Demolition Need Not Destroy Everything

We tend to remember demolition projects in terms of large buildings, with implosions that draw crowds of onlookers and television cameras and bring down the structures in carefully controlled clouds of dust. Most demolition, however, concerns small structures or only parts of structures. When the old, cracked sidewalk of Main Street is broken up to enable the pouring of a new one, that’s demolition. When the concrete supports of the Old Town bridge are replaced, that’s also demolition. Hydraulic hammers and breakers, attached to big excavators or scudding skid-steers, announce demolition. For many demolition projects that excavation and grading contractors come across, a single dump truck (even a 1-ton pickup) could handle the debris, and the demolition is not the entire job but a prelude to new construction.

Before filling that truck, consider what the demolition has provided. “Debris” can be valuable; for some demolition companies, the value of what they dismantle covers the cost of the job. One of the world’s leading demolition specialist companies is Brandenburg Industrial Service Company, headquartered in Chicago, IL. “It makes sense to recycle the products of demolition,” asserts Bill Moore, a vice president at Brandenburg. “To simply throw away the unwanted materials is usually an unnecessary waste. The debris that used to be considered useless can now extend its useful life by providing basic materials for contractors, for new construction at the same site or elsewhere.” Brandenburg inspects a potential demolition site and considers its salvage value before committing to the work or making cost estimates for the client.

What could you find in the debris? What can be recycled? Some states have laws that require contractors to post a bond that will be returned to them when they prove they have reused a certain percentage (as high as 50% in some cases) of the debris from demolition and construction. “Reused” might involve the contractor directly or it might mean that materials from the site have been sent to an appropriate place for recycling or acceptable disposal. Call and Haul is a company (started in California but now expanding to Colorado, Texas, and Washington) that will haul construction debris and household junk. “Everybody from contractors to little old ladies has a need for one or all of our services at one time or another for construction or maintenance of a property,” remarks Dean Rodatos, who has had the company for four years. “We have our own grinders for recycling concrete and wood. Our workers separate materials at the job site. They know what is recyclable, sellable, and reusable, so they save the site contractor time and money.” Rodatos explains that a material such as sheetrock (that most people break down and perceive as nothing but waste) is used again for the manufacture of garbage cans or park benches, and it can become a useful ingredient of fertilizers.

Some wood can be reused, but much of it can only be turned into chips.

What can you expect from a debris handling service such as Call and Haul? It does all the loading and cleanup, calls half an hour in advance to let the customer know they’re on their way, and recycles between 40% and 60% of everything they pick up. The reservations line is available 24 hours a day, and the company is insured and bonded. If your demolition project is not an everyday occurrence, it seems worthwhile investigating the local availability of such services.

According to many contractors and haulers, the sorting and disposal of construction debris is a business of its own, with expertise and equipment that are specific to the task. CornerStone Material Recovery, operating from Richmond, IL, hauls debris for building developers and demolition contractors. “The builder should find a removal firm to handle his debris responsibly,” advises Steve Clements, vice president of the company. (Don’t underestimate that word responsibly, we have learned from nationwide conversations.) “We recover materials during collection but also handle debris removal. Some materials recovered are of little or negative value. Even woodwaste can be a problem to unload at a processor. Involving the builder in sorting to various containers will cost him more in handling fees, which will increase subcontractor prices to your bid. We have been recycling debris for our clients for more than 10 years so that they can stick to what they know best too: construction, demolition, excavating, and grading.”

Ask Some Questions Before the Demolition Starts

Demolishing and dismantling unwanted structures is only part of the job.

If demolition or dismantling is part of your project, and you are going to do it yourself, get some answers before your workers move in. Are the structures (or parts of structures) to be demolished occupied and used at the moment? What effect could demolition have on adjacent structures? That is especially important in residential or commercial, urban projects. Are there any portions that should be retained? Is there a book value of the structures to be written off? What is the value of the vacant space provided by the proposed removal work? Is there an alternative to removal of the structure? There are other questions, obvious ones, concerning the equipment to be used, obstacles to be avoided, local regulations concerning noise levels and environmental issues, the safety of workers and bystanders, and the best method of disposal of the debris. Do your workers know how to handle the demolition? It is probably not simply a matter of swinging a sledgehammer or ramming a hydraulic breaker into old concrete.

F.M. Frattalone Excavating & Grading Inc. in St. Paul, MN, has found an increasing number of demolition projects over recent years. Its ability to do that work well has depended on its available equipment, which includes cranes with 250-ft. booms, hammers, crunchers, shears, and clams of all shapes and sizes. What happens to the debris? “In this day and age you must recycle as much as possible,” maintains Tony Frattalone, president. “It can get you a project by how much you say you can recycle. We recycle concrete, bituminous, copper, aluminum, steel, and rubber at our demo sites. We also run a crushing spread that we make [by recycling] number-5 and -6 gravel with concrete and bituminous. Site debris like wood, roofing, and insulation normally goes to a sanitary landfill. In the state of Minnesota, some people feel we are behind the more southerly states when it comes to reusing or recycling materials, but we are getting there.” Among demolition projects handled successfully by this grading and excavation company (with good foresight and planning, it seems) have been a grain elevator, mill ruins, an out-of-date museum, the Coffman Student Union at the University of Minnesota, and the retailer Montgomery Ward in St. Paul.


