News

To reduce waste, Palo Alto takes aim at demolition

City Council adopts 'deconstruction' ordinance to require reuse, recycling of materials

The demolition sorting operation at Zanker Recycling extracts concrete, sheetrock, asphalt and wood, among other debris, for recyclable markets. Photo by Veronica Weber.

In its latest bid to curb landfill-bound waste, Palo Alto is preparing to effectively ban contractors from demolishing entire buildings starting in July 2020.

Instead, workers will now be required to systematically disassemble structures, with the goal of reusing or recycling the bulk of the material on the site. Based on experiences in Portland, Oregon, which has a similar law in place, staff believes that up to 95% of the construction debris can be salvaged — either reused or recycled — through "deconstruction."

Much like the city's recent bans on plastic straws and single-use plastic utensils, the newly adopted "deconstruction" ordinance aims to help the city meet its goal of diverting 95% of local waste from landfills by 2030. But while the straw and bag bans have generated substantially more public discussion because of the ubiquitous nature of the objects being regulated, the deconstruction ordinance is expected to have a far greater impact on the city's "zero waste" goal.

Construction and demolition materials represent more than 40% of Palo Alto debris that gets disposed in landfills, according to an estimate from the city's Public Works Department. As such, it represents a prime opportunity for diversion and recovery, staff told the City Council at the June 10 meeting, shortly before the council voted unanimously to adopt the new ordinance.

Paula Borges, the city's zero-waste manager, called construction and demolition debris "one of the largest landfill contribution materials," comprising about 19,000 tons of waste annually.

"It is therefore essential that we focus on reducing the source of this landfill material in order to meet the city's goals," Borges told the council.

To do that, the city is preparing to fundamentally change how contractors take down old buildings. Under the old model, excavators smash and knock down the structure, reducing its materials into rubble that gets placed in containers and shipped to a waste-sorting facility. The operation takes a few days and a crew of two to three people, according to staff, and costs between $8 and $12 per square foot to complete.

The new model calls for buildings to be systematically disassembled, typically in the reverse order in which they were constructed. Based on two recent pilot projects, deconstruction work using this method would take about 10 to 15 days to complete and require a crew of four to eight people, with the cost ranging from $22 to $34 per square foot.

Under the old model, demolition debris is placed in containers designated "as mixed waste." In the new one, a contractor fills out a "salvage survey" listing all materials that can be reused and then source-separates the debris accordingly in blue and green containers. The city's hauler, GreenWaste of Palo Alto, would then deliver these materials to city-approved recovery stations.

Staff estimates that the deconstruction-collection program will cost the city about $243,000 in one-time expenses and $567,000 in annual ongoing expenses. In addition, the city plans to spend about $118,000 in one-time expenses for consulting services related to outreach and education.

Even so, city staff believes the environmental benefits outweigh the rising costs. Public Works staff pointed to Portland, where up to 25% of materials in residential buildings were deemed reusable and up to 70% recyclable, for a total recovery rate of 95%. Mixed construction-and-demolition debris, by contrast, typically nets recovery rates between 71% and 80%.

The new deconstruction ordinance is expected to help the city divert 7,930 tons of waste annually (by contrast, the disposable-foodware ordinance that the council adopted at the same meeting would divert 290 tons). The deconstruction ordinance is also expected to reduce the city's greenhouse-gas emissions by 22,300 metric tons annually (for the foodware ordinance, the number is 470 tons).

Assistant Public Works Director Phil Bobel noted that deconstruction allows for a "hierarchy of uses," with reuse at the very top, followed by recycling and composting. A report from staff includes a list of items that can be salvaged and reused during deconstruction, including appliances, cabinets, lumber, windows, doors, electric and plumbing fixtures and hardwood floors.

Tiles, blocks and bricks can at times be reused, if recovered in entirety. In cases where the block or brick is damaged or misshaped, a reuse facility can hammer it down and turn it into "base rock," which can then be used as the underlayment to roadways and other construction projects, Bobel said.

Wood can also be sold and reused if it's in good shape. Otherwise, it can be shredded and become compost. Even old sheetrock can be made useful if it's separated on-site from other debris, Bobel said. It can be ground down into gypsum, which would be used as a soil supplement.

Prior to the council's adoption of the new ordinance, Public Works staff experimented with deconstruction at a city-owned property: a 2,500-square-foot building in the wetlands formerly owned by International Telephone and Telegraph. The city bought the property in 2016 and demolished the building earlier this month. Borges said the deconstruction generated about 184 tons of material, about 4% of which was set aside for reuse (this was mostly old lumber, including redwood). Another 93% was source-separated on-site and recycled, with only 3% disposed of as garbage, she said.

