Material Reuse: The New Frontier of Carbon and Waste Reduction

The building sector is responsible for more than 40 percent of all carbon-dioxide emissions, which contribute to climate change. One approach to drastically reducing emissions from construction is by incorporating commercial building material reuse. Nationwide collaborative All For Reuse representatives says material reuse can—and should—be normalized in the industry. It’s an obvious solution, they say, to a problem that’s currently just getting worse. 

The Roundhouse at Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh won architecture firm GBBN the 2021 1st Place Metamorphosis Award for Adaptive Reuse by retrofit magazine. PHOTO: Craig Thompson Photography

“We are not moving fast enough to reach net-zero-carbon targets in the buildings sector,” says Frances Yang, All For Reuse (AFR) co-founder and regional practice leader of sustainable materials at Arup. “If we don’t do our part to eliminate or drastically reduce emissions, we will see an irreversible impact on our climate.” 

AFR tackles emissions and waste in the sector. And its members are asking building professionals worldwide to join them: by embracing commercial material reuse on a grand scale.

Rethinking ‘Waste’

Commercial building material reuse refers to deconstructing commercial-grade materials (doors, lighting, cabinetry, ceiling tile, carpeting) and making them available for resale to other commercial projects.

It’s a relatively new approach in commercial construction, but the benefits outweigh any drawbacks. “Commercial reuse drastically reduces carbon emissions associated with the manufacture and transport of new materials—by 90 percent or more,” says Andrew Ellsworth, AFR co-founder and CEO of Pittsburgh-based Doors Unhinged.

That’s a key metric building professionals can realistically achieve. Unfortunately, explains Ellsworth, the industry is headed in the opposite direction.  

“Worldwide, we’re projected to construct the equivalent of all the buildings in New York City every single month for the next 40 years,” he says.

That’s a lot of new buildings, billions of tons of new materials to be manufactured and transported, and a lot of emissions to be released.

Add “waste” from demolition to the mix, and that’s even more degradation to the planet. About 170 million tons of building materials get sent to landfills each year in the U.S. alone—32 million of which are from commercial renovations.

The Roundhouse at Hazelwood Green incorporated 49 reclaimed door packages sourced from local projects for its newly designed co-working space, diverting 2.3 tons of material from the landfill and preventing more than 5 metric tonnes of CO2 from being released. PHOTO: Craig Thompson Photography

But watch what you call “waste”.

“Building material reuse is where carbon and waste meet,” Ellsworth says. “That’s our opportunity to meaningfully address both areas. Commercial reuse is unmatched in impact and speed of implementation. It’s rivaled only by the reuse and retrofit of entire buildings.” 

Catalyzing Demand for Reuse

Commercial building material reuse is the most effective way to cut emissions quickly. “Reuse is a far better approach than recycling, and it’s cheaper and faster than relying on industry to convert to green technology and clean energy,” Yang says.

What’s preventing a wider embrace of the practice, she says, are “societally constructed barriers that make incorporating reclaimed products a challenge for property owners.” 

Perceptions about liability, aesthetics and warranty availability often discourage building professionals from considering reuse. AFR says these concerns are overblown, misguided or solvable.

With their collective expertise and influence, AFR is working to change these perceptions and break down barriers to adoption.

“Our goal is to catalyze demand for reclaimed commercial materials, thereby creating market conditions for new reuse enterprises to grow and thrive,” Yang says.

Fortunately, there’s potential for anyone who may be interested in launching such an enterprise.

“This is a mostly untapped market,” Ellsworth notes. “There’s plenty of room to grow, especially in commercial interior fit-outs, with huge volumes of materials being disposed of every year.”

Ellsworth would know. Doors Unhinged has reclaimed and sold hundreds of commercial doors and completed dozens of projects since its 2018 inception. But it isn’t the only company handling reclaimed commercial products.

Interior design firm SchottXchange, Indianapolis, reclaims doors, office furniture and cabinetry and integrates them into new designs. San Francisco-based Madrone specializes in sustainable demolition and deconstruction of commercial interiors. Also from the Bay Area, ReSeat sells reclaimed office furniture and workstation components.

