Ugly Town: Why We Need a Closer Look at Utility Building Demolition

Demolition with deconstruction heading to landfill.
Deconstructed demolition timber heading for reuse

Too Ugly to Save? Utility Buildings Need Much Better Press

Lara Knight – 7 November, 2019

Every city has them: empty factories, run down schools, old public housing, outdated hospitals. Budgets are allocated to tear them down and machines move in to clear the site. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief that an eyesore is removed from the landscape.

But sending utility buildings to landfill is like throwing out opals that look like rocks. We lose resources because we don’t appreciate their value.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart in The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance talk about buildings as resource banks. A way of storing resources in a format that not only solves today’s needs, but that can be broken down and used again and again. New buildings designed for future use: for example an office building that can become apartments without gutting and starting over, or components that are built for easy deconstruction, reconfiguration or recycling.

Future building will grow because starting every project with new materials is not sustainable.

But what about the resource banks of the past?

Old utility buildings made use of Australia’s abundant supply of hardwood, brick, stone, labour and space. Some were beautifully designed and keep a place in our streetscapes. Some were practical and boring and served their time without glory. But these ‘ugly’ buildings have loads of materials that can be reused or repurposed.

In the last 20 years the value of recycled timber has shifted from relatively worthless to an in-demand resource. Rustic beams, reclaimed flooring, hardwood cladding, recycled timber benchtops and furniture are a rising trend in Australia, backed by an engaged maker movement and increased interest in waste and sustainability.

Recycled bricks, industrial fixtures and industrial furniture are also popular. None of these readily recoverable materials should be going to landfill. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg of what can and should be recovered from demolition-ready buildings. 

Below: Some of the items that could be salvaged at a Victorian school. 

Recycled timber sales

Challenges to resource recovery

1. Insufficient planning for deconstruction
In Australia there is no legislation for deconstruction and salvage so there’s a large grey area around materials recovery. A small handful of demolition companies deconstruct and recycle a whole building. In most cases, strip out teams are separate businesses that need access to a site before demolition dates to recover materials.

This puts the onus on salvage crews to know which sites are scheduled for demolition and request access. Even if a strip out agreement is in place, demolition timeframes on commercial sites may not allow sufficient notification or time for full recovery.

There are also a tiny number of salvage recovery and on-selling businesses in Australia. It’s not possible to deconstruct every building without support from many sectors, including government.

2. No official status or training for strip out teams
Portland was the first US city to legislate mandatory deconstruction on buildings built before 1916 (which may increase to 1940 in December). It requires certification of deconstruction contractors which includes:
– Completing a three-day project management training course.
– A live, on-site evaluation of deconstruction skills.
– A written exam on deconstruction practice with a score of at least 80 percent.
– 2,000 hours of experience in core competency requirements.

Australian strip out teams are unregulated and largely unrecognised, despite backbreaking labour on landfill reduction. The construction industry contracts architect, builder and demolisher – there is no official position for salvage.

3. Occupational health and safety
I spoke to Anna Winneke from The Salvage Yard in Castlemaine about health and safety rules that restrict building salvage. She says structural deconstruction (for example roof perlins and trusses) cannot be done outside a machine under Australian safety guidelines. If machinery is used, highly skilled operators are needed to remove items without damage. If that stage goes smoothly, Anna says machinery is also needed to separate materials and stack them onto trucks for removal. Hand sorting is considered too dangerous.

“So the issue is how to train young trades to delicately use a machine to separate the waste, and come up with safe solutions for stacking in a useable format.”

Non-structural removal of flooring and fittings is simpler, but there are still issues around lead paint, asbestos, dust, and the physical safety of salvage crews moving heavy items.

4. The market for salvaged materials
In 2018, Portland’s Deconstruction Program 12-month Status Report highlighted growth from 3 to 17 deconstruction contractors; a need for more trained workers; and the possibility that the market for reclaimed goods would reach saturation. “BPS (Bureau of Planning and Sustainability) is very pleased with the environmental and job creation benefits of this policy and program and remains committed to raising the Ordinance’s year-built threshold to at least 1940 by 2019. However, before expanding the regulation, BPS needs to ensure that there is a sizeable market for salvaged materials and that the contracting community can support this growth.”

Creating awareness and commitment to reuse is vital. Encouraging architects, builders, makers and all kinds of consumers to consider recycled materials is part of a feasible salvage plan.

Below: Northbourne flats in Canberra coming down; salvaged roof trusses; and a beautiful Thor’s Hammer dining table crafted from these old timbers.

Flats demolition and salvage, Canberra
Roof trusses before salvage, Thor's Hammer timber and joinery, Canberra
Recycled roof trusses, Thor's Hammer timber and joinery, Canberra
Recycled timber table from old flat roof trusses, Thor's Hammer, Canberra

Anna says those in the salvage industry predict that, “at the rate we’re demolishing very re-usable resources, Australia will be into a purely non-reusable era of demolition within 40 years… or less!

The buildings that McDonough and Braungart make mention of in their cradle to cradle work stand today still. It’s not even an issue of having been not designed for deconstruction. 90% of a brick veneer from the early 1980s can be reused.

The hurdle is fitting in with our safety regulations, providing training to those in the industry to use a machine properly, and rethinking how we talk about reCYCLE and reUSE of raw materials.”

Wood composites, plastic laminates, treated timbers and many fast/cheap/new building materials are likely to present problems in the future as toxic waste. In contrast, salvaged bricks, cast iron, steel and old growth hardwoods have already served several generations and can serve many more in new designs.

The Junk Map and many of our clients and followers would love to see Australian councils backing deconstruction. Consumers can do their bit on a small scale, but moving national landfill and demolition policies towards reuse would bring Australia to the forefront of waste-reduction. Construction and demolition waste is a global issue. Saving Ugly Town is one tiny step in the right direction.  

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