February 29, 2024


Illustration of house with part missing, outlined by a dotted line.  Three bricks are stacked next to it.

The vision

Contractors at the Salvaged Materials Market ignored the pile of misshapen supplies, but Carmelo saw the making of his masterpiece in that pile. The sculptor scrubbed for an hour to gather everything he needed, then pushed his cart of discarded cats out the door.

Each footstep fed his mind as it led to a four-story makerspace graffitied in the disparate styles of his community’s cultures. Carmelo floats to his secluded corner, spills his fetch and begins picking parts on his piece-in-progress and puts into a dance that brought his dream from the darkness of spirit into the studio light.

— a drabble by Syris Valentine

The spotlight

We tend to think of buildings as semi-permanent structures. Once they go up, decades or even centuries pass before they come down. But when they do, it’s usually under the weight of wrecking balls and sledgehammers. The broken remains of the structures that once sheltered us are then often dumped in a landfill. Every year, almost 150 million tons of this debris piling up in landfills in the US alone.

Worldwide the act of erecting new buildings and demolishing old ones consume about a third of all resources extracted from the environment each year and produces just under a third of all the world’s waste. But several cities across the US have begun to push the construction sector toward practices that keep materials out of the landfill. The goal: Reuse parts of old buildings in new ones, and recycle the rest.

In 2016, Portland, Oregon became the first city in the nation to adopt a deconstruction ordinance, which requires that all single-family homes built before 1940 and slated for removal be deconstructed — that is, taken apart board by board — so that their materials can be salvaged for reuse. Since then, more than half a dozen cities of San Antonio on Pittsburgh followed Portland’s example.

“Ideally, what’s pulled from these homes is used for the same purpose,” said Stephanie Phillips, San Antonio’s deconstruction and circular economy program manager. Like Portland’s, San Antonio’s 2022 ordinance specifically mandates that old, historic homes be deconstructed if they come down.

This is at least in part because the best, and sometimes only, way to get the right materials to rehabilitate historic buildings is from another house built in the same period. As Phillips says, “Her buildings are considered the pinnacle of climate-wise building.”

Three people in hard hats and reflective vests stand on later work to pull apart the skeleton of a wooden building.

Contractors at work deconstructing a house as part of a training in San Antonio in late 2022. City of San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation

A small number of cities go even further. Boulder, Colorado is one of only two cities nationwide (the others are Palo AltoCalifornia) which requires deconstruction of any and every building expected to come off regardless of age and whether it is residential or commercial. Boulder’s ordinance also includes what is known as a “mandatory minimum.” At least 75 percent of a building’s total weight must be diverted from landfill through either reuse or recycling.

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Jackie Kirouac-Fram, executive director of the Portland-based nonprofit Rebuilding Center, believes that a mandatory minimum is needed to achieve the intent of these deconstruction ordinances: storage of high-quality materials that homeowners, builders, and tradespeople can then access at affordable rates. Without this requirement, Kirouac-Fram says, Portland has seen particularly low salvage rates. (Official figures are not available, and city representatives did not respond to a request for comment.)

While San Antonio also doesn’t have a mandatory minimum, Phillips says the city’s contractors have recycled an average of 70 percent of a given building’s weight, with more than half of the recycled material going to reuse. Phillips attributes these numbers to the thorough, city-sponsored training contractors must go through to qualify for San Antonio’s list of certified deconstruction contractors.

Stacks of wooden planks sit in the foreground of a wooded area.  People in hard hats and reflective vets walk around the piles.

Wood, bricks, doors and other recycled materials are stacked on the side of a deconstruction training site in San Antonio. City of San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation

Meanwhile, the city of Boulder, despite its mandatory minimum, has not provided much training for the local workforce or established certification requirements, according to Emily Freeman, the city’s circular economy policy advisor. As a result, some contractors can exploit loopholes to meet the requirements without saving so much as a single two-by-four, and property owners have few tools to evaluate the offers they receive. They are asked to “compare apples to kiwis,” says Freeman.

In the worst example she’s seen yet, a contractor used the foundation — the heaviest part of a building — as well as patio furniture and cover trees on the property to meet the requirement to carry 75 percent of the building’s weight. to redirect.

This reveals another challenge when it comes to mandatory minimums: Such requirements often do not distinguish between reuse — the ideal form of waste disposal — and recycling. For example, if wood is not sorted and stored so that it can be later picked up and incorporated into a new project, it can instead be sent through a chipper and put into chipboard.

To address these issues, Freeman and her colleagues are looking to review and strengthen some of Boulder’s deconstruction practices, which could include offering training and establishing a certified contractor list, similar to San Antonio’s, to ensure that everyone has the same book of best practices. Freeman hopes these types of changes will help Boulder achieve the vision she glimpsed in 2023, when the city abandoned hospital. Of the 65 million pound building, the city recovered or salvaged 60.8 million pounds, or 93.5 percent of the building’s weight. That included structural steel that found its way into two new city-owned buildings: a fire station and a golf course clubhouse.

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Taking finished materials and getting them into other buildings is what organizations like Kirouac-Fram’s Reconstruction Center aim to facilitate. It stores salvaged materials that Portlanders can purchase at low to no cost. San Antonio introduced its own Materials Innovation Center to find the next best use for salvaged materials, including bus shelters, garden beds and affordable housing repairs.

Side-by-side images of hand towel dispenser and mirrors lean against walls in an empty concrete building.

Paper towel dispensers and mirrors are collected in the abandoned Boulder hospital during its deconstruction. City of Boulder

But a final challenge remains in many of these cities: getting contractors to use salvaged materials in their projects. In some cases the problem is a matter of convenience and stock; contractors don’t want to waste time sifting through piles of mismatched materials when they might not find what they need. In other cases, builders still need to be convinced that giving old materials a second life in new construction will not compromise a building’s integrity.

Boulder struggled to close this part of the reuse loop. Although the city has incorporated many of the metal beams extracted from the old hospital into new properties in the city, some leftover steel still remains. City officials are still in talks with builders in Boulder to find someone to take what’s left.

“It’s just a matter of convincing the construction world that recycled steel is going to be solid,” Freeman says. She hopes that as people see other buildings standing strong with salvaged steel, they will start using it in their own projects.

– Syris Valentine

More exposure

A parting shot

Habitat for Humanity, the affordable housing organization, sells used household goods at its side Restores. Shoppers can find more than just furniture—the stores often have building supplies like doors and windows, and even toilets, sinks, and bathtubs. Here, volunteers arrange plumbing supplies (including a giant tub) in a store that opened in 2006 in Portland, Maine.

A large bathtub sits in the foreground of a warehouse-style space, along with other plumbing fixtures, with people working to line the corridors.






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