going to the landfill?

My Answer:

Hi Jolene,

Thanks! More could have been reused and recycled.

The studs in the walls were the most valuable things left when the house was demolished. They could all have been removed and reused by a conscientious framer as lumber. I have envisioned some kind of hydraulic device that could pop walls off of the floor by applying pressure after being jammed between two walls. Or, someone hardier than me could do the job with a sledge hammer.

Old shingles are worthless. They are semi-decomposed asphalt. No value whatsoever that I know of.

We reused all of the windows, and the window frames could have been harvested as above for their lumber.

I believe that drywall scraps do get recycled in Edmonton. Plaster, not so much.

Linoleum is glued on, so it is impossible to remove without ripping it. Plus, there are some very cheap linos out there. Once they've had 20 years of use, they are truly degraded and worthless.

Nails can usually be saved, but the labour to do it is enormous. First you pull the nail out with a crowbar (no small feat), then you need to straighten it. Plus, carpenters don't use hammers and nails anymore! They nail use nail guns, staplers or screw drivers.

Vinyl siding is pretty much worthless garbage once it is removed. I guess if you took it off carefully, and you were willing to put faded siding on some building (a garage?), and there was enough to cover the whole building (you want the same colour on every outer wall, right?), you might find a use for it. If the building wasn’t there though, where would you store the siding in the meantime?

Insulation bats can definitely be reused. Same with the wood chip insulation that was in our attic and walls. The catch is again labour - this would take hours and hours, and then where exactly do you reuse it? I guess as garden mulch.

All of the huge (10 inches high) beautiful solid fir baseboards in our house were painted white. The effort to remove the paint would have been enormous. Plus, some of the baseboards got damaged  while they were being removed. I saved them all, but in the end we had no use for them.

The foundation bricks could have almost all been salvaged (with a huge labour input, I guess). However, the chimney bricks were crumbling due to the temperature fluctuations that they endure. I guess they could have been crushed for use as gravel (aggregate).

The house that I deconstructed was built before asbestos, but there is a huge number of buildings that are full of the stuff.


I hope that I didn’t ramble too much.

In conclusion, besides everything that did get saved, more of the house could have been saved.

These materials could have been saved:

  1. Wood framing and ship lath wood (the latter for firewood).
  2. Wood chip insulation.
  3. Nails.
  4. Some of the PVC drainpipe.

These materials would have been virtually impossible to save;

  1. Plaster (there was and enormous amount in the house).
  2. Linoleum or other plastic fixtures.
  3. Asphalt roofing.
  4. Drywall (for recycling, the drywall needs to be clean, without paint).
  5. Painted wood (like baseboards).
  6. Rotted carpet.

Luckily, the easiest houses from which to salvage building materials are the oldest (and most energy-innefficient) ones. They have the least amount of asbestos, plastics, vinyls and glues in them, and they have higher quality, usually better-finished wood in them.

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Thanks for your fast and thorough response! It definitely makes a person want to think long and hard about what materials we are putting into new construction...they may have a function now, but where will they be a hundred years in the future? It makes me sick to my stomach to think of all the new construction happening as we speak that is continues to be so near-sighted! There is still so much educating of the public to be done. And the need for a major shift in values... Kudos to you for taking the time to do this blogging about your experiences, and to both you and your family for exemplifying this much-needed shift in values.

In the past month I have been on two blog sites which may be of interest and give you perspective on salvaging and reclaiming material and on demolition issues in general. The first blog is by a couple who demolished an old home, and tried to reclaim and divert as much as possible before building a superinsulated SIP house. Their blog can be found at On the May 10 2010 blog, they talk about deconstruction and diversion costs. Other dates which discuss demolition issues are 25 Jan., 2010; 8, 14 and 16 Sept., 2009; 13 Aug., 2009; 27 and 28 July, 2009.
The second blog is This blog is by a couple who gutted an older home and renovated it. While they did not focus on salvaging or reclaiming, their stories about the issues encountered during the demolition could help you gain some insight. The postings which may interest you start on Day One, June 29, 2009 and continue to Sept., 1 2009.
Reading all of the entries on both blogs would be educational about the whole deconstruction and reconstruction process.
A few years ago, I began renovating my hundred year old house for two reasons. It was cold and poorly laid out. I wanted to improve the layout while reducing the energy consumption and improve the comfort level. The other main issue was that someone else's previous renovation had been done poorly. The walls were full of bats. This project required extreme precautions due to the dangers related to disturbing bat droppings. The major risk is histoplasmosis. Similar hazards exist with chicken, bird, mice, squirrel and other types of droppings. Mould and Lead are also an dangers to be aware of.
If you are planning to deconstruct, renovate or demolish any structure, the safest approach is to assume that there is a risk, and proceed accordingly. This means wearing a full face respirator, a full body Tyvek suit, heavy rubber gloves and rubber boots. The area should be sealed and closed in to prevent any dust from scattering. All debris should be sealed before it is taken from this enclosure. I would suggest you become very informed about the correct safety measures before you start any such project. I hope this helps.
- Jim

Hello Conrad-

I believe the Edmonton Waste Management Centre has a place for used asphalt shingles! I am wondering if it gets crushed for re-use as roads!

Also, if you crush gypsum, you can mix it into soil I believe.



Gypsum in an old house would be covered in (possibly lead-contaminated) paint though.

What a fascinating post! We have been having similar discussions at our house, as we begin to renovate. You're so right in saying that the newer houses, and newer construction materials, are the most difficult (or impossible) to salvage. We have laminate flooring in our living area which is probably only seven or eight years old, but it has not held up well at all and we are anticipating replacing it with pine planks. I winced inside when we saw the laminate in the house, before we bought, and was already wondering then: Will that have to go in the landfill?!
Do you know if laminate flooring can be recycled at all?
It's so discouraging how everything is made out of glue and plastic. As pieces of our house wear out, we're happy to replace them with natural substances, but we're conflicted about dumping this junk into the earth.


I highly doubt that laminate flooring can be recycled. Too bad.



I found this blog because I was looking for a previous client of mine; a local green demolition company.
It's been a few years since I have contacted them, so I'm not sure on their status, but when gathering information, I was very impressed with the knowledge they had already gathered on reusing and reclaiming materials.

Would definitely be worth getting in contact with them to pool information :)

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