Habitat for Humanity: First Full House Deconstruction
By Richard Drake
In January 2016, Habitat started their very first whole-house deconstruction 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 redevelopment. Specifically the developer, The Bismark Group, was interested in salvaging as much material as possible.
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.
Setting the Scene:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Moving onto the Roof:
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.
The Decorative Parts:
Siding comes in many forms. This house was sheathed in vinyl. Circa 1980, vinyl siding became popular. 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.
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.
Plywood 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”. 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.
Deconstructing the Frame:
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. It’s even possible to re-certify dimensional lumber such as 2 by 6’s to be used as structural components in new construction.
Much 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.
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.
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.
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.
Other Materials that were Ultimately Upcycled:
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!
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.
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.
Read Richard’s full blog post here: Deconstruction Diary
All photos and writing are copyright to Richard Drake.