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In This Destruction Derby, Do-It-Yourselfers Win the Spoils

Folks short on cash but long on muscle can buy chunks of homes at 'demolition auctions.' The hitch is they have to quickly haul away their treasures themselves.


HINSDALE, Ill. — Cindy Fuqua is a home wrecker. Darn proud of it too.

She was at it again the other day in this posh Chicago suburb. Her long nails were painted red. Her blond hair swished down her back. And there she was, crowbar in hand, wrecking the perfectly gorgeous pine ceiling of a stranger's family room.

Flush with the thrill of a deal (the ceiling cost $100), Fuqua and her husband, Sonny, ripped the pine down board by board, exclaiming all the while that they couldn't wait to put the whole thing back up, on the porch of their Victorian home.

That do-it-yourself spirit propels the nutty world of "demolition auctions," where folks short on cash but long on muscle can purchase whole chunks of homes scheduled for destruction--on the condition that they figure out a way to get their treasures out of the doomed house before the bulldozer arrives. From windows to banisters to toilets to kitchen cabinets, from shower heads to patios to landscaping to, yes, ceilings, everything's up for grabs.

As demolition auctioneer Jodi Murphy puts it: "This really is adventure shopping."

Home-wrecking is more than just a lark, however. It's a window on a broader trend that some environmentalists consider the next big wave in recycling.

The concept is simple: Instead of crunching old buildings with heavy machinery, then dumping the debris in landfills, we should "deconstruct" them by hand and salvage all we can--from the fireplace mantle worthy of an antique store to the sturdy wood beams that could frame another house to the asphalt roof shingles that could be ground into material to patch potholes.

Deconstruction experts boast that they can take most homes and many commercial buildings down to their foundations, saving 80% or more of the material for resale or reprocessing.

The work is slow and sweaty, and traditional crunch-and-dump demolition contractors tend to call it loony as well. On big jobs, they say, they already recycle all the wood, metal and concrete they can before sending in the wreckers. Yanking nails from every 2-by-4 in a little ranch house, or saving each flimsy closet door, seems to them a colossal waste of time.

Still, deconstructionists insist that their movement, which has been gaining steam for close to a decade, is poised for a boom as more and more jurisdictions struggle to divert waste from overcrowded landfills.

"People are starting to realize that all the bottles and cans set out on the curbside aren't going to come near to matching the amount of waste generated from construction and demolition debris," said Julie Rhodes, director of the ReUse Development Organization, a nonprofit group that promotes innovative recycling programs.

Nationwide, demolition debris alone weighs 135 million to 165 million tons a year; the industry recycles about 40% of it. The rest is just not worth saving, argues Michael Taylor, director of the National Assn. of Demolition Contractors.

"People say: 'Oh, you can recycle these doors, take them out, strip them down, repaint them.' Well, you can also buy a pretty nice, well-insulated door from Home Depot for $35," Taylor said.

William Turley, director of the Construction Materials Recycling Assn., puts it this way: "The economics of this total recovery movement are just not there."

Then again, landfill space is fast disappearing. So some jurisdictions are starting to mandate recycling to spur the deconstruction industry.

Massachusetts, for instance, will require all recyclables to be separated before construction or demolition waste is brought to a landfill, starting in 2003. In California, the city of San Jose plans to charge contractors a sizable waste-disposal fee; they will get their money back if they can prove they have recycled at least 50% of their debris.

Salvaged Materials Used in Reconstruction

Los Angeles is about to embark on its first deconstruction project, dismantling five library branches and then using the salvaged materials--from bricks to wood framing to murals to vaults--to build updated replacements.

And Ft. Ord in Monterey has tested deconstruction of six buildings with an eye toward saving tons of reusable goodies (think 755 urinals, 2.8 million square feet of floor tile, 12,236 fluorescent lights) as the base is turned over to civilian control and most of the buildings are demolished. "What I think of as trash," explained Stan Cook, the base's deconstruction manager, "might be someone else's valuable raw material."

The concept is catching on overseas too. The European Union is poised to mandate full recycling of every building knocked down after 2010, Taylor said.

"Deconstruction is where recycling [of household goods] was in 1980: in the takeoff stage," said Neil Seldman of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Washington.

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