A Recycled Blog on Recycling the Whole House

This post contains 100% recycled content! It was originally was published on Paul Anater’s fine blog, Kitchen and Residential Design, where it premiered as a guest post.
David Gottfried’s LEED Gold certified home in Oakland. Photo courtesy of David Gottfried.

If old timber could talk, the stairs on David Gottfried’s Oakland, California home (at right) would have some wild tales to tell. The bullet holes testify to something that happened in an earlier life. The wood was once part of a century-old highway bridge, before it became part of Gottfried’s LEED certified home.

Gottfried happens to be the founder of the US Green Building Council, and his use of recycled materials is part of a trend. It’s a small trend – currently, less than 1 percent of discarded building materials get reused – but the trend is growing.

New Digs from Old

The LEED rating system encourages builders to re-purpose materials, awarding points when wood, brick or other materials from an earlier structure are reused. The results can make for a good story as well as for a sustainable practice. Recently, Paul Pedini, a civil engineer who worked for 11 years on Boston’s Big Dig, built a house from the site’s leftovers.

836 Market Street, renovated by the Challenge Program in Wilmington, Delaware.
Photo courtesy of the Challenge Program.

Pedini’s comment about this puts the practice of dumping building materials – refuse that takes up nearly 1/3 of the space in many urban dump sites – into sharp focus. “These materials are as good as you can get,” he said. “We were being paid money to junk this stuff. There’s something inherently illogical about it.”

In a few places, there’s also something illegal about it. Here and there, cities have begun writing ordinances to encourage the recycling of not just the odd item or too, but large amounts of building material. For example, Orange County, North Carolina has drafted an ordinance that requires builders to separate wood, metal and drywall discards at construction sites.

Alameda County, California’s Measure D, passed in 1990, called for a whopping 75% reduction of dump-bound refuse over a 20-year period. That 2010 deadline has arrived, and Alameda County has gotten close to meeting its goal, in large part because of the county’s emphasis on recycling and re-purposing building materials.

A Rose by Any Other Name

As I have worked to launch my home remodeling design business over the past couple years, money has been tight. That hasn’t kept me from my favorite hobby: gardening. The beds in the garden are bordered by discarded brick and the “urbanite” that borders the sedum shown in the top photo.

I’m fascinated by home demolition sites. I find myself peering through the fence at the rubble behind them, wondering what useful treasures are hiding there. Many of the treasures I find wind up in my garden; short of money for the last couple years, I have created quite a paradise from seeds, cuttings and cast-off chunks of concrete that are dignified with the name “urbanite.”

I’m not alone in finding gold amid the dross. Nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity and historical preservationists both share my interest in gleaning gems from old buildings. Kitchen designer and master blogger Paul Anater, who kindly invited me to write a guest post for his blog., Kitchen and Residential Design, tells me that he sends materials salvaged from his remodeling jobs to a ReStore, the materials storehouse run by and for Habitat for Humanity. (This post originally appeared on Paul’s blog and is reprised here. If you haven’t read Paul’s blog, I heartily encourage you to check it out.)

Art from Found Materials

In addition, a growing number of designers share a fascination in designs that find new uses for found objects. I’m amazed that a couple thousand ordinary paper clips can be woven into the silvery and sinuous chandelier shown below.

Paperclip chandelier. Photo: Posh Posh.

I have written several times about furniture makers who make a point of using reclaimed wood, either salvaged from old buildings, wine barrels, or from wind-toppled trees. Master furniture maker and blogger Mitch Roberson and furniture maker Michael Yonke, creator of the gorgeous Diversion Coffee table below, are among my favorites.

It was from talking with furniture makers that I learned that reclaimed wood is often much better quality than newly harvested timber. The reason is that old buildings were built from first-growth wood, which is stronger, denser and taller than the second- and third-growth forests now being cut. This is why the length and mass of beams in old buildings is so impressive – they simply don’t grow ‘em like that anymore.

Indeed, the definitive Waste to Wealth website notes that, “The value of recovered wood is rising, because many species of wood are no longer available from forests. Furthermore, older wood typically is stronger and of higher quality than new growth wood, and it has already shrunk to its permanent size. Another key factor is landfill tipping fees, which are $65/ton in Connecticut.”

