Should you be thinking about deconstruction?

We live in a throwaway society. Fact. Our modern lives pose a number of issues upon our environment but there is now a growing level of awareness of what we need to do to sustainably manage our planet’s resources and ecosystems.

The construction sector produces one third of solid waste each year, and consumes half of Europe’s natural resources. Moving away from a culture of take-use-dispose is one of the biggest challenges construction faces. And one of the biggest opportunities. To embrace a circular economy in construction, action is needed.

Deconstruction is the reuse of materials on an existing plot. It’s a way of preserving and reusing the materials of an existing building to create a new building.

Salvage, recycle and reuse – these are the core principles behind deconstruction but have you ever considered this method for your self-build?

Structural deconstruction involves dismantling the structure of the building to reclaim materials such as wood, brick and stone. Circular economy is driving greater resource efficiency and self-builders are finding more resourceful ways to recycle materials to reduce the carbon footprint of their build. There’s money to be made by reclaiming non-structural materials such as doors and windows, which can be sold on and re-used.

Time and material

Deconstruction has taken off in Europe with companies like Belgian company Rotor Deconstruction specialising in deconstruction and reconstruction. Rotor’s work includes unbolting the façades of old skyscrapers at the World Trade Center in Brussels to reuse materials including hardware, marble floors, radiator covers, lighting fixtures, sanitary equipment and partitions.

Making use of reclaimed materials in self-build projects can be challenging and technical standards need to be followed and a specialist deconstruction company may be required.

Some materials cannot be salvaged if they contain asbestos, for example, which is often found in older properties. When materials that contain asbestos are disturbed or damaged, fibres are released into the air. When these fibres are inhaled they can cause serious diseases. Asbestos became a prohibited substance in the UK in 1999, so any property that was built after 2000 will not contain asbestos. If the property was built before 2000 you will need a survey completed to check for the substance.

An old house for self-build deconstruction

Buying to demolish can, in some cases, often be cheaper than renovating an existing property as you can salvage a plethora of materials for use in your build or to sell on. VAT is reclaimable on new builds which is always a win-win, too. But do bear in mind that planning permission can stipulate that you can only build to the same height and footprint as the previous building.

Deconstruction “will grow”

Environmental activist, author of The Re-Use Atlas, and BBM Sustainable Design co-founder Duncan Baker-Brown believes that architects and ‘constructors’ need to stop digging up materials and instead use what is already above ground (preferably locally above ground) from now on. It’s all about reworking what we already have.

Duncan explains: “Since BBC’s Planet Earth II aired we have seen a spike in interest around the climate emergency. Every industry is waking up. When it comes to reusing and deconstructing I envisage an increase in the UK. It’s still an emerging thing and for a self-builder you need to ensure you have the correct building control and liabilities and use an experienced contractor to take on a deconstruction project.

“Once you establish a site I would suggest creating a ‘Resource Map’. Look at your plot on Google Maps and zoom out 10km to see what is around you. Be resourceful – think about natural resources you can you tap into. Are there working woodlands nearby? Are there local suppliers selling reclaimed/reused materials?

With deconstruction slower to take off in the UK in comparison to Europe, Duncan suggests that more education is needed around the whole subject but it’s also about individuals questioning how they go about their lives. When it comes to using materials, Duncan suggests putting time in to think and plan materials for a self-build.

He adds: “Think about amending your floor or ceiling height in order to cut down on plasterboard, for example. It’s really about considering the components that make your house and if you’re clever you can be left with fewer or no off cuts of plasterboard or insulation, for example. Think about a pre-fabricated house or a pre-engineered solution like SIPS (Structured Insulated Panels) to build your home. The major components of SIPs, foam and oriented strand board (OSB), take less energy and raw materials to produce than other structural building systems. SIPs are also made in a controlled environment, allowing for greater efficiency than site-built framing.”


It’s all about being imaginative and Duncan’s 2014 Waste House project, constructed with over 90 per cent materials others had thrown away, demonstrated the principles of reuse on a small-scale experimental scheme. The building is a teaching and workshop space for students and community groups, and the University of Brighton’s headquarters for sustainable design.

“The Waste House was a vessel that essentially contained stuff that people didn’t want. It has become a laboratory for research – and our findings show that the building is performing well,” explains Duncan.

“We originally filled a 400mm void with insulation made from old video cassettes and we’ve since replaced these with old duvets. There are new tiles made from oyster shells, which absorbs carbon.”

Waste not, want not

For self-builders it’s not about using duvets for insulation but thinking about the bigger picture and finding ways to re-use and salvage where you can.

Natasha Houston and her partner Chris Plummer, two first-time self-builders from Suffolk built their home on the site of a cabinet makers’ workshop. After the workshop was demolished they were left with old insulation, stud work and OSB boarding which has been used to build a permanent shed in the garden.

Read more about their self-build in our case study.

The kitchen of Natasha's self-build

North Yorkshire based self-builder Andrew Theasby raised cash for his own self-build project after salvaging materials from an old cottage on his plot.

Brickwork, fireplaces, doors, old joists, flooring and a staircase were saved – earning him more than £5,000 – which helped get ahead with his mortgage stage payments. 

Andrew explains: “Nothing was put in a skip! The old joists and floorboards were treated for woodworm and used to build a log store for a friend. The staircase went into a local barn and we sold the doors and fireplaces to a nearby house undergoing refurbishment. I placed a sign up so passing traffic could stop off.”

Read more about Andrews self-build journey in our case study.

The front of the self-build home

When taking on a deconstruction project decide which materials can be recycled, donated or resold. Timber and concrete, for example, require different recycling methods while scrap metal can be sold on to generate revenue for your project. Why not stockpile crushed materials from early phases of a project to reuse later on. It is all in the planning. Duncan ends: “There are so many things that we can do and I think in time these decisions will be made for us as building regulations change to prevent wastefulness. If you’re building a home, you need to start thinking of yourself as a manager of natural resources and be aware of the choices you are making to construct that home.”

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