If your excavation or demolition involves asphalt, you can be virtually certain that it has value as today’s road construction programs continue. In fact, most of what is demolished from old roads and streets can be used for new ones. “We think asphalt is 100% recyclable,” comments Jerry Barr for B&B Paving, based in Bismarck, ND, and working all over the western states. “We don’t have the recycling machinery ourselves. We pick it up and take it to our asphalt producer, who uses it all – as far as I know – for new mixtures in new roads.” Concrete, too, often becomes part of a new road once it has done its job on an old one. There are efficient portable crushing systems available from several manufacturers, but their purchase seems to be justified only when they are likely to be in use for most of the year.

At earthmoving or road construction sites, a portable crusher set up nearby could be cost-effective; it might not be for the renovation of a single house or similar small project. Grasan produces a concrete/asphalt recycling plant that can handle 600 tons per hour. The rubble-crushing system includes an impact crusher plant, conveyors, an electromagnetic separator, and a screen plant. The manufacturer advises that, for construction-and-demolition debris, the user might need picking stations to separate plaster, drywall, electrical wire, and other materials. Plants such as this can manage your debris well. As mentioned, their use will depend on your volume of debris. One contractor suggests that a group of contractors in the same community might join together and purchase a concrete/asphalt recycling system to be used by all of them.

Construction debris can be dangerous; at most sites it consists of broken, sharp, oddly shaped pieces. “Safety pays,” stresses Raymond Passeno, vice president of Bierlein based in Midland, MI. Bierlein has been providing demolition, dismantling, environmental services, and asset recovery since 1957. Earthwork (sometimes on a massive scale), site preparation, and development also have been part of its business. “When Bierlein removes a structure from a site or dismantles the interior of a facility, the service is performed quickly, safely, and with minimum business interruption,” notes Passeno. “Safety is a companywide commitment for us. We have an exclusive in-house safety and training staff. From standard written to site-specific prejob training and onsite controls, Bierlein believes in and practices safety.” This specialist’s safety programs apply to both equipment and personnel. The equipment must adhere to strict, computer-monitored maintenance schedules and equipment replacement policies.

Techniques to Suit the Application

Experts say that today most construction debris can have a practical use.
Careful preparation before inside demolition will make the job easier and more profitable.
Attachments available for excavators make demolition a precise application.

Demolition today, then, is not like yesterday’s variety. One contractor we spoke to was surprised at the usefulness of skid-steer loaders in demolition. “Skid-steer loaders? How can little machines like that help you make a profitable demolition?” He had never heard of “top down” demolition. For many structures requiring renovation, such as old bank buildings, hotels, schools, and public offices, the demolition starts on the top floor and works its way down. Skid-steer loaders, with their compact size and good maneuverability, work on the interior before the shell is attacked by larger machines and attachments. The skid-steers help dismantle furnishings and objects such as partitions and screens, timber, floors, and non-load-bearing walls. Among the more than 135 million tons of building-related construction debris in North America each year, there also will be doors, windows, and plumbing fixtures in addition to the gypsum, bricks, metals, and plastics you’d expect. If you include demolition in roads and streets, you’ll find plenty of concrete and asphalt that can be reused. It’s just not the same as when a big ball smashed through the outside wall and destroyed everything in its path. Today’s demolition emphasizes precision in the dismantling and recycling of useful materials; the contractors save anything that can give them added value from the job. When the job is renovation, the owner might appreciate your contracting to remove and dispose of everything unwanted, including office furniture, computers (ancient to the owner but possibly useful to somebody less demanding), lighting fixtures, and flooring.

“The vast majority of demolition projects result in recycling,” observes Brent Blanchard, operations manager at Protec Documentation Services. Headquartered in Rancocas, NJ, Protec has been a consultant in this sector worldwide for 30 years. “Economics drive the decisions made by contractors about recycling. We have found that most demolition projects, big and small, include three types of debris. There are those that are put back into the new structure because of their historical importance or intrinsic value; that might include brass lamps or teak furniture, something of the past we like to preserve. The second group comprises the recyclable debris, like cement, rebar, aluminum and glass. The third group consists of debris with no value. That could include clothing abandoned at the site, wood unsuitable for reuse, things like that. That type of debris goes to the landfill.” Blanchard mentions three reasons for recycling usable debris that should ring a bell with most contractors: It keeps down the costs, it boosts up the profits, and it preserves a good reputation for the contractor. The latter can be most important when it comes to permitting and being awarded public contracts.

