Building a new house in Palo Alto

Building a new house in Palo Alto

Sunday, July 15, 2012

D-day in Palo Alto: The green deconstruction begins!

ReBuild Green officially started taking down our house this week. We don't have our building permits yet, but the City of Palo Alto gives green deconstructions a head start since they take longer than demolitions and the city wants to encourage sustainable practices.  Instead of bulldozing down the house in a day and dumping everything in a landfill, deconstruction involves disassembling the house piece by piece to salvage materials that can be reused or recycled.  A 1600 square foot house like ours will generate approximately 85 tons of debris but with deconstruction 73 of those tons will be reused or recycled.  The deconstruction will take about eight days and we're three days into the process. Here's where we are so far:
Day 1 (AM): Appliances, toilets, sinks, tub, kitchen & bathroom
fixtures, lighting, cabinetry, doors, & heater removed for reuse.
Day 1 (PM): Removed exterior siding (for reuse), hardwood floors (for recycle),
insulation, dry wall & glued down tile (for disposal).
Day 2 (AM): Removed windows (for reuse), roof, wiring, ducts (for recycling).
Day 2 (PM): Removed framing & de-nailed lumber (for reuse), nails to be recycled.
Day 3: It's Saturday but the crew still showed up to deconstruct the 400 sq ft detached garage
and remove the subfloor (for reuse), plumbing & copper pipes (for recycle).
The next step will be removing the foundation, bricks and driveway. There are also piles of lumber that need to be de-nailed. Removing nails is one of the most time consuming parts of deconstructing a house and has the biggest environmental impact. Lumber is one of the easiest of materials to dump yet it's the hardest on the environment to replace.  The disposal fees at Zanker, our local landfill, are $25 a cubic yard for most construction debris but only $8 for lumber and wood (nails okay).  As long as there's no termite damage, any de-nailed piece of wood longer than 4 feet can be reused.  
Mike works on a lumber pile. I call him Magic Mike because he strips the nails out of this and turns it into...
this! Ta-da! 85% of the lumber from our house will be reused.
In many older homes, the quality of lumber is actually better than the equivalent made today. We are planning on reusing the original redwood siding for accents on our new house. The siding is in great shape and we like the idea of having a bit of the old house in the new. We also want to incorporate the ribbon window panels from the entry somewhere as an artistic element. 
Removing the redwood siding. Like new but better.
Look for this ribbon window in our new house.
The Bottom Line: Cost of a Deconstruction vs Demolition
For us, deconstruction was a no-brainer not only from an environmental perspective but from a financial one, as well. The upfront cost of deconstruction is about two to three times more than demolition. However, if the salvaged materials are given to a 501(c)3 non-profit, the property owner is eligible for a tax write-off for the donation value. In our case, the deconstruction will cost $21,600, which includes all transport, recycling and dumping fees. The materials will be donated to Building Resources, a not-for-profit salvage yard in San Francisco. We will also pay an independent appraiser $1500 to itemize and value the building materials for the IRS, which brings our out-of-pocket expenses to $23,100. We checked with our tax guy and he says we'll still receive a charitable donation write-off even if we're in AMT. The expected donation value will be approximately $100,000 which means the tax write-off for us will more than cover the entire cost of deconstruction. On the flip side, a traditional demolition would have been about $10,000 and a hell of a lot of karma points.

Hire people not wrecking balls!
The Dream Team: Rebuild Green
One of the surprisingly gratifying side-effects of hiring a deconstruction team over a wrecking ball is the sheer number of people employed in the process. At peak times of activity, I counted 18 guys hustling to disassemble the house. We hired Rebuild Green to do our deconstruction. I was a little nervous about this because I prefer to work through personal referrals, but no one I knew had ever done a deconstruction. Instead, I interviewed four companies and Rebuild Green came out on top. They quoted the most competitive bid and the owner, Roderick Cooper had me visit one of his other deconstruction sites in Palo Alto to see them in action and learn more. Roderick teams up with Scott's Demolition for additional manpower and project manages the whole process. This week the house has come down with amazing speed and efficiency. The team has been great and Roderick is a "no problem" kind of guy, my favorite type of person to work with...

K:  Roderick, can we keep the redwood siding for ourselves? 
R:  Yeah, no problem. We can sand it for you too.
K:  Rod, can we push the schedule out a week? I can't get the tenant to move out...
R:  Man that sucks, good luck, and no problem.
K:  We're ready to go! Can you start now? I mean, yesterday?
R:  Sure, no problem. 
K:  Ack, the city hasn't shut off the gas line yet.
R:  No problem, just let me know when it's ready.
K:  Roderick, can you make sure to preserve all the trees on the perimeter?
R:  Yeah, no problem.
K:  Can we save the plants too?
R:  Sure, no problem, I'll have one of the guys dig them up.

And so it goes...  
ReBuild Green's owner, Roderick Cooper makes everything easy breezy!
If you're planning on tearing down a house in the Bay Area, I highly recommend doing a deconstruction with ReBuild Green. And if there are any journalists/reporters reading this who want to cover green deconstruction and/or stellar small business owners making a difference in this world, I encourage you to contact Roderick. 

More reading on the subject:

Green Deconstruction Part 2 (aka waiting for city of Palo Alto utility disconnections)


  1. Cool, Kay! Glad the tenant finally moved out. Your day-by-day photos really highlight how quickly deconstruction can happen! Impressive. Did you get to help?

    1. I didn't get to swing a sledgehammer, but I did dig up all the plants to distribute to neighbors. The deconstruction happened so fast that I ended up doing this after much of the house had come down. The plants were like little earthquake victims beneath the debris. I took a photo of my handiwork but Thomas didn't deem it interesting enough to include in the post. Hmmph!

  2. I love this post. Everyone needs a Roderick No Problem guy in their lives. Especially people like us. Thank you for redistributing some plants to us!! It is so cool you are re-using the wood. Old redwood is the BEST. You should look into making outdoor furniture with it too. Or maybe use it on an interior wall somehow. Salvage never looked so cool!

  3. Hi Kay,
    How long did it take you to get a deconstruction permit from the city of PA? Any tips on this process?


    1. Margarita, the deconstruction permit process was pretty confusing and ended up taking us longer than it should've. Palo Alto has a bunch of different departments that aren't always in sync so you end up running around town to get all the clearances you need. My advice is to start early and try to find out all the items you need to get done ahead of time (utility shutoffs, temp power, J-numbers, etc). You'll want to make sure you're clear on the asbestos front in advance. More advice is here:

    2. It's my understanding that Roderick Cooper with Rebuild green covers all those pesky requirements with the city now, its all part of RBG,s services.