We don't demolish buildings, we deconstruct them!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

I happen to believe that language is essential in creating the images we use to understand our environment, our context, our reality really. Think for instance of how marketing carefully selects words that elicit distinct images in our mind.

If I were to tell you that I was going to get a hair cut, you might not give too much thought about where I was going to do that. If I say I am getting a hair cut at a barbershop, immediately your mind will flood with very selective images related to the word "barber".
Maybe an old man standing beside a worn leather chair. In his hand he might be holding a straight razor or a lathering brush. The outside of the shop is adorned with one of those telltale swirling blue and red tubes, reminiscent of a candy cane.

But what if I said I was going to get my hair cut at a salon? I'll bet the images conjured up in your mind are markedly different from the barber shop. Maybe it is cleaner, with more lights and more mirrors. The stylist has a blow-drier in one hand and she is sporting a modern haircut. The shop smells of product and has some very youthful music playing in the background.

Words are important because they shape what we think we know about the world. Our descriptions of things are mired in the context of our lives. So it is with this in mind that I wanted to write about waste in the context of the deconstruction of a building.

This past week, the famed CUBE building was 'demolished' at the University of Ottawa. This 60 year old building was brought down in order to make space for the new STEM building (future post about this to come). Facilities has posted a video about the event.

I don't like the word demolished because it makes you think that the building is going to be brought down in a series or coordinated detonations, or that a giant wrecking ball is going to swing in and bash the building into pieces.

I choose to use the word deconstruct because it shifts your thinking about how the structure is being treated. As you watch the video you will notice how there is is no wrecking ball; instead there is a sophisticated machine with a claw taring slowly at the building. The claw is ripping apart the pieces of metal rebar embedded in the concrete. Although this is all sped-up in the video, the operator is taking a lot of time to selectively attack various parts of the structure.

As the video continues, you'll notice that the materials are being carefully placed into large piles. These piles represent different categories of materials... metal... aggregate,,,, gypsum... etc. And why are all these materials being separated? Simple, we are going to recycle the building.

Deconstructing CUBE uOttawa
Concrete block pile from the CUBE deconstruction.
You see, it is that simple change in wording from 'demolish' to 'deconstruct' that helps shift the paradigm. If I said we were going to recycle building, you would have had a bunch of questions about how that could even be possible. With all those materials sandwiched together, it doesn't seem possible. But there in lies the problem, a demolished building is hard to recycle.... but a deconstructed building isn't. In fact, after watching the video, it is hard to imagine doing it any other way.

I wanted to talk about the deconstruction of this building to make a point... there is no such thing as waste. It is a social construct that we have invented that doesn't really serve a purpose anymore and I believe the notion does more harm than good.

Let's play another paradigm word association game.
What comes to mind?

And now another.
Now what comes to mind?

All the pieces of the CUBE will be used as resources for some other project. The metal will be melted down and used again. The aggregate (rocks) will be crushed down and used again. And so on and so on. 90% of the building will become something else.

This isn't the first time we have done this. The old Child Studies building, which was replaced by the FSS Building, was also deconstructed and recycled in a similar fashion. This is a requirement for the LEED certification of the new STEM Building. A detailed report will be authored about all the recycled components of the building and this will help the project assert some of its environmental features.
Deconstruction of the Child Studies building
A huge pile of metal wires and rebar from the deconstruction of the Child Studies building in 2009.
But this is the important part, the message you should take home.
The next time you are walking around with some 'waste' in your hands and you are about to throw it in the garbage bin, think twice and put it in the right bin. Because if we can recycle an entire building, whatever you're holding in your hand can probably be recycled too.

~ jON - campus sustainability manager

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