Staff had also solicited input from contractors and held two workshops on the proposed ordinance. These were offered to about 1,200 contractors, developers and architects who regularly work in Palo Alto, according to a staff report. Many were reportedly concerned about the city's initial proposal to apply the ordinance to all projects valued at over $25,000 and about the need to educate contractors about proper materials sorting.

Based on the feedback, the city will initially apply the ordinance for total demolitions of commercial and residential projects starting on July 1, 2020. The ordinance is expected to affect about 114 projects, according to staff.

The ordinance will attain a broader reach in January 2022, when it becomes applicable to all projects valued at $100,000 or more, and in January 2023, when the threshold is lowered to $50,000.

While Borges said some stakeholders said they were concerned about the high costs of complying with the new ordinance, Drew Maran, founder of the local construction company Drew Maran Construction and director at the nonprofit The ReUse People, said he completely supports the new ordinance.

The idea of reusing materials in demolished projects is "way, way beyond its time," Maran said.

"We really need to do it. Recycling a two-by-four just simply makes it mulch for gardens and landscapes. Reusing it as a two-by-four in buildings makes sure that we don't cut down a whole lot more trees," Maran said.

But Ed Dunn, a longtime employee at San Francisco Community Recyclers, said he and others in the recycling community are concerned about a "serious lack of relevant stakeholder input" with the ordinance. He questioned whether there would actually be a market for the salvaged material.

"You've seen pictures of a deconstruction project underway," Dunn told the council after the staff presentation. "You have not seen pictures of people buying that stuff and that's a crucial thing. Who will take the stuff, take it back to their house and reuse it as is?"

Councilman Greg Tanaka also questioned whether the materials recovered during deconstruction will ultimately find new uses.

"I know from my own home renovation, it's really hard," Tanaka said. "Even when you make a huge effort to try to reuse it, it's really hard to do it because it's not the right size."

Ultimately, he joined five of his colleagues (Councilman Tom DuBois was absent) in approving the ordinance. Councilwoman Alison Cormack acknowledged that the ordinance comes with "significant costs," both to the city and to the residents and businesses undertaking deconstruction. Even so, she said the new requirement is "absolutely worth doing."

"I do think it's appropriate. It's a huge opportunity," Cormack said.

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Comments

26 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 9, 2019 at 11:28 am

The City of Palo Alto should be required to pay the huge extra costs for new construction added by their regulations. Then perhaps some consideration would be given to the costs imposed by these regulations. I guess if I rebuild I'll have to rent a semi, "deconstruct" and drive the junk out and use it to fill in the bay. No one is going to reuse old materials in building ... the cost will be way too high. These people are nuts ... applying this to projects valued at $50,000? With all the costs that they are adding, this will eventually apply if I want to remodel a single bathroom.
"affordable" housing ? What a joke...


13 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 9, 2019 at 12:03 pm

@Dan

Simple solution: Remodel


34 people like this
Posted by Another Step Forward
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 9, 2019 at 12:16 pm

Another Step Forward is a registered user.

Great job by the city for moving this along. Deconstruction is currently very wasteful and we must maximize reuse and recycling.


13 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Jul 9, 2019 at 1:41 pm

With all the talk about preventing building and too many local regulations - this does both and adds way too much cost. Way to go, City!


11 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 9, 2019 at 2:15 pm

Unfortunately, many older buildings have a lot of asbestos which can make remodeling very difficult. Yes, I would like to see buildings with high-quality redwood deconstructed-- or, at least, the redwood parts. But, mixed concrete, wood, drywall, plaster, stucco, and, asbestos, is best scraped (under tarps to keep the asbestos dust under control) and shipped off to a landfill. And, it doesn't make any sense to consider post WWII cheap construction as "historic" or whatever. That should be for Cottages/Craftsman/etc.


28 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 9, 2019 at 2:42 pm

From my perspective as a Palo Alto resident who has lived here many years, there are two types of demolition. One is 50+ housing or buildings that have served their purpose and are now being demolished to make a more updated home or business building. The old Mitchell Park library definitely fell into that category even though many of us would have preferred a remodel back to the studs and the character of the original building left intact. Our latest Council Member, Alison Cormack, was a staunch proponent of getting rid of the old library and replacing it with something shining and new, for the sake of the children!

