Defining domicology: Study of practices and consequences of abandoning buildings

Constructing, remodeling and demolishing buildings have significant environmental impacts: natural resources are used to build them and large amounts of waste are sent to landfills when they come down.

July 10, 2017

Stained glass at Materials Unlimited, an antique and restoration shop in Ypsilanti, MI. Photo by Lucy Schroeder.

By: Darien Velasquez, Great Lakes Echo

Constructing, remodeling and demolishing buildings have significant environmental impacts: natural resources are used to build them and large amounts of waste are sent to landfills when they come down.

What do you call that?

Researchers at Michigan State University are starting to use the word “domicology” to define the study of policies, practices and consequences of what happens to empty buildings.

It’s a term that doesn’t exist – yet. But George Berghorn, a self-described domicologist and assistant professor of construction management at Michigan State University, is working hard to make it one.

The term has Greek origins. The term domicile refers to buildings, homes and residences, Berghorn said.

“We attempted to publish a Wikipedia page for the term domicology, but some Wikipedia editors didn’t find the term to be established enough, so we weren’t able to publish the page,” Berghorn said. “We’re just trying to get the term more into people’s everyday usage and into their lexicon, and then maybe we will re-approach Wikipedia.”

Berghorn figures it is well worth the effort to create a term that encompasses all the different approaches to solve the problems of abandoned buildings. “It would be really easy to lump this all back to demolition or deconstruction when it’s so much more than that,” he said.

Abandoned homes in the U.S. reached a record high of 7.4 million in 2012, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

“For right now, we’re looking at ways to discourage structural abandonment for structures that already exist,” Berghorn said. “Then we can start looking proactively at how to end the overall problem.”

Domicology includes selective and careful building disassembly to recover the maximum amount of materials for reuse, according to Michigan State University’s Center for Community and Economic Development.

“All deconstruction projects start the same way as demolition projects,” Berghorn said. “We go in and do an assessment of the building and just try to understand what are the physical characteristics of the building that have to be taken down and what can be saved or salvaged.”

Saving and salvaging building materials are crucial elements of domicology. They save waste from piling up in landfills and conserves resources, bringing more jobs to the community.

Construction-related waste constitutes one-fourth of landfill waste in the U.S., according to Michigan State’s Center for Community and Economic Development.

Rex LaMore, director of the center, says there is potential for establishing a “deconstruction economy” that collects and repurposes waste generated by old buildings.

“If you know the end of the structure’s life cycle, you’re going to design it differently,” LaMore said.

“You’re going to use screws instead of nails, you’re going to avoid glue wherever you can because it allows you to pull stuff apart and it maximizes the value of the materials. Plus, you can get some re-sale out of the materials opposed to filling up the landfills with them,” LaMore said.

Last year, LaMore received a U.S. Department of Commerce grant to work on abandoned buildings in Muskegon.

He examined more than 3,000 of them to identify the volume and availability of structural materials they contained and determine the market for resale and reuse.

“We’re trying to end this plague of structural abandonment that we currently have,” LaMore said. “Everybody seems to sort of take it as the way it is and it’s just absurd.”

Both LaMore and Berghorn argue that adopting the idea of a structure’s physical lifecycle will radically alter construction and design.

“We now take something that was a blight on the landscape and that becomes possibly the engine for some new economic growth and some new economic development in our community,” Berghorn said.

Developing solutions for structural abandonment is essential to preserve the earth’s natural resources, according to domicologists. Those solutions can’t be just functional. They also have to look good.

“If you think about designing for deconstruction, one of the problems that I personally have is that is everything going to end up looking like a pole barn because pole barns are pretty easy to deconstruct,” LaMore said. “So there are still some design issues that I think we will have to noodle through.”

What started as a trend is becoming a cultural consciousness and a growing industry, LaMore said.

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