Pullman Chicago 2013_Susan Ross

Image by the author. 

By Susan Ross

Building deconstruction refers to the careful taking apart of a building to salvage its reusable materials and components. These are either stored on site for short-term integration in a new design, or removed to a salvage yard for use at a later date. Whereas prevailing mechanical demolition creates mounds of unsorted debris rendered less usable by a destructive process, deconstruction introduces a semblance of order to the end of life of a building, slowing down the process with manual labor and stock-taking, allowing for segregation based on future use. Although salvage and reuse are ancient practices, with the oldest cities rebuilt of the rubble of their political histories and environmental disasters (Kostof, 1982), recent approaches are developed as ecological alternatives to common demolition practices. Yet as with all considerations of waste, management of a city’s construction, renovation and demolition (CR&D) discards, which can represent from 30- 50% of municipal solid waste (Yeheyis et al, 2013), should first consider embedded consumption and production patterns rather than focus exclusively on end-of-life stages.

Despite its promise for reuse and reduction of waste, there are several sources of conceptual and material tensions with deconstruction, including:

  • The implicit discounting of building re-use/renovation as a viable alternative to deconstruction;
  • Placing the primary focus on reducing future waste by designing new buildings for disassembly, and not studying existing building stock;
  • Land development that values the vacant sites created by demolition;
  • Existing salvage practices driven by economic value or efficiency;
  • The increasing speed of demolition versus slow buy-in for reclaimed materials;
  • The reuse challenges of contaminated and/or composite modern building materials;
  • The lack of regulation or comprehensive models of reuse and reused materials;
  • The need for networks of salvage storage and other circulation strategies;
  • Overlooked histories and values of related places and their material legacies.

These tensions are examined in more detail below.

Focusing on future of new buildings: As an alternative to demolition, deconstruction is promoted as the future of green buildings. New buildings are being “designed for disassembly” to prevent their materials ending up in landfill, and reduce future needs for new resources. However, at present deconstruction primarily addresses the waste generated by the renovation and demolition of existing buildings, rather than redesigning new buildings to be more readily disassembled.

Building re-use discounted to “create” vacant land: The initial decision to not re-use an entire building by repairing and adapting it is often made without a thorough comparison of all the costs and benefits of renovation versus demolition (Powter and Ross, 2005). Unless carefully considered as part of a broader range of strategies to preserve and transform existing buildings (EAC, 2010), an economy of deconstruction risks engaging uncritically in processes of “creative destruction”, or processes that compel destruction of the old to create the new, assuming land development must always be preceded by removal of the existing building stock (Cayé, 2015).

Economically-driven salvage practices: Some salvaging already happens as part of most demolition work. Buildings are given a “light strip,” where materials that have high economic value (e.g. steel, copper), or are undesirable in landfills (e.g. asbestos, gypsum) will be removed prior to demolition (BMRA, 2014). Indeed, existing practices where large quantities of steel re recycled and crushed concrete is reused as aggregate mean that recovery rates for building debris has been higher than that of other types of municipally managed solid waste – perhaps as high as 65% (MacBride, 2014).

Faster demolition, material reuse challenges: Still, in North American and European cities, demolition is increasing faster than the market for most reclaimed materials (Addis, 2006). Dependent on varied local materials economies, only a few salvaged materials are quickly re-used. Complicating this, the existing building stock contains many complex assemblies and components that are challenging to deconstruct and or re-use (Nordby, et al, 2007). Given storage space costs over time, salvage may only delay these materials’ eventual transfer to a down-cycling process or even to landfill.

Lack of reuse regulation and model projects: Deconstruction practices are increasingly supported by city bylaws for solid waste management. However, collection must be followed by reuse of the reclaimed materials, which is currently voluntary. Green building certification systems like LEED give credit to only limited forms of reuse. Few documented examples exist of new buildings built primarily from salvaged materials. Reuse requires buy-in from property owners, designers, builders and planning authorities. Otherwise, like consumer recycling, deconstruction does not yet fully engage in closed materials loops, while giving the impression of reducing waste (Liboiron, 2010).

Networks for salvage storage and other urban strategies: To ensure that the reclaimed materials are reused, concrete urban strategies are required. This includes educating for and facilitating design with reclaimed materials, creating networks for materials available for re-use, and institutionalizing salvage spaces, materials inventories and standards for reuse (Gorgolewski, 2008). As shown by recent closure of the UK’s oldest salvage yard (Kay, 2016) more local networks of exchange are under pressure; broader web-based inventories may give more transportable items a boost (Salvoweb).

Overlooking embedded values and legacies: Most deconstruction research focuses on addressing the technical barriers and/or creative possibilities of re-using materials produced by deconstruction (Jeffrey, 2011), leaving the values embedded in existing building materials unexamined. This includes the lost heritage of manifold pasts associated with the places the materials are taken from. Since less is arguably ‘wasted’ through building reuse than deconstruction, and the market for reclaimed materials is still underdeveloped, we should continue to look at preserving the material fabric of individual buildings before moving to deconstruction. Sustaining materials in the places where they carry the most cultural significance could also force us to consider the overlooked environmental legacies of architecture.



Addis, William. (2006). Building with Reclaimed Components and Materials: A Design Handbook for Reuse and Recycling. London, Earthscan.

Building Materials Re-Use Association (BMRA). (2014). Introduction to Deconstruction: A Comprehensive Training Workbook.

Cayé, Pierre. (2015). Critique de la Destruction Créatrice. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

Ecology Action Centre (EAC). (2010). Waste! Not? Toolkit. Halifax. Web.

Gorgolewski, Mark. (2008). “Designing with reused building components: Some challanges,” Building Research & Information 36(2): 175-188.

Kay, Thornton. (2016). “Worlds First Reclamation Yard About to be Demolished,” SalvoNews Sep.22, 2016. Web.

Kostof, Spiro. (1982). “His Majesty the Pick: the Aesthetics of Demolition.” Design Quarterly 118/119: 32–41.

Jeffrey, Colin. (2011). Construction and Demolition Waste Recycling, A Literature Review, Halifax, NS: Dalhousie University’s Office of Sustainability.

Liboiron, Max. (2010). “Recycling as a Crisis of Meaning.” Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, Intersections : 1-9. Web.

MacBride, Samantha. (2012). “Construction and Demolition Waste.” Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste, The Social Science of Garbage. Eds. Carl A. Zimring and William L. Rathje. 2 vols. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing. 148-150.

Nordby, A.S., B. Berge and A.G. Hesne. (2007). “Salvageability of building materials,” SB07 Lisbon – Sustainable Construction, Materials and Practices. Web.

Powter, Andrew and Susan Ross. (2005). “Integrating Environmental and Cultural Sustainability for Heritage Properties.” Association for Preservation Technology Bulletin 36 (4): 5-11.

Salvoweb Directory. Web.

Yeheyis, Muluken et al. (2013). “An Overview of Construction and Demolition Waste Management in Canada: A Lifecycle Analysis Approach to Sustainability.” Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy 15: 81-91.




Susan Ross is a registered architect and Assistant Professor at Carleton University. She has worked  in the private sector, held teaching and research positions in Canadian universities, and both volunteered and been employed by local, national and international heritage organizations. In her most recent work prior to working atCarleton, she was senior conservation architect in the federal government.