Taking it apart rather than breaking it

Photo courtesy of J. Breneman/NRRI

Deconstruction is a win-win, diverts waste and creates jobs

Recycling is an established practice in Minnesota households, but at regional construction sites, not so much. 

Common wisdom dictates that it is cheaper to tear down a house than to carefully dismantle it, even if that means waste generated by a wrecking ball and bulldozer ends up in a landfill, despite the fact that the lifecycle of most of the material hadn’t been exhausted yet. 

group of scientific researchers and social-economic entrepreneurs are currently exploring an alternative to demolition in a project that was dubbed “Constructive Deconstruction” in the June edition of the Natural Resources Research Institute’s (NRRI) newsletter. 

Unlike demolition, deconstruction carefully takes apart a house or building, much in the reverse fashion it was built, allowing for the materials to be recycled, repurposed or reused.  

While it’s obvious that doors and windows, stair treads and trusses can be reused for their original purpose, some materials such as insulation, sheetrock, shingles and cement are harder to recycle. That’s where Victor Krause, materials testing specialist at NRRI, and his team come in. Since 2015, they have been researching alternative uses for harvested building materials that are appropriate for the Northland. 

Concrete can be separated out and used as an aggregate, asphalt shingles can be ground up and reused in road construction and lumber can be turned into mulch and used as such or further processed into bio-fuels. 

Let’s not forget the buzzing market for reclaimed lumber, which is popular among artists, furniture makers and interior designers. 

By deconstructing rather than demolishing a structure, Krause figures that 75 to 80 percent of old building materials can be diverted from regional landfills. And there’s a socio-entrepreneurial aspect to deconstruction, too. 

Drawing inspiration from successful enterprises in California, Oregon and the East Coast, NRRI has partnered with two non-profits to staff deconstruction crews that dismantled four properties in St. Louis County as part of a pilot project this spring and summer. 

Minneapolis-based ‘Better Futures Minnesota’ and Bemidji headquartered ‘Miigwech Aki’ (Ojibwe for Thank you Earth) are both social enterprises that aim at teaching job skills and providing meaningful employment to individuals who have a history of homelessness, poverty, incarceration or other barriers that prevent them from finding work.  

Chris Bedeau, deconstruction crew manager at Miigwech Aki, said “We are a native-controlled, environmental-conscious enterprise. Our main premise is to divert construction waste from our landfills. At the same time, we have a social-economic function by hiring individuals and training them in the level one construction method, paying them $15 an hour.”   

Miigwech Aki was founded in 2015 and has in its three years of existence worked regionally for private clients, the tribal government and the U.S. Forest Service. So far it has deconstructed 16 dwellings, some of them larger, like a two-story hotel in the Cass Lake area. Depending on the project’s size, Miigwech Aki employs five to 20 workers per job. 

Better Futures Minnesota has more resources available than its Northland pendant due to its location. With two sorting facilities in the Twin Cities area, where material can be brought in to get line-sorted, its recycling capacities and capabilities are superior.  

Better Futures, which employs 80also owns a warehouse where contractors and residents can browse and shop for used and preowned building material as well as appliances and fixtures. On its website, the company states that an estimated 700 tons of building materials have been kept out of Minnesota landfills due to their endeavor. 

In 2015, all three entities – NRRI, Miigwech Aki and Better Futures Minnesota – applied and received a grant from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund to investigate whether the method of deconstruction could be developed into a viable practice in northern Minnesota. 

St. Louis County came onboard the project in late spring 2017 when it supplied four tax-forfeited properties, slated for demolition, on which to do the pilot testing.   

Ryan Logan, planner with the St. Louis County’s planning and community development division, states “It’s a different approach in the county’s overall effort to improve neighborhoods and local communities by removing blight and selling the vacant land to get these properties back on the tax base to spur redevelopment and private investment. 

Three of the four properties were located in the Duluth area and one was in Chisholm. Two of the Duluth properties were fully deconstructed to the foundation, leaving pristine parcels ready to be sold for development.  

The other two structures were partial deconstructions in the form of architectural salvage, where flooring, trim work, doors, windows and stair treads are removed.  

The local community was informed of the times and dates these materials would be for sale, but Krause yields that the turn-out was negligible. The remaining materials were sent to the Better Futures warehouse in Minneapolis. 

Krause explained that NRRI’s task during the project was to examine the deconstruction methods to optimize the value of the recovered materials and the safety of the workers as well as to educate the crews how to identify different species of wood. 

“Some of these older homes may have a mixture of wood species used in their framing – ash and oak, red pine and white pine, Douglas fir and so on,” said Krause. “Unlike in today’s construction, they used whatever wood they could get their hands on.” 

Those older, rough sawn materials are sought after by people in the crafting and cabinetry industry for their rustic appeal and are therefore more valuable, which translates into a higher profit for the crew’s outfit.  

So does the making of value-added products like benches and table tops.  

“We went to both Better Future sites and both Miigwech Aki sites and trained their program participants to build a couple different types of benches that then they could sell as an up-valued product,” Krause said. 

Besides making more money by selling a $50-valued bench rather than two two-dollar valued 2-4’s, workers gain the skills from the woodworking practice, giving the training a two-fold purpose.  

The pilot project ended June 30and Krause is working on a final report that will reveal how many percent of the buildings structures were diverted from landfills.  

A general demolition contractor is currently finishing up some steps that the crews weren’t able to complete due to safety restrictions. A scheduled follow-up meeting with all involved parties will address areas of improvement.  

“Further evaluation of the project is needed before continuing with this program. The county is working with Better Futures and other partners in the evaluation of the pilot project to help determine if the program will continue to be used in St. Louis County,” Logan said 

The current contract with Better Futures came at no cost to the county since Better Futures accesses various funds to provide job training and skill development to the local workforce as part of its non-profit mission. 

A next phase in the project would involve scouting areas for potential sorting yards and a warehouse location in northern Minnesota. All salvaged material becomes property of the deconstruction company once they are hired for a job.  Tax-incentives, in the form of write-offs, are given to residential property owners who decide to deconstruct rather than demolish. 

Moving forward, Krause states that educating the public about deconstruction as an alternative to demolition is essential. 

 “Every state has that looming ‘filling-up the-landfills’ problem. This project addresses it directly,” stated Krause.  

He also noted that lawmakers need to be convinced to pen ordinances that would favor deconstruction because of its environmental impact. Deconstruction businesses could receive subsidies to offset the initial higher cost and make it more attractive for clients. 


For further information, visit www.nwicdc.org/miigwech-aki and www.betterfuturesminnesota.com.