Online retailer Etsy’s Brooklyn-based headquarters, designed by architecture firm Gensler, incorporated local, reclaimed materials into its recent renovation. As a result, the project diverted more than 90 percent of materials from the landfill. PHOTO: Garrett Rowland Photography

“With more demand for reuse,” says Alejandra Arce-Gomez, AFR steering group member and Sustainability Manager at Madrone, “more product vendors could open reuse businesses, and demolition companies like Madrone could divert more materials that currently have no place to go.”

Reuse in Real Life

Online retailer Etsy’s Brooklyn-based headquarters, designed by architecture firm Gensler, incorporated local, reclaimed materials into its recent renovation. During the design process, an inventory of existing offices identified more than 750 furniture pieces, food service equipment, and art commissions for reuse in the project. Further, Gensler’s team identified 1,150 linear feet of high-quality wood and 10 industrial doors for reuse from the new project site. As a result, the project diverted more than 90 percent of materials from the landfill.

The Roundhouse at Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh won architecture firm GBBN the 2021 1st Place Metamorphosis Award for Adaptive Reuse by retrofit magazine. The historic renovation incorporated 49 reclaimed door packages sourced from local projects for its newly designed co-working space, diverting 2.3 tons of material from the landfill and preventing more than 5 metric tonnes of CO2 from being released.

“Architects really have most of the influence necessary to incorporate reclaimed materials into these projects,” says Marcus Hopper, AFR steering group member, senior associate at Gensler, and co-author of What’s Old is New Again: Circumnavigating the Circular Economy. “All it takes is flexibility, creativity, and the right partners to make it happen.”

A Collaborative Approach

All For Reuse launched in 2020 with Yang and Ellsworth discussing ways to meaningfully accelerate material reuse. As their conversations with colleagues broadened, so did the AFR team.

Yarden Harari, AFR member and associate with CallisonRTKL, says: “Our core team represents nearly all stages of the design and construction process. Our extended networks branch out across disciplines and perspectives. It’s an incredibly powerful meeting-of-the-minds that illustrates many of us really are on the same team.”

Harari led CallisonRTKL’s CoLab, an initiative that prioritized reuse in high-end retail interiors, with input from the AFR team. Progress on this front nationwide proves there’s interest in reuse.

All For Reuse’s strategy is to seek out large property owners—universities, government agencies, corporations—and build partnerships with them. They ask these entities to commit to incorporating reclaimed materials on all future projects, as in Etsy’s Brooklyn-based headquarters (shown). PHOTO: Garrett Rowland Photography

AFR’s strategy is to seek out large property owners—universities, government agencies, corporations—and build partnerships with them. They ask these entities to commit to incorporating reclaimed materials on all future projects.

So far, they’ve made great strides.

Partnering with San Francisco Department of Environment, Alameda County Waste Management Authority (“StopWaste”) and the Business Council on Climate Change, Yang has facilitated a series of AFR workshops in the Bay Area to accelerate the material-reuse ecosystem.

Through AFR’s Owner’s Alliance program, she has attracted tech companies, government agencies and universities into the reuse discussion. Google, Meta, Genentech, and others are collaborating with AFR to explore reuse opportunities in their organizations and have committed to helping move the market toward widespread reuse.

“All For Reuse is inviting change in the industry,” says Yang, “starting with the people who purchase building materials for projects and who often have the greatest influence on the trajectory of what’s possible.”

Learn more about All For Reuse.

Current AFR Members:

Frances Yang (Arup), Andrew Ellsworth (Doors Unhinged), Yarden Harari (CallisonRTKL), Emily English (BNBuilders), Alejandra Arce-Gomez (Madrone), Marcus Hopper (Gensler) and Amanda Kaminsky (Building Product Ecosystems)

Related resources and articles

A Reuse Roadmap: A Guide to Launching a Reuse Plan In Your Organization (*Internal document provided for educational purposes courtesy of Gensler)

Greenbiz: These Orgs are Constructing Reuse Infrastructure for the Built Environment

Building Green: All for Reuse Looks to Cut Embodied Carbon

CallisonRTKL: The CoLab Report on Deconstruction + Material Reuse in AEC

Doors Unhinged: Driving a Paradigm Shift Through Reuse of Commercial Interiors

Gensler: What’s Old is New Again: Circumnavigating the Circular Economy

About the Author

Janeen Ellsworth
Janeen Ellsworth is content director for Doors Unhinged and All For Reuse.

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