Tom Napier, president of the Building Materials Reuse Association.
Tom Napier, president of the Building Materials Reuse Association.

Reports of high diversion rates and deconstruction efforts may be constantly popping up on Tom Napier’s news feed, but to him, this only proves how far we are from the ultimate goal. “When they stop making news, I think that’s when we are achieving something,” he says. “If the whole industry can migrate more toward conservation as a standard practice—as a matter of course—then we are getting some place.”

That’s not to say that Napier is a pessimist. Quite the opposite, in fact. The current president of the Building Materials Reuse Association has created a “bucket list” of what he hopes to see happen in the industry before he exits this world. A list that was published BMRA’s September 2011 newsletter, but one that is worth reprinting here. Thankfully, Napier was not only willing to share his list with Vision 2020, but give us a little insight into his vision as well.

Bucket List Item 1:

The conflict between demolition and deconstruction disappears. The routine is to reuse what can be reused, recycle what can be recycled, and landfill the little bit that’s left.

“Buildings have to be demolished,” Napier admits. “That’s just a fact of life. What we are trying to do, once a decision is made for a building to come down, instead of the default being to put materials in a landfill or recycling the steel, there are additional avenues of conservation that can be practiced that are not as common as the mainstream. We just want to bring those into the tool kit as well.”

This, he adds, will require the construction industry to actually think about the best use case—and best life-cycle path—for materials. “The building across the street is being torn down, and the steel beams are being sent to China to be recycled into new steel beams that are going to be installed in the new, greener building across the street,” Napier quips. “It sounds ridiculous, but that isn’t a far off scenario.”

Bucket List Item 2:

Promoters of “green building” rating systems fully appreciate the impacts of waste and life-cycle benefits of materials reuse, and give full credit to reuse as a major contributor to sustainability.

Based on his own research, Napier has found that reusing materials could reduce the environmental impacts of water use, emissions to air, emissions to water, waste, and chemical releases up to 99%. “That’s almost a total reduction of adverse impacts compared to manufacturing new items,” Napier says. “That kind of an impact is not reflected in the point systems.”

He also says that today’s point systems focus too much on percentages and not enough on what is actually being done to the materials. For example, shredding perfectly good Douglas fir timbers and using them as alternate daily cover in a landfill counts every bit as much as extracting timbers, refinishing them, and using them in a timber-frame home or millwork.

“The path of least resistance becomes that which the point chasers exercise,” Napier says. “In a perfect world, there would be some kind of hierarchy—the closest use to the original form gets the most points and the farther you divert, or the more resources you put into making something different, then you get fewer points.”

Bucket List Item 3:

Architectural and engineering professionals, as agents to building owners, educate their clients and vigorously promote salvage and reuse where practical.

“I think an overemphasis has been placed on taking buildings apart and preserving materials, but they have to go somewhere,” Napier says. “I would like to provide more emphasis now to the design and engineering professions for reuse opportunities for materials to create the ‘pull’ that helps the ‘push.’”

In an ideal world, Napier says the value of reused materials would be ingrained in the construction industry infrastructure, starting with academia. “If I were king and I had a really long-term vision, I would be starting back to the educational systems and architectural programs and civil engineering programs and make this part of the value scheme of people coming up in the building professions,” Napier says. “That’s going to take a couple of generations.”

Bucket List Item 4:

Deconstruction, salvage, and used material businesses develop a robust and highly visible infrastructure within the building industry. Services are available for any type of project, any time, and at any location.

According to Napier, this will mean changing up the business model. “When you think about the business model of a demolition contractor, they don’t have a material handling or interim phase between the acquisition of material and the ultimate reuse,” he explains. “Getting those kinds of businesses started and getting them active and working is going to certainly give more options to building owners, property owners, demolition contractors, and designers.”

Bucket List Item 5:

The architectural, engineering, interior design, landscape design, demolition, construction, and facility management professions are thoroughly familiar with salvage and reuse practices, and employ them as a routine instead of a novelty.

“We can used recycled materials, but using materials that don’t have to be recycled—that are useful as is—that’s even better,” Napier says. Specifically, he would like at least 50% to 75% of all lumber in residential homes to be reused, and he would like to see all steel structural elements reused in another structural application, as opposed to just recycled.

“I’d say reusing at least 50% of typical single-family homes content is perfectly possible,” Napier says. “If the infrastructure to enable that to happen—to get materials from a job site to another job site—if that can be reinforced, I think that’s a completely doable objective.”

Bucket List Item 6:

Deconstruction, salvage, and reuse businesses work cooperatively with each other for the benefit of the industry.

In his vision, Napier would like to see hydraulic excavators, Sawzalls, pry bars, and Nail Kickers all work in harmony to remove buildings and conserve resources. “If the parties that use all of those tools can acknowledge the other ones as well, I think we’d all be better off,” he says. “Unfortunately, we seem to be more competitive than we are cooperative. That’s an institutional attitude.

“There’s plenty of untapped opportunity,” Napier adds. “The same water floats all boats.”