Deconstruction Diary

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In January 2016, Habitat started their very first whole-house de-construction project in the oldest part of Vancouver, the Strathcona District. The chosen property was built in 1989, and best described as a “Vancouver Special” – typical of the time, not architecturally significant, still sound, but slated for re-development. Specifically the developer, The Bismark Group, was interested in salvaging as much material as possible. This is an enlightened attitude, because in the predominant culture of Vancouver, anything not new is considered worthless, and even unlucky by some.

 

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There are a couple of key issues when considering such a project: cost and time. Hand de-construction is time-consuming and expensive in terms of labour. However, it allows materials to be taken apart with maximum potential for their re-use. Although mechanical deconstruction does allow for recycling and some separation, the ability to recover material that can be used again is minimum. Habitat have a significant advantage as they have access to volunteer crews prepared to offer their time.Another important consideration is storage and marketing of salvageable materials. Habitat have a network of Re-Stores where they have storage space and an already established market for re-usable materials.

Generally the window of opportunity to remove a house is in terms of a few days: in this case it took 16 days until the last wall was taken down. The key component is having a team that knows how to tear things apart quickly and effectively, without destroying materials that have re-use value.

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Enter the Wrecking Crew. Sean Heaney runs Phat Pooch, a demolition company. For 10 years he has been selectively taking apart structures by hand with an eye to salvaging whatever he can. He is of the old school, valuing the manual labour involved so he can employ the disadvantaged.

Having him and his crew onsite is a boon as this is second nature to him, whereas for the rest of us it’s a bit daunting. Pretty quickly he is showing us subtle tricks of the trade saving hours of unnecessary struggle with materials that refuse to be coerced into submission.

Christina is the tireless and creative Deconstruction Manager for Habitat.This was a first for her, and in all ways she performed miracles. Her smile kept many a challenge at bay.

 

 

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Taking down a building is pretty straightforward if you have a big machine and no plan for saving materials. But when it comes to hand de-construction, there are a number of other considerations, such as keeping the structural integrity so people can move around safely, and ensuring large heavy bits of stuff are moved carefully. It’s essentially construction in reverse – the last thing put on – finishing – becomes the first thing you take off. There is a certain order of business dictated by safety, keeping materials intact, and efficiency. Before the wrecking crew arrived in January a team of volunteers stripped out the more easily removed items such as interior doors, cabinets and electrical fixtures. These were also deemed to have immediate resale value. An assessment was also made of the furnace, siding, and hot water tank as to whether there was potential for sale direct from the site. Thanks to the power of Craigslist, these were quickly snapped up, and whole lot less material to be disposed of. Re-use comes before Recycling.

BEFORE - AFTER

 

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STAGES

 

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The first morning the crew focused on taking up the engineered flooring whilst a couple of us started removing electrical outlets, and anything that would get in the way of drywall removal. The trick with the flooring is that once a couple of key boards are removed in a room , the rest can be pried up with a flat-bar with relatively small amount of damage.Real hardwood tongue-and-groove floors are a different kettle of fish. Far more valuable, but need to be very carefully lifted, as they are nailed every 16inches through the tongue. However, they can be re-finished indefinitely, so have a potential long life.

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When I was in my building phase, I dreaded drywall. Everything about it is difficult and messy: mud, dust, and one false move, and the stuff crumbles. These days the big concern is the vintage of the drywall, as to whether it’s got any asbestos in it. Before 1990 there is a chance that it may be deemed hazardous waste, and everybody has to sign off on various declarations promising it’s benign.Sean has a handy way of slicing through the drywall with a reciprocating saw, creating a grid pattern of easily removed sections about 3 ft by 4ft. They are then pried apart with a flatbar. Another trick is to remove all the metal corner pieces. The big issue is space. The recycling bin has yet to arrive, and it can’t get wet, so its a challenge where to stack and store the pieces while awaiting its journey to its new destination, New West Gypsum. I travel home that evening white as the proverbial sheet: drywall dust has a habit of covering anything in a persistent film. I think my fellow bus-riders thought I had just come from one of the many movie shoots.

