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Building Deconstruction and Material Reuse in Washington, D.C.


Source: EPA

Building Deconstruction and Material Reuse
in Washington, D.C.

Urban and Economic Development Division
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

December 1999


This report was prepared by Industrial Economics, Incorporated (IEc), under the direction of Robin Snyder of the Urban and Economic Development Division (UEDD) of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Policy, Economics, and Innovation (USEPA). The building inventory section is based on the results of a parallel effort undertaken by Peter Yost and the National Association of Home Builders Research Center (NAHBRC). The discussion and conclusions presented in this report are based in large part on information provided to IEc by the contacts listed in Exhibit 3.





















Deconstruction is the process of selectively and systematically disassembling buildings that would otherwise be demolished to generate a supply of materials suitable for reuse in the construction or rehabilitation of other structures. The benefits of deconstruction, ranging from the diversion of demolition debris from landfills to the creation of jobs and job skills, have been documented elsewhere. Numerous examples from across the country illustrate how buildings can be successfully deconstructed and how salvaged materials can be collected and distributed for reuse. The purpose of this paper is to describe the state of deconstruction activities in Washington, D.C. and to identify some of the issues that may promote or impede the growth or sustainability of a deconstruction "industry" in the District. Many of these issues are not unique to Washington, D.C., and should be relevant to the consideration of deconstruction potential in other metropolitan areas.

Our consideration of deconstruction comprises six elements, as illustrated in Exhibit 1. First, we consider the current Economic and Political Climate in which deconstruction is now occurring and being promoted in Washington, D.C. Next, we present a preliminary Washington, D.C. Building Inventory in order to provide a sense of the number and type of buildings that may present deconstruction opportunities. The third element addresses the Planning and Implementation of Deconstruction Projects in the District, focusing on the types of expertise and labor required to accomplish deconstruction objectives. This element is followed by the Collection and Distribution of Salvaged Materials and the End Use of Salvaged Materials, emphasizing the point that a supply of buildings and a labor force capable of deconstructing them represents only half of the equation. Finally, we explore the Brownfields Link to deconstruction in Washington, D.C. to see if there are useful connections between these redevelopment concepts. We conclude by summarizing the status of deconstruction activities in Washington, D.C., highlighting the major issues that will affect the future growth and direction of these activities, and recommending specific policy and program directions.


With the exception of the first section (Economic and Political Climate), which is based on readily available data from on-line sources, the information contained in this report is based largely on conversations with local contacts who are actively engaged in deconstruction-related efforts. A list of contacts with whom we have had communication and a list of potential contacts are provided at the end of this report (Exhibits 3 and 4). This is not an exhaustive list of contacts. In fact, one conclusion we quickly reached is that there are many individuals and organizations in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area who have an active interest in, or are already practitioners of, deconstruction. In speaking with some of the local participants in the deconstruction arena, we realized that this report will provide the first integrated description of active deconstruction initiatives in the District, and perhaps will promote additional cooperation and information exchange among the interested parties.


A growing economy makes it easier to direct public policies as well as private spending toward projects, such as deconstruction, that generate additional economic opportunities. This section provides a "snapshot" of the D.C. economy and some of the initiatives that demonstrate a local commitment to promoting continued growth and redevelopment. As discussed below, a relationship between deconst ruction and economic growth exists with respect to the supply of and demand for both urban real estate and salvaged materials.

General Economic Conditions

The recent growth of the D.C. economy can be illustrated through a variety of measures, including employment, income and real estate activity. For example, unemployment in the District stands at 6.0 percent, a 34.4 percent decrease since the first quarter of 1998 and the lowest level in more than nine years. Much of this decrease in unemployment can be attributed to the growth of D.C.'s major industry sectors, including Business/Financial Services, Telecommunications, Entertainment/Tourism, and Biomedical/Health Services, all of which have seen significant employment increases in the past decade. Employment increases have been accompanied by increases in personal income. In 1987, per capita personal income (PCPI) for Washington, D.C. was $19,566, fourth highest in the U.S. By 1997, PCPI had risen to $35,704, second in the U. S. and 141 percent of the national average. D.C.'s average annual nominal growth rate of PCPI during this time was 6.2 percent, compared to the national average rate of 4.7 percent. In addition, the Washington D.C. Chamber of Commerce predicts that population will increase by 7.6 percent by 2010, reversing a trend that saw the D.C. metropolitan population decline by 14 percent over the last nine years.

In combination, a growing population and an increasingly strong local economy stimulate activity in the real estate market. For example, with 429 permits issued, 1998 witnessed the greatest amount of residential construction activity in the District in the last 10 years. At the same time, numerous "speculative" office projects are presently underway. This high level of real estate activity relates to deconstruction because new development (residential, commercial or industrial) requires property and deconstruction sites are an option. Existing incentives (described below) for redevelopment in the District, rather than in outlying areas, may be sufficient to encourage developers to reclaim currently underutilized properties. Each instance of redevelopment of urban properties may be an opportunity for deconstruction.

