• The San Juan Daily Star

Sustainability advocates ask: Why demolish when you can deconstruct?

By Lisa Prevost

As the green building movement evolves beyond energy efficiency into new areas of sustainability, one promising effort focuses on finding new life for used building materials, although advocates say they are struggling with how to expand this niche market.

“Just in the past year or two, the conversation around deconstruction and reuse has really catapulted,” said Shawn Wood, a construction waste specialist for the City of Portland, Oregon, which he believes was the first municipality in the country to adopt an ordinance requiring certain homes to be deconstructed rather than demolished.

Deconstruction ordinances can help reduce waste, but more demand for salvaged materials is needed to really drive the market, he said. Interest is ticking up among municipal leaders and even Google as the construction industry tries to reduce its carbon footprint.

More cities are considering deconstruction ordinances like Portland’s that require older homes to be taken down for salvageable parts. Architects and academics are exploring ways to design buildings that can be easily disassembled and reused. And some foundations are funding efforts to build a “circular economy” in which waste is reused rather than thrown away.

But there are challenges to scaling up the effort for large commercial projects. For one thing, using salvaged materials isn’t necessarily a money saver if the materials have to be refurbished and stored. And older materials don’t necessarily adhere to new building codes and certifications, raising potential liability issues. In addition, structures built, say, in the 1960s or later include more composite materials that are difficult to take apart and reuse.

“There isn’t a salvage economy in the U.S. for commercial buildings,” said Jason F. McLennan, CEO of McLennan Design and creator of the Living Building Challenge, an exacting sustainability certification.

“There is a small underground one for residential projects,” he said, adding that he built his own house primarily from salvaged materials. “You have the Habitat for Humanity ReStores around the country, the independent salvage yards and eBay and stuff online, but the market tends to be more residential in nature.”

Nevertheless, enthusiasm for reuse is growing.

Wood regularly fields calls from jurisdictions around the country trying to figure out how to better manage construction debris, he said. Among the cities that have deconstruction ordinances are Milwaukee, Palo Alto, California, and San Jose, California. Pittsburgh and San Antonio are also pursuing deconstruction initiatives.

The obstacles are considerable, but the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta offers an example of what’s possible.

It was designed to meet the Living Building Challenge, which requires, among many other standards, the incorporation of salvaged materials — specifically, one salvaged item for every 500 square meters of design.

Jimmy Mitchell, a sustainability engineer at Skanska USA, the construction manager for the project, said he wanted to do more than simply bring in some repurposed furniture or fixtures. He felt an obligation to aim for “massive salvage.”

So he asked the Lifecycle Building Center, an Atlanta store that sells donated materials for reuse, to source as many used two-by-fours as it could get. The boards would be incorporated into the building’s wooden floor decks, alternated between new two-by-sixes, which would hold up the weight. The two-by-fours would function as spacers, creating an aesthetically pleasing pattern.

Lifecycle, where Mitchell is a board member, came through with 25,000 linear feet of two-by-fours, all salvaged from television and movie sets from Georgia’s thriving film industry. That was enough, when nailed together with the new boards, to form 125 floor panels of the 498 required.

The design team also drew other used materials from campus buildings undergoing renovations. Thick pine boards from one became stair treads, and slate roof tiles from another were refashioned into bathroom wall tiling.

The building, funded by the Kendeda Fund, opened in the fall of 2019. It received certification in April after a 12-month evaluation of its operations.

“We weren’t trying to meet the minimum for salvage — we wanted to find big examples,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to see that the weight of the salvage was heavier than the weight of the stuff we sent to the landfill. We accomplished that.”

Wood, the Portland waste specialist, said he was hopeful that more private sector players would step up and incorporate salvaged materials into their new buildings. “I’m seeing that, but not at a large enough scale yet to really propel things,” he said.

Portland’s ordinance applies to all single-family houses built in 1940 or earlier. Wood said the city decided to limit the ordinance to mostly wood-framed structures, because they are easier to deconstruct than homes built later that use adhesives and engineered lumber.

City officials have discussed extending the ordinance to commercial buildings (as Palo Alto did), but writing a law that captures the many variations and materials in those structures is more challenging, Wood said.

“And then the market for that material, like large commercial windows and doors, is still limited,” he said. “Not that you couldn’t do it. It’s another nut that needs to be cracked.”

Google is taking a whack at it. The company recently funded a report identifying some of the barriers to scaling commercial deconstruction and recommending strategies for expanding the reuse sector. With offices in more than 150 cities globally, Google has a corporate interest in reuse.

“Recognizing the outsized proportion of waste resulting from typical commercial demolition has motivated us to explore deconstruction and reuse of materials from commercial buildings that were not originally built with component disassembly in mind,” the company said in the report. “Our desire is to advance and refine our deconstruction efforts, but to use our scale to learn, innovate and share with everyone.”

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