Recycle your old house (© photolibrary.com; Ingram Publishing, Sean Justice/Corbis)

© photolibrary.com; Ingram Publishing, Sean Justice/Corbis

You can recycle your pop can. You can recycle your cellphone. You can even buy a fleece jacket made of recycled plastic bottles. But can you recycle your house?

Increasingly, the answer is yes.

From Florida to Washington state, more people are choosing to "deconstruct" their homes and other buildings.

Deconstruction is the practice of carefully disassembling a building so that its materials — everything from siding to floor joists — can be reused in a new building, while everything else that can be recycled is recycled.

Today, "easily 75% to 90% of a house" can be reused or recycled, says Bob Falk, a research scientist at the Forest Service's USDA Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., and co-author of "Unbuilding: Salvaging the Architectural Treasures of Unwanted Houses."

A vast problem — and a growing solution
Around 270,000 homes are torn down annually in the U.S., and most of the debris goes to dumps or landfills, Falk says, citing statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency. That's a staggering 1 billion board-feet of timber alone going to the dump — enough to make tens of thousands of homes, he says.

Here's another way to look at it: Just one year's demolition debris is enough to build a wall 30 feet high and 30 feet wide around the entire border of the continental United States, according to the Deconstruction Institute.

Salvaging from old structures to build new ones is hardly new; stone from Rome's Colosseum was plundered to help build St. Peter's Basilica, and salvage stores have been around for decades. But the idea has gotten new wind under its wings in the past several years, as more people care about doing right by the environment — and more governments are watching their landfills fill up. Homeowners are finding that it often pencils out, too.

Hard statistics are elusive, but those in the industry estimate that today only a few thousand buildings are deconstructed annually in the U.S. "We have only scratched the surface on the opportunities to do this," says Falk, who is also president of the board of directors of the Building Materials Reuse Association. "But there are more and more and more people that are doing it every year."

Today, Falk estimates that nationwide there are 1,500 deconstruction contractors and "reuse" stores like those run by Habitat for Humanity, which sell the recycled doors, windows and fixtures.

How to unbuild a house
When a home is demolished, all it takes is two people and perhaps a day or two: One person operates a track hoe while the other drives the debris away in a dump truck.

When a home is deconstructed, on the other hand, a crew of perhaps six workers descends on the house for a week or more. They carefully peel the house apart. What's saved? "Just about everything except the drywall and plaster," says Paul Hughes, founder and president of DeConstruction Services in Fairfax, Va.

Items such as appliances, cabinetry and wood flooring can be reused, Hughes says.

People might be surprised by what's recycled: Asphalt roof shingles can be "crumbed" and mixed with other materials to make road patches. Broken lumber pieces can be ground up and used as wood chips for trails or for mulch. Cinder blocks can be pulverized and used as the base for roads or driveways, or as backfill for other structures, Hughes says.

People also might be surprised at the time it takes. "The first home I took down took 3½ weeks. Now I could easily take that same building down in 3½ days. We've gotten way better," says Dave Bennink, the owner of Bellingham, Wash.-based Re-Use Consulting, which has deconstructed about 550 buildings.

Worried about the environment and about their landfills filling up, cities have encouraged the trend. In Seattle, where a demolition permit is mandatory before razing a house — and where that permit can take weeks to acquire — the city gives an incentive to deconstructors by putting their applications on "the top of the pile" and reducing their wait time, Bennink says.

In San Jose, Calif., the city collects a deposit to ensure that demolition debris stays out of the landfill; a homeowner must prove he has diverted the waste in order to get his money back.

Bennink, who consults around the nation, says he is seeing more interest in deconstruction in Rust Belt cities in the Midwest and Northeast — cities such as Detroit, Buffalo, N.Y., and Youngstown, Ohio — that have both a stock of older, often vacant houses and a crop of unemployed people who need retraining. The deconstruction trade has gotten a big boost from federal stimulus spending, he says, in the form of programs to teach people how to take apart homes.

"There are as many social benefits to doing this as environmental benefits," Bennink says. Remember that home demolition that required only two people? With deconstruction, he says, "We're creating 25 times more jobs than demolition" — a figure Bennink says is based on an analysis he has done. It's not just guys swinging hammers at the job site, but "green-collar jobs" in the reuse stores, in wood shops reconditioning the salvaged wood — even in shops creating furniture from the salvaged material, he says.