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On a quiet street off South Boulder Road in Boulder, an old house was slowly going to pieces. Of the five bedrooms, three baths, formal dining area, and living room, only a few brick wall corners and two chimneys remained standing. The ghost of a floor plan traced the concrete foundation. In the front yard, a crew of three workers de-nailed beams they’d freed by hand from the walls and now-gone roof. One balanced a two-by-six board on wooden sawhorses and used a pneumatic nail remover to blast nails through the beam. One by one, they pinged onto the driveway. Another crew member measured and trimmed the boards, then piled the lumber onto a trailer.
Built in 1955, the house contained something none of the modern construction nearby could. A two-by-four board fetched from the hardware store today would likely have thick rings, a sign of young trees felled. In comparison, this lumber’s freshly cut ends revealed the tightly stacked, gorgeous rings of an old Douglas fir. “You can’t buy that new,” says Anna Perks, founder of Perks Deconstruction, whose crew had spent about two weeks taking the house down. “You’re only getting that type of wood if you reclaim.”
For the past four years, Perks has made a living by giving that type of wood a chance at a second life. A new Denver ordinance called Waste No More, which, in part, will require construction and demolition projects to recycle and reuse certain materials, may mean her business is about to boom.
Currently, when a homeowner decides to demolish a house, a bulldozer typically scrapes the foundation and dumps the busted pieces into a landfill. A 2,000-square-foot house could turn into 400,000 pounds of waste. Deconstruction—as opposed to demolition—takes a house apart with the goal of reusing or recycling its components. Currently, 30 to 40 percent of the waste headed into Front Range landfills comes from construction and demolition. Local landfills might have space to accommodate that—for now—but the global carbon budget does not, and making new materials instead of using perfectly good existing ones comes with a sizable greenhouse gas footprint. However, Waste No More’s path has already been bumpy, and the effort still faces myriad questions, including whether the consumer mindset can be shifted to welcome the old instead of to crave the new.
The work of disassembling a house starts with removing appliances and fixtures. Cabinets are unscrewed from the walls, and windows are taken out. Flooring is pried up so the tongue-and-groove insets in wood floors are preserved. Electrical wiring is spooled. Plywood is extracted. Roof trusses come out intact. Work on the walls generally starts with nonstructural studs. Materials are sorted into bins. “We’re un-building a house,” Perks says, “taking down items that went in last, first.”
The 36-year-old had worked for Boulder County advising businesses on sustainability and for the zero-waste-focused nonprofit Eco-Cycle before she walked down Denver’s Tennyson Street one day in 2018 and watched a bulldozer crunch through an 1,800-square-foot brick house. Seeing its white wooden columns crumple and dust plume from smashed walls felt, she says, “like watching a tree get cut down—all that habitat, gone.” She asked the demolition crew where the refuse went. When they told her it all ended up in the landfill, she met with the project manager to ask about alternatives. She was told there weren’t any. “We talk about recycling cans,” Perks says, “and we throw away entire houses.”
So she went in search of possible solutions—and found one in Portland, Oregon. In the early 2010s, the city began experiencing an epidemic of demolition and saw a waste stream that was 35 percent construction and demolition material. To combat the growing rubbish, in late 2016, Portland started requiring the disassembly and salvage of historical houses, first for pre-1916 construction, then, as the local deconstruction market grew, it expanded to include pre-1940 builds. Recently, deconstruction has accounted for about two-thirds of house demolition permits in Portland, with 550 deconstructions completed from 2016 to 2022. More than five million pounds of lumber, much of it Pacific Northwest timber valued for its tight growth rings, scarce knots, and rough-sawn character, was offered a new fate. The city also saved 4,200 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, which is like taking 900 cars off the road.
In March 2019, Perks founded Perks Deconstruction, located in Commerce City, and eventually enrolled in a 30-day construction boot camp at the BuildStrong Academy of Colorado to get a better grasp of construction essentials. She estimates she had eight jobs that first year. In 2022, she had 111—eight of which were full-house deconstructions, and the remainder were other deconstruction jobs. Most of Perks’ clients are general contractors who subcontract a deconstruction team like they would a plumber or electrician, and those fees have made for a viable business. But to make her business—and others like it—more successful, Perks has found ways to sell the house components she reclaims.
