Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity's Deconstruction Program

written by Bill Kopp

Home remodeling is brisk business in Western North Carolina. And if you've ever wondered what becomes of cabinetry, trim and other structural items that are ripped out of homes to be replaced with newer fixtures, those items are being put to good use. Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity's deconstruction program is a wildly successful initiative that benefits everyone involved.

Working closely with builders and remodelers, Habitat volunteers assist in the careful removal of select household items. Those items are then transported to Habitat ReStore's retail floor. Proceeds from the sales benefit the ongoing work of Habitat for Humanity in its mission to empower families in the region to improve their housing.

Many of the fixtures being replaced in remodeling projects are far from the end of their useful service life. And there's a strong demand for these lightly-used pieces. "You're looking at upward of $60k for a nice high-end kitchen remodel," says Colin Bristow, Asheville Area Habitat's Deconstruction Supervisor. When old cabinetry is removed, "we're reselling them to the general public at a fraction of that cost," he says. Buyers can get high-quality, high-end products for a very reasonable price.

Bristow says that easily removed items like full kitchen cabinet sets, bathroom vanities and light fixtures are the program's bread and butter. "We get them out of one home and into the next home as quickly as we can," he says.

Sometimes the fixtures are nearly new. "We've taken items out of homes that are only five years old," Bristow says, "because the new owner who has just purchased the home just wants something different." And the whole process -- one that Donation and Deconstruction Manager Michelle Smith calls "soft extraction" -- is designed to be quick and minimally disruptive. "Our goal with these deconstruction projects is to be out on the job in the morning, and have that kitchen cabinet set or bathroom vanity for sale that very same day," Bristow says.

Bristow and Smith lead a team of three full-time truck crews. Those two-person teams, in turn, work with a core group of more than a dozen volunteers -- retired plumbers and electricians among them, says Smith -- to handle the fixture removal. The size of the project dictates the number of people involved. "There are times that there are just two or three of us out there," Bristow says. "Other times there might be ten or twelve of us on a job."

Sometimes, projects grow in real time. Smith recalls a recent kitchen deconstruction project. "It went so well," she says, "that when we finished, they said, 'You know what? This can be a whole-house demo!'" That expanded project yielded a bounty of valuable items including several beautiful oak interior doors with transoms.

Smith emphasizes that a great deal of precision and patience go into the process. "It's imperative to us to get those items out in good, structurally sound condition," she says. "And then they're presented as such back in the ReStore."

The program is tailored both to homeowners embarking on remodel projects and to contractors. "In the last two or three years we've put a big push on working with contractors and builders," Bristow says. "They're the ones that can give us the sustained jobs." Companies like Morgan-Keefe Builders, Buchanan Construction and HomeSource Builders are among the active and enthusiastic companies partnering with Habitat on the initiative. "Any time they have a remodel," Bristow says, "we've become their first call."

And those long-term relationships yield tangible results. Bristow emphasizes that partner contractors save money on labor. "And a lot of times they don't need dumpsters, so there are no landfill fees." He cites data that in 2023 alone, the deconstruction program kept over 1000 kitchen cabinets out of landfills. "We [removed and then sold] 80 to 90 bathroom vanities, about 250 light fixtures, and a couple of hundred doors." Smith notes that the deconstruction program also turned over 83 appliances.

For partner contractors, add to all that the tax writeoff benefits as well as the good feeling that comes from helping the community. "We have worked with the Habitat for Humanity deconstruction crew for nearly two decades," says Tim Alexander, HomeSource's owner and CEO. "They make the demolition process for kitchen and bath seamless, and we're glad to donate pre-owned materials for such a great cause."

That quality material often spends very little time in the ReStore. "Our inventory is often sold just as quickly as we're bringing it in," Bristow says. And the scale of the program continues to grow. For the second half of last year alone, Habitat's deconstruction program rescued merchandise with an estimated value of over $128k. "That's an 88% increase from the previous year," Smith says.

Smith characterizes the program as a full-circle initiative. "The builders, the donors, Habitat, and the ReStore customers all benefit," she says. And Bristow agrees: "It's a win for all parties involved."

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