The construction and demolition of buildings is an extremely material- and energy-intensive endeavor. According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, an estimated 600 million tons of construction and demolition debris was generated in 2018. That’s more than double the amount of municipal solid waste generated in that same year.
That is an immense quantity of waste and, as the building industry looks to ramp up its efforts to combat climate change, it is calling for solutions and change. One way to help bring that level of waste down is to rethink how and from where materials are sourced and how the elements of a building are treated when they have reached the end of their life.
The idea of material salvage and reuse is far from new. Since the dawn of civilization, buildings have utilized raw materials salvaged from other buildings. For example, the Romans reused salvaged building materials in the construction of many buildings and monuments, including the Arch of Constantine in Rome. The builders used marble tiles and other materials from other structures, including the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, which had been built almost 150 years earlier.
It is logical to maximize the usefulness of materials in building, particularly when you consider all the effort, energy and natural resources that go into creating those components in the first place. In the modern era, all too often we’ve ignored salvage and reuse in favor of sourcing something new. As the focus shifts to conservation, reclamation is getting a fresh look.
“In some applications, it’s both sustainable and aesthetically beneficial to reuse materials,” says Marcy Wong, partner at Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects, Berkeley, Calif. “Material selection is a crucial component of sustainability in design.”
Diverse Customers, Varied Needs
Rising material costs and sustainability efforts are creating a growing interest in architectural salvage and reuse, and, fortunately, there are more places to find material ready for a second life. One such source is Bellingham, Wash.-based RE-USE Consulting, which has been leading the way in the deconstruction space for decades.
“When I was at university and wanted to do an internship, someone asked if I wanted to help start a store that would basically be a used Home Depot to help keep things out of landfills,” recalls Dave Bennink, owner of RE-USE Consulting. “That was 28 years ago, and we soon realized there were more materials available if we went out and got them. We started out taking kitchen cabinets and pulling flooring from old houses before they were demolished. Then we realized we could save even more things, such as insulation and 2 by 4s, if we disassembled the whole structure. One of the things we’re most proud of is how much concrete we’ve saved. Because of the carbon footprint of that product, reusing it makes a real impact. We’ve reclaimed concrete pavers, concrete stacking blocks; we recently saved a precast concrete stair set.”
“One of the things I love about our mission and our industry is the fact that there are so many benefits that all pass through a common system and process,” adds Shannon Goodman, executive director of Lifecycle Building Center, a non-profit that sells used and refurbished building materials in Atlanta. “There is obviously the preservation of natural resources, as well as embodied carbon and embodied energy, but there is also the redistribution of economic and material wealth. Many of the people we interact with are not motivated by ‘sustainability’. They care about saving money or they like that LBC gives free materials to non-profits.”
For some communities, salvaged materials can be a game-changer. Properly recovered materials not only get diverted from landfills, but also can provide a lower-cost option to those unable to afford new components.
“One of the things we’re most proud of is our diverse customer base. We have lower-income homeowners who otherwise couldn’t afford to maintain their homes,” Bennink says. “We give away insulation. We have doors that start at $9 and 2 by 4s for $1. Landlords might come in for vanity cabinets, and we have others that love the quality of old wood. In most cases, they wouldn’t tell you their priority is the environment, but I value all their reasons equally.”
Along with the sustainability and cost benefits associated with using reclaimed materials, proper deconstruction can provide skilled, high-paying jobs. Through an organization called Build Reuse, a national community of organizations dedicated to building material reuse, Goodman sees great opportunities for education and job training in the reclamation trade.
PHOTOS: Billy Hustace unless otherwise noted