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I am not sure if I loathe insulation more then drywall – it’s a close tie. If you aren’t careful the fibres get everywhere, and at the end of the day of insulating, my whole body is one huge itch.Pink or yellow insulation is made from rock or sand– in fact its also called rockwool. Its spun so finely that it comprises of thousands of tiny fibres or fibreglass. If you aren’t careful, the minute particles get everywhere, and at the end of the day of insulating, my whole body is one huge itch. I actually have recycled fiberglass insulation before. Once it’s in the walls its completely inert (unless there is a leak – then its useless) and it doesn’t decompose. However, we just bagged it up, and it pretty much filled a dumpster.

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An average house contains thousands of feet of copper wire and plumbing – probably kilometers. It’s all valuable, and can be retrieved with some simple tools, and a fair deal of patience. Its also a good work-out, as most of the pipes and wires run through ceilings, so I spent several days with my arms above my head, armed with a Sawzall cutting through sections of copper plumbing, in a stance of supplication; although my prayers were generally of the kind: “please don’t let this muck leak all over me”. The trick is to let gravity do its job, and allow any fluids to drain away at a safe distance from outstretched sleeves, which can become an inadvertent channel for all kinds of unwanted watery substances of dubious origin. I did make a mistake of looking up at a critical moment, only to be drenched with a liquid slurry that had been accumulating in the lowest point of the hydronic heating system for several decades.

For the last few years, plastic Pex pipe has replaced copper for most residential plumbing. Like the majority of plastic building products that have replaced traditional materials, its worthless plastic waste once removed. It’s a sad testimony to our disposable culture that there is a lot that’s not worth considering for a second life: kitchen counters made of press-board that once they get wet are useless; lighting fixtures that fall apart in your hands; studs that are so twisted and checked that I wonder how they ever were certified for use. Ideally, product design could evolve so that its worthwhile and easy to re-use materials. A simple example of this is returnable beverage containers. Before there was a 5c “bounty” on each container, they used to clog highway margins and streets as unsightly worthless litter. Now they help support thousands of homeless people, or “binners”.

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Climbing on a roof is a scary business. Not only have you to contend with being up 2 stories, but also in winter there is also the likelihood of slipping on wet moss or ice. In this case, the roof is made of concrete roofing tiles, so very limited options for getting any kind of secure foothold into wood with spiked boots. Nobody is keen to climb up there, especially encumbered with a ladder, harness, safety ropes etc. Sean’s inspiration is to poke his head through an easily accessible skylight and see how easily it is to pick the tiles off. They are only held on by one nail, can be readily lifted, and passed down safely inside the building with a human chain. As the roof is not sheathed with plywood (as is the case for an asphalt roof), it’s easy to expand the hole, and gradually work across the roof from a secure platform inside the roof truss. Ultimately the tiles were hand-bombed out to the rear of the building, and palletized awaiting their new owner.

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Siding comes in many forms. This house was sheathed in vinyl. Circa 1980, vinyl siding became popular. Vinyl is short of PVC, or Poly Vinyl Chloride. I tend to avoid anything made of PVC, as it can be a potent carcinogen, one of the many toxic building products, and it’s being phased out in some EU countries. In a house fire, as PVC burns, the chlorine in the material escapes, creating an acid smoke that contains hydrogen chloride. When hydrogen chloride enters the lungs, it becomes hydrochloric acid, an extremely caustic acid that can result in internal chemical burns in a person who inhales it. This acid smoke is so potent that it can kill a person inside a house fire before the flames or carbon monoxide does. Fire-fighters beware. I ripped the siding off with complete abandon, only limited by the knowledge that someone actually was going to come and collect it for re-use.

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When this house was built, aluminium frame windows were in vogue. They pop out of the walls with a little encouragement. They are double glazed and luckily haven’t leaked , so they are quite reusable.