The other type of demolition, is when a new owner wants to demolish something that has recently been built or remodeled because it doesn't fit the style of the new owner, or the purpose the new owner wants. We see many houses that are "completely remodeled" (as per realtor jargon) and then the new owner decides that really what they want is a spanking brand new "McMansion" or "Taco Bell" house built taking as much as allowable building footprint that the lot will hold. This often means tearing out what was brand new kitchen and bathroom fittings as well as lighting, carpeting and who knows what else.

Getting rid of old, useless materials, is very different from the recently installed kitchen and bath units.

Can anything be done to differentiate between the two, and possibly to have different rules for each?


19 people like this
Posted by ChrisC
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 9, 2019 at 3:50 pm

How does this new deconstruction ordinance differ from the current one?

When I rebuilt my house a few years ago we had a choice: Demolition, which took a few days, and was cheap; or deconstruction which took a bit longer and cost a bit more.

Deconstruction came with two bonuses though: you could start sooner (as you didn't need to wait for the final permit approval), and any materials salvaged could be donated to Habitat for Humanity for a tax deduction. In our case our house had redwood siding, which apparently was valuable. The tax deduction exceeded the difference in price (making deconstruction both faster *and* cheaper for us).

Have the rules changed since then?


27 people like this
Posted by Costs to Others OK
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 9, 2019 at 4:08 pm

Costs to Others OK is a registered user.

@ "Councilwoman Alison Cormack acknowledged that the ordinance comes with "significant costs," both to the city and to the residents and businesses undertaking deconstruction."

It's stunning how easily Councilperson Cormack passed along costs to others (residents, businesses, the city). Not to mention she has zero experience in construction and does not understand the issues with trying to save materials that in fact might be toxic. Reusing and recycling are important when it makes sense and is safe (which should not be up to Cormack to decide, each case is different, there can be no blanket code around this). I regret voting for Alison and will certainly not be voting for someone again who so flippantly votes in favor of "significant costs" to the constituency she represents without understanding all the issues involved.


60 people like this
Posted by Miriam Palm
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 9, 2019 at 4:58 pm

Miriam Palm is a registered user.

I hope this will discourage people with too much money from buying and destroying lovely historic homes in our city, and building ugly, new ones that do not fit in with existing neighborhoods.


11 people like this
Posted by merry
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 9, 2019 at 7:30 pm

merry is a registered user.

Easy to spend other’s money!


35 people like this
Posted by JR
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 9, 2019 at 7:35 pm

This is a sensible ordinance that will reduce waste, improve the environment, and help affordable housing. I have seen several perfectly fine houses in my neighborhood torn down and replaced with McMansions that sold for double the initial price. The environmental impact is enormous.

The price of demolition will not rise. Previously we were all paying the price in terms of landfill space, harmful particles in the air, and climate change. Now the demolisher will have to pay the price for their own environmental damage. Sounds like a good plan.


13 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 9, 2019 at 9:02 pm

The insane and unhinged obsession with "zero waste" continues. Don't they get tired of endlessly legislating? We will have a perfect society if only we add a few more ordinances... then a few more... laws on top of laws on top of laws, an endless orgy of legislating and lawmaking. These people sitting in the City Council CLEARLY have way too much time on their hands.


9 people like this
Posted by Annie B
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 9, 2019 at 10:43 pm

Annie B is a registered user.

My concern is with a massive fire or earthquake. Will the same rules hold? If so, it will add years to the city's rebuilding process. I hope they add some verbiage that some middle ground could be used in case of a massive emergency project. Go visit Paradise, and see the trucks there, just removing stuff. Getting the man power to also sort and recycle would shut the city down for a much longer period. Maybe they could establish some temporary holding place if an emergency happened and sort it all there.

I also worry about the zero waste goal. What important things are we not doing, and funding, while worrying about _zero_ waste? What about putting money into our schools for reading and science programs, breakfast for kids who can't afford it, building more public bathrooms, getting more dog parks up and running, and funding more affordable housing. When we pick an extreme goal like zero waste (as opposed to 20 percent waste), we are ignoring a lot of other projects that might benefit our citizenry more. And we are driving a lot of people out of our neighborhoods who simply cannot afford these extravagent goals.

A lower income family who wants to convert a two bedroom to a three bedroom house, a house their grandmother left them, cannot afford a huge increase in sorting and recycling the building materials. So they either don't do the project and continue to live in a stressful house, or they do an illegal job which is not up to code, and risk burning the neighborhood down by mistake. Make the bar lower and more reasonable. Putting it all online by 2020 given the speed of our building approvals is like putting it in place right now.