Current Redevelopment Incentives

The local government is taking active measures to stimulate redevelopment in the District. As a result, numerous financing incentives exist to reduce the costs associated with (re)development projects within the city. These incentives include the following programs:

District of Columbia Enterprise Zones (EZ). Tax benefits are available to businesses operating primarily within lower income (e.g., greater than 10 percent poverty rates) census tracts, including the southwest portion of Washington D.C. Such businesses may be eligible for tax exempt financing of redevelopment projects, employment tax credits, zero capital gains tax on investments, and expensing allowances for machinery and materials.

Governmental Revenue Bonds. The District of Columbia is offering revenue bonds for the specific purpose of stimulating redevelopment, commercial development, and infrastructure improvement projects. Program funds will be available through the sale of tax-exempt and taxable municipal revenue bonds, notes, and other obligations. Proceeds from the sale of these bonds are loaned to borrowers who may use them to finance or reimburse costs associated with acquisition, construction, rehabilitation, restoration, expansion, or improvement of local structures.

Tax Increment Financing. The District is offering the sale of tax-exempt governmental revenue bonds as part of a tax increment financing (TIF) system. Such a system assumes that the redevelopment undertaken using bond sale revenues will result in higher property tax revenues, which in turn can be used to finance the debt. Tax increment financing is facilitated by laws that allow the establishment of special districts to collect TIF revenue and issue debt.

Employment and Training Tax Credits. Businesses may claim employment and training tax credits for wages paid to, and costs of training, all individuals hired from within Washington D.C. These credits are available from the District government and include the D.C. Employment Tax Credit, the Welfare-to-Work Tax Credit, and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit.

Another important local initiative that could stimulate deconstruction activity is the Homestead Housing Preservation Program. This program, which is operated and funded by the District of Columbia Department of Housing and Community Development, was established in 1987 with three principal objectives: (1) increase residency within the District, (2) facilitate the associated increase in tax revenues, and (3) make housing units acquired under tax foreclosure available to low and moderate income D.C. residents. The program acquires abandoned or "marginal" properties, resolves title issues, and advertises the unencumbered units for sale. Many of these properties may have deconstruction potential. Most units (including single family homes) are sold for $250, with low-interest $10,000 per unit loans for reconstruction and renovation available from the D.C. government. Other housing renovation programs in the District provide low-interest loans ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 to individuals who wish to renovate or rehabilitate their homes. These renovation and rehabilitation activities present obvious opportunities both to salvage building materials for reuse elsewhere and to reuse salvaged materials on site.

Due to extremely high levels of demand, the program uses a lottery to aid the process of allocation. In 1999, for example, the Program distributed 15,000 applications -- 2,500 of which were deemed valid -- for a lottery which allocated fewer than 100 units. Any person or developer may apply for a property. To be eligible, however, applicants must be able to demonstrate that they will be able to complete all renovations needed to bring units into compliance with local building codes. The program also requires purchasers to attend a 10-week training class that includes instruction in how to facilitate and finance renovation activities. This training is intended to help ensure success in achieving the program's objective of "revitalizing" D.C. properties. While the use of salvaged materials may present successful applicants with a cost-effective approach to making some or all of the necessary renovations, it may also be possible to deconstruct and re-sell certain materials during the renovation/rehabilitation process.

Overall, the information presented in this section describes a local environment that not only can stimulate and support deconstruction activity, but also can benefit from the additional economic growth and redevelopment that deconstruction will provide.


The potential growth and sustainability of a building deconstruction and material reuse program in Washington, D.C. obviously requires an adequate supply of buildings suitable for deconstruction. In order to begin to characterize the existing "stock" of potential deconstruction sites, the National Association of Home Builders Research Center ("Research Center") completed an initial inventory and assessment of 236 condemned residential structures in the District of Columbia. The Housing and Environmental Regulation Administration within the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) provided the information that helped the Research Center locate these buildings.

The Research Center completed drive-by, visual inspections of 86 of the 236 condemned properties identified by the DCRA. The visual inspections noted: building type, general construction type, overall condition, property status (e.g., abandoned, effectively cordoned, under renovation, for sale), neighborhood context, and whether a detailed assessment would be appropriate. Based on the inspection of condemned properties, the Research Center defined four categories of residential buildings, as described below, each with attributes that suggest the potential for cost-effective deconstruction. The Research Center then chose four different types of structures for detailed assessments. These assessments provide an indication of the type and quantity of materials available from residential buildings.

High-rise multi-family buildings. These large apartment buildings potentially contain many interior features that could be salvaged and reused (appliances, cabinets, fixtures, etc.). These buildings are usually made of structural concrete and steel, so complete deconstruction is generally not a feasible option. However, the structural materials may be good candidates for recycling. A detailed assessment of one building in the Arthur Capper public housing complex identified cabinets, stainless steel sinks, garbage disposals and metal framed windows suitable for salvage, as well as copper piping and aluminum baseboard heating units that could be removed and sold for scrap.