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subfloorPlywood is what supplies the structural integrity for the conventional “stick frame” of residential housing. it’s used both in sheathing the walls and providing a flat, even, surface for attaching the flooring, known as a “sub-floor”. A sub-floor is generally made with heavy-duty 5/8″ tongue and groove plywood. Once installed, the idea is that it stays very firmly in place; some installers even use glue to prevent any annoying floor creaking noise when there is heavy traffic. Luckily the ground floor is a concrete slab, so we only have to deal with the upper floor. Sean asks what may seem an unlikely question: “Do we have a 6 ton hydraulic jack ?”. He delegates one of his crew, Claude, to be the “floor remover”. Once armed with the requisite equipment: jack, concrete block, and sturdy 6ft length of lumber, Claude becomes the gentle persuader. Situated 7 ft below the upper floor, he finds a corner of one of the 4ft by 8ft pieces of sub-floor, and gradually applies pressure to the jack. Glue and nails are no match for this mighty force, and before long there are loud splintering noises as the corner, then a whole side of the plywood is separated from the floor jousts. It’s quick and effective, and with appropriate additional leverage supplied by a pry-bar, the sheets are lifted whole.

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Standard frame houses built in North America are primarily made of wood: just the framing of a new home consumes on average the equivalent of 22 mature trees. In fact, 67% of the materials used to make a home is reusable or recyclable wood. In it’s lowest end-use it can replace fuel in cement kilns. Moving up the 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle ) Hierarchy, much of the wood that can be reclaimed from a building can be re-used in all manner of creative ways. It’s even possible to re-certify dimensional lumber such as 2 by 6’s to be used as structural components in new construction.

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The house fame deconstruction started with the roofing trusses. These are triangular shaped frames spaced every 2 ft that support the roofing material. Plywood is nailed to these supports which carries roofing shingles, or 1 by 4 strapping in the case of this roof.

Once the roof is off we were exposed to the vagaries of Vancouver weather. Working in construction (or de-construction) in winter is not my favourite pastime, and one can only hope that climate change brings near tropical weather in the future.

 

 

 

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Standard stud-walls consist of top and bottom horizontal “plates”, with vertical studs. A sawzall is a great allay to make a vertical slice through the wall section from top to bottom, in two places, so that one is left with an approximately 8ft section.

Once untethered from its upright position by prying up the bottom plate (through which it is nailed to the floor), an 8ft section of a sheathed exterior 2 by 4 frame wall is an ungainly, heavy beast. It wants to obey the laws of gravity, which means to become horizontal ASAP, and has a tendency to fall somewhere awkward. Great finesse is required to guide this buckling bronco to a spot where plywood sheathing can be separated from the 2 by 4 or 2 by 6 frame.

 

There are several ways of performing this separation, with varying degrees of venting ones frustration by pounding it with the largest mighty persuader – sledgehammer – available. Volunteers lined up to perform this satisfying task – although random swings sometimes left the sledgehammer connecting with just about everything else than the desired target. This is the moment I was living for. Initially I persuaded a couple of hapless volunteers to hold up each end of the section in the horizontal position, while I pounded the bejusus out of plywood. Quickly my cohorts retreated from my manic swings, so a safer route was decided upon, which was prying plywood while walls were on the ground – plywood side up. Each nail was excruciatingly pulled – with great tedious effort. Luckily at this moment Sean appeared on the scene, and with one gracious demonstration, showed us that if the wall was horizontal – but with the studs facing up, the studs could actually be knocked easily sideways, with minimal effort, and thus studs were separated from plywood – rather than vice versa. Its amazing how such a simple technique can save hours of agonizing effort. And still retain the delight of bashing inanimate objects with a large chunk of steel. Once the exterior walls were dealt with, we could then easily remove the interior walls, which having their sheathing (drywall) removed, came apart like peeling a deck of cards.