Lastly, why do we have a full time paid employee working on zero waste? That means their sole job is to come up with reasons to justify their employment, not to benefit the community. It seems like it would encourage "do stuff at any cost" behavior. Again, what other things are we not doing with that money that would serve us better?


13 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 10, 2019 at 3:34 am

As one poster pointed out, many older structures contain asbestos. Exterior siding and interior drywall on older structures will have lead paint. Grounding them up and using as compost or soil conditioner adds toxic chemicals to the ground, and perhaps will seep into ground water - not very good, especially for growing veggies.

Windows from older structures are single pane and don't meet the energy efficiency standards - so where are these being reused? Water fixtures don't meet the water efficiency standards - so where are these being reused (eg. toilets need to be 1.2 gallon vs the 5 gallon tanks).

This adds to the expense of construction, and is not environmentally sound.


15 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 10, 2019 at 7:36 am

It's as if the writer minimized the actual costs of this new law on purpose. For a 2,500 square foot home, using the higher end of the numbers in her story, a $22 per square foot increase in demolition costs from this new law adds $55,000 in costs to a teardown project. It would add hundreds of thousands in costs for larger commercial properties.

So what do we want in Palo Alto - more affordable housing? Higher density housing? This new law will do the opposite by increasing building costs. It will both decrease the stock of homes and increase prices by discouraging development and decreasing supply.

This is a great example of how one feel good agenda - zero emissions and carbon reduction, conflicts with another - affordable housing.

I'm with the earlier poster - we also recycled and donated the higher value redwood in our 1920s house and took a tax credit for it. The rest was old garbage not possible for anyone to reuse.


6 people like this
Posted by BGordon
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 10, 2019 at 8:39 am

I am retired -- my time and labor are free. Salvaging and reusing old 2X4s is hard work and helps me fill my time. I don't understand how it can work when you are paying the labor rates in our area.


4 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2019 at 9:38 am

Posted by JR, a resident of Palo Verde

>> This is a sensible ordinance that will reduce waste, improve the environment, and help affordable housing. I have seen several perfectly fine houses in my neighborhood torn down and replaced with McMansions that sold for double the initial price. The environmental impact is enormous.

IF the goal is to stop scraping perfectly good houses, THEN, you might be right. I've seen some shocking demolitions of perfectly good houses. I agree that the most affordable housing is the older housing that you already have. But, ...

>> The price of demolition will not rise. Previously we were all paying the price in terms of landfill space, harmful particles in the air, and climate change. Now the demolisher will have to pay the price for their own environmental damage. Sounds like a good plan.

I'm at a loss to understand how concrete, plaster, and stucco, with or without asbestos, will be "recycled". It does make sense to deconstruct houses with high-quality timber intact, as well as separate recyclable materials of various kinds, such as plumbing and etc. But, I'm glad to see certain buildings go, particularly those 1950's "fake Eichlers" and other poor quality 1950's-1960's buildings.


4 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 10, 2019 at 10:24 am

The City just added Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars to construction of a new house in Palo Alto. All of which the owner will pay for.
Is the City offering to compensate for the increased costs?
So, if the old construction material does not meet current building codes, What Happens?


6 people like this
Posted by Judith Wasserman
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 10, 2019 at 10:43 am

Judith Wasserman is a registered user.

In the instances when my clients deconstructed their buildings, the tax breaks more than paid the cost.


16 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 10, 2019 at 5:12 pm

"Easy to spend other’s money!"

Sorry. No sympathy. Spending one's money is totally voluntary in this case. I've saved many thousand$ over the years by keeping the house I have.


5 people like this
Posted by Fact checking
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 11, 2019 at 11:51 am

I attended that meeting. Right now if you leave a wall standing you're home free. The regulation does not apply to ADUs and non-useable, non recyclable material still goes to the landfill.

"The Deconstruction Ordinance would apply, effective July 1, 2020, to all residential and
commercial projects undergoing a whole structure demolition (unless the project is comprised
solely of an Accessory Dwelling Unit demolition). Staff estimates that the ordinance would
affect approximately 114 projects annually.

After implementation of this initial phase applicable only to whole structure demolitions, staff
anticipates returning to Council to propose a phased expansion of the program to include
construction, partial demolition, and remodel/renovation projects. The Ordinance does not
address these later phases, and an amendment to the Ordinance would be required to
implement them." Web Link, starting on page 8.


