Salvage Beauty

Reused building materials take a load off the environment

Salvage Beauty by Chris Lyons

Salvage Beauty by Chris Lyons

Chris Lyons

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It’s a busy Monday at the Loading Dock, a cavernous, 42,000-square-foot retail warehouse in Baltimore that is stocked floor-to-ceiling with salvaged building materials. Leslie Kirkland, executive director of the nonprofit store, is trying to figure out where to stash four semitrailer loads of rolled carpet remnants.

Like the bulk of the store’s inventory, the new carpet was donated by a local company and, instead of ending up in a landfill, will find use in homes across the greater Baltimore area. Over the next few weeks, 15 roll-off Dumpsters of used lumber will be delivered to the Loading Dock, along with kitchen cabinets and appliances from a 400-unit apartment building, all destined for reuse.

Kirkland’s organization claims to be the oldest nonprofit “reuse center.” Since it opened 23 years ago, it’s expanded several times to meet customers’ demand for inexpensive sinks, doors, carpets, and the like. “We’re busting at the seams,” she says. “We’ve been here two years and we could already use another 40,000 square feet.” Similar stories are playing out every day across the country at hundreds of reuse stores as the idea of saving cash by recycling building materials catches on.

While there’s always been a market for architectural salvage, in the past it was largely con-fined to boutique shoppers seeking a match to an antique wall sconce, a carved oak mantelpiece, or marble door handles. Stores like the Loading Dock cater to a less rarefied crowd of bargain hunters and low-income home owners. “We’re like a secondhand Home Depot,” Kirkland says. “We have claw-foot bathtubs, and that gets at some of the fun architectural salvage side of it. But our mission is to provide low-cost building materials.”

It’s a mission that dovetails with the nation’s burgeoning green building movement. Flip through the glossy home and garden magazines and you come away with an impression of green building that features expensive high-tech gadgetry like photovoltaic solar systems and geothermal pumps, or pricey products like organic sheets and bamboo compost containers. But running out to buy the latest hip “green lifestyle” product might actually do more harm than good. It turns out that the greenest choice of all may be reusing salvaged materials from a place like the Loading Dock.

Every product, from a two-by-four to a refrigerator, contains “embodied energy”—the energy it takes to extract the raw materials it’s made of, run the factory where it’s built, truck the product from one place to another, and so on. There’s not a huge difference between the embodied energy of, say, a hybrid and an SUV, even though the “operating energy” the hybrid uses every day may be less.

So if you replace your fridge with a more efficient model, you reduce its operating energy at the expense of its embodied energy. You basically start over with a whole new set of environmental costs. Meanwhile, all the embodied energy of your old appliance ends up in the landfill. “If we were in Germany or Sweden or Holland, they would have to take apart that fridge and recycle it, but here it ends up in a landfill,” says David Johnston, co-author of Green Remodeling: Changing the World One Room at a Time (New Society Publishers, 2004) and of the forthcoming Green from the Ground Up (Taunton, April 2008). “I suppose some MIT grad student has done a cost-benefit analysis, but I’m Scottish enough that if it’s less than 10 years old and still works I’m going to use it.”

When it comes to building materials, the energy costs of making concrete, logging timber, and, especially, transporting goods from far-flung places are extraordinary, says Brad Guy, president of the Building Materials Reuse Association and co-author of Unbuilding: Salvaging the Architectural Treasures of Unwanted Houses (Taunton, 2007). In terms of embodied energy, local, salvaged materials are by far the greenest choice, he says.

Organizations like the Loading Dock are probably the most visible form of the growing construction salvage industry. Leslie Kirkland, who also serves as vice president of ReDO, says the organization promotes reuse centers and has some 200 stores listed in its national database. Habitat for Humanity affiliates have launched more than 700 reuse facilities since 1989 in an expanding network of outlets that help fund the organization.

Because most reuse centers operate as nonprofits, companies can write off their donations of salvaged materials. Such economic incentives are critical in a system prone to rewarding builders who simply knock buildings down and toss the debris in landfills, which typically charge just a few dollars in “tipping fees.”

Deconstruction is labor intensive. “It’s like building in reverse,” says Guy. The process begins with removing hazardous materials like asbestos, lead-contaminated plaster, and mercury-laced lightbulbs. Then the fixtures, cabinets, and trim are salvaged. The interior is gutted, and then “you start from the top, take the roof off and work your way down to the foundation,” he says.

Like deconstruction, building with used materials can be labor intensive for anything more complicated than popping in a used sink or installing reclaimed cabinets. Building codes and the building industry have standardized features like lumber dimensions and door and window sizes to make construction fast and easy. Working with nonstandard older materials takes a little more time.

“If you’re really committed to building with reused materials, it takes a whole different approach,” explains Johnston, who helped found a reuse center in Boulder, Colorado. One do-it-yourself builder he knows spent a year collecting materials, including a set of insulated windows for a fifth of their retail price, stockpiling his salvage materials in a storage unit as he went. “He designed the entire remodel around those windows. In the end, he probably saved tens of thousands of dollars, but it took some advance thinking.”

Diehards like Johnston’s friend are often after something more than either environmentalism or cost savings. For one thing, the quality of reclaimed materials can be higher than anything in Home Depot. Last year, Johnston’s local reuse center deconstructed a 40-year-old car dealership and found floor joists that were strong and true with a beautiful grain. They ended up being reused as floorboards. “You simply can’t buy that kind of wood new,” says Johnston—it’s all been logged. Johnston himself recently tore the roof off his 1970s-vintage garage and found the plywood sheathing was better than cabinet-grade plywood available on today’s market. He sold it to a cabinetmaker.

Not only are reclaimed materials often better than new, they have more character. “It’s not quantifiable, but it’s important,” says Brad Guy, who recently returned from six weeks in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, where he and a group of students worked with displaced residents living in prefab Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers to build a pair of sheds from salvaged materials. The act of reclaiming construction materials from storm-damaged New Orleans drove home the underlying value of the old, weathered lumber. Call it another form of embodied energy: When we throw away these resources, Guy says, “we lose our history.”

Want more? Read the rest of  Utne Reader 's November/December package on the Green Building: