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reclaimed building materials

Reclaimed Building Materials: A Guide To Sourcing

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Oct 28, 2019

Older homes are generally much less energy efficient than newer houses built within the past 5 to 10 years. Due to the competitive nature of the home construction market, some contractors do continue to piece together substandard structures that do not take advantage of the leading technologies that improve the energy efficiency and thermal performance of the homes where we live. However, as a general rule of thumb, it usually costs around three times as much energy (and money) to heat a home built in the 1980s compared to a leading energy-efficient home of today.

poor insulation
Poorly installed insulation. Photo Credit: Renova

Improved insulation alternatives, a more stringent focus on tighter building envelopes such as those associated with Passive House design, and more energy-efficient lighting and appliances technology have all drastically reduced our homes' energy consumption. When taking a detailed look at the numbers, the operational energy requirements of the buildings we live in do not necessarily justify the energetic and environmental costs associated with building a new home.

In a recent article, we looked at the numbers behind the decision to tear down and rebuild or renovate an older home. We cited the report: “The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse,” which states that replacing an older, less energy-efficient structure with a newer, more energy-efficient option could take an average of 80 years to offset the ecological impact of the construction.

The energy savings that come with a well-sealed home heated with a heat pump are easy to see and appreciate because they show up on your monthly utility bill. However, the embodied energy footprint that comes with building a 2,000 foot home is harder to imagine because of the extended supply lines that make up our global economic system. The greenhouse gas emissions that a newer home can avoid through improved, energy-efficient building technology are often unfortunately canceled by the building materials' energetic costs in the house. Ceramic tiles from Spain, exotic hardwood flooring from Indonesia, and slate roofing tiles sourced from a quarry in Central America all come with enormous embodied energy footprints, which should factor into the equation.

This reality doesn’t mean that homeowners should abandon the idea of new home construction. Opting for smaller homes with reduced square footage is a straightforward way to reduce your home's embodied energy footprint. The tiny house movement is another inspiring example of how our homes can reduce their environmental impact. Incorporating reclaimed or salvaged home building materials is essential for how new home construction can reduce its embodied energy impact.

Why Opt for Reclaimed or Salvaged Building Materials?

Recently, a 135-year-old Victorian-style mansion located in a lot near my father’s home was torn down. We awoke to the sounds of trucks, excavators, and other heavy machinery haphazardly tearing into the house's wooden walls. By the end of the day, the once beautiful home would become a pile of trash destined for the landfill.

Walking through the remains of that home allowed us to find an enormous amount of building materials that had escaped total demolition by the machines. Polished patio brick, exotic hardwood flooring pieces, even a few terra cotta roofing tiles were still in great shape but were also on their way to the landfill in the morning. I remember thinking that if I had a piece of land to build on, the reclaimable materials from that 4,000 square foot mansion would be more than enough to allow me to make a small home for my family. Instead of cheap plywood and 2x4s, the “refuse” from that demolition would have let my family and me build a robust and durable home from building materials that were designed to last several lifetimes. The following day, after the trucks and front-loader tractors, were gone, all that was left was compacted soil and tire tracks.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “548 million tons of C&D (construction and demolition) debris were generated in the United States in 2015—more than twice the amount of generated municipal solid waste. Demolition represents more than 90 percent of total C&D debris generation, while construction represents less than 10 percent.” Construction debris and waste are expected to more than double in the next five years on a global level.

At the same time, the construction industry expects to build an average of 2.3 million new homes each year to replace older building stock. These more modern homes could undoubtedly help reduce residential energy consumption and the subsequent greenhouse gas emissions. However, without incorporating a substantial amount of reclaimed or salvaged building materials from the millions of tone of annual C&D debris, the embodied energy footprint from that new home construction could result in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

There are dozens of examples of “recycled homes” that show us that it is entirely possible to build beautiful, functional, and energy-efficient homes that utilize enormous amounts of reclaimed building materials. Instead of attempting to grab a few pieces of hardwood flooring from a recently demolished house before it is trucked away to the landfill, below, we offer several ideas and websites to help you source reclaimed or salvaged building materials for the new home construction or renovation projects.

Where to Find Reclaimed Building Materials? 

  • Reuse Wood: When properly cared for, wood products can last for centuries. Older homes primarily used specialty hardwoods that are beautiful, functional, and durable. This website is a directory for wood reuse and recycling. You can easily search the catalog for wood products available in your zip code region. With this website, you might be able to find high-quality barn wood, board lumber, millwork, wood windows, wood doors, and other perfectly suitable wood products for your home.
  • Craigslist: This popular online classified ads-style marketplace isn’t just for people trying to make a buck off their used cell phones. Thousands of people list free building items that are taking up space in their garages. You might be able to find cabinetry, roofing, and flooring products for your new home. If you’re in Canada, Kijiji is the Craigslist equivalent. 
  • Planet Reuse: This website is a marketplace that connects buyers and sellers of reclaimed building materials. They have dozens of categories ranging from appliances to wood products. They also offer insight and expertise on how to incorporate elements into your home design.
  • FreeCycle: Not only can reclaimed home building materials be less expensive, but you might be able to find free building materials as well. FreeCycle is a network of close to 10 million people whose purpose is to reuse and keep good stuff out of landfills. Not every region will have a FreeCycle chapter. Still, if there is one in your area, you might be able to find high-quality building materials for free.
  • ReStore: Habitat for Humanity also runs a network of home improvement stores and donation centers selling new and gently used furniture, appliances, home goods, building materials, and more. Due to this organization's social nature, you should be able to find reasonably priced used building materials at these stores.
  • Dumpster Diving: Building sites also tend to waste an enormous amount of material. At these sites, you might be able to find pieces of scrap plywood, 2x4s, and everything in between. Just make sure to ask the builder before diving in and taking away a truckload of wood. In many cases, this can be a mutually beneficial agreement as the builder will have less “debris” to haul away in the end.

These resources and ideas listed above are just the tips of the iceberg. With millions of tons of building materials heading to the landfill each year, the amount of reclaimed and salvageable products is quite literally there for the taking.

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: 2021-07-10T05:01:45+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.