Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: 3 Lessons the Construction Industry is Learning

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Climate change isn’t the only good reason to explore alternative sustainable building methods. It’s also a great business practice. Green building raises the value of built assets – which is great news for construction companies and clients alike.

Here are three lessons the construction industry is learning about how to reduce, reuse, and recycle in the name of sustainability and environmental preservation.

1. Reduce: Know When to Engage in Source Reduction

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognizes construction and demolition materials as one of the most impactful waste streams in the country. Some of these include:

  • Concrete
  • Asphalt from roads or shingles
  • Metals such as aluminum and steel
  • Glass
  • Wood
  • Salvaged fixtures  such as plumbing and windows

Some 600 million tons of this debris get deposited in landfills each year. For perspective, this is twice the amount of general municipal waste produced by U.S. citizens and businesses.

Source reduction involves several practices designed to reduce the amount of demolition waste resulting from a building retrofit, as well as the new materials needed to complete a given construction task. Here are some of those practices:

  • Builders and clients should emphasize preserving existing structures instead of defaulting to new construction.
  • Architects and builders should design new construction and retrofits for greater longevity.
  • The industry must shift to employing construction techniques that make disassembly and material reuse easier for future owners.
  • Construction professionals should shift to alternative framing techniques and cull unnecessary interior flourishes and finishes to reduce material usage.

Before reclaiming and reusing building techniques, the construction industry must reckon with the material and planetary cost of knocking down functional buildings and replacing them will all-new construction. Reducing humanity’s need for physical materials begins with repurposing and source reduction.

Reducing a construction project’s ecological footprint can extend even to the building implements and techniques used on-site. Ensuring heavy equipment operators understand ideal operational conditions and essential maintenance for their machines means these assets work with the intended efficiency and ecological impact.

2. Reuse: Build With Greater Numbers of Reclaimed Materials

The construction sector’s first order of business is source reduction for new construction. The second priority must be learning how to reuse reclaimed and repurposed, materials after being incorporated into an existing structure.

Source reduction seeks to eliminate material sourcing as much as possible. Building with reclaimed materials ensures that, when builders must source new materials, they seek reclaimed, repurposed or recycled materials before ordering newly fabricated components.

The local market for reclaimed and salvaged building materials differs significantly by region, but builders have every reason to seek local reuse centers and waste exchanges. Some of these marketplaces exist wholly online, while other architectural salvage yards require frequent in-person visits to see what’s newly available.

The EPA has resources available that can connect builders with organizations that recycle and repurpose construction materials in their area.

This is not a full list of salvageable materials, but it should provide an idea of what’s possible when builders and their clients seek repurposed materials first:

  • Doors, windows, countertops, bathroom vanities, and kitchen cabinets
  • Plumbing and electrical fixtures
  • Metals for siding and roofing
  • Wood, tile, carpeting, and synthetic flooring
  • Bricks and concrete
  • Wood and lumber

The market for reclaimed lumber and other building materials is rising for several reasons. It’s not just good for the planet – clients also realize there’s a unique charm in incorporating materials into their homes and businesses that have already proven themselves and have a history.

3. Recycle: Learn How Design Must Support Adaptation and Reuse

Engaging in construction to emphasize the longevity of materials and the useful lifetime of the building is paramount. Building designs themselves are changing to support this mission.

Today, the physical design of a building and the choice of materials must support future adaptations of the building as well as the eventual dismantling and reuse of its structural and superficial components. Here are the broad strokes of how this can work in practice:

  • Builders and owners maintain more detailed structural drawings and accountings of the materials used. This way, future owners have a better idea of how to dismantle the structure if necessary and which items can easily be used again.
  • Construction professionals should familiarize themselves with open-span structural systems, modular building techniques, and other assembly paradigms that make building adaptation, reuse, and material reclamation more straightforward.
  • Designing a building in a way that reduces the number and types of materials required can substantially reduce the ecological footprint of initial construction, as well as make ongoing maintenance easier and less wasteful.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), buildings that are highly repurposable and easily deconstructible and reusable share the following characteristics:

  • They are predominantly wood-framed, featuring “stick by stick” construction and heavy timbers like Douglas fir, American chestnut, and others.
  • Any specialty materials should be high-value and easily repurposed.
  • Any bricks should contain high-quality work with lower-quality mortar, making for easy demolition and repurposing.
  • Buildings should be structurally sound and built to last. Even if it’s destined to be deconstructed and repurposed, a structure that’s hardened against pests and the elements will produce a greater yield of recyclable components.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a rapid assessment tool for builders. It should help identify and prioritize structures and materials for demolition and potential salvaging.

How Will These Impact Construction’s Future?

Reducing, reusing, and recycling isn’t just a climate-conscious mindset. It’s also a great way for companies to retain a competitive advantage and uncover hidden savings. Construction businesses that start building circular supply chains today will be in a better position than their peers when climate pressures and green-focused regulations come to bear even more intensely on the building industry.

  • Cost savings: Builders wishing to reduce their material sourcing and daily operational costs and pass the savings on to their clients would do well to familiarize themselves with emerging ways to repurpose existing materials and build with reuse in mind.
  • Competitive advantage: Certifications like LEED (leadership in energy and environmental design) are reserved for builders who take the long view when engaging in construction. LEED is the most widely used rating system for green builders and it exists in 162 countries. Clients are looking for this type of expertise and builders must know how to deliver.
  • Environmental aid: Consumers increasingly favor eco-conscious companies of all types, making green builders some of the most highly sought-after organizations in the industry.

The industry must continue to adopt sustainability at every level. As humankind reckons with the unfolding climate crisis, the old axiom of reduce, reuse, recycle should continue paying dividends and helping this sector change with the times.

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