Back from the Brink of the Grave

Diversion coffee table by Michael Yonke. Color results from the natural aging wood patina from two year open air treatment. Materials: Reclaimed and re-purposed tropical forest true mahogany.

It’s expensive and wasteful to bury building materials in what designer William McDonough has called “product graves” – i.e., dump sites. And it’s not just what gets carted away after the wrecking ball hits an old building that gets trashed. Dumps also runneth over with left-overs from new buildings. A new 2,000-square-foot house typically contributes nearly 8.5 tons of materials to the dump!

But spurred both by changing economics, legislation, and a desire to do the right thing, a number of firms across the US now specialize not just in reclaiming and reusing parts of the house, but in deconstructing and recycling the whole darn house! The field, called “deconstruction,” is related to but different from demolition, the traditional swing-the-wrecking-ball method of taking down buildings.

Of course, people have been selectively harvesting items from old buildings for centuries – there are many buildings in Northern England that were constructed of stones taken from Hadrian’s wall. And there has long been a market for salvaged items from Victorian houses, despite the fact that it’s a lot harder to pull nails out than it is to blow them in with a nail gun.

But both the reasons for and ways of recycling building materials are growing, led by firms such as those mentioned below.

Three Cheers for the Good Guys & Gals

The Reuse People, a mostly-West Coast nonprofit that began in San Diego in 1993, have worked hard to standardize efficient building deconstruction practices. They have taken down hundreds of buildings in the San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Boulder areas, and have done much to educate the building trade. They write an informative newsletter called the Velvet Crowbar and and have even written a detailed training manual on deconstruction. Their website includes an annotated listing of 100 related local businesses and resources for deconstruction minded consumers in the San Francisco-Oakland region.

Habitat for Humanity Restore volunteers Vince Perkins and Bill Bumby (wearing red hat) remove salvaged doors from the Rennebohm building at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Photo by Jeff Miller

Reconnx, Inc., a deconstruction firm that is located in Boulder, Colorado, has the distinction of creating the Nail Kicker de-nailing gun. The company was started in 1996, by Jon Giltner, a registered structural engineer, who like Paul Pedini, was frustrated by seeing useable 2″ x 12’s” and other construction materials being dumped in a landfill. His career in reuse began. He first focused on developing finger jointing, and adapted table saws and multi-phased drills for deconstruction. Reconnx is now the premier equipment supplier for the deconstruction industry.

Another laudable organization involved in deconstruction is the Challenge Program, a non-profit youth training program in Wilmington, Delaware. Through the program 18 to 21-year-olds are given 6 months of intensive construction training that includes 700 hours of site-based construction training, deconstruction of buildings and on-site classes. As the biographies of the participants make clear, trainees come to the program without high school diplomas, but in many cases with prison records. Through the program, they gain both their GEDs and job skills. So it’s not only building materials that are being “upcycled” – it’s also human lives.

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9 thoughts on “A Recycled Blog on Recycling the Whole House

  1. This is a great source of information for me, especially the data on the various municipalities that are redirecting more materials out of the dump and back into use. This will not decrease, it will only increase.

  2. I’m glad to be of service Mike! Writing this blog is a 2-day a month labor of love (no one pays me to write any of this!), so I hope it’s at least useful. It’s great to hear feedback like this.

  3. It’s good to see that there are many people dedicated to being environmentally friendly. If you are looking for civil engineering experience that enforces green building in the San Francisco or Oakland area, visit our site Urban Design Consulting Engineers at http://www.urbandesignce.com We specialize in utilities, streetscape, site development, joint trench, project management.

  4. Hi,
    1st i love your blog!
    2nd i really like your comment on reusing found materials!

    I really think that anybody starting a demolition project, needs to understand the importance of care and respect (be environmentally friendly) to the surrounding building areas, parcs & foundations, and give a careful consideration to individuals as a way of limiting the possible inconvenience of the project.

    If you can think of this in a way of still recycling the materials then it is one of the most beautiful things in the world!

    Any team can take pride in a simple demolition or destroying of a building but efforts to provide a safe work environment for employees and to those possibly inconvenienced by it should be more thought of…

    Check out the site i found about demolition montreal services but especially their recylcling section!!!!

    Anyway very good post, and i think alot of blogs should be as good and ecofriendly as yours…

    Louis Bell
    Shy commenter but proud follower of the nicolettet blog…

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