Future Wreckers of America. Introductory demolition class at Purdue University learns management ropes at an actual project site near Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Purdue University)

Construction demolition hasn’t exactly been a field that attracts new blood. Made up mostly of family businesses and entrepreneurships doing less-than-glamorous work, it sports few big name players and suffers from image problems. But that image may soon change.

Purdue University and the National Demolition Association (NDA), Doylestown, Pa., are working to change those misperceptions and attract more talent into the sector through the nation’s first college-level demolition management specialization. This fall at its West Lafayette, Ind., campus, Purdue is offering an introductory demolition management class–the first in what will be a four-course program focusing on the wrecking business, from specialized demolitions to large-scale implosions.

"The industry, as a whole, has a real perception problem," says Mike Taylor, executive director of NDA, formerly the National Association of Demolition Contractors. An association survey a decade ago revealed that high school juniors ranked demolition contractor 49th out of 50 professions they were interested in pursuing.

Since then, demolition has become a bigger and more complex business. NDA now has more than 900 member firms in the U.S. and Canada. The devastation left by Hurricane Katrina throughout the Gulf Coast has highlighted demolition’s role in accelerating reconstruction there.

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  • But young professionals with knowledge of the demolition business are rare, says Brian Choate, owner of Midwest Wrecking Co., Fort Worth, Texas. "That person really doesn’t exist unless they have interned," he says.

    To promote the specialty, NDA board members began visiting colleges and universities to talk up its opportunities. Association officials began working with Purdue in 2002 to build a demolition specialty within its 527-student construction management program. Demolition will be Purdue’s fourth CM specialization, along with electrical, mechanical and health care.

    The association committed $25,000 to accelerate the process. Equipment manufacturer Caterpillar Inc., Peoria, Ill., pledged another $50,000 to fund the program’s professorship. "We think this is an excellent opportunity to get involved with this program and help increase skill level required in this industry," says David C. Martin, Caterpillar’s industry strategy manager. NDA will launch a fundraising effort in January to raise another $125,000 from member firms. Purdue hopes to secure a total of $200,000 to build the program.

    The program’s goal is not only to teach students how the demolition business runs, but how it should be run, says Stephen Schuette, head of Purdue’s Building Construction Management Department.

    Developing a demolition program is tough because not much is written down.
    Marc Shaurette, Purdue Faculty Member

    Developing the demolition curriculum put Purdue students, faculty and even NDA in uncharted territory. Demolition textbooks existed only in European countries, such as the U.K. Many were outdated and do not address recent U.S. safety and environmental standards, says Marc Shaurette, a Purdue Ph.D. candidate who spent an entire semester creating the program’s introductory class.

    "The demolition industry, as a whole, has a real perception problem."
    Mike Taylor, executive director, National Demolition Association

    The lack of written industry guidelines also didn’t help. "Demolition contractors don’t want to write anything down because they all believe they know the better method or have the ‘secret’ to bringing a building down," says Taylor. "The industry needs to have academia develop standards so clients know what a demolition contractor really is bidding."

    NDA helped interview faculty candidates to run the program. Kevin Behling, a former Iowa State University professor, landed the job as Purdue’s first assistant professor of demolition and reconstruction. Officials expected to fill 12 spots for the fall introductory demolition course but, to their surprise, 22 students enrolled. As a result, Purdue is offering the course this spring, enrollment is full and there is a short waiting list.

    Purdue junior Lenny Zelms was attracted to the inaugural demolition course. "It was the first time it was offered at Purdue, it sounded interesting and I’ve always loved demolishing and blowing stuff up ever since I was a kid," he says. Zelms, 22, graduates next December and says the course has helped him better define his career choice. "To be successful, you must have complete knowledge and that takes experience," he says.

    Shaurette is developing the specialization’s second course for next fall covering heavy equipment methods. The program will eventually cover topics such as selective demolition, safety, estimating, risk management and business management.

    The association and Purdue are looking to publish a demolition textbook to provide a foundation for its own program and assist other universities choosing to add the specialty. Behling and NDA are creating an industry advisory council to promote it elsewhere. The association recently hosted a cookout at Texas A&M University, College Station, to test student interest in demolition. More than 100 students turned out.

    Texas A&M is now exploring how to incorporate the program into its construction science department. "The timing is excellent because we are review-

    ing our undergraduate curriculum," says Charles Graham, interim department head. "It’s stuff we want all of our students to know about." NDA says at least 125 universities have expressed interest in offering demolition courses or a specialization.

    "Many large contractors often have to deal with a demolition project, and often engineers and construction managers are amazed at what’s involved," says John O’Keefe, marketing manager for Chicago-based Brandenburg Industrial Service Co. and a 1999 Purdue graduate. One of the industry’s largest demolition and remediation firms, it has lent real project sites for student field work. Says O’Keefe: "We hope the program grows and becomes part of the general construction management curriculum, not just at Purdue but at other universities as well."