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DIY Reclaimed and Salvaged Ideas

DIY Ideas for Salvaged and Upcycled Materials at Home

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Jun 10, 2020

Every year, 300,000 to 400,000 homes are demolished in the United States. That means that every day, anywhere between 800 and 1,100 homes are visited by bulldozers. This leads to an enormous amount of demolition waste that eventually ends up in our nation's landfills. Every year, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) publishes an "Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report." In 2017, this report showed that around 569 million tons of construction and demolition debris was generated in the United States. That adds up to more than twice the total amount of municipal solid waste. While construction waste is undoubtedly a problem (and also a source of salvaged materials for home construction or remodeling), over 90 percent of this debris comes from the demolition of residential and commercial buildings. 

A major concern of the sustainable building movement is how to limit the embodied energy that goes into the construction of a home. Exploration of the carbon footprint of houses has mostly been confined to energy efficiency measures. However, the greenhouse gas emissions embodied in the materials that go into the home is a significant contributor to the overall carbon footprint. 

Opting to use salvaged construction materials from the demolition of older buildings can significantly prolong the life cycle of these building materials. This recycling or "upcycling" process can help reduce the construction industry's demand for raw materials and lower the embodied energy associated with any home construction project. One home demolition company in Australia estimates that upwards of 98% of all materials in homes destined for demolition can find a new use and purpose. 

Below, we offer a series of innovative, creative, and practical ideas for incorporating salvaged building materials into a unique and modern home design. 

raised garden beds from old pickle vats

Rafters into Rocking Chairs

Today, the vast majority of 2x4s and sheets of plywood are sourced from lightweight structural timber, primarily from spruce, fir, and pine trees. While these trees do grow quickly, their average life span is significantly lower than other types of hardwood species and are susceptible to rot and insect infestation. Older homes slated for demolition often have rafters, floorboards, and other structural timber made from exceptional hardwood trees. These trees that were characteristic of the old-growth forests that once dominated much of the North American landscape. Trees such as chestnut, cypress, oak, and even old-growth redwood naturally resistant to rot and insect infestation. They make fantastic timber for furniture or other customized wood fixtures in the home. 

reclaimed exterior wood cladding

Reclaimed Barn Wood for Cabinetry, Cladding, Flooring and More

The rugged look is making a comeback in interior design. One of the best ways to add a touch of rustic elegance to your home is through utilizing the reclaimed wood from barns. As the rural population in North America has plummeted, almost every rural landscape is dotted with vacant and unused barns. Like the rafters of old homes, many of these barns were made from local hardwood trees cleared for a farm field. Today, you can find several companies that offer reclaimed barn wood planks. These planks can be used for everything from new cabinets to interior walls to stair treads and stringers. Some examples include: 

reclaimed stair treads

These are great examples that offer a wide variety of wood, including beautiful reclaimed cypress from old pickle vats!

Terra Cotta Roof

Recycled Terra Cotta Tiles for Roofs

While asphalt shingles have an average lifespan of between 15 and 18 years, terra cotta tiles are fired from clay and are virtually resistant to rot and corrosion. The polished look of a newly installed terra cotta roof, however, is prohibitively expensive and can run you anywhere between $6 and $15 per square foot. Reclaiming used terra cotta tiles is one way to cut back on the total cost of remodeling a roof with this beautiful, natural, and more sustainable roofing option. 

Refinished Bathtub Young House Love
Refinish Clawfoot Tub Before And After. Photo Credit: Young House Love

Vintage Bathtubs for Added Charm

Older appliances from timeworn homes are usually not energy efficient enough to warrant keeping around. However, plumbing fixtures in older homes are entirely reusable and can add a touch of vintage charm to the house. Clawfoot bathtubs, to name just one example, used to be extremely common. With a bit of vinegar and elbow grease, you might be able to bring back the shine to that antique tub that will add some class to your bathroom.  

Reclaimed Brick
Reclaimed Brick. Photo Credit: Cawarden Reclaim UK

Old Bricks for a New Mantle

Like terra cotta tiles, bricks are essentially indestructible. Brick walls have an average life expectancy of over a century, but when they do come tumbling down, they can easily be reused in home remodeling projects, whether you are redoing the exterior cladding of your home or adding a custom mantle over your fireplace.

Terrazzo and Cement Tiles for Flooring

Many older homes were built before the era when carpets and hardwood flooring dominated the market. Terrazzo and cement tiles were two of the most common flooring options. Often, terrazzo tiles were veritable pieces of artwork as they routinely incorporated chips of glass, marble, and even granite set into a concrete form. These reclaimed tiles can be reutilized for bathroom flooring or can be used to create a dramatic entrance into your home along the front hallway. They are also extremely durable and will last a lifetime if properly cared for. 

Sliding Reclaimed Barn Door

Old Doors for a New Pantry

Older doors offer an enchanting feel that brings charisma into any home. While reutilizing windows from old houses will most likely compromise the energy efficiency rating of your home, doors can easily be used for a number of interior design projects. For example, older board-and-batten hinged doors can be used as interior doors for bedrooms. You can remodel these old entranceways into sliding doors to give your kitchen pantry a look of rugged authenticity. 

stairs from reclaimed wood

The Chance to Make a Difference

Perhaps you are thinking about demolishing an older home that you own or manage. Instead of hiring a company that will tear it down and send everything to landfill, you might consider a demolition company specializing in recycling and salvaging usable construction materials. These companies might take longer to demolish the home, and may even charge a bit more. But, by choosing to donate a part of the salvaged materials to a non-profit such as Habitat for Humanity, you might be able to collect a tax deduction based on the appraised value of those materials. The net cost of demolishing the home be substantially less. You will also be doing your part to extend the lifespan of perfectly serviceable construction materials and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-09T10:54:39+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.