Updated March 2021.

Demolition might sound even more fun than construction because it seems like a random process. 

It’s anything but.

Large-scale demolition projects are complex and require close examination of the motivation for taking them on. Demolition might be necessary for any number of reasons:

  • Health hazard. If a building is old, has moisture leaks and mold build-up, or contains hazardous building materials (HBMs) such as asbestos, lead, or other toxic chemicals, it’s often more sensible (and cost-effective) to demolish it rather than attempting renovation.
  • Faulty foundation. A weak foundation can result in brittle, slanted floors and cause the building to fail inspection.
  • Blighted. If an abandoned building has become home to animals and insects — especially if it suffers from poor construction, possible moisture problems, and/or is a fire hazard — demolishing it may be the best course of action.
  • Redevelopment. The property owner might wish to demolish an older building and sell a vacant lot, making it more valuable for redevelopment.

Below is our step-by-step guide to a successful demolition project, from planning through cleanup.

The planning stage

Building demolition sites are highly regulated and must meet federal, state, and local requirements.

For example, in Michigan, according to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) National Stabilization Program 2 (NSP2) Consortium Policy and Procedures Manual, all demolition projects must satisfy one of the following national objectives:

  • Low, Moderate and Middle Income Beneficiary (LMMI): There is a direct benefit resulting from the final activity completed on the site. For NSP2, a blighted structure is demolished and a new house is redeveloped in its place. This new house is then sold or rented to an income eligible (below 120% of area median income) LMMI household.”
  • Low, Moderate and Middle Income Area Benefit (LMMA): More commonly through demolition only activities and demolition of a property to be land banked. Demolition is an eligible stand alone activity that meets the LMMA national objective by itself with no identified end use under only two circumstances:
    • The property is blighted, is in an LMMA area and is an extreme documented threat to public health and safety or
    • Is blighted, is in an LMMA area and the area is part of a comprehensive strategy for revitalization.”

*For more information on demolition project eligibility, refer to Section B in the Michigan NSP2 Consortium Policy and Procedures Manual 

It’s equally important to consider:

  • Whether the demolition (and subsequent construction, if applicable) will disturb any environment or wetlands.
  • If the building is considered a historic landmark.

Depending on your state and local government regulations, you may need to obtain permits before starting demolition.

The preparation stage

After permitting, careful preparation will keep the demolition running smoothly throughout the process.


According to OSHA, labor for wrecking and demolition work falls under the Special Trade Contractors category. These contractors bring expertise in:

  • Concrete breaking for streets and highways
  • Demolition of buildings or other structures (except marine)
  • Dismantling steel oil tanks (except oil field work)
  • Wrecking of buildings or other structures (except marine)

Decide which outside contractors you want to use. Sometimes state or local governments will provide lists of pre-approved contractors — a great starting point for major projects.

Building inspections

There’s nothing like being elbow-deep in a demolition project and finding asbestos, lead paint, or some other HBM at the site. Regulated abatement is required if HBMs are discovered during a demo — and that can completely bust a budget if you didn’t plan for it. The best way to avoid surprises is to arrange a thorough building inspection, including sampling for HBMs.

Further reading: Michigan Demolition Asbestos & Excavation 

Cost control and contingency planning

Keeping costs under control during demolition is as essential as during construction. Choose someone on staff or an outside contractor dedicated to cost control and budgeting to work closely with project managers.

Budgeting should also include a contingency plan to cover any unforeseen costs. For example, if a building’s plumbing or septic system is going to be used for reconstruction, it must be functional. But older pipes and plumbing can rust, age, and deteriorate, and even cause explosions and flooding, and as a result, incur unexpected project costs.

Building inventory

What’s your plan for the leftover items in the building? Things like desks, chairs, and other office furniture can be donated to local businesses, The Salvation Army, or Goodwill, or distributed via community sales, Craigslist, or Facebook Marketplace. Printers, computers, or other technology can be recycled or donated.

To offload things like expired cleaning supplies and old paint, check local websites for hazardous waste pickup and disposal days. 

Salvage and donate first. Recycle second. Going to the landfill is a last resort.

The demolition stage

You’ve made it through the paperwork and prep — now you’re ready to start the demolition!

Common methods of building demolition

So how do you demolish a building? There are several demolition methods to consider. These include:

  • Implosion. Explosives cause a building to collapse from the inside out. 
  • Excavator demolition. The right boom topples the building. The most common excavator attachments are shears, crushers, and hydraulic hammers.
  • Wrecking ball. It’s inexpensive and quick, but this iconic form of demolition is rarely used today because it creates dust, debris, and safety hazards.
  • Selective demolition. A more eco-conscious alternative, this method is also known as deconstruction because it retains the structure while removing specific sections. Deconstruction works well for remodels, upgrades, and extensions, promoting reuse and recycling and reducing the demo’s overall environmental impact.

Further reading: Industrial Deconstruction Case Study — General Motors Automotive Plant, Pontiac, Michigan 

Safety first

It’s crucial to keep your workers safe during demolition projects. These sites are full of cranes, sledgehammers, and debris, and they’re dirty, loud, and riddled with trip hazards.

Careful contractor selection, team training, and safety oversight can go a long way in reducing incident rates. Full-time safety oversight personnel, for example, help ensure that workers are performing their jobs safely and efficiently. They also keep track of incidents, host toolbox talks, and provide one-on-one consultation.

The cleanup stage

It might be all downhill from the time the last piece of foundation is pulled up, but don’t let complacency set in during cleanup. 

Hire experienced excavators

Experienced excavators can have a hefty price tag, and for a good reason. They specialize in safely operating heavy equipment around people, in small spaces, near underground utilities, and on different terrain. If you have a giant foundation to fill or lots of square footage to level, it will pay off to bring in the best crew available.

Take down signage and clear the site

Before you wrap up the project, take down all temporary fencing and signage and properly dispose of it. If necessary, clean up the parking lots you used, fix potholes, and repaint lines. 


Ready to get your next demolition project started? TriMedia’s EHS experts can help you with: 

  • Building hazardous materials assessments (Asbestos, Lead, PCBs, Mercury)
  • Construction or demolition personnel exposure sampling
  • Employee safety training and oversight
  • Community noise monitoring
  • And more

Get in touch today!

Download this article as an e-book!