The magazine for Western Washington University

Green demolition man

Saving the planet, one building at a time

Story by Mary Lane Gallagher

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Salvaging history: Dave Bennink scales a timber beam roof structure to prepare to take it apart. | Photo by Andy Bronson
Salvaging history: Dave Bennink scales a timber beam roof structure to prepare to take it apart. | Photo by Andy Bronson
Salvaging history: Dave Bennink scales a timber beam roof structure to prepare to take it apart. | Photo by Andy Bronson
| Photo by Andy Bronson
| Photo by Andy Bronson

Sitting in the driver’s seat of a rumbling blue forklift, Dave Bennink uses the tongs to carefully remove parts of a decaying roof, piece-by-piece revealing the massive, rough-hewn timber trusses that have sheltered this school gymnasium on Vashon Island for 90 years.

Bennink, a 1994 Huxley graduate, wonders how the 1919 builders got these gigantic beams 20 feet off the ground as he straps them to the forklift for support before lowering them to the ground. The longest beam is 50 feet.

“It’s like a tree suspended over two walls,” he says. “For all intents and purposes, it’s a squared-off tree without bark.”

Bennink’s job is to dismantle the gymnasium carefully enough to preserve those beams – and almost everything else in the historical building – for either reuse or recycling. He also must do it quickly enough to show that preserving a building’s parts can be as cost effective as tearing it down and hauling it to the dump.

“Our goal is to make building deconstruction a mainstream choice for building removal,” says Bennink, who has deconstructed about 500 buildings in 34 states and consulted on thousands of others.

“He has a hunger for dismantling buildings,” says John Majercak, chairperson of Building Materials Reuse Association. “There’s an intensity about him related to wanting to take down buildings efficiently.”

The association just named Bennink its National Deconstructor of the Year not only for his skills on the job, but his advocacy for the industry.

“A lot of people aren’t even thinking about deconstruction and don’t know what it is,” Majercak says. “You have to be able to sell the idea of deconstruction at the same time you’re selling your deconstruction services.”

Bennink was still studying water quality at Huxley when he needed an internship in 1993 and landed at RE Sources, a Bellingham non-profit getting ready to launch the RE Store to collect and sell used building supplies in town.

They started by taking buildings apart piece by piece. It took forever, Bennink remembers, and got him thinking that “zero waste” was a green myth. He began developing ways to use machines to speed up the process.

“In the real market, you can’t have something cost 2 1/2-times more and take 2 1/2-times longer,” he says. “You essentially betray your mission on a larger scale.”

Bennink says that most building owners love the idea of salvaging a building for materials instead of tearing it down and throwing it all away. “But they just want it to cost the same and take the same amount of time.”

He ended up working for the RE Store for 11 1/2 years, improving his techniques along the way. It used to take about three weeks to salvage parts from a 2,000-square-foot house, Bennink says. Now, he and a well-trained crew can take it apart in 2 1/2 to three days. And the higher labor costs are often off-set by much-lower landfill fees, he says.

“If there were 100 buildings that needed to be taken down, I would say we’d be cheaper on 20 of them,” Bennink says. “We might be the same price on 20 of them and in the ballpark on maybe another 10.

“Right now, that’s fine,” he says, “because we don’t have the capacity to do 100 percent of the buildings.”

That’s his next challenge: While Bennink has been deconstructing buildings, he’s been building a green deconstruction workforce.

He began RE-USE Consulting about five years ago to share his practices with groups in other parts of the country to build their capacity to keep buildings out of the landfill, too.

“It’s taken people a long time to see this, but the environment can be an economic engine,” says Brad Smith, dean of Huxley College of the Environment. “It was an industry that didn’t exist. Whenever you have a whole new sector emerging like this, you have job creation.”

Bennink, a quietly intense guy who prefers to travel Bellingham’s hills on his bicycle instead of his car, explains how a salvaged two-by-four saves not only space at the landfill, but also the trees and energy it would cost to harvest and manufacture a new one.

Better yet, he explains, it saves jobs.

As soon as Bennink and his crew were done dismantling the old Vashon Island school gymnasium with contractor Ron Mitchell, a stressful five-day job compressed into fewer than four during a holiday week, he was on a plane to Chicago to help the city develop what would be the nation’s largest green deconstruction job-training program, training 140 former prison inmates for green-collar jobs.

Though RE-USE Consulting consists only of him, his wife and help from his two teen-aged children, he’s working with clients in 34 states who have the potential to deconstruct thousands and thousands of buildings.

He has also consulted with Rust Belt cities such as Buffalo, N.Y. and Detroit, whose shrinking populations have left behind tens of thousands of vacant houses.

Deconstructing those houses can do more than just give new life to the building’s pieces, he says. The new jobs that result could revitalize families and neighborhoods bereft by the shrinking manufacturing industry.

“Deconstruction creates 20 times more jobs than demolition work,” he says. “We could take back a lot of jobs from overseas.”

As his methods have become more efficient, he’s trained others, including demolition businesses that want to get in on the growing interest in sustainable construction.

“Building owners are demanding deconstruction,” Bennink says. “If you want to be a part of that project, you have to provide it.”

Another critical part of his consulting business is working with communities to launch their own retail stores to sell used building supplies. Bennink knows it does no good to encourage people to salvage building materials if there is no local market for it.

By the time Bennink is working in Chicago, the 90-year-old gym has been transformed into piles of wood, sturdy timber and recyclable material. About half of the old building is destined to become part of what is yet to be built.