Deconstructing demolition


A push to keep useful building materials out of landfill

Furniture, appliances, doors, cabinets, counter tops and bathroom fixtures have been removed and sent to a local nonprofit’s second hand store or another salvage lot, leaving an empty shell.


When a nice house isn’t nice enough, the final destination for that shell is typically the Pitkin County Landfill, where space is at a premium in a race against time.


A growing chorus is calling for more to be done, however, to salvage and repurpose what otherwise would add to the “construction and demolition” waste stream that is buried with the rest of the upper valley’s trash near Watson Divide.


Deconstructing a building to save framing lumber, support beams, glass, flooring and other potentially reusable materials may take weeks as opposed to days for a typical demolition where all is scrapped. But with as little as 15 years left before Pitkin County would have to close its landfill, resulting in higher costs for everyone to truck waste elsewhere, saving a least some portion of a torn-down building may soon become a requirement. Local officials acknowledge that such a policy change would have to go hand in hand with improved facilities, at the landfill or elsewhere, to store and transfer reclaimed building materials and increase access to the second-hand market.

Habitat gets the goods, landfill gets the rest


The Mandalay Ranch property off of Owl Creek Road, until a dozen years ago owned by Hollywood executive and producer Peter Guber, made headlines in May when the current owners donated more than 500 items from the seven-bedroom, 15,000-square-foot home to Habitat for Humanity of the Roaring Fork. These included Hollywood memorabilia, a grand piano, appliances and hand-carved furniture, according to a report in The Aspen Times, all of which were made available for purchase to the public through Habitat’s ReStore facilities in Glenwood Springs and Basalt.


Amanda Poindexter of Basalt-based Full Circle Construction was then brought in for additional salvage, resulting in more than 70 handmade doors, as well as cabinets and other easier-to-remove fixtures, being donated to Habitat. The building itself is set for demolition, according to Poindexter, the chair of the Roaring Fork Branch of the U.S. Green Building Council Colorado Chapter.


The donation of immense value is certainly a bonus to Habitat, which uses proceeds from ReStore to build homes for low-income families. But Poindexter wrote in an email that it’s “deeply saddening and enraging that this huge house is getting sent to the landfill.”


“The Pitkin County Landfill is struggling with the amount of waste already [being sent there] and the finite time left for the landfill, yet we allow these huge homes to get demolished and buried,” Poindexter wrote.


A representative of Sunny Ranch LLC, the Los Angeles-based property owner, declined comment on redevelopment plans, saying the owners prefer keeping a low public profile, and the county’s building department has yet to receive a permit application for any type of demolition.

When the landfill becomes a transfer station


Over the course of the peak summer construction season, about 180 trucks per day come through the gate at the landfill, and a majority of those are coming from construction sites, according to Cathy Hall, the county’s solid waste manager.


“We’re pretty busy this time of year,” she said.


The construction and demolition (C&D) waste and trash from homes and businesses is compacted with a 96,000-pound roller truck and then buried.


Through recycling and composting programs, Pitkin County diverts about 40 percent of its “municipal solid waste” stream, which is well above the Colorado average. It will also take “aggregate” – think excavation materials such as dirt and boulders – and separate and smash it into reusable top soil and smaller rocks.


“We have a good grip on recycling, composting and aggregate recovery,” said Jack Johnson, the landfill’s public outreach and education coordinator. “We don’t have a good grip on construction and demolition debris.”


Johnson, a former Aspen City Council member, said the local economy’s reliance on real estate and construction has flipped the balance at the local landfill, with demolition debris making up more of the intake than in other communities. Hall said that in recent years, C&D waste has been as high as 63 percent of all that is buried at the landfill.


The county will soon undertake an in-depth study of the C&D waste stream to better understand how much could be reused, because every board, beam and tile not buried at the site will extend the horizon beyond which the landfill will be covered and closed. It would then function as a transfer station for the collecting and sorting of trash and recycling before it is sent elsewhere.


When that happens, the facility will likely stop accepting C&D waste, Johnson said, meaning contractors will have to send waste materials to South Canyon in Glenwood Springs or other landfills in Rifle, Grand Junction or Delta.


