Throwing a Building Away: Adding to the Landfill

At the rate we’re going, the Larimer County Landfill will be maxed out by 2024 according to the Director’s Report published last month. The growth and redevelopment of our built environment is contributing to the amount of waste deposited into the landfill yearly.

Both commercial and residential properties are being scraped and replaced with new structures. Sometimes this means removing a comparatively smaller structure with its attendant parking lot and putting a far denser development in its place, as was the case with Uncommon at the corner of Olive and College. Predictions indicate the population of Northern Colorado will more than double by 2050, so we need to be intensifying land use and replacing a vast parking lot with residential units is a great way to do that. But many single-family residential properties that are scraped and replaced fail to add density while still contributing a great deal to our local landfill.

According to Darrell Hay, a Seattle area home inspector, the general rule of thumb in the construction industry that’s used to determine the weight of a house (and therefore the cost of throwing it away) is “200 pounds per square foot for a single-level home, 275 for two levels and 350 for three levels.” Of course, houses differ in weight. Older houses made of lath and plaster weigh more than newer houses made of drywall because the materials are simply heavier (which is one reason why many older houses are naturally better at retaining heat in winter and cold in summer).

The average house in Old Town (where houses are torn down fairly regularly) is one-story tall and has a footprint between 1000 – 1200 square feet. So according to Hay’s rule of thumb, a demolished house in Old Town contributes approximately 200,000 – 240,000 pounds of waste product to the landfill. (That’s equivalent to about 55 cars or 50,000 hamsters according to the Measure of Things.)

If the average American throws away 4.4 pounds of trash a day, and a family of four decides to tear down their Old Town house to replace it with another, they’ll generate approximately 31 – 37 years worth of trash in just one day’s worth of demolition.

This doesn’t include the additional waste that is generated during the construction of the new house.

The mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” was developed as a simple guideline for conservation and stewardship. If we are unable to reuse a building (through renovation or adding an addition), then we should at least reuse the materials that went into making that building. There’s a great deal of embodied energy that goes to waste when building materials are tossed into the landfill.

Some communities, for the sake of their local landfill as well as their overall environmental impact, have chosen to mandate deconstruction rather than demolition of buildings. This means that those materials are carefully dismantled and sorted for reuse (which also generates jobs for local unskilled labor). Other communities, such as our own, require the recycling of materials. Rather than reusing the metals or concrete, it’s hauled away and reprocessed in order to be turned into new products.

Recycling, such as is required by the Fort Collins Climate Action Plan, was evident with the removal of the old Poudre Valley Creamery buildings at Howes and Laporte as well as when the Oakwood School was torn down on Mountain to be replaced by a 7,784 square foot single-family residence. But these two projects are the exception rather than the rule. When asked at a Climate Action Plan public open house in December 2015 what the repercussions are for contractors that don’t recycle the waste materials from demolition, a City employee shrugged and said, “There’s not much we can do.”

I believe we can do better. I believe we can and should make changes that will improve the sustainability of our community.

In the summer of 2016, the City of Portland adopted a deconstruction ordinance that required any building 100 years old or older be fully deconstructed rather than thrown in the landfill. Residents recognized that older homes, in particular, are constructed largely of natural materials such as brick, stone, and wood, that should be reused rather than buried in the trash. The new ordinance went into effect in October and has been considered a success in the community.

Seattle, San Francisco, and Boulder County require recycling of certain materials as well as salvaging doors, cabinets, and other items that can be reused.

Fort Collins has a long history of reusing buildings and building materials. When Union Pacific prepared to lay train tracks through the downtown area, parallel with Jefferson Street, houses were auctioned off and many were hauled away to other parts of town. Those that weren’t hauled away were deconstructed and the materials reused. Fort Collins had been around for nearly 50 years by that point, so it was no longer a pioneer town, and yet people still understood the value of the materials in the buildings and the advantage of reusing them rather than throwing them away and starting over.

It takes time to deconstruct a building, and developers — as well as the banks that support them — want to see projects rise as quickly as possible so that they can start paying for themselves. But perhaps it’s time that we, as a community, come to the table and talk about ways to continue to grow and redevelop, but to do so in an environmentally sustainable way. There’s no sense in throwing something substantial and expensive away just to replace it with something ephemeral and destined for the dump itself in 20 – 30 years.

Let’s stop throwing both our past and future away into a landfill that’s already close to full. We can do better than that. Let’s get creative and find meaningful ways to boost both our economy and our climate saving actions by reusing buildings, and when they can’t be reused, by reusing the deconstructed materials.


There are some great resources that talk more about this topic on the Rebuilding Center website.

For a related article see, “Why Historic Preservation Should Be Included in the Fort Collins Climate Action Plan,” on NorthernColoradoHistory.com.