Seemingly one of the most obvious ways to reduce our carbon impact—though the most challenging to implement—is to reuse what has already been made. Removing the concept of waste from the system is called the “Circular Economy” and is best described by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This thinking is being increasingly adopted by leading consumer product manufacturers, although to-date there is somewhat limited application within the building products industry. The use of salvaged materials in building construction not only creates a circular economy and tackles the issue of carbon, but also addresses another environmental issue—our ever-increasing landfills. In 2015, the EPA estimated that 548 million tons of building materials, or construction & demolition (C&D) debris was generated in the United States. In fact, C&D waste represents approximately 40% of everything thrown away in the U.S. each year and most of this material could have been recycled or reused. Therefore, it is imperative that the building and demolition community rethink and reinvent our waste streams, however the infrastructure to enable reuse does not exist in many regions.
In 2011, Walter P Moore participated in the founding of the Lifecycle Building Center (LBC), a nonprofit material reuse center in Atlanta, Georgia focused on reducing the C&D waste sent to landfills. The LBC deconstructs and salvages building materials from structures that are being torn down or renovated and directs the material to a retail center in southwest Atlanta. The materials are then available to the public at a very low cost or are donated to other nonprofits for free—a win-win.
This organization has created an entirely new stream for building materials in the Atlanta market and given the building industry an opportunity to specify both the salvage of materials and their future use in building projects. For example, when the Atlanta Walter P Moore office was renovated in 2014, we ensured that the drawings specified that all material be deconstructed, salvaged, and donated to the LBC.
Recently, Walter P Moore was engaged to provide structural engineering services for a new Hospital wing at Emory University. Several abandoned sorority dormitories existed on the site for the new hospital and were slated for demolition. Although the existing buildings had not been used for some time, there were still several usable materials inside such as cabinetry, doors, railing, light fixtures, and various other materials. Walter P Moore was able to connect the project owners to the LBC and as a result, several truckloads of materials were salvaged and donated to local nonprofits.
Using salvaged materials can also be beneficial to achieve credits or imperatives for green building rating systems. At the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design at Georgia Tech, a project that is striving to achieve Living Building status, salvaged 2x4s from the Lifecycle Building Center are being utilized as part of the structure’s nail laminated floor system to avoid having to purchase too much FSC wood.
While the use of salvaged materials is a powerful tool to reduce multiple impacts of the construction industry, the strategy remains sparingly used and for select elements. To increase the prevalence of re-using materials, particularly structural materials we must address multiple elements of the procurement supply chain. Organizations like the LBC represent a crucial link—warehousing inventory and connecting salvagers to specifiers. However, we must work to make landfill tipping fees better represent their true cost, while simultaneously both developing a deconstruction industry as well as designing our new buildings with consideration for not only how they will be constructed, but also how they will be deconstructed to best retain the value of the salvaged materials.