Material to be recycled as part of renovations at 21 Dundas Square, Toronto

2022 Ontario, Canada

Deconstruction, Salvage, and reuse

Circular building and construction in Canada

Summary of findings

Demolition has significant negative impacts – from creating unnecessary energy, carbon, and material waste in a climate crisis to erasing the cultural and social stories that are embedded into a place. As architects, this is a huge motivator for why Giaimo chooses to focus on circular design practices and using the existing – through adaptive reuse, renovation, retrofits, restoration, or designing additions. However, the current realities of urban growth and development leads to demolition being a highly prevalent aspect of our building industry. Many people see buildings as easily disposable, and in Toronto especially, various challenges from zoning restrictions to design quality has resulted in the demolition of numerous large buildings to make way for new construction buildings.

A more sustainable alternative to demolition is building deconstruction, which involves carefully dismantling a building piece by piece to salvage recyclable materials. This process can happen on a variety of scales, from entire buildings to selective areas, allowing for a significant decrease in the amount of waste going into the landfills. Giaimo has also been implementing deconstruction and material re-use on a variety of projects to conserve, and thus leverage, the existing embodied energy and carbon of a building. Our team is committed to bridging the gap between the well-established circular building and deconstruction research that exists across academia and international precedents with the current state of the real estate, construction, architecture, and building industry in Ontario.

Conceptual sketches by Giaimo (Shanze Shahbaz), exploring ideas of deconstruction and salvage with Local Technique (Alison Creba and Rashmi Sirkar) in response to the news on the future demolition of Wallace Emerson Community Centre in Toronto.

Exploring deconstruction policy in Toronto and Ontario

As heritage architect Catherine Nasmith has noted, “currently in Ontario, the only buildings requiring notice of a demolition application are on properties listed or designated under the Ontario Heritage Act (OHA), and in some jurisdictions like Toronto rental housing buildings. Otherwise, demolition permits are pretty much granted on the spot. Demolition creates a staggering amount of waste, accounting in Ontario for 20-30% of municipal landfill. Depending on what source you quote, no matter how energy efficient the new building, it takes about 50 years of energy savings to pay down the debt to the environment created by the creation and transportation of construction materials.”

Giaimo has been collaborating with Local Technique, a Toronto-based non-profit leading research on the intersection of building waste, deconstruction, and cultural heritage. Giaimo and Local Technique’s recent work has focused on demonstrating the feasibility of building deconstruction and material reuse as an alternative to demolition and disposal in Toronto and Ontario. While there are multiple examples across North America and worldwide, the GTHA currently lacks comprehensive precedents of, and policy for building deconstruction and material reuse. Recycling existing (LEED 4.0) and ineffective (ONT-102. ONT-103) policies, one critique of the Toronto Green Standard is its focus on new construction – overlooking the implications and impact of the existing building stock. While the intention to promote circular construction is evident in the City of Toronto’s most recent Official Plan Amendment, baselining studies for the Circular Economy and Long-Term Waste Strategy, limited precedents for these practices indicate gaps in both policy and industry. 

diagram showing the process of deconstructing a shed to salvage wood and reuse it for new purposes
Diagram showing the process of dismantling, salvaging, and reusing wood at 62 Mill St in Uxbridge

Applying this approach to projects of all scales

Even in restoration and renovation projects, sometimes selective removal is required. In these instances, we initiate a process that finds opportunity to salvage and deconstruct rather than demolish. One example is 62 Mill St in Uxbridge. The removal of a century-old non-designated shed was required to make room for a new housing development. As a sustainable alternative to demolition, Giaimo offered the client an opportunity for deconstruction that would carefully dismantle the shed and salvage the wood beams. This salvaged cladding will be re-used as part of the heritage commemoration for the site’s redevelopment as well as for the restoration of heritage windows.

Deconstruction even on a small scale is not only possible but advantageous. As part of lobby renovations to a mid-century modern multi-unit residential building in Toronto, Giaimo has worked with the contractors to salvage marble and reuse it for another project that would have otherwise required new material. With this integrated approach, not only is waste reduced from one project, but the need to buy (and thus produce and manufacture material) a new kitchen counter for another project is also reduced, supporting a sustainable circular economy.

Century-old shed in Uxbridge, Ontario, undergoing deconstructuion
Salvaged marble slabs laid out on the floor of Giaimo's new office under construction
Salvaged marble slabs being reconfigured and re-used for a new office project at 211 Yonge in Toronto

Our team has presented this research at a range of events, including:

IDEAS Forum: Deconstruction, Toronto Society of Architects. A series of fast-paced presentations that explored circular construction, embodied carbon and sustainability, and material salvage and reuse. Giaimo Associate Ria Al-Ameen presented Marble and The Shed at this event.

Trash Talk Symposium, DesignTO Festival 2023. This symposium invites designers and thinkers to explore design responses to the problem of waste management. How do we design for carbon neutrality, or even carbon negativity? How are designers responsible for the environmental impact of their designs? How can we transform our relationship with waste and begin to see it as a valuable resource? Giaimo Associate Mitchell May and Creative Director Stephanie Mah each presented as part of this symposium.

Make the Argument: Demolition should be a last resort – Understanding the environmental value of our existing buildings, Heritage BC Conference 2023. Heritage Advocates know that the Greenest Building is the one that has already been built. This panel brings together presenters who live this motto in their work to share data and examples that prove this case. From Life Cycle Assessments to Embodied Carbon, learn the data behind why this argument just makes sense. Then see examples from moving heritage buildings to adaptive re-use cases that show the key role that heritage conservation can play in a sustainable society. Giaimo Creative Director Stephanie Mah presented in this session.

Wood to be recycled as part of renovations at 21 Dundas Square in Toronto

Toronto Metropolitan University Heritage Conservation Studios

Over the last six years, Joey Giaimo has been an instructor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Department of Architectural Science, leading courses and studios on heritage conservation. Most recently, Giaimo has worked collaboratively with students to further explore ideas of reuse, demolition, and deconstruction. From The Architecture Building Must Die, to The Resilient Library, these courses ask students: When considering the social and cultural value of places, and given our climate crisis, how do we better leverage our existing infrastructure that may be considered inadequate? From exploring disuse and regeneration through the narrative of changing contexts, can we employ design frameworks that prevent instances where buildings are neglected, abandoned, and demolished?

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