Deconstruction, not demolition—the domicology movement is growing

By Natalie Rogers, former junior policy associate

All buildings have a life cycle, at least that is what Dr. Rex LaMore, director of the Michigan State University Center for Community and Economic Development, wants city planners to start realizing. Dr. LaMore and his team are working to advance domicology, a new way of thinking about construction and building renovation as a tool for managing structural abandonment and blight. 

Domicology is the study of the economic, social, and environmental characteristics related to the life cycle of buildings. The current construction paradigm goes from structural design to abandonment and eventually to demolition, sending salvageable materials and debris to landfills. Domicology seeks to shift this paradigm to address blight and structural abandonment by considering the life-cycle of structures and supply chain of materials in construction. Once this paradigm is applied, developers will consider the maximum reuse of materials by employing deconstruction techniques to mitigate the environmental, economic, and social effects of structural abandonment, blight, and demolition. 

This past spring, James Madison College at Michigan State University hosted a panel entitled “Urban Housing Inequalities and Domicology.” The panel featured Dr. LaMore; Dr. George Berghorn, assistant professor of Construction Management; Dr. Edward Murphy, associate professor of Global Urban Studies; Rawley VanFossen, executive director of the Capital Area Housing Partnership; and Walter Hanley, student in the James Madison College. 

The panelists discussed issues in the provision and production of affordable housing and how they saw domicology as playing a role in future construction. 

Dr. Berghorn began by discussing the three main issues he saw in producing new affordable housing: lots, labor, and lumber. He explained that lot availability is at an all-time low, while the demand for construction labor greatly outpaces the supply. In addition, he said that funding and grants for affordable housing are slowly disappearing, which means developers are unable to produce housing affordably. A solution he sees emerging is modular housing, which means units would be manufactured which would limit waste, open up new labor markets, and increase the housing stock. 

VanFossen echoed Dr. Berghorn’s sentiments by noting the huge issues surrounding current construction costs. He also noted that it costs much more to deconstruct a home than it does to demolish it. Deconstruction also takes a long time, there is not a huge market for reused materials in some areas, and a lot of funding for development is dependent on how quickly an area can be turned over and developed. 

The panelists view the emerging field of domicology as pivotal to addressing some of these problems. The range of research within the field is beginning to grow and gain recognition. The panelists believe that the field will soon find ways to make deconstruction cheaper than demolition, or find ways to train workers how to deconstruct buildings and identify reusable materials. 

Finally, the panelists see domicology as having great potential for mitigating construction emissions. Currently, 136 million tons of waste is created per year by the construction industry. That has huge consequences for carbon emissions as that waste rots in landfills and releases carbon into the atmosphere. Thinking of construction as a cycle where materials are reused has massive potential to significantly reduce emissions leading to a greener housing system. 

The domicology movement is an exciting revolution of the fundamental paradigms that shape how we construct homes and train our workforce. While it is a discipline born at Michigan State University, the researchers working in the small—but growing—field aim to expand the discipline and broaden the base of research within it. By widening the field, the researchers hope to create a new norm in construction where limited resources are recycled instead of dumped, and blight is managed instead of destroyed.