In the summer of 2017, I experienced an issue with construction waste on Oahu.

An acquaintance intended to construct a new house on property purchased earlier and rented till time for construction. The house dated from the 1950s and, prior to demolition, the owner agreed that I could salvage some of the wood.

Like many old Oahu houses it was single wall, 8-inch wide, clear heart California redwood in excellent condition. I suggested contacting Re-use Hawaii, an organization that specialized in deconstruction and recycling of usable building materials.

After visiting the property, Re-use Hawaii promptly submitted a proposal outlining recoverable materials, possible tax benefits, and overall cost. The proposal was declined only because the owner wanted to start immediately and deconstruction would require a two-week delay.

Considering the delay and that deconstruction would cost slightly more it was decided to demolish rather than deconstruct. As it turned out, unanticipated contract details delayed the project for another month, which if known beforehand would have allowed time for deconstruction.

A few weeks later, I was informed by the contractor that demolition would begin the next Tuesday, since Monday was a holiday. I informed the contractor that I would be salvaging some of the redwood wall boards for my use as a woodworking hobbyist.

I was very excited to get the interior boards in particular since these had no paint on them. The timing was good in that I would have three days in which to salvage the wall boards.

Foreground, Homes along Laukahi Street with Hawaii Loa Ridge homes background. 8 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Homes along Laukahi Street with Hawaii Loa Ridge homes in the background, 2015. The City and County of Honolulu could pass a law to require better use of teardowns.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Anxious to get started, I immediately went to rent a portable generator since the power was already cut. I returned about 3 p.m. and in two hours salvaged about 15 beautiful, clear (no knots) redwood boards from the interior walls. As a bonus, I also salvaged three pairs of new curtains.

While working, I noticed someone walking around in the yard looking at the house, but did not take particular notice. As it turned out, it was someone from the demolition subcontractor who had come to confirm that the power was cut, which I had been told by the contractor, was to begin on Tuesday.

By the time it started to get dark I had salvaged about 16 prime redwood boards and the curtains from the three windows. I loaded these into my pickup and headed home with the intent of returning the next morning (Saturday) to continue my mini salvage/ recycle operation over the weekend.

I arrived the next morning about 8 a.m. only to see that the demolition subcontractor had started work at 7 a.m. with heavy equipment and had turned the entire house, including over three hundred beautiful clear heart redwood wall boards, into a pile of wet toothpicks. The remaining curtains and everything else was a pile of soggy wet rubbish.

I was devastated upon seeing the horrible waste. I went ballistic and wanted to know how this had happened, since I was told that demolition would not start till Tuesday.

Evidently, the demolition subcontractor was given permission to start as soon as the power had been cut. I then realized that the demolition contractor had sent someone the day before to confirm that the power was cut.

Waste And Destruction

Seeing the pile of rubbish that was once a house made of beautiful clear heart redwood, I could not help thinking about the environmental activists, U.S. National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service staff who have worked for decades in California to save the remaining giant redwoods from logging, while here in Hawaii we are using them for landfill. There was a significant value loss as well since similar redwood boards (8-feet-by-8-feet) would cost at least $50 each if bought locally.

In addition to older homes built of clear heart redwood, some older homes were built of Philippine mahogany (Luan mahogany), which is a costly tropical hardwood. Similar destruction and waste with subsequent additions to our landfill occurs all too frequently on Oahu. In East Honolulu, Kaimuki, Palolo, Kalihi, Pearl City, and other older neighborhoods, new construction generally occurs through tear downs and rebuilds.

Of the 300 to 380 annual residential teardowns on Oahu, only 40 to 50 are deconstructed on average, the rest become landfill waste rather than purposefully reused. Not only is this a direct waste of usable material, but of equal significance is the concurrent waste of the embodied energy originally used for the cutting, transporting, drying, milling, packing, shipping, warehousing, delivery and construction.

That is why recycling is so beneficial to the environment and for reducing CO2 emissions. Not only is the material reused, but it also recycles and preserves the value of the embodied energy that went into its original production and use.

While not every residential teardown on Oahu can be deconstructed, it should certainly be possible to deconstruct more than 40 to 50 a year as is currently.

There Oughta Be A Law

So, what can be done to minimize this tremendous waste of materials and previously invested energy?

The city council could pass an ordinance requiring all applicants for a demolition permit be required to first discuss the potential for deconstruction and recycling with an organization that recycles construction materials as a prerequisite to receiving their permit.

Recycling is beneficial to the environment and for reducing CO2 emissions.

Furthermore there should be a requirement to submit an affidavit that a deconstruction proposal from a recycling organization had been reviewed and considered. If declined, the applicant would be required to provide a statement as to the reasons for declining the proposal.

This approach does not force acceptance of a proposal, nor does it assume that all demolition projects are equal and that there may be legitimate reasons, such as condition of construction materials for example, for rejecting a proposal.

The purpose of the ordinance would simply be to ensure that at the very least, a permit applicant is aware of the benefits of deconstruction as a viable alternative to demolition and landfill disposal. It may also be possible to offset some out-of-pocket deconstruction costs by waiver of the demolition permit fee, and/or a portion of the building permit fee.

Would the city Department of Environmental Services or Department of Planning and Permitting be interested in proposing such an ordinance and which of our city council members would sponsor and support such a bill?

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About the Author

  • Hal Senter
    Harold (Hal) Senter holds a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Hawaii and a bachelor’s degree in environmental design in landscape architecture from NC State University. He has over 32 years of urban planning and project management experience with 17 years in the Asia-Pacific region. He retired in 2015 after 10 years with the Department of Planning and Permitting, City and County of Honolulu.