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Where Have All the Buildings Gone?

Published on: Mar 20, 2024

Folks who are interested in landfill diversion and reuse might be curious about the fate of the country’s many vanished buildings. Where have they gone? Predominantly to landfills and recycling, I regret to say.

“But wait,” you ask. “Don’t we have vibrant reuse businesses throughout the U.S.? And a national building materials reuse association?” Maybe. Read on and draw your own conclusions.

First, consider the size and condition of America’s deconstruction industry. We’re talking about established businesses, both profit and nonprofit, whose owners and managers work fulltime in deconstruction, the distribution of salvaged materials, or both. They include businesses that focus on architectural salvage as well as those, such as some Habitat for Humanity ReStores, that salvage or distribute utilitarian materials. I’m guessing there are only about 200 organizations (including 50 to 100 ReStores) in the entire country that could rightfully claim to be in the deconstruction business.

Those figures do not include businesses that salvage only lumber. Here’s why: Approximately 250,000 to 300,000 houses are demolished in the U.S. each year. However, over 40 million single family homes are remodeled each year, and 90 percent of those do not include significant quantities of lumber. Besides, lumber salvaged from houses is typically Douglas fir and southern yellow pine in dimensions of 2x4 to 2x8, which are too small for serious lumber-only salvagers. The majority of remodel materials consists of doors, windows, cabinets, appliances, lighting and plumbing fixtures, and these materials not only cost more than lumber, but contain two to 10 times more embodied energy (for an analysis of embodied energy by product, see https://thereusepeople.org/are-you-salvaging-lumber-only-why/).

Secondly, Build Reuse is the only national organization focused on deconstruction and the salvaging of building materials. It has 108 members, up from 50 a few years ago. However, the number of members in deconstruction and/or the distribution of salvaged materials is only 28. That means not even half are active deconstruction professionals. The remaining membership is comprised of cities, architects, designers and consultants.

What accounts for this lack of participation is primarily distribution. Distribution is the process by which a good or service passes through a chain of intermediaries to the consumer. For goods, distribution channels include aggregating products, packaging, warehousing, transportation, disaggregation (breaking bulk) and pricing. How a product is moved from origination to buyer is a key element in marketing. (I was willing to pay the delivery price of the last new car I bought. However, living in San Diego, I was unwilling to pay the delivery price of a telephone booth glass door embellished with the Bell logo that I purchased in Minneapolis 10 years ago. I gave it to a good friend.)

Now state and local governments from coast to coast, border to border, are passing legislation requiring diversion from landfills. Meanwhile, many landfills are closing. I know of at least one state with no construction and demolition landfills.

Compare the cost of opening a new landfill with that of a medium size warehouse (20,000 square feet plus a 10,000 square-foot lumber yard, market rental rate $550,000 to $600,000 per year). Virtually any growing city with a population of one million people owns property of this size that is currently unutilized or underutilized.

The U.S. is losing billions of dollars in reusable materials because states and cities fail to do the right thing by entering into private-public partnerships to provide warehouse space for collecting and distributing salvaged materials. In such a partnership, the private operator might have zero rent the first year, with reasonably large increases in each of the following years and an agreement period of five years, with successive five-year options totaling 15 to 20 years.

Mandating landfill diversion without sound distribution alternatives is financially wasteful and deprives hardworking constituents of valuable but inexpensive materials.

Where have all the buildings gone? I guess the real question is, “When will they ever learn?”