Getting Local Help

Your local landfill operator can be a big help. Regulations vary from community to community, and you should be aware of debris that you cannot dispose of at your local landfill. This might be especially important for small contractors whose jobs seldom involve more than a truckload of debris. The landfill will expect you to sort your debris, and in most places it will pay you to do so. We spoke to Sheri Shoopman, who manages a landfill in rural Montana that serves several local towns, each with a population of less than 5,000. “We do not charge customers for unloading inert brick, dirt, and rebar-free concrete,” she points out. “Contractors bring that separately. Why would they mix it with the other debris when they don’t have to pay for it?” At that landfill, household solid waste and construction debris other than concrete – things such as wood and old kitchen cabinets cost the contractor 2 cents/lb. Asphalt is $3/ton. They try to put the asphalt tiles in with the crushed concrete to make roads for the landfill itself. A crusher comes to the landfill once a year to handle and recycle the concrete. “Actually the crusher has a magnet on it that can pick out the metal, so we’re not always strict about rebar,” comments Shoopman. “The crushed concrete is then used for building roads.” At the landfill for a larger community, there might be a crusher on-site permanently, and the demand for road materials seems to remain steady in most parts of the country.

There are some wastes that are not accepted at every landfill, and you should find out about your local conditions for that. Among the common wastes not accepted are material containing polychlorinated biphenyls, dredge soils, incinerator waste, contaminated soil, asbestos, fly ash, and any wastes that are “listed” or “hazardous.” You could have some of those. There are also characteristic wastes, which means they are ignitable, corrosive, reactive, or designated as toxic by the Toxic Characteristic Leachate Procedure. If your debris contains anything resembling that, the landfill probably will refuse it. You also should have been told by your client that your debris would contain them because the danger from, say, ignitable wastes is not only to the landfill but to your workers. As in so many aspects of construction, do your homework before you start.

“We find that materials damaged by fire and smoke are seldom recyclable,” warns Paul Young, project manager at Big Sky Disaster Restoration in Billings. “The houses we renovate are not strictly demolished, not by us anyway. We are asked to restore properties that have been damaged by external forces, usually fires.” Young makes a good point; there is a difference between planned demolition and unplanned destruction. Most of our readers will encounter the planned variety, so they have a choice about how to dispose of or reuse, windows, doors, cabinets, and carpets. Prices for metals, plastic, paper, and glass have not changed much in the last year, with some types going up a little in value and others coming down. One caution we have received more than once is that all plastic is not the same. There are different plastics and different needs for each type; you’ll have to get help from a local expert if you find much plastic in your debris.

“We can’t recycle much of the wood we recover,” comments Marsha Mitchell, who works mostly on excavation and trenching but has occasional demolition work because she and her husband Keith own a large excavator whose boom can reach the roof of the average old house. Most of the structures they have demolished are old (as much as 70 or 100 years), often derelict, houses that nobody wants to buy because they are either in bad condition or inaccessible – in the middle of a few thousand acres of land no longer irrigated or farmed. “Old wood and new wood have different dimensions too. Two-by-fours aren’t always two by four,” she relates. “We have few contractors who want to use the old stuff. They say it gives them too many problems.”

Safe Removal of Debris From High Places

Equipment, such as this concrete/asphalt recycling system, can be set up at demolition sites if the quantities of debris justify it.

Earlier we mentioned top-down demolition. One of the important tasks in many demolition or renovation projects is getting the waste materials “from up there to down here” without endangering people in the street or anybody below. Telescopic handlers and some aerial work platforms can serve to bring debris down to the ground, but there is always the risk of dropping some of the load too soon, which is when accidents happen. Among the most popular vehicles for debris removal from high places are chutes. They contain the falling debris and enable contractors to follow local or federal guidelines for safe work. Don’t ever drop anything more than 20 ft. to the ground.

A basic chute system (such as those made by Superchute) includes straight lengths of steel tube or plastic about 4 ft. long and sections with openings that can be positioned at various heights to accommodate such apertures as the windows of an apartment building. At the top of the chute there is a funnel-like section that acts as a hopper. “Our chutes have diameters of 18 to 36 inches,” explains Brian Alton at Superchute. “The system can range from just a single story to about 200 feet in height. Some chutes available are welded tubes that can take up a lot of room during transportation, but we have units that can fold as flat as a sheet of plywood and lie on the bed of a pickup – about 20 of them at a time.” Alton recommends that contractors rent chutes for specific projects rather than try to make their own systems. The time required for an acceptable design and the cost of materials can make the homemade versions more expensive, especially if they are seldom used. Hoists for setting up the chute system are available for rent too.

We are going to create debris when we break, dismantle, or demolish anything. To make the project more profitable, legal, and environmentally acceptable (as well as enhancing the good name of our business for future contracts), we should decide what is going to happen to the debris. Whatever the solution, it is feasible today. Whether we do it ourselves or have another contractor manage disposal for us, it should be a positive rather than negative aspect of the job.

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