Breaking Down Deconstruction in Western Pennsylvania

The construction industry dumps thousands of tons of waste that end up in our country's landfills. Deconstruction, defined as the careful dismantling of a building, diverts that waste. It's a process that is used frequently in Europe, and the west coast. In our region where landfill space is plentiful, it's easier to just dump old bricks and mortar but some deconstruction is happening here. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray laced up her steel-toed boots and headed to a deconstruction site to learn more.

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HOST INTRO: The construction industry dumps thousands of tons of waste that end up in our countryís landfills. Deconstruction, defined as the careful dismantling of a building, diverts that waste. It's a process that is used frequently in Europe, and the west coast. In our region where landfill space is plentiful, it's easier to just dump old bricks and mortar but some deconstruction is happening here. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray laced up her steel-toed boots and headed to a deconstruction site to learn more.

MURRAY STAND UP I'm on the corner of Wood and 5th Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh. Behind me a crew is dismantling a series of buildings. There's no wrecking ball in sight.

NAT SOUND: CLANKING

MURRAY: Right now a machine called a ìpickerî is teasing out parts of the buildings. Steel beams, concrete and bricks are stacked into piles. They'll be reused on site or sold. The facades, windows, doors and floors have been taken apart by hand.

SOLOMON:We've already gone into these buildings and brought out everything we could before the machinery.

MURRAY: Fred Solomon is the spokesperson for PNC Financial Services Group. PNC wants this space for their new headquarters. Solomon says when they talked about how to remove the old stores along this block, the discussion turned to deconstruction. He says it fits into their corporate commitment to green buildings.

SOLOMON: When we put up a building, we prefer that we put it on a brownfield site and we take the buildings that had been on that site and we attempt to deconstruct them so that as little as possible will go to a landfill. In some cases we're recycling 90 percent of the building weight by volume.

MURRAY: According to the US EPA, construction waste and demolition debris make up about 40 percent of our solid waste stream. Because deconstruction and the re-use of materials are both often done locally or on-site, energy, emissions and trucking costs are reduced. PNC, for example, plans to use crushed concrete as fill to create a parking lot under their new building. Solomon wouldn't give the cost of this deconstruction project but says theyíll break even. But others say that it's more than dollars. Brad Guy, an architecture professor at Catholic University, says jobs are created when buildings are dismantled and materials are reused.

GUY: You have the first tier of people doing the recovery, you have potentially tiers of the store operator, the processor, the person making something out of these materials. You can see that just like any raw material, there is a value chain that is created from all way from its recovery to eventual sale, so there's a lot of both direct and indirect jobs that can be created.

MURRAY: Guy says it hard to pinpoint the exact number of these jobs. Most are in deconstruction hotspots like California and the northwest. Laws there limit the amount of building waste that can go into landfills and the cost of waste disposal is high. But experts believe the practice is starting to pick up in other parts of the country where there are markets for salvaged building materials. Habitat for Humanity, for example, has about 750 re-use stores nationwide, including locations in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York.

OVER LOUD SPEAKER: Customer needs assistance


MURRAY: Here in Pittsburgh, builders and homeowners head to Construction Junction, a warehouse loaded to the rafters with salvaged doors, windows, lumber, hardware, plumbing.. you name it. The 12-year-old nonprofit store, the oldest in the region, recently crossed the million dollar mark in sales. Frank Yerace comes here all the time.

YERACE: I brought a pickup truck and we always end up leaving with something.

MURRAY: Construction Junction has been described as a ìmarriage of Goodwill and Home Depot.î Individuals and contractors can get tax breaks by donating recovered building materials. Brian Swearingen, Construction Junction field manager, sees the store as a broker.

SWEARINGEN: The general public doesn't have access to these materials and you need a store. You need a large store that basically can sort out the cost of recovering them and getting them to market.

MURRAY: Although Construction Junction is mostly a clearinghouse for building materials, the store's crews do some deconstruction work. Like most other US contractors who dismantle buildings, their work is generally limited to houses because residential projects are small. Even small projects are more time-consuming and labor-intensive than demolition and not all materials can be reused for economic or health reasons. Asbestos or lead pipes are good examples. Charles Rosenblum, an architecture professor at Carnegie Mellon, says every deconstruction project may not be green.

ROSENBLUM: It depends on what you do with it. And if they're not saying in a straight-forward way, ëHere are our calculations, here's what we're demolishing, here's what we're saving, here's how it adds up, here's how it saves energy.í If they don't have numbers for that then they should.

MURRAY: The future of deconstruction may lie with architects who plan ahead to the end of a building's life cycle. Architect Marc Mondor thinks that eventually more structures will be put together with deconstruction in mind. A building like that already exists at Carnegie Mellon University.

MONDOR: The Intelligent Workplace was designed and built probably 15 years ago.

MURRAY: Mondor points up to a long low glass and steel frame structure. It's been placed on the roof of a 100-year-old building and can be easily disassembled.

MONDOR: The connections are bolted instead of welded and a lot of panels are demountable. A lot of materials are loose laid so that they can be taken up easily and reused. If they were adhered or welded or put together in a way that couldn't be taken apart, then the options for reusing them would really be gone.

MURRAY: Designing and building for dismantling and reuse add to the value of buildings says Mondor. Deconstruction- ready buildings are easier to repair.

NAT SOUND: PNC SITE

Back at PNC's site, Gary Saulson, director of corporate real estate, is enthusiastic about the deconstruction process. He says keeping buildings out of the landfill is good for the environment and saves a bit of regional history.

SAULSON: Many years ago, I met with a woman who told me she had one of our buildings in her home. When I asked her what she was talking about, she said she had a tin ceiling from one of the buildings that's now 3 PNC in the kitchen of her home. We're really hopeful the same thing will happen here.

MURRAY: For The Allegheny Front, I'm Ann Murray.