The wheels started turning when Christopher Yermal used 8,000 pounds of material scoured from the New Hanover County landfill to build an award-winning structure to house a biofuel tank at Tidal Creek Co-op.
Yermal said his general contracting company, Old School Rebuilders, always considered sustainability in remodeling and new construction projects, but the success of that endeavor spurred him to add deconstruction to the company’s repertoire.
“That project started spinning this idea in my head about doing deconstruction for another business. It was the genesis on that project, building that thing out of used building materials,” Yermal said.
Deconstruction involves carefully taking a house apart to preserve the building materials. The cost can be high, typically two to three times more than demolition. But if the homeowner has high enough tax liability, the opportunity for a tax deduction on donated materials — sometimes valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars — will offset the cost.
“It’s not always, from a purely economic standpoint, the best option unless they have that tax liability [but]the other thing people may have is this desire to do the right thing by the materials,” Yermal said.
He sees diversion of usable building materials from the county landfill as sustainable, but also common sense.
“It’s amazing how much stuff goes in there,” Yermal said. “When we were building the [structure]at Tidal Creek, it was no problem at all to find the materials we needed at the landfill.”
The deconstruction process starts with an estimate of what materials inside the house are available to save.
“Essentially what I need to do is see through walls and figure out how many 2-by-4-by-8s they have, the size of the ceiling joints and the floor joints, how much siding they have,” Yermal said.
Yermal plugs his estimates into a spreadsheet he shares with real estate appraisers. The appraisers calculate the value of the materials, which is considered alongside the estimated cost of deconstruction.
“The homeowner then knows the tax benefit, the deduction to donate, whatever the amount to deconstruct, and it’s up to them to decide if they want to demolish or deconstruct it,” Yermal said.
Another consideration is time. It takes more time to take a house apart carefully instead of knocking it down with a bulldozer.
It took four weeks to fully deconstruct a two-story house off Old Military Road in 2012. Lucien Ellison loved the lot overlooking Hewlett’s Creek where he recently completed the construction of Wilmington’s first passive house, but first he had to get rid of the house already sitting on the property.
“The house was rundown and outdated, but there were materials in the house that could be used. We didn’t want the house to just be demolished and take up space in a landfill,” Ellison said.
Deconstruction seemed like the clear choice because Yermal could do it for the same price as a demolition. Ellison saved brick and wood to frame his new house, vanities and a marble countertop, even mirrors for a garden house. Most of the materials were donated, some to the Rebuilder Exchange, the retail side of Yermal’s deconstruction operation.
Yermal has amassed an impressive collection including claw foot tubs, heart pine flooring, solid wood interior and exterior doors, old wood windows, old trim and wood too beautiful to be hidden in the frame of a new house.
“What’s great about using old lumber is it’s in much better shape. … The wood that comes out of these old houses is old pine that’s dense and straight, heavy and solid, really good material to use,” Yermal said.
In fact, uncovering the beautiful old wood hiding in the frame of old houses is one of Yermal’s favorite things about what he does.
“When you pull apart an entire house, it’s like 50,000 pounds worth of stuff that you can use again, donate or sell or whatever. It’s a treasure,” Yermal said.
Melissa Wilgis would agree. She uses old cabinet doors and drawers as frames for her photography. When Wilgis was sent to photograph an old farmhouse Yermal was deconstructing for Historic Wilmington Foundation, Yermal noticed she took a few cabinet panels home and began calling her when he had materials she might want.
Wilgis said people like the history behind the idea.
“People appreciate the fact that I’m salvaging something from a historic farmhouse or a historic ice chest. It’s not just the uniqueness of the piece. It’s the fact that it has some history to it,” Wilgis said. “That’s one of the things I like about using those things too, is thinking about how many hands opened this cabinet drawer.”
A homeowner using salvaged materials in his or her home could have the same experience.
“From an environmental perspective, it’s wonderful that he’s reusing things but again, the history part of it is really cool, knowing that floors or trim or doors have been around for a long time and other people have appreciated them. I think it makes it extra special,” Wilgis said.