Dan Costello has been in the demolition business for more than 35 years, but he rarely blows anything up. He hardly ever uses his rusty wrecking ball. He dislikes being called a wrecker.
"We are dismantlers," says Mr. Costello, 63, the owner of Costello Dismantling Co. of West Wareham, Mass., one of the largest demolition companies in New England. One big challenge is to find ways to take apart buildings and other structures without damaging parts that can be sold and reused.
"The business always used to be smash it down into a big pile," then haul it to a landfill as fast as possible, says Mr. Costello. Today, he says, the work is more "surgical" and requires "looking at a building and asking what can we harvest from it."
Customers want to show that they are taking down structures in the most environmentally responsible way, partly to earn points from the U.S. Green Building Council and to enhance annual sustainability reports. Demolition companies need to be able to mine as much money as possible from the scrap. In bidding for a job, a demolition firm estimates how much it will receive for selling the salvage. Sometimes the resale value of metal and other materials far exceeds the cost of demolition. In these cases, Mr. Costello pays the owner of the building for the right to tear it down and sell the scrap.
For the former Worcester Lunatic Hospital, cranes lowered workers on platforms into the tower, where they chipped away at mortar with hammers, then pried out the stones one by one. Each stone is being labeled and photographed for later reassembly ARTHUR DREWES
"You save every piece that you possibly can," Mr. Costello says. Though all demolition firms feel pressure to recycle, Costello Dismantling has been especially aggressive, says Mark Shaurette, an assistant professor of construction management at Purdue University, who uses Mr. Costello as a guest lecturer.
Metal and concrete are the easy parts. Scrap-metal markets are well-established, and concrete is crushed into stones used in building roads and other construction projects. The tougher parts include damaged or painted drywall, carpeting, insulation and ceiling tiles, but some of those materials can be recycled.
Some of Mr. Costello's jobs have produced more than $1 million in proceeds from salvage. The demolition several years ago of a 19th-century textile mill in New Bedford, Mass., yielded more than $300,000 for the wood alone: carefully preserved Southern yellow pine that was sold to sawmills to be turned into flooring. Shredded scrap steel recently has sold for nearly $400 per ton.
The National Demolition Association says there are more than 1,500 demolition companies in the U.S., sifting through 115 million tons of debris a year, about 70% of which they manage to recycle.
On Belmont Hill, overlooking Worcester, Mass., Mr. Costello's firm is dismantling a gothic building erected in 1877 as part of what was then known as the Worcester Lunatic Hospital.
Scrap metal waiting to be sold, pictured here, on a plot of land near the headquarters of Costello Dismantling. The firm monitors daily scrap-metal prices and tries to avoid selling when demand is weak. WEBB CHAPPELL FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The building's 135-foot-high clock tower, with walls 3 to 4 feet thick, will be rebuilt nearby to embellish a modern hospital complex. The rest of the building will disappear. Some of the stone window sills could be sold to makers of quaint mailbox holders. Normally, Mr. Costello can sell the wood that he salvages, either for reuse in construction or ground up to become fuel or particle board. But the wood inside this building has been severely damaged by fire and contaminated with asbestos, so it will be trucked to a landfill designated for asbestos-laced materials.
Rather than old-style cranes with swinging balls, Mr. Costello uses excavators with hydraulic arms that can lift giant shears or grinding tools as high as 110 feet. He sometimes welds together his own tools. To pry valuable timber from old textile mills, he created a giant steel fork that can be attached to his excavators. He also built a rakelike implement to pull down drywall panels.
On a trip to Switzerland, he saw a demolition contractor using curtains made of recycled conveyor belts to protect nearby pedestrians and trains from tumbling debris. When he got home, he built his own 40-foot-high curtains from plywood panels.
Some of the choicest scrap found over the years has ended up in Mr. Costello's Cape Cod home. Alongside his driveway is an Art Deco guard rail from a bridge. The kitchen floor is Southern yellow pine from a textile mill. A sculptor made whale tails from Quincy granite that once adorned the Charles Street jail in Boston.
Mr. Costello grew up near Boston, where his father was a wholesale liquor dealer. After getting a degree in political science from Stonehill College in North Easton, Mass., he tried selling insurance and mutual funds. "I wasn't making much of a living and didn't like it much," he says. A friend referred him to a demolition firm, where he got his start driving a truck and doing manual labor. Soon Mr. Costello was assigned to the office and proved adept at preparing bids for new contracts. He created his own company in 1985.
Mr. Costello uses a praying mantis as his company's symbol because, he says, the insects carefully take apart their prey before eating it and don't waste anything. Even so, it hasn't proved easy to change the public image of the demolition industry as a rough-and-tumble trade. Some of his workers belong to a union known as the Building Wreckers.
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