FALL: Demolition versus Preservation Entry and Photography by Cameron Robertson

This past Monday, the city of Portland, Oregon became the first municipality to mandate the deconstruction of historic homes. This new regulation states that any residential home built before 1916 will be required to be manually deconstructed and salvaged. For some this might seem like a loss for preservationists in Portland, to others this is great first for the country. Not only is less waste to be hauled off to the landfill, but artifacts of that past will find a new lease on life.

On the other hand, New York City, the largest city in the country, lags behind other cities such as San Francisco and Portland in waste reduction practices. Annually, “New York City generates roughly 10 million tons of construction and demolition (C&D) debris, which makes up 60 percent of the city’s waste stream, above the national average for municipalities of 25-60 percent.” This fact is concerning for an internationally respected city. Currently there exists no sustainable practices for reuse and recycling in the NYC Building Codes. In May 2003, the NYC Department of Design and Construction (DDC) compiled a Construction & Demolition (C&D) Waste Manual. This initiative set forward by the DDC served as a resource, but did not actually institute any regulations into the city’s building codes, therefore allowing contractors, architects, construction managers, and others to skirt the issue of waste management. Currently throughout the city there are many advocacy groups present who are urging the municipality to implement policies that require a greener approach to handling the city’s waste.

Throughout the country including New York City, lots of energy and waste production is encompassed in the demolition/renovation process. This area within the last couple of years has only begun to gain attention as the awareness and view towards climate change has grown and changed. A number of articles, journals, etc. have been produced to discuss the idea of establishing more sustainable ‘designs for deconstruction’ than what has been done in the past. For example, in the preservation community, quantitative analyses have started looking into the value of reusing older buildings not only in the name of preservation, but for the environmental sector as well. In the report by Preservation Green Lab entitled The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse, a number of case studies across the country were analyzed, comparing the effects of new construction and reuse in terms of energy savings. The study found that “building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction. For new construction, it can take between 10 and 80 years for a new, energy-efficient building to overcome, through more efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts that were created during the construction process.” Another example discovered discusses the design of the buildings in terms of not only deconstruction, but also in constructability. This includes design techniques, such as the design of the connection and finishing of materials within the structure. If certain sources are joined a certain way, as well as finished chemical sealants, it can make it more difficult for the material to be reused and therefore, adding to the carbon footprint of the site.

Though, as previously mentioned, it seems the preservation community is joining the greener building sector, there is still a need to plan ahead for disassembly in preservation, such as Portland has now done. Right now, in New York State, many historic buildings are exempt from the sustainable practices and energy codes established by the state. This is due to the issue of authenticity and people becoming worried that it is ‘acceptable’ to take older buildings apart or down. However, if  preservationists choose not to participate, the New York City will continue the divisioned trend started by the state. Owners and of landmarked buildings and renters and/or owners in historic districts must realize that they are part of the dynamic of a city or town, and are resilient in their own way i.e. surviving time. More developers and contractors are beginning to repurpose older buildings, reducing the amount of energy given off in the deconstruction process. However, preservationists and the buildings that they protect must become resilient in the aspect of sustainable waste management, not only to preserve the physical structure from climate change and demolition in the future, but to keep those ‘historic’ materials from being discarded without a second glance.

By implementing sustainable waste management practices in the C&D procedure, then less energy is generated and more ‘waste’ is diverted from landfills. The United States, “in 2012, the estimated magnitude of GHG emissions offset corresponded to taking 4.7 million passenger cars off the road for an entire year. The energy savings resulting from C&D recycling was equivalent to over 85 million barrels of oil.” Additionally, through the recycling and reuse operation throughout the country, “over 70% of the waste stream was projected as being recovered and put to beneficial use by the C&D recycling industry (corresponding to a 35% recycling rate for mixed C&D, an 85% recycling rate for bulk aggregate, and an over 99% recycling rate for RAP). The area of landfill avoided by recycling this amount of C&D is equivalent to over 4,300 acres (at a waste depth of 50 ft).”

New York City must begin to follow in the footsteps of Portland in terms of its construction and demolition procedures. Even with the rise of development and demolition in the city, the history of this town must be respected and carried on for future generations. Sustainable practices and repurposing of older material can take the preservation field in a new direction; one that does not necessarily condone the “falling” down of these historic buildings, but one that mandates a new life and purpose for the deconstructed, yet significant material.


Old hardwood flooring from a 1929 cottage that was deconstructed in Pennsylvania;
Source: Personal photo


Old hardwood floors with new wood framing; Source: Personal photo


CDRA. The Benefits of Construction and Demolition Materials Recycling in the United States. Report. Version 1.1. Aurora: Construction & Demolition Recycling Association, 2014. Accessed April 22, 2016. http://www.cdrecycling.org/assets/docs/exec summary_cd recycling impact white paper.pdf.

Kersavage, Lisa. “The Green Opportunity in New York City’s Historic Buildings.” Edited by Michael B. Gerrard. Environmental Law in New York 22 (June 2011): 83-89. Accessed April 18, 2016.

Ness, Lydia. “Portland First in Nation to Mandate Deconstruction of Historic Homes.” Restore Oregon. October 31, 2016. Accessed November 06, 2016. http://restoreoregon.org/portland-deconstruction-mandate/.

Preservation Green Lab. The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse. Publication. 2011. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://www.preservationnation.org/information-center/sustainable-communities/green-lab/lca/The_Greenest_Building_lowres.pdf

Pulaski, Michael, Christopher Hewitt, Michael Horman, Ph.D., and Bradley Guy. Design for Deconstruction. Modern Steel Construction, 2004.