Renewable resource: Deconstruction of a house

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

When Peggy and Al Bernthal wanted to downsize from their spacious River Forest home on Greenfield Street, they knew a large part of the value of the property was in the 200 x 200-foot lot that backed up to Priory Park. The late 1960s-era house had been a wonderful family home for them, but they knew subdividing the lot would make the real estate transaction more attractive. 

As the Bernthals considered how to handle the disposition of the large lot and their former family home, they hit upon a growing niche in the construction business that helped make their plan to subdivide their property both more financially sound and more environmentally responsible.

When they marketed the home, the Bernthals originally promoted it as two separate parcels, with the house on one lot and a separate, buildable lot to the east, but Peggy Bernthal said that plan hit a small snag when they realized the empty lot to the east of the house measured only 69 feet in width. By River Forest code, a lot needs to be at least 70 feet with setbacks. She realized that, in order to do a lot division according to code, the house would need to go. 

The decision to deconstruct

As with many things in the internet age, the solution to tearing down the house presented itself through a quick Google search. Bernthal recalled, "I was interviewing demolition people, I Googled deconstruction, and I found Steve."

Steve Filyo's company BlueEarth Deconstruction takes apart Chicago-area buildings and works with the non-profit Rebuilding Exchange in Chicago to resell the salvaged materials. Filyo said in a house like the Bernthals', very little from the deconstruction process goes into the Dumpster. 

"We save about 95 percent of what's in the house," he said. "We can save lumber, windows, doors, hardwood floors, mechanical items and kitchens. If it can't be re-used, we recycle it. The only things that go in the Dumpster are things we can't reuse like plaster, drywall and insulation."

Filyo says companies like his are keeping a lot of building debris out of landfills and that people don't realize how much of a home's materials can be re-used. 

"It's an idea whose time has come," he said. "We take stuff even if it looks like stuff that wouldn't end up on HGTV. It may not be pretty, but it's useful."

Benefits, financial and otherwise

Filyo noted that, working hand-in-hand with the nonprofit Rebuilding Exchange, his clients can recognize serious financial benefits from using his company. 

"Because we work with nonprofits," he added, "all of the material is appraised, and it's a tax write-off for the homeowners."

For Bernthal, the transaction was appealing from two angles. 

"We took the information we got from Steve to our financial planner, and to us it made sense both financially and in terms of removing something of value and having someone reuse it. It just seemed like, why wouldn't we do it?"

Filyo said he expects that the careful deconstruction of the Bernthal house will save quite a bit of material. "I think they say that 40 percent of our landfills are construction waste. I did the math, and we're talking about over 250 to 300 trees alone in the wood in this house. What's the point of harvesting new trees, when this wood is reusable?"

For those looking to save some money and avoid a trip to a big box retailer, the Rebuilding Exchange will sell the materials salvaged from the Bernthal house and similar projects at a large discount. Filyo pointed out that furniture makers like to reuse the lathe in their projects, and a neighbor of the Bernthals already has dibs on their garage door.

Kitchens, in particular, often have a second life according to Filyo. 

"The kitchen here was gorgeous," he said. "Somebody will be able to buy it for tens of thousands less than it would cost new. We see high-end appliances like Wolf ranges and Sub Zero refrigerators all the time."

Looking to the future

With all of the construction and remodeling in Oak Park and River Forest, Bernthal said, the use of recycled materials companies like BlueEarth Deconstruction could have far-reaching implications. 

"This is an option that people haven't realized can have economic value as well as environmental value," she said.

Filyo got his start when he noticed that people were interested in the pretty salvaged materials from Chicago's historic housing stock, and his business plan really took off when he realized there was a use for all parts of a home. 

"Once we hooked up with the Rebuilding Exchange and started to look beyond the pretty stuff," he said, "we realized we had a business on our hands."

Filyo relies on a trained workforce to make that model work, and he envisions a training program for people re-entering the work force after time in prison. 

For now, he said, "I'm so lucky to have the talent I have. A lot of our training starts with having new guys be around the work with experienced guys and learning on the job. Everyone has an understanding of how homes are built in order to work on taking them apart."

As the public becomes more aware of such specialists, Filyo sees more and more homeowners and contractors being drawn into using deconstruction contractors. 

"It's funny how word spreads. Now it's just a game of telephone. We don't advertise, but when we work with a general contractor, it becomes a part of their vocabulary."

In the final analysis, Filyo said, the deconstruction business is respectful of both the earth and the homeowners. 

"This is a family home," he said. "It's an emotional experience for the homeowner. It can feel disrespectful to wreck it when you can reuse it."

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