14 people like this
Posted by Bud
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 11, 2019 at 12:44 pm

This is another idea that the city did not think through. In this case, the idea that used building materials could be reused in new construction is laughable. Did any of the city 'staff' ask the Building Department what the standards were for used lumber in new construction? Who will certify that the old 2x4 is sound and will meet the current load standards? Who will guarantee that the old copper pipe is free of the lead based solder used 20 years ago? And as others have pointed out, old windows, plumbing fixtures, and lights (non LED) do not meet current codes and cannot be used. What will really happen to the 'recycled' materials? Will they just accumulate in a salvage yard waiting for 'someone' to reuse them?
This reminds me of the current household 'recycling' program where we now mix all of the paper, plastic, and metal together getting everything soiled. Then after it is separated (at our expense) the materials are mostly too contaminated to be economically recycled. What happens? China will no longer take them, so we look for third world countries that will accept them by the shipload and bury them in their country. Not very kind or efficient.
City Council should demand that staff do a full audit of what happens to the recycled building materials. How much of it eventually ends up in someone else's landfill? What happens to old single pane windows once they enter the recycling system? Into what types of structures are they installed? Similarly, what really happens to the lead paint, asbestos, and other toxins in old building materials? How are they separated?
If City Council and their staff cannot answer these questions, then they do not really understand what they are doing


4 people like this
Posted by Ted Reiff
a resident of another community
on Jul 11, 2019 at 8:08 pm

I understand the increasing layers of legislation citizens have with our federal, state and local governments is burdensome. However, occasionally one of these bodies gets it right - Palo Alto with its new deconstruction ordinance.

If, saving energy, assisting budget minded families with the ability to buy used building materials for cents on the dollar, providing increased job opportunities for first-time workers, saving landfill space for future users is good legislation, than kudos to Palo Alto.

Salvaged building materials are often sold for cents on the dollar (read thrift store prices). Salvaged lumber can be reused without inspection when used in non-bearing walls - if bearing, then a structural engineer can sign off on these materials. Single glazed windows can be reused if: 1) they are simply replacing the one Johnny broke with a baseball; 2) they are used in an unconditioned space; or 3) the entire envelope of the building meets Title 24 codes.

According to Forest Products Laboratory, a department of the USDA, virgin lumber uses 11 to 13 times more energy than using salvaged lumber.

Deconstruction costs too much, how about that house you wanted to buy 5 years ago in Palo Alto that is now $500,000 higher - compared to that, what is an additional $20,000 to $30,000 more for deconstruction when you just paid the higher inflated price to buy the house. Finally, don't forget, depending on the deconstruction contractor and the destination of the materials salvaged, you might get a tax-deductible donation worth more than the cost of traditional smash and and dash demolition?


6 people like this
Posted by Library user
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 12, 2019 at 11:47 am

Resident says about the Mitchell Park Library:
"many of us would have preferred a remodel back to the studs and the character of the original building left intact. Our latest Council Member, Alison Cormack, was a staunch proponent of getting rid of the old library and replacing it with something shining and new, for the sake of the children!"

I would have put "for the children" in quotes. Do the children like a big, open, sterile, stark, structure? You can teach them that that is good architecture but it would be a lie.

The little children's area is not separated from the adult area so their noise disturbs library users. What a joke of library design.


4 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 12, 2019 at 2:34 pm

Posted by Costs to Others OK, a resident of Midtown

>> It's stunning how easily Councilperson Cormack passed along costs to others (residents, businesses, the city). Not to mention she has zero experience in construction and does not understand the issues with trying to save materials that in fact might be toxic.

It is a crying shame to see old, clear redwood lumber from old-growth trees get bulldozed to matchsticks. I agree with the concept of the deconstruction ordinance intended to recycle that lumber and any other useful, reusable wood.


6 people like this
Posted by Ellen
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 12, 2019 at 2:40 pm

Too bad this won't take effect until July 2020. That gives Stanford lots of time to rush in and demolish, rather than deconstruct, all the houses and cottages they've bought up in College Terrace, and which are currently sitting empty.


4 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside
on Jul 13, 2019 at 8:23 pm

How does something like this get passed after all the shrieking about unaffordable housing costs? Is there no awareness at the Palo Alto city council that building expenses contribute to housing costs?


2 people like this
Posted by Ignore college Terrace malcontents
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 14, 2019 at 8:09 am

[Post removed.]


1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 14, 2019 at 4:15 pm

What they have added to deconstruction is the contractor must use Green Wastes' recycle bins. This added a huge expense to the projects. Oh yeah, Palo Alto receives a portion of the money, from these bins.

Just say' in


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