As Perks learned, some salvaged materials have ready destinations. Certain scrap metals are valuable to recyclers such as Boulder’s Eco-Cycle Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials, which sells them to be melted and recast. Wires and cable are recycled by stripping the insulation and recovering the wire inside. A bin of nail-speckled wood pieces too small or too damaged to reuse will go to recycling companies—such as A1 Organics—to grind for mulch to be sold to the public. Concrete and asphalt can be sold to businesses like Boulder Recycled Aggregate, which then peddle the material to private landowners for new pavement.
To keep her employees busy through slow periods, and to create another destination for consumer-friendly salvaged materials, Perks opened a warehouse in Commerce City to sell directly to the public. The inventory includes bundles of lumber; pine, bamboo, and red oak flooring; and concrete pavers. A few chandeliers, including one with hand-painted glass, hang on display, and racks of glass include shutter-style windows from the 1920s. Some of it is “waiting for that unicorn customer,” the warehouse manager says, but much of it moves quickly, and at a fraction of the cost of new. Perks aims, and generally manages, to recycle or reuse about 75 percent of the materials her team pulls from a house, but wood-framed garages present an even better return: They typically can be disassembled in wall sections to be puzzle-pieced back together as new garages or sheds in another setting, saving up to 90 percent of materials.
Reselling materials supports her company’s mission, but it doesn’t do much for the bottom line, at least not yet. There’s just not enough of a deconstruction ecosystem to support the reclaimed pieces of a home. There are voids that must be filled. “We need a little more of everything,” Perks says. “We need more people salvaging, more people buying, more building codes that allow for things like reclaimed lumber to be reused.”
Laurie Johnson, the founder and CEO of the two-year-old nonprofit Circular Colorado, which creates new markets for materials, knows how much trouble those voids can create—particularly when voters mandate changes that businesses, municipal infrastructure, and technology aren’t prepared to make. When she heard about Denver’s Waste No More ordinance, she panicked. “I was like, You can’t pass this,” she says of the 2022 ballot initiative. “There aren’t enough markets for [the materials]. There’s nowhere for it to go.”
Johnson has seen similar ordinances create messes before. Colorado’s 2013 ban on electronic waste in landfills, for instance, led to illegal dumping as people tried to skirt paying $100 to recycle a television, she says, “So [I’ve heard] we have coal mines all over-filled with e-waste.”
The grassroots ballot initiative that created the Waste No More ordinance mandated construction and demolition projects begin submitting plans for recycling concrete, asphalt, clean wood, scrap metal, and corrugated cardboard as of June 1. But well before that date came into view on everyone’s calendar, city staff realized the deadline was unrealistic. The rules—to submit a recycling and reuse plan for construction and demolition projects over 500 square feet in size for the above-named materials or face unspecified fines or, potentially, license revocation—placed impossible and ambiguous demands on contractors, as well as on the infrastructure and businesses that handle recyclable materials.
“One of the biggest problems with [construction and demolition waste] is it’s not like cardboard or plastic where you can just put it in a bale and ship it out—it’s really heavy,” Johnson says. Given that moving materials west means burning fuel over the Rockies and going east requires driving forever, cost-effective solutions will have to come through a local reclamation industry. Says Johnson: “We’re in the infancy stage of this.”
To better align Waste No More’s rules with reality, the city and county of Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability & Resiliency convened a task force of stakeholders in March. Over the next few months, the group drafted more realistic expectations and timelines and attempted to align the ordinance with existing conditions. The recommendations and revisions were sent to City Council to approve sometime this fall.
“The goal…is to start small, start with what the marketplace can meet currently,” says Blake Adams, zero waste and circular economy manager for the city. At the behest of the task force, City Council is likely to require new construction, demolitions, home remodels, and retrofits over 500 square feet to divert 50 percent of solid waste from landfills by January 1, 2025. (Technically, the paperwork is available now, and people could start filing these plans today.) In 2030, that number will jump to 80 percent. “The intent of this policy,” Adams says, “is to create a very smooth and just transition for that sector.”
Effectively, the policy will require deconstruction, which will not only necessitate new businesses to meet growing demand from home remodelers and builders, but also new strategies for converting some secondhand materials into new products. For instance, asphalt roofing shingles are currently deemed un-recyclable in Colorado. The Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment adopted this policy after finding that only .01 percent of the materials gathered by shingle-recycling sites were actually recycled, causing a massive pile-up of waste. But Johnson is currently working with a sustainable building manufacturer that purchased rights to a technology to treat and pelletize asphalt shingles so they can be reused in paving roads. Similar strategies need to be created for drywall, painted wood, and many other materials.