Low-rise multi-family buildings. These buildings offer significant potential for the deconstruction of both interior and exterior materials. In general, the low-rise multi-family buildings in D.C. are made using brick and block construction with wooden roof assemblies. Many interior elements (e.g., appliances, cabinets) can be salvaged from the low-rise buildings. A detailed assessment of one building in the Kentucky Courts housing complex identified wooden roof trusses with plywood sheathing, recently updated kitchen cabinetry, stainless steel sinks, garbage disposals, and metal framed windows. As with the high-rise example, this building also contained copper tubing and aluminum heating units with potential scrap value. A second detailed assessment, of a three-unit building in the Frederick Douglass housing complex, found a significant amount of salvageable material including framing lumber, brick double glazed windows, and over 1,000 square feet of oak strip hardwood flooring, as well as a recently replaced gas boiler and water heater. There are approximately 107 buildings of similar type in the Frederick Douglass complex, 83 of which are also reported to have exterior natural wood siding suitable for salvage.

Rowhouses. Rowhouses offer multiple deconstruction opportunities. Exterior construction offers salvageable brick, roofing and architectural details. Rowhouse interiors can provide valuable wood materials. A detailed assessment of a rowhouse in Northwest D.C. identified framing lumber, hardwood flooring, oak stair cases, plywood sub-flooring and roof sheathing, and a recently replaced gas water heater and furnace. The exterior of this structure features Roman brick, stone lentils and slate roofing. It should be noted that adjoining rowhouses, particularly those that are not end units, may have a structural interdependence that would need to be considered prior to deconstruction.

Single-family dwellings. Wood-framed single-family dwellings offer significant potential for deconstruction, since it may be possible to salvage nearly the entire structure. The same types of materials found in low-rise multi-family buildings can be expected to be found in single-family homes (i.e., wooden framing, roofing materials, flooring, windows, cabinets, appliances, etc.). However, it should be noted that wood-framed single-family homes represent a relatively small percentage of the D.C. residential housing stock.

The NAHBRC research indicates that the residential sector alone provides numerous opportunities for deconstruction. In fact, the number of residential sites with potential for deconstruction may be considerably larger than the 236 condemned properties identified by the DCRA. The D.C. Public Housing Authority provided the Research Center with a list of structures that have been or are soon to be vacated for property redisposition or redevelopment. In addition, the D.C. Building Department maintains a list of properties for which demolition permits have been granted. It should also be noted that D.C. properties in the commercial and industrial sectors, which were not examined in the context of this report, may provide additional opportunities for salvaging valuable materials.


Deconstruction is occurring in Washington, D.C. There are at least two deconstruction practitioners already operating in D.C., Ron Allan and Dave Radius, who have filled a specific niche in the redevelopment community for many years. The practitioners generally salvage materials that are of particular interest to a target customer base. Mr. Allan, proprietor of The Brass Knob and The Back Doors Warehouse, concentrates on materials such as old woods, fixtures, gratings, and ornamental pieces. This commercial enterprise, established in 1981, has a client base that ranges from architects, interior designers, and homeowners to filmmakers and restauranteurs. Mr. Radius, an independent contractor and occasional collaborator with Mr. Allan, has been deconstructing buildings in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area for more than three decades. Mr. Radius maintains his business essentially by word-of-mouth. Residential (and some commercial) property owners seeking to remove existing structures contact Mr. Radius and allow him to salvage those materials in which he has an interest. The keys to Mr. Radius' success are his abilities to quickly discern the value of certain materials and the sequence in which deconstruction should occur, and to know what his customers will buy. (His focus is hardwood flooring and other wooden elements.) He has a fairly regular customer base, meaning he does not need to engage in any significant marketing efforts. Mr. Radius also maintains his own warehouse space in which he stores salvaged materials that have not yet been sold.

In addition to the deconstruction practitioners that are operating in Washington, D.C., there have been and continue to be advocates of deconstruction, promoting the practice as a more routine and widespread redevelopment tool. These generally non-profit organizations seek to develop a sustainable market for a broad range of salvageable materials, while also seeking to enlarge the supply of available deconstruction labor. In 1998, the Ellen Wilson Training Program and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Association of Home Builders Research Center, completed a deconstruction and job training project on the Medical Center grounds. This project involved the disassembly of four greenhouses in a manner that permitted their reassembly at new locations. Eighteen trainees from the Ellen Wilson neighborhood worked as subcontractors to an established general contractor in completing this deconstruction effort. The development of marketable job

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Michael Meuser bootstrapped his way into the salvage and recycling business in the early 1980s. He began with building deconstruction and scrap metals and then moved into electronics, computer and telecommunications scrap where he learned to recover gold and other precious metal.
Michael tells his story, provides resources and offers his advice at his website, RecyclingSecrets.com, and his blog, Recycling Secrets Blog. Recently Mike completed the eBook How to Make Money in the Home Based Salvage and Recycling Business. It is a chronicle of his experiences, successes and failures in the business. Also, you can follow Michael on Twitter.

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