Urban Habitat Chicago › A Short, Informal Essay About Deconstruction Ethic Before Deconstruction Was Invented

Had the most informative conversation today with Thomas Napier President of the Building Material Reuse Association.

With his permission we are posting this personal and truly great article on deconstruction.

Thanks Tom!

Maine Township High School, Des Plaines, IL circa 1920s.

Along with millions of other young men and women, my father spent his high school and college years struggling through the Great Depression. He was born in Chicago in 1911, and moved to Des Plaines with his family in 1913. Their new house had recently been moved a short distance to clear the right-of-way for the construction of Busse Highway. That’s the way they did things back then.

While not destitute by any means, the family had nothing to spare. My father practiced “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” all his life. Waste offended him. He couldn’t throw anything away that he judged to be useful, if not by us, then by someone else. He routinely rescued “perfectly good stuff” from neighbors’ garbage.

The photograph above shows Maine Township High School in Des Plaines, circa 1920s, which he attended from 1928 through 1932. The building was demolished in 1963 after serving the community for fifty seven years.

I was eleven at that time, and didn’t place any great significance in the school’s demolition. This was a time of great prosperity and progress, and public sentiment was that more modern schools or houses should occupy that site. Demolition was an exciting transition from old to new.

My father saw something different. He saw materials being wasted. He saw an opportunity to rescue “perfectly good stuff” and put it to good use. While doubtless motivated by sentiment to some degree, he was interested in more than grabbing a souvenir brick or two. We sorted through the debris to find useable lumber and bricks. He cautioned me about nails, glass, and unstable rubble, but never considered that I should not be there helping him. We took responsibility for ourselves, and didn’t complain if we got nicked here and there. That’s the way they did things when he was growing up. We stacked 2×12’s on the roof of our Ford, loaded bricks in the trunk, and hauled them home.

We hauled several loads, and while making only a small, perhaps symbolic dent in the debris stream, we recovered a worthwhile stock of materials. The bricks were used mostly for landscaping in our yard, and the lumber served a variety of purposes from garage renovation to a new fireplace mantel. Neither of us thought our efforts were extraordinary, so these exercises were conducted without fanfare, photographs, or written account. I never imagined this story would become part of a seminar on deconstruction.

Decades later I had the good fortune to become involved in the subject of construction and demolition waste reduction. Only by seeing the wastefulness of our construction industries could I fully appreciate what my father was doing. He was practicing an ethic borne of necessity, not fashion. This was his culture, his value scheme. He didn’t need to read William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle to recognize people behave differently in times of scarcity than in times of abundance. He didn’t need “green building,” “deconstruction,” or “embodied energy” in his vocabulary to feel a moral obligation to conserve finite resources. He lived it himself, up close and personal. Even though we no longer experienced the scarcity of his youth, waste was still very wrong.

My father rarely lectured me about wastefulness, although he did tell me once to never, ever, say “there’s more where that came from.” His style was to set the example and trust that someday I’d figure it out myself. It was no accident that I carried away more from that demolition site than lumber and bricks. He snuck an ethic in there without me noticing. Now I understand, and I realize my job is to help pass this ethic along and make it useful again.


Thomas Napier is a Research Architect and Project Manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign, IL. Current research includes sustainability in Army facilities’ design and construction, specifically, the reduction of construction and demolition waste through deconstruction, reuse, and recycling. Recent activities include: supporting Army deconstruction projects; developing Army policy and guidance media; technical transfer and training at Army and industry venues, both in the United States and abroad; and improving the resilience of housing exposed to natural disasters. Tom is a past recipient of the Army’s Engineer Research and Development Outstanding Team Award.

Tom is involved in US Green Building Council and the USGBC Central Illinois Chapter; is on the Board of Directors of the Building Materials Reuse Association; is on the Chicago ReBuilidng Exchange Advisory Board; and is active in his local Habitat for Humanity ReStore. He received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Architecture from the University of Illinois. Previous experience includes housing design for the University of Illinois, Value Engineering and cost analysis with Steven Winter Associates, New York, NY, and teaching Construction Project Management at the University of Illinois.

Tom may be reached at 217/352-6511, Ext. 3497 and thomas.r.napier@usace.army.mil.

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