Sustainable Alternative to Building Demolition

A project led by Felix Heisel, assistant professor of architecture in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP), and community partners is investigating deconstruction’s potential as a more sustainable alternative to building demolition.

Last month, with Heisel looking on in a yellow hard hat, dozens of volunteers salvaged original wood flooring, utilities, and other elements from the 11 homes being taken down at the Catherine Commons site in Collegetown.

Over five days there, a crew of up to eight workers methodically carved the 4,500-square foot, 13-bedroom structure into sections from top to bottom. Panels of roof, walls and floor as large as 8 by 18 feet were then hauled to an Ithaca warehouse for the materials to be salvaged and eventually resold.

“It’s fantastic to see this building slowly being unbuilt, story by story, and learning the techniques involved,” Heisel said. “You see a potential reactivation of the materials into a marketplace, and with that a second life in a new application.”

Heisel hopes the deconstruction project spearheaded by his Circular Construction Lab and a team of community partners – supported by a grant from the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement – serves as a local case study promoting a more sustainable approach to building materials across the region. The results will inform local policy proposals that, if enacted, would make Ithaca one of a small number of U.S. cities prioritizing material and building reuse over downcycling and landfilling.

Globally, Heisel said, buildings over their life cycle are responsible for about 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, making them a major factor in climate change. In the United States in 2018, the construction and demolition of buildings alone generated nearly 190 million tons of debris, the overwhelming majority from demolition, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We have to change,” Heisel said. “The question is how do we change and how quickly can we change?”

Heisel’s lab is investigating ways to reduce the built environment’s impact through smarter design of new structures that anticipates their eventual reuse – “design for disassembly” – and also by minimizing waste of existing materials.

The Collegetown case study aims to comprehensively research deconstruction’s local potential, documenting everything from the quantity and quality of materials saved to their resale market, the time and labor required, and the total cost – including environmental and social costs not typically factored into construction and demolition budgets.

Starting over the winter holidays and through icy days in early January, dozens of community volunteers worked to rapidly “soft strip” all 11 homes being taken down, salvaging stoves and dishwashers, light fixtures, doors and original oak flooring and chestnut baseboards.

Then on Jan. 10, a team from Ithaca-based Trade Design Build and Local 785 of the Laborers International Union of North America assembled in the attic of 206 College Ave. to begin the deconstruction under a contract with Finger Lakes ReUse. The work was supported by the developer’s demolition budget for that structure and supplemented by the Einhorn Center grant.

“This is pretty spectacular material that you can’t get anymore,” said Diane Cohen, director of Finger Lakes ReUse, who oversaw the effort. “There’s a real importance to saving what I think are incredibly beautiful materials. And from a purely practical sense, you’re displacing the need to harvest and produce and transport new ones, so there’s a huge energy savings.”

- James Dean, Cornell Chronicle, 2/16/22

Collegetown Deconstruction Project Underway

309 North Aurora Street | Ithaca, NY 14850 | info@tccpi.org

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