There’s also the question of scalability. Perks’ team of 11 took down eight full houses last year and completed dozens of deconstructing jobs for home remodels. The supply of salvaged materials from businesses like Perks’ keeps DIYers and home remodelers going. But there isn’t volume for—or regulatory clarity about—using reclaimed lumber to build new houses. More often, the recovered lumber lands in furniture and other accents. Building codes require energy efficiency ratings for windows in new construction, and few reclaimed windows can be certified as meeting those standards, so they’re not going to land in new builds.
Denver can certainly look to other cities for guidance on these issues. Boulder and Lakewood both have deconstruction ordinances (since 2020 and 2022, respectively), as do about 27 other municipalities across the country. The requirements, plus her network, mean most of Perks’ business has so far happened in Boulder. In the three years since Boulder’s deconstruction ordinance went into effect, contractors have reported diverting about 87 percent of waste, by weight, from demolition projects. It’s progress, but a working group is revising guidelines after discovering that, as written, they allowed contractors to focus on a few materials and prioritize the heaviest. In the worst case, that meant donating some appliances, mulching the landscape, then smashing the house and recycling the foundation—far from the rule’s intent.
Since Boulder’s ordinance was implemented, its waste-processing sites have responded by seeking grants from the Front Range Waste Diversion enterprise fund to meet new needs. For example, Western Disposal Services, a solid waste management company in Boulder County that collects trash, recycling, and compost, upgraded a manual system to semi-automated facilities for sorting scrap metal, wood, concrete, and other materials in early 2022. As a result, the amount of construction and demolition waste diverted from the landfill at Western Disposal’s facility bumped from 24 percent to 62 percent. Resource Central, a Boulder-based nonprofit that works to conserve water, energy, and waste, including reselling about 4.5 million pounds of materials like fixtures, wood, and appliances annually, remodeled and expanded its collection facility earlier this year to ease public access, and has plans to double its impact in coming years. For Waste No More to succeed, Denver will need a similar suite of solutions.
“When you start digging into details, it gets really complicated,” says Joe Pitts, materials reuse program director at Resource Central. “We may not know how to solve all these problems, but at least we’re headed in the right direction with these ordinances.”
In Boulder’s Whittier neighborhood, another Perks Deconstruction crew was taking a 1946 house down to its foundation in July. Project manager and co-owner Clemente Castanon walked through a room stripped to the studs, admiring thick, dark beams supporting the upper story.
“This is going to be really nice timber,” he says. Castanon worked at Resource Central for 15 years, watching dusty, decades-old wood emerge from the woodshop planer glowing gold again. He left Resource to find work deconstructing houses, connected with Perks, and bought into her company more than two years ago. “To me, it was amazing to see this old lumber turned into something beautiful.”
That beauty is, well, part of the beauty of deconstruction. It’s also what can help someone such as Emily Freeman do her job. As a circular economy policy adviser for the city of Boulder, Freeman’s goal is to flip the new-is-best mindset and show Coloradans the value in the already-built environment. “Just because you don’t want the layout of your current home or [you] want a larger home on top of the 1,000-square-foot home you purchased,” Freeman says, “it doesn’t mean the materials that were holding that home up are of no value.”
It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t potentially huge fringe benefits of reusing materials. In her fight to save old-growth trees and mature forests, Ellen Montgomery, public lands campaign director for Environment Colorado, a statewide environmental group, ran through the three Rs—reduce, reuse, and recycle—to see how each approach could protect forests. She found the pattern of throwing lumber into landfills and then cutting more trees one of many problematic practices. At scale, a stream of reusable lumber might spare forests from being cut into boards, save wildlife habitat, and allow mature trees to continue storing carbon.
But, she acknowledges, disassembly and reuse are harder substitutes than what most people do every day to be more eco-conscious. “You might just pick recycled paper or bamboo toilet paper or some other green product, but this is a little more complicated than that,” Montgomery says, adding that people may not even know they have a more sustainable option—either for how they demolish a room during a remodel or what they use to rebuild later. And until these ordinances start to drive an uptick in new businesses, she concedes, options are slim.
Freeman agrees. “Where we’re at with deconstruction in terms of policy and resources is where residential recycling was in the 1990s—it was starting, it was emerging, but you didn’t really quite know what to do,” Freeman says. “Deconstruction really has the potential to shoot off the map and be the next thing.… There’s going to be an evolution as you see more and more of these policies and markets pop up.”