The Environment Spurs Changes In Demolition

By Michael R. Taylor, CAE | September 28, 2010

The National Demolition Association recently took on the task of developing a long-range strategic plan to analyze future markets for the demolition industry's services and to identify the challenges ahead. The organization is by far the premier group for the industry, representing the interests of approximately 75 percent of all of the companies, both large and small, in the U.S. and Canada. In fact, membership accounts for close to 85 percent of the gross sales of the industry, since nearly all of the top-grossing demolition companies are Association members.

Among the most significant changes in the industry in recent years is the diversification of companies involved in the demolition process. While some companies view themselves as solely conventional demolition contractors, most have expanded their services into other areas, including site clearing, earthmoving, highway work, plant liquidation, and even landscape contracting. In addition, companies that describe themselves primarily as general contractors, civil engineering firms, landfill operators, environmental remediators, and recyclers have diversified into the demolition arena. This new dynamic in demolition is the reason why the organization formerly known as the National Association of Demolition Contractors changed its name to the National Demolition Association. By removing the word "contractor" from the name, the trade organization has become more inclusive to the companies involved in the wide breadth of products and services companies perform, and less exclusionary.

This vertical integration has occurred because of related demands created by tough government environmental regulations that have required demolition firms to become experts in areas like environmental remediation. More stringent recycling standards and the healthy condition of the scrap market have likewise encouraged companies to expand to handle recycling and salvaging operations themselves.

The demands of the global economy have also had an impact on the demolition industry. The NDA has just elected its first international member to its board of directors, the owner of a United Kingdom demolition and environmental services company. The first member from Mexico has joined the Association, which counts among its international membership firms from such countries as Greece, Peru, South Africa, Australia, and the Dominican Republic. The exchange of knowledge across international borders reflects the Association's desire to be recognized worldwide as the source for all things related to demolition.

Myths persist about the nature of the demolition business, despite years of active outreach to construction trades, the media, government regulators, and the general public. The most deep-rooted is the idea that demolition professionals primarily implode or "blow up" buildings. That couldn't be farther from the truth, despite the dramatic images of building implosions so often presented in the media. The fact is that less than 1 percent of all demolition is achieved by the use of explosives. Only seven members of the Association's more than 1,100 member companies perform implosions. When implosions are done, they are usually subcontracted out by the primary demolition contractor, who prepares the building for the implosion and then cleans up and recycles the resulting debris.

Instead, conventional demolition is typically performed with machines utilizing cranes or skid-steer loaders and excavators with special hydraulic attachments, such as grapples, concrete pulverizers, and shears. Modern excavators with long boom arms can extend up to 100 feet or more, have more mobility due to specialized rigging used to move structural components from one site to another, and create less noise pollution and vibration than do cranes. Interior demolition can be done with skid steers with small hammers that can break concrete inside an office tower.

In locations inaccessible to mobile equipment, in structures undergoing renovation, or where obsolete industrial process equipment is being removed from industrial facilities, hand labor and tools such as sledgehammers, picks, wrecking bars, shovels, and steel cutting torches are often used.

Leadership In Environmental Stewardship

The NDA now considers environmental stewardship to be among its top missions, along with safety, education, professional competency, and government advocacy. By its very nature, the act of demolition enables a nation to recycle its most valuable commodity, its land. The cleanup of Brownfield and Superfund sites is a good example of the essential role played in caring for the environment. So too is the wide variety of environmental services many demolition firms perform, which can include asbestos and lead abatement, nuclear plant dismantlement, PCB removal, groundwater and soil remediation, underground tank cleaning and removal, and hazardous waste management.

At present, there is no direct rating system for the demolition process under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system, the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings. However, LEED does address the issue of brownfield redevelopment, which many firms get involved with. The intent is to rehabilitate damaged sites where development is complicated by environmental contamination. This thereby reduces the pressure on undeveloped land.

In addition, the LEED system addresses issues of construction and demolition waste management. The Association strongly supports the reuse and recycling of demolition debris. Most members routinely have recycling rates of 75 percent, while some recycle up to 100 percent of debris generated during a demolition project. A preliminary study commissioned by the National Demolition Association has found that 115 million tons of demolition debris are generated annually. The survey found that California is the state with the highest amount of demolition debris recycling, followed by Florida and New Jersey. Other states reporting a relatively high amount of recycling are Texas, Minnesota, Washington, and Illinois. Materials at the top of the list of recycled demolition debris are, in order of magnitude, concrete, asphalt pavement, metals, bricks/blocks, and wood.

A number of factors impact how demolition professionals are using landfills for the material that cannot be reused or recycled. Besides being incentivized by the threat of fines for not recycling an adequate amount of demolition debris and the need to comply with local ordinances, demolition firms are recycling for a number of other reasons. These include the increasing cost of landfill use, the benefit of tax credits for diversion of waste from landfills, new mobile recycling technology that makes on-site recycling possible, and a heightened awareness about promoting a "green" and sustainable environment. From a financial point of view, finding viable aftermarkets for demolition debris, especially steel, can represent 20 percent to 50 percent of some member companies' revenue, or more.

When To Outsource

When is it preferable to outsource a demolition project to a firm whose primary specialization is demolition, i.e., a demolition contractor? There are a number of benefits involved when choosing such a company, which can include:

  • Efficiency of scale in terms of manpower, equipment and insurance
  • Intimate knowledge of the myriad of evolving local, state and federal occupational health and safety regulations governing demolition
  • The broad range of skills and expertise needed when handling environmental issues
  • The ability to tackle and complete a project, usually with the quickest turnaround time
  • The ability to often deliver the project at a lower cost
  • Years of experience that provide a client with peace of mind

In the years ahead, the expectation is for more vertical integration of complementary businesses like recycling, earthmoving, and landfill operations into the demolition process. What this means to the construction industry as a whole is access to turnkey businesses that can exercise an economy of scale, lower pricing, and highly effective business operations. The bottom line to everyone is that worry-free, cost-effective demolition projects can be accomplished when a qualified, experienced demolition professional is chosen.

Author Information
Michael R. Taylor, CAE, is executive director of the National Demolition Association, the trade organization representing more than 1,100 member companies in the U.S. and Canada.