According to an April 2018 report, at least 50 buildings are going up in Chicago of ten stories or more. Moreover, with the summer season – when building construction typically picks up – there may be even more buildings going up or about to be completed.

It’s getting hard to keep up with them all.  So what one local business publication has done is create a “cranes report.”  They publish how many cranes are found dotting the city, and use that as an indication of how much construction – and demolition – is going on.

For those that do not know, Chicago is the second most urban city in the country, right behind New York.  So this means there is little or no empty space.  In most all cases, for a new building to go up, an old one must come down.

What we must realize, and this does not matter whether it is a new office building, apartment building, or new building construction on a college or university campus, when it comes to demolition, there are ways to bring sustainability into the demolition process.  This is all too often unrealized or overlooked in the haste to get the new structure up and running.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 534 million tons of construction and demolition debris is generated in the U.S. each year.  However, here is the zinger:  demolition represents more than 90 percent of this debris;  the actual construction of the new facility generates only about 10 percent.

So where does all this debris go?

You guessed it: to landfills. If the facility being torn down has historical significance or is filled with artifacts and building materials of importance, these may have value and are sold or may even be reused in the new facility.  However, this does not happen all that often.

So, after acknowledging that sustainability can be brought into the demolition process, what other steps can college administrators take to reduce the amount of debris generated and make the entire demolition procedure more environmentally responsible?

Among them are the following:

Consider deconstructing the existing building. Deconstructing is a comprehensive term.  It refers to the selective dismantlement of a facility and its components for the purse of reusing all or most of the salvageable materials in the facility.  It can also refer to reusing the old building’s structure or foundation.

Planned demolition. This does not go as far as deconstruction.  Planned demolition involves examining the current property looking for some building materials that can be sold, reused, or recycled.  A building material that often falls into this category, and is found in many older facilities, is bricks.  Bricks can often be reused when building a new facility.  If more than 50 years old, this may not be recommended.  However, brick can still be reused.  Often it is crushed and used as aggregate material to strengthen poured concrete.

Identify and manage harmful materials. Older facilities may contain materials now known to be detrimental to human health and the environment. Often, there is not a problem with these materials once the building has been constructed and is in use.  However, it is when the facility is being torn down that these issues come to light. As part of the demolition planning stage, these materials should be identified and then removed safely, so that they do not pose a health hazard to workers or the environment during demotion.

Hire a sustainability-focused demolition contractor. A sustainability-focused demolition contractor can demolish an existing facility with sustainability in mind.  They are trained to look for ways to reduce waste, recycle or reuse building materials.  They should be brought in during the early stages of the project just discussed.  College administrators can turn to trade associations such as those listed below to find such a contractor in your community.

Write sustainability into the contract. Even with a sustainability-focused demolition contractor hired, make sure the agreement emphasizes that all demolition work is to be performed in a sustainability focused manner; that demolition is to be completed in an environmentally responsible way; and that all regulatory and environmental rules and regulations are to be followed.

Use high-efficiency demolition equipment.  High-efficiency demolition equipment typically release fewer greenhouse emissions and use fuel more efficiently. For instance, some systems now use diesel engines or they have hybrid attachment packages. Both allow demolition work to be performed using less fuel and releasing fewer emissions than comparable, traditional equipment.  Some equipment also has heavy-duty magnets that capture metal building materials. These magnets then deposit these metal materials in specific areas for possible reuse or recycling.

Purchase materials locally. Materials will invariably be needed for the demolition project.  Purchasing these materials locally can speedup the demolition project as well as reduce the amount of fuel required and greenhouse gasses emitted to transport these materials.

Emphasize “Efficiency.”  This is a key word when it comes to sustainability.  Efficiency means selecting products and materials that reduce waste, energy, fuel, water, and other natural resources.  This should be emphasized in both the demolition and construction process.

Introduce Green Cleaning. If the structure and foundation of the facility have been preserved, and certainly once the new facility has been built, “new-construction cleanup” will be necessary. This is a perfect opportunity to introduce the use of Green-certified cleaning solutions into the facility. These products are made from renewable resources, so they both promote health and sustainability.

Involve students, staff, and the community. Just as efficiency is a key word when it comes to sustainability, transparency is a key word when it comes to students, staff, and the local community.  Make sure everyone is aware that during the demolition, steps are being taken to reduce waste, protect the environment, and safeguard the health of all on campus.


Stephen Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group and known in the professional cleaning industry as the father of green cleaning and the industry leader, turning sustainability into cost savings.  He can be reached at


“Mapping the 50 high-rises under construction in Chicago,” by Jay Koziarz, Curbed Chicago, April 29, 2018

Associations Representing Sustainability-Focused Demolition Contractors:

  • Associated General Contractors of America
  • Construction and Demolition Recycling Association
  • Building Materials Reuse Association
  • National Demolition Association




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