Even with surging interest in green building and sustainability, new construction and renovation projects continue to deplete vast quantities of resources. Remodeling, in particular, is a double-edged sword--the new house consumes materials, the demolition of the old structure generates debris.

You can build efficiently with sustainable products, and many pros do, but reusing building materials salvaged from old structures is yet another way to help Mother Earth. The concept is simple: The tons of usable materials that already exist in commercial and residential applications can be carefully deconstructed, cleaned up, and reused in new buildings.

Recycling in this manner is an old tradition, but the practice has grown as an increasing number of builders and architects consider it the ultimate sustainability strategy. "Using something old is often easier on the environment than buying new," Jennifer Roberts writes in Redux: Designs That Reuse, Recycle, and Reveal (Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2005). "Reuse reduces pressures to extract or mine nonrenewable resources from the earth or to harvest slow-growing renewable resources."

John Abrams, founder and president of the West Tisbury, Mass.-based design/build firm South Mountain Co., has long advocated the reuse of building materials. He says the built environment already has many usable materials and sees no reason to "fill up our vanishing landfills with perfectly good materials."

It's hard to argue with his logic. With increasing frequency, architects, remodelers, and builders are scoping out high-quality materials during renovation and restoration projects and using them in new ones. They're also mining salvage yards, which can be excellent sources for period fixtures and fittings.

Good As New
Salvaged lumber is one of the most popular reuse categories for recycling-savvy pros. "In many cases, the materials in old buildings are of far better quality than new materials," Abrams argues. The reason: "Old buildings were often built with slow-growing first-growth timber, which is denser and more stable than new, fast-growing second-growth or plantation timber," he says. This explains why South Mountain uses salvaged lumber in more than 80 percent of its interior and exterior finish work, he adds, and why the firm designs buildings with salvage availability in mind.

Minneapolis- and San Francisco-based Locus Architecture also takes this approach. Although the firm sets no limits on the materials it uses, wood products of all types make up a large portion. "In one of our first projects, 60 percent to 70 percent of the wood was reclaimed," says principal and partner Paul V. Neseth. Reclaimed products included maple and oak flooring, dimensional wood framing lumber, and redwood trim.

Lumber is just one of many salvaged materials available for reuse, however. Bathtubs, chalkboards, sinks, cabinets, mantels, shutters, stairs, and tile also can be reclaimed. Locus, for example, has used old plumbing fixtures, billboard vinyl, and sidewalks that were cut and installed as pavers and stair treads.

"Most commodity items, such as dimensional lumber, timber, bricks, and stone, can have value," says William Zoeller, senior architect with Norwalk, Conn.-based Steven Winter Associates, an architectural and engineering research and design firm. "Plumbing fixtures--especially sinks--and finished hardware are also good choices, and lighting fixtures can be easily rewired and upgraded."

Getting your hands on such materials is becoming easier too. In recent years, nonprofit salvage yards offering high-quality building materials have proliferated. One of the largest is the ReBuilding Center of Our United Villages, a nonprofit in Portland, Ore. The center started as a small yard but soon grew into a large operation that now diverts 4.5 million pounds of reusable building materials from landfills each year. It even has a division that provides deconstruction services.

Reuse opportunities need not always come from houses or buildings, however. Architects John Hong and Jinhee Park, principals of Cambridge, Mass.-based Single Speed Design, prove that a little imagination can turn the most unlikely elements into beautiful architecture. Single Speed had been exploring the idea of reusing a local armory building when a client approached the pair with a challenge: Build a house with steel and concrete salvaged from Boston's Big Dig highway project. Their efforts produced an industrial, yet beautiful, 4,300-square-foot home with a structural system comprised of more than 600,000 pounds of recycled materials from the nation's largest public-works project.

Hong and Park see real value--and a real future--in deconstructed materials and sustainable building. "We were interested in realizing the material but also the system," Park says of the Big Dig House. "Demolition of highways happens everywhere, and we can demo them to use in public housing. If we put enough time into feasibility studies, we can reuse bridges and many other structures."

"Second use can even be designed into structures from the beginning," Hong adds. "If you start looking at potential uses for salvaged materials, it boggles the mind what is possible."

Cost Considerations
Considering the world of new possibilities is exciting, but the process of using salvaged materials in new ways requires builders, remodelers, and architects to think differently. Product availability, sizes, and codes all play a role. For one thing, the salvage yard is not like a typical materials supplier; no two pieces are alike.

"The inventory is live and constantly changing," says Mark Pomeroy of the ReBuilding Center. "If you hang out long enough, you'll get good stuff, but it depends on being in the right place at the right time."

Sometimes just being there isn't enough. "Planning ahead is key to using salvaged components," Zoeller insists. "Standard dimensions change over time." In most cases, you'll have to figure out how to design without a specific product and yet, design for it. You may even have to buy the salvaged products first and then fit them into a design program later.

There are options aplenty, to be sure, but Zoeller cautions against reusing millwork with lead paint or old windows, which are inferior to new products. "Used radiators can be great with hydronic heat," he says, "but I would stay clear of mechanical equipment entirely. Anything with a 'useful life'--furnaces, boilers, water heaters--will either wear out, become antiquated, or both."

Cost is another consideration, depending on what you're using and how you're getting it. "Sometimes the savings derived from avoiding disposal costs and new material costs can combine to make deconstruction cost effective," Abrams says. What's more, Pomeroy adds, most nonprofit salvage yards will sell products for half of retail value--or way below it.

Neseth isn't quite as optimistic. "Originally, there was a thought that salvaged would be cheaper, but that's not the case," he says. "The labor cost is higher. You might get the material for free, but the time and labor costs spent prepping it add up."

Roberts concedes there are limitations to the old-is-better-than-new rule. "If you have antique barn timbers shipped from southern France to your construction site in Idaho, you're using a lot of energy getting them from there to here," she writes in her book. "In that case, new timbers from a sustainably managed forest in the Pacific Northwest might make more sense."

As with anything, she adds, it's important "to weigh the pros and cons of old versus new. Reuse is often good for the environment, but not always."

--This story first appeared in residential architect magazine.

Pioneer Millworks
Pioneer Millworks

Pioneer Millworks. Siding planks from old barns are reclaimed and cleaned up for reuse in new siding applications but are allowed to keep their weathered paint and age-patinated surfaces. The oxidized surface layers help protect the wood underneath, the firm says. Barn Board siding is available in two grades, a variety of weathered colors, and a mixture of softwood species. 800-951-9663. www.pioneermillworks.com.

Pacific Heritage Wood Supply Co.
Pacific Heritage Wood Supply Co.

Pacific Heritage Wood Supply Co. These old-growth redwood railroad ties were reclaimed from the Oakland Navy Depot in California. The company specializes in recycled, reclaimed, salvaged wood that originated in the forests of America's Pacific coast. 877-728-9231. www.phwood.com.


TerraMai. Reclaimed from circa-1930s olive-curing tanks made from old-growth redwood, the company's siding planks have a patina that varies from deep red to gray highlights. Solid lengths are available in 5/8-inch-thick, 4-1/2-inch-wide shiplap profiles with a 1/4-inch reveal in random lengths. 800-220-9062. www.terramai.com.

Single Speed Design
Single Speed Design

Single Speed Design. Applying ingenuity (and patience), this architecture firm turned 600,000 pounds of recycled concrete and steel from a highway construction project into this 4,300-square-foot home. The firm's principals say the Big Dig House is a prototype for recycling large materials from civic construction projects. 617-576-9300. www.singlespeeddesign.com.