While the Industry Sets Its Sights on New-material Health and Transparency, the Most Significant Impact for Sustainable Design May Be Right under Its Nose. Here’s Why Material Reuse Deserves Another Look.

The good news for project teams is there are a number of product categories that lend themselves fairly effortlessly to salvage, including ceiling tiles, carpet tiles, furniture, metal studs, glazing, doors and plumbing fixtures—assuming they are in good condition, of course.

The design team created a large floor opening in the center of the main sales floor, producing excellent visibility and customer flow between all three levels of the store. This solution not only solved the connectivity issue but also became the design centerpiece for the project and acts as a vista for customers getting their bearings within the store.

The design team created a large floor opening in the center of the main sales floor, producing excellent visibility and customer flow between all three levels of the store. This solution not only solved the connectivity issue but also became the design
centerpiece for the project and acts as a vista for customers getting their bearings within the store.

“Some of the easy ones [are] doors; door frames; hardware; flooring, such as carpet and carpet tile, primarily,” says Marcus Hopper, AIA, LEED ID+C, associate in Gensler’s San Francisco office. “If there’s existing millwork that’s in good shape, there is a benefit for reusing that just because it is costly sometimes to have to build that.”

Michael Gaffney, senior associate vice president at CallisonRTKL, Seattle, says the retail industry, in particular, is reusing a variety of materials rather than specifying new products. He notes: “We see a lot of our wood potentially being reused and can either be in place where a decision’s made to keep a wood floor, for instance, rather than stripping it out and replacing it. In terms of fixtures or furniture, what we’re seeing recently is the reuse of built-in fixtures as perimeter or dividing walls as opposed to completely tearing out an interior space and replacing it with all new millwork and fixtures or standard shelving.”

Gaffney adds lighting is another category that’s being increasingly reused thanks to new solutions that allow design teams to retrofit LED lamps into traditional fixtures.“Several manufacturers are coming out with LED retrofit lamps so we’re able to realize the benefits of long-term operational savings without having to sacrifice all of that capital upfront.We’re able to reuse the fixtures but put in new LED lamps.”

Taking Inventory and Making Assessments

Assuming a client wants to explore material reuse, among the first questions the design team will need to answer are which products can be salvaged and which ones will get recycled, discarded or donated, and what’s the best way to go about removing them?

Hopper says the design team has to consider those decisions in light of the overall scope of the project and design. Team members also will need to review the existing materials onsite to determine if they will work with the overall design they’re trying to achieve.

“It’s a very collaborative effort, so we’ll be working with the owner, the contractor, any other team members and as a team decide what to keep and what not to keep. Sometimes things we would like to keep, from a cost perspective, if it’s too costly to try to keep it just from a labor standpoint, it would be easier to just not use it in the project,” Hopper concedes.

Two 14-foot flywheels were unearthed from the building’s original steam power plant—part of the building’s printing and publishing origins.

Two 14-foot flywheels were unearthed from the building’s original steam power plant—part of the building’s printing and publishing origins.

Interior Designer Allie Trachsel, LEED AP ID+C, also in Gensler’s San Francisco office, says oftentimes the decision to reuse materials is an uncertain one because of variables that aren’t always immediately obvious. Nevertheless, the key stakeholders need to embark on the journey together.

“Sometimes you just don’t know,” she admits. “Do you make a decision as a team willing to jump into an exploration and not quite sure what the end product will be? It’s just something you decide with the team and move forward to deal with as the construction progresses.”

Although this approach may seem risky, what should not be left to chance is the issue of safety during product removal. Henderson points out manufacturers and fabricators need to consider end-of-life disassembly at the onset of design and think about things, such as lift points and other safety considerations, for removal later on.

About the Author

Robert Nieminen
Robert Nieminen is a freelance writer; the former editor of Interiors & Sources magazine; and retrofit’s editor at large, specializing in interiors. Under his direction, Interiors & Sources was the recipient of several publishing awards, as well as a pioneer of sustainability reporting.

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