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It’s remarkable to see the vast amounts of lumber that make up a typical house, all in one place in huge piles. During construction, lifts of lumber are brought onto the site in an orderly manner, and you rarely see everything in one massive pile all at once.

 

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We soon looked like a demonic lumberyard, where some rampaging kid had scattered piles of wood in some Lego fantasy, challenging onlookers to make sense of where all this had come from. Keeping up with stripping walls takes organized teams of stackers, sorters, and ultimately de-nailers.

lumber2Much of the wood we had carefully de-constructed can be salvaged and be used, as –is (minus nails) for a variety of projects. Because the vintage of the house was late 1980’s, much of the framing lumber was fir – a sought after type of wood. Later housing has shifted to Spruce, or SPF (Spruce, Fir, Pine), so its desirability is much more limited. I became an expert at efficient extraction of nails. I set up a station well out of the way of wandering walls, and spent several days quietly removing thousands of nails. This is viable when you have teams of volunteers such as Habitat: mechanized de-nailing would be a more suitable approach when staff are paid.

 

 

 

Removing materials from the site in a timely way is critical. We formed lines of hand-bombers, loading up flat-decks, gravel trucks and an assortment of vehicles that delivered the lumber back to the Habitat ReStore, where volunteers could de-nail at leisure anything we couldn’t process onsite. Evidently this lumber was sold as fast as it was made available, which goes to show that there is a strong potential demand for used building materials. Obviously marketing is key, and Habitat has a loyal following of handymen and contractors who know a good deal when they see one.

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Everything including the kitchen sink. There was a mass of specific things that aren’t covered in the general catch-all categories above. Such as extracting bathtubs . There were three of these iron beasts spread over the two floors. The bathrooms were actually built around the baths; so drywall had to be removed, moulding, caulking, shower enclosures, tilework, faucets, and all kinds of hidden nails that kept the tub securely in-removable. There is a special combo of brute force and intelligence that’s required to pry it loose. Caulking can be so tenacious that it alone can hold a fixture in place.

 

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There were two fireplaces attached to a brick chimney. The developer expressed a wish to remove all the fireplace decorative surround, but to leave the chimney intact. So tiles and brickwork were chipped away by a jackhammer with a spade point. Like much of demolition, it’s a noisy dusty job, and tiles can splinter every which way into sharp fragments. Luckily most of the fireplace and the exterior brickwork cladding was removed by a skillful jackhammer operator who kelp many bricks whole. A very happy landscaper took away all we had to reuse in a garden project. One more brick in the Wall!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recent focus on high energy efficiency in homes leaves certain technologies less than desirable, notwithstanding that they are still operable.for instance, the gas furnace that powered the hydronic heating system at one time was worth thousands of dollars. It’s no match for a new 96% efficiency compact furnace that doesn’t even need a chimney. However, it is still quite capable of heating a workshop, and indeed a Criagslist ad brought a home handyman keen to give it another life. This despite having to butcher some of its complex heating controls to get it to fit into his van.

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At one time double glazed aluminum windows were considered high technology. We removed dozens of still functional units; but who would use them in any new renovation? The answer lies in Re-purposing. An aspiring gardener snapped up a number of windows to make cold frames and a greenhouse to accelerate spring growth in his veggie garden.Dozens of interior doors found their way into a remodeling project where a lick of paint rendered them as good as new.

On-site sorting gets to be an ongoing challenge as it’s a battle between getting the building taken down in a timely fashion, consideration on retaining value for re/usable items, and appropriate separation into categories for ease of recycling. Even after the most diligent recycling, and reuse there remains a mass of stuff that’s just too difficult to do much with. Composites are problematic, in that they aren’t one thing or the other. Once wood is treated with paint, or some other covering it’s very difficult to do much with it, and it can comprise up to 40 % of the total. Design for ultimate deconstruction would be the way to ensure that as few used materials are wasted. Just as the auto industry is beginning to look at end of life disposal at the early stages of concept, we can begin to re-think buildings as containing value long after their useful life in their original form


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