MAYBE IT'S TIME TO RETHINK HOW WE CONSTRUCT SCHOOL BUILDINGS

When we talk about planning schools, our thoughts immediately go to the design, construction, renovation, maintenance and operations of our current facilities. One area few plan for is the demolition and/or deconstruction of obsolete, outdated or structurally unsound facilities. But as the “green” movement gains steam, the reduction, reuse and recycling of construction and demolition debris will soon be part of every plan.

When you consider the facts, you will understand the concern. There are more than 93,000 public schools in the United States. Forty-three percent were built during the 1950s-60s, an era of cheap, energy-inefficient construction. These buildings were not intended to last more than 30 years — and time is up for many of them. A current United States Geological Survey estimates that construction accounts for 60 percent of materials used in the United States for purposes other than food or fuel. The EPA estimates that 136 million tons of construction and demolition waste is generated in the U.S. each year — about 2.8 pounds per person, per day. To date, most of this construction waste has found its way to the local landfill. Little is reused or recycled.

Construction and demolition (C&D) waste from schools commonly includes building materials and products such as concrete, asphalt, wood, glass, brick, metal, gypsum wallboard, roofing, insulation, doors, windows and frames, flooring and furniture. Demolition projects account for 48 percent of the waste; renovations account for 44 percent and new construction generates only eight percent of building-related debris. The ability to reduce this debris will not only conserve landfill space, but reduce the environmental impact of producing new materials and the overall building project expenses through avoided purchase/disposal costs.

The move toward building high-performance schools — also termed green or sustainable — and The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System is one reason many planners and designers are beginning to pay attention to construction and demolition waste. A few have already taken it to the next level — deconstruction. Deconstruction is defined as the systematic disassembly of buildings in order to maximize recovered materials reuse and recycling.

Deconstruction has several advantages over demolition including a decrease in the amount of demolition debris finding its way to landfills; the ability to reuse building components; improvements in materials recycling and enhanced environmental protection.

The biggest challenge to deconstruction is the fact that existing buildings, as evidenced in schools in the Northeast, have not been designed for dismantling. The architects and builders of these facilities visualized their creations as being permanent and did not make provisions for their future disassembly. In addition to requiring a mindset change, other challenges to deconstruction are the lack of tools designed for disassembly, unknown cost factors and the additional time required to separate materials and carefully take the building apart. Since a majority of schools were built before the mid-1970s, there is also the issue of lead-based paint and asbestos to contend with.

In the 1990s, the majority of school construction dollars went toward the renovation of existing buildings. Now, four of every five dollars is being spent on new or additional space. It appears that the trend toward new, high-performance schools is outpacing the push for historic preservation. With this in mind, should architects and builders design our future educational facilities for permanence, or should they be designed with deconstruction in mind? Let me know what you think.

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