That would equate to a spike in Aspen’s carbon footprint with all the extra fuel burned. For contractors, it adds up in money and time, with trucks and drivers potentially tied up all day making the trip.


Hall estimates that at current dumping and diversion rates, the landfill has about 15 years left.


“We could probably buy about 10 more years of life if we could divert” as much as is theoretically possible, she said.


The landfill is also pursuing a 9-acre expansion into an adjacent ravine that, if allowed, would add another 10 years onto its life. But after that, there would be no more burying of trash in Pitkin County, where Hall said the chances of opening a new landfill are nil.


Reducing construction and demolition waste is a big deal, and part of the plan to turn 15 years into 25, she said, relating the story of a contractor charged with demolishing a “beautiful house” in Old Snowmass. The contractor asked her if there was anything the landfill could do with the building materials from the home. While there is a small drop and swap area at the site where usable items can be left, the area isn’t big, nor is it covered. Hall told him that she doesn’t control local policy.


“Once it hits the landfill, there isn’t much we can do,” she said.

Upstream regulations, 
downstream market


Pitkin County commissioners will hold their fourth work session of the summer on Aug. 9 to discuss potential building code updates to promote energy efficiency and sustainability. Along with requiring or incentivizing energy-sipping appliances and making sure buildings are piped and wired for solar panels and geothermal systems, “Job waste/construction parking/material separation/deconstruction are all critical sustainability components to address,” says a memo from chief building official Brian Pawl, recapping a July 19 board discussion.


The new codes are being crafted in hopes of replacing what was originally a points-based system that Pawl said needs improvement in the deconstruction realm. More separation of demolition debris and incentives or requirements to reclaim a portion of a site’s lumber are main points in the discussion, he said.  


While tightening expectations for how job-site waste is handled, the county’s efforts also aim to “make sure there is a place for this stuff to go downstream,” Pawl said.


Those places are lacking in the valley, Pawl said. Carbondale was once home to Construction Junction, a business specializing in reclaimed materials, but that for-profit enterprise didn’t make it. Habitat for Humanity is “flooded,” Pawl said. Some jobs will have yard sales of reclaimed materials on site, but those don’t last long before being moved to the dumpster.


The landfill would like to explore building an expanded, covered drop and swap area. Pawl also encouraged the idea of using online resources and social media. Boulder County, which has tighter deconstruction and reuse regulations, has a trade website for building materials, and such a section might do well on the popular Roaring Fork Swap Facebook group, Pawl said.


Setting up a nonprofit with the sole purpose of trading in building materials, so donations could equal a tax write off, would also help, he said.

Separate and serve


JP Strait, owner of Aspen Deconstruction, seeks out like-minded clients who “want to do something for the environment,” he said this week.


For 10 years, he’s taken on piece-by-piece teardown projects, separating materials and reusing whatever he can. He keeps warehouses in Rifle and Parachute where he sells whatever salvage he can’t reuse himself.


He estimates that he can reuse as much as 85 percent of a building if given the time to take it apart correctly. That requires weeks if not months.


“My sell is it’s going to take more time, but there is a great benefit” in the reclaimed materials and keeping waste out of the landfill, he said, acknowledging that a deconstruction bid from his company will be pricier than a standard demolition which can be completed in a matter of days.


Strait had a contract to take apart seven homes for a local contractor, and with other odd jobs, has worked on over a dozen projects in the last year. He thinks his methods — he avoids using the word demolition — are catching on, especially as the landfill’s lifespan gets shorter.


“Deconstruction used to be a literary term,” he said. “ … One day [most demolition jobs] will be penalized for doing what they do now.”


Habitat is also a force in the deconstruction market, and while it mostly deals in furniture and appliances, ReStore in Glenwood also serves as a trading floor for used building materials. As a nonprofit, it has the advantage of offering its donors a tax write off.


Director Scott Gilbert that building materials don’t make the organization a ton of money, but he encourages their donation if it saves room in the landfill. Cabinets and standard-sized doors are a popular item, he added, saying the doors from the Guber project were especially useful.


“When it comes in in good shape we can keep it moving,” Gilbert said. “It all depends on how it is served up.”