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Deconstruction junction: Milwaukee’s reuse future

By Travis Blomberg
Executive director at WasteCap Resource Solutions

After years of trying different approaches to deconstruction projects, the city of Milwaukee passed a deconstruction ordinance that will increase sustainable-building practices and workforce-development opportunities. Now, contractors are at a junction allowing them to choose to build a better reuse economy.


On Jan. 1, the country’s second deconstruction ordinance went into effect in Milwaukee. In short, the ordinance “provides deconstruction requirements for the removal of Milwaukee’s older and more historic primary dwelling structures.” Deconstruction, in contrast to demolition, is the process of systematically dismantling a structure in an environmentally, socially and economically responsible manner, aiming to maximize the recovery of materials for reuse and recycling. The ordinance targets primary-dwelling structures built in 1929 or earlier. This reason for this specification? The likelihood that those structures will contain old-growth lumber and other valuable building materials.


When it comes to protecting the environment, deconstruction is a preferred method because it reduces waste, minimizes air pollution, decreases carbon emissions, abates the need for new landfills and incinerators, preserves resources and saves energy by decreasing the extraction and processing of raw materials.

Deconstruction also creates roughly six to eight jobs for every one job created by standard demolition. Deconstruction requires a great deal of labor and results in local job growth. This adds to the local tax base and contributes to a multiplier effect of money invested into the community. While additional job opportunities arise for contractors and consultants in the deconstruction trade, managing the downstream flow of reclaimed building materials also creates jobs in warehouse operations, retail, value-added manufacturing and skill-building.

Economically, proper deconstruction techniques reduce disposal costs and help avoid purchases of new materials. Additionally, tax deductions from donated reclaimed building materials can result in a significant reduction in total costs. These donated materials can provide a revenue stream to pay for programs at non-profit organizations.

(Image courtesy of the Delta Institute via Extracting Value through Deconstruction.)

(Image courtesy of the Delta Institute via Extracting Value through Deconstruction)

The bigger picture

Although some think deconstruction is more expensive than demolition, others understand that deconstruction and the sale of reclaimed materials bolster the local economy. For publicly funded deconstruction projects, the emphasis on workforce development and Residential Preference Program is designed to give under-employed and unemployed city residents access to job opportunities. These residents have the opportunity to provide a valuable service to the city of Milwaukee, develop new skill and add to their livelihood. From an economic and social perspective, this is a much better alternative than possibly falling victim to a vicious cycle within the penal system.

Private homeowners have an even greater financial incentive to perform deconstruction. As a rule of thumb, WasteCap suggests that the deconstruction of private structures should occur when the appraisal value for salvageable materials is at least three times greater than the total cost of deconstruction. Organizations like The ReUse People of America provide incentives encouraging private-home deconstruction. It’s true that the upfront costs of deconstruction are typically higher than those of demolition. However, the tax-savings from donated materials can cover most, if not all, of the cost of deconstruction services. Instead of paying for demolition and hauling materials to a landfill, homeowners can save money and benefit the local economy through the TRP model. The owner just needs to complete the following steps:

  1. Receive an appraisal consultation: TRP has independent, IRS qualified appraisers help determine a preliminary value of a donation at no obligation. If the owners choose to move ahead with the project, the appraiser who is hired will complete a full evaluation and all the related and necessary documentation.
  2. Get a free deconstruction bid: A TRP-Certified Deconstruction Contractor will submit a bid showing how whatever building is in question can be carefully deconstructed to meet TRP specifications.
  3. Donate: Email the Donation Letter to TRP stating that you intend to make the donation and identify your appraiser and TRP-Certified Deconstruction Contractor.

The economics behind deconstruction work well when you have quality buildings and contractors.

Not every building should be deconstructed

Unfortunately, not every building is a candidate for deconstruction. If a structure is unsafe or its salvageable material has little value, it should not undergo full-scale deconstruction. Safety should be the first concern on any deconstruction project. If the health and safety of workers are compromised, the supply of deconstruction work and reclaimed materials will most likely be reduced. If the majority of materials are damaged, there is no realistic opportunity for salvage work in the first place. As the need for demolition can often arise from catastrophic events such as flooding or fire, it would be unfair to require deconstruction. Therefore, if a structure is unsafe and holds minimal resale value, it should be mechanically demolished by crews that are following best waste-management-disposal practices.

Fortunately, the city’s new ordinance provides exemptions for unfit structures. The ordinance also gives the commissioner administrative authority to determine which buildings are exempt. For municipally owned buildings, WasteCap suggests that buildings be objectively graded or scored to determine if they are a candidate for deconstruction. This way, the commissioner can concentrate on high-quality structures first and determine a measured threshold of cost effectiveness.

New deconstruction contractor opportunities

Are you interested in deconstruction?  Are you a demolition contractor, workforce development organization or remodeler? There is a need for quality deconstruction contractors in the Milwaukee area. Now is the time to start your training and begin work on deconstruction projects! For more information, see the following resources:

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