A few weeks after salvaging 35,000 board feet of lumber from the now-flattened St. Francis Xavier School in Missoula, Gary Delp of Heritage Timber stands on the corner of Front and Pattee eyeing the demolition of the former First Interstate Bank building. Jumbles of old brick and twisted steel lie beneath exposed office rooms and hallways. Thick timber beams and splintered flooring jut out at all angles like stray hairs.
Delp tries to put a rough value on some of the material. Depending on the condition of those wood beams, he says, one 20-foot-long section could go for maybe $150 retail. By his count there's at least several thousand dollars in potential profit just sitting in the wreckage. But anyone who has stopped to watch the jaws of the demolition crane tear into the sides of the 102-year-old building can guess where most of that material is destined to end up: the Missoula landfill.
"There's a pretty good market here for reclaimed materials," Delp says. "There are lots of people that want to use them, which makes it doubly sad when I see these beautiful 3-by-12 floor joists in that bank building or, in the old [Xavier] school, 25-foot 2-by-13s cut out of old-growth trees that we don't have anymore. Toothpicks to the dump, not even recycled. It kills me 'cause you can't get that wood anymore."
Since 1994, Delp has specialized in salvaging reusable lumber from demolition sites in western Montana. And Heritage Timber has seen some major successes in that time, like the dismantling of three buildings at the old Champion Mill site along the Clark Fork River. Delp remembers taking only one, maybe two truckloads of waste to the landfill during the entire project.
But while salvage efforts are becoming more common in Missoula, Delp and others note a troubling number of high-profile projects—the First Interstate Bank removal included—that continue to defy the profitable and environmentally conscious trend.
"The way I understand it, 100 years ago when we had a structure that needed to go away, people would take it apart, save everything that was in there, straighten out the nails," says Lauren Varney, Home Resource co-founder and deconstruction coordinator. "We know we were at one point wise enough to do it. But we came up with all these fantastic machines that can do it super quickly and make it easy."
Delp and Varney don't place the blame for the waste on individual contractors. Their businesses have for years relied on partnerships with local construction companies to save material otherwise designated trash. They feel the source of the problem instead lies in common misconceptions about the safety and profitability of dismantling buildings.
"People just have it in their heads that because someone's in a big excavator and removed from the building that they're safer," Delp says. "My opinion is that if they built the building by hand, it can be taken down by hand."
Contractors don't argue Delp's point. Steve Hall with Gordon Construction, the general contractor on the bank demolition, says recycling efforts have to pay for themselves to even be considered. He adds the final decision isn't even up to contractors but rather the property owners funding each project.
"We're hired by the owners and we're given our marching orders by the owners," Hall says. "Typically what they'll do is say, 'What are our options here?' and we'll spell out their options. I haven't seen any yet that will say, 'I'll spend $4 of my money to get $1 for salvaging something.'"
Dave Maurer, owner of Maurer Construction LLC, says he emphasizes deconstruction to property owners whenever feasible, as in the case of the St. Francis Xavier project. Maurer allowed Delp to spend six weeks stripping the building of roof beams and maple flooring before calling in the wreckers—though Delp maintains he could have salvaged more. Maurer also let Varney haul away 10 truckloads of brick to be cleaned and resold by Home Resource. To Maurer, it's not a fixation on demolition that leads to wasted material. It's profit margins, safety and to some degree timelines.
"As large contractors, we build buildings for a living," Maurer says. "Whether I knock any down, I could care less. Knocking something down is just an annoying thing we have to do before we can build something."
But Hall stands by the First Interstate Bank demolition. Structural instability made taking the building down piece-by-piece impossible, he says. Reclaiming flooring or bricks might well have resulted in a cave-in, damaging either the Millennium Building or adjacent power lines.
"Everybody walking down the street thinks they know how to do it," Hall says. "You know what? Anybody who wants to look at a set of plans and actually knows the business, I'm happy to sit with them. At some point they'll see the light and they'll know why we're doing what we're doing."
The excuse doesn't sit well with Varney or Delp. Varney says that during a recent trip to the dump, he watched a truck discard a load of material from the bank project. He still has one of the bricks sitting in his vehicle—not that one or two bricks snagged from the landfill makes a difference, he says.
Delp simply believes deconstruction makes sense. He sees interest mounting in Missoula, and hasn't seen any slump in demand for reclaimed wood. But staring up from Front Street, his frustration builds. Why spend $160 on dump fees for a truckload of waste when so much of the material can be turned around for profit?
"From a dollars-and-sense standpoint, if time is not an issue there's just no reason not to," Delp says. "You save money, you save resources."