Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - May 21, 2010

Demolish or deconstruct?

Taking apart a house piece by piece can keep junk out of the landfill

by Kate Daly

Thinking about going green in your construction or remodeling project? There's a way to do so before you even start by choosing deconstruction over demolition.

Deconstruction is a relatively new option available to property owners where they spend maybe two to three times more up front to have an existing building deconstructed piece by piece so that most of the materials can be donated and then recycled or reused. In return, the owners can receive a sizeable tax write-off and the gratification of knowing they are keeping more waste from going into local landfills.

Demolition, on the other hand, is usually a less expensive and quicker process.

"Bringing in a wrecking ball for $10,000 to $15,000, tearing it down in a day, and having everything hauled off in two days was the old way to do it, the cheap way to do it," said Dave Heilman, a general contractor with Young & Burton Inc. based in San Ramon.

He's now working on his fifth deconstruction project in a row, and in comparing prices, he is referring to an approximately 3,000-square-foot house that until recently stood in Woodside. Originally built some 30 years ago, the house featured a lot of cedar-faced paneling indoors and fir siding outdoors. The siding was configured in a pattern that he said "is hard to find, and the quality of the lumber is better" than the equivalent made today.

He recognized that fact and the inherent value of other building materials such as the old concrete foundation. He plans to grind it up to use as base rock for the new, contemporary house and tennis court being built there.

He asked the owner to consider deconstruction over demolition. The first step was hiring an appraiser, Donation Solutions of Belmont, to see if the numbers made sense. For a fee of $3,500, that company inspected, measured, photographed and itemized each window, door, fixture, appliance, fitting, deck, pavers, etc., that it deemed worth saving. The appraiser estimated at least $50,000 of lumber could be salvaged, as well as another $143,000 in other building materials and contents, making the potential tax write-off as high as $200,000.

Tests showed no asbestos in the old house, but pointed to lead in some tiles, so they were removed.

Heilman then hired Marin Sonoma Deconstruction & Demolition Services Inc. of Novato. It quoted a price of $40,000 to deconstruct, and predicted the job would take 18 business days with an average crew of eight to 10 men working each day.

"Ninety-one percent of the materials are either going to be reused or recycled versus 10 years ago when 100 percent would go to the landfill," Heilman said.

During the deconstruction process, all of the items are removed and handled with care so that they stay in reusable state. Furnishings and fixtures are wrapped in plastic and then donated to a nonprofit such as Habitat for Humanity or the Reuse People, a company that owns a huge warehouse of used materials in the East Bay.

In the case of this house, almost everything was trucked to Petaluma to Garbage Reincarnation, which for more than 30 years has run a recyclery and thrift store in the area.

Marin Sonoma Deconstruction co-owner Tony Perez started out in the demolition business more than two decades ago, and expanded into deconstruction in the last few years because of a shift in demand.

"With new laws and ordinances that cities have to reduce their waste by 60 to 70 percent ... cities are looking to deconstruction to help meet their recycling goals," he said.

Perez said about a third of his jobs involve deconstruction.

"Every person I talk to is intrigued about it, but it doesn't always work with every job because the value of the items doesn't always warrant making the bigger investment."

He'd like to see towns and cities offer incentives to clients who choose deconstruction, such as fast-tracking permits or giving discounts on fees.

Each municipality has its own rules. Since 2001, the town of Woodside, for example, has an ordinance requiring 60 percent of demolition/construction/remodeling debris be recycled. The total tonnage of solid waste is estimated before a project begins, and that figure is then used to calculate a deposit that's part of the demolition permit process. The permit itself costs $50, and a "typical deposit," according to Assistant Town Manager Kevin Bryant, is $1,000. The applicant gets the deposit back after showing receipts to prove compliance with the requirement.

Materials might end up at Zanker Road Landfill in San Jose. The facility charges for all materials that are dropped off and sorts them. Wood waste, for instance, is channeled into separate piles such as chips or mulch, and then sold for reuse. Online, the current recycling rate is posted at 79 percent.

At the Woodside deconstruction site, that waste diversion deposit was $2,400. The receipts are still being collected to get that amount back from the town, and then there's the continuing paper trail to document the donations that will eventually be reported to the IRS.

Meanwhile, the owner is quite pleased with how the project is starting.

"When our contractor suggested the two alternatives, crunching or deconstruction, it seemed like the right thing to do. They've gone incredibly quickly, and the tax deduction is phenomenal. The decision to go with deconstruction is environmentally sound and financially sound, too," he said.

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