Salvage Construction Prompts Demolition Alternative

From flood-ravaged New Orleans to weathered barns out West, people are learning how to salvage construction materials from old or ruined buildings. Neither insurance companies nor FEMA cover the cost of this "deconstruction," but new tools are boosting the fan base of salvage construction.

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Last year, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed thousands of houses in New Orleans and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Many will be demolished, but a few will be deconstructed instead. While demolition often involves a bulldozer and a couple workers, a deconstructed house is carefully taken apart so the building material can be used again. Think of it as a form of recycling.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports from New Orleans.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

Deconstructing a house is a special skill. Safety is pretty important because workers are taking down a house that already has been condemned for being unsafe.

(Soundbite of deconstruction)

BRADY: The relief organization Mercy Corps is training a few workers how to deconstruct this house in the Lower 9th Ward. They're almost finished. Today they're ripping up the floor.

(Soundbite of deconstruction)

BRADY: Preston Browning with Mercy Corps says in most cases, up to 80 percent of the house can be re-used.

Mr. PRESTON BROWNING (Staff Member, Mercy Corps): In this situation, you know, obviously, we had flood waters and we're in the Lower 9th Ward. There was three weeks of water that these houses had in them. So the numbers are less as to what is salvageable, but it's surprising as to what is. And as we opened up the house and took out the drywall and got a look a the lumber, we saw that there actually was more than we expected.

BRADY: Browning estimates about 60 percent of this house will be recycled. One of the trainees is Derek Brown(ph). He owns a small demolition company started with a few friends in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. At first, Brown says his company focused on demolition. But now he wants to learn deconstruction.

Mr. DEREK BROWN (Owner of Small Demolition Company, New Orleans): Before we would take down a house and haul it away and maybe save the scrap metal. Now we're looking at, okay, there's a huge pile of reusable wood here. You can almost rebuild a whole house with it.

BRADY: All the recovered material will end up down the road at The Green Project store. It's a nonprofit that sells used building supplies to the public. Executive Director David Reynolds points out a long, wooden plank that looks pretty trashed to this untrained eye. But Reynolds sees old growth timbers of a quality that just can't be found in lumberyards these days.

Mr. ROBERT REYNOLDS (Executive Director, Green Store Project, New Orleans): Look how perfectly straight this grain is. This is superb material.

BRADY: So just the idea that something like this might end up in a landfill, something this straight and...

Mr. REYNOLDS: Right! Right!

BRADY: ...this perfect...

Mr. REYNOLDS: Right! Right! Right! Right! That's - so many people who work with wood recognize that. And they come through here and piecemeal these things go out, yeah.

BRADY: Reynolds says a lot of his customers are artists and furniture makers who want wood and other building materials with character. Some of it even goes back into new construction, usually more for appearances than for structural needs. But before all that wood can be sold, the nails have to be removed.

Mr. REYNOLDS: De-nailing is sort of the Holy Grail of deconstruction.

BRADY: All the time spent taking nails out of wood raises the cost of recycled planks.

(Soundbite of deconstruction)

BRADY: A tool distributor in Colorado says he's come close to finding that Holy Grail. John Giltner(ph) sells something called the Nail Kicker. It looks like a typical, air-powered nail gun, but it works in reverse.

Mr. JON GILTNER (Distributor of the Nail Kicker): You'll hear it fire right now.

(Soundbite of Nail Kicker)

Mr. GILTNER: What he's doing is putting the nose of the Nail Kicker over the point of a nail. And if it's - if the nail is bent, he can bend it straight with this tool. And then after he's bent it straight, he just fires the trigger and it'll knock the nail out.

(Soundbite of Nail Kicker)

BRADY: Giltner says he's the only person in the U.S. selling this tool. He sold about 400 Nail Kickers in recent years. The deconstruction industry has been on a slow growth curve. But Giltner says it'd grow faster if he had the money to develop new tools.

Mr. GILTNER: In fact, I probably get more requests for a tool that's automated that pulls nails.

BRADY: Such a tool would make deconstruction even more competitive with demolition. Right now deconstruction adds at least 25 percent of the cost of most jobs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance companies typically won't pay for deconstruction, even in cases where they will pay for demolition. Until that changes, truckloads of used building material, much of it recyclable, will continue ending up in landfills.

(Soundbite of horn)

BRADY: Jeff Brady, NPR News, New Orleans.

(Soundbite of horn)

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