Examples of Reused Building Materials

People who incorporate reused building materials in new construction or in renovating existing structures typically do so for the benefit of their wallet or the planet, or both. Reused building materials can yield significant cost savings and reduce a project’s environmental impact. Reuse not only keeps demolition waste and surplus building materials from ending up in landfills; it also reduces the demand for production of new materials.

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Straightening Out the Terminology

Terms like reused, repurposed, recycled, and reclaimed often are used rather indiscriminately, as though they all mean the same thing, which can be confusing for consumers. So, let’s establish their true meanings and clarify how they are used here.

Reuse means using an existing item in its original state, for example, installing cabinet hinges, doorknobs, or lighting fixtures salvaged from a demolished structure in a home undergoing remodeling. Reusing such items extends their useful life.

To repurpose an item is to find a new use for it without transforming it, for example, using an antique milk can as a planter, a barn door as a headboard, or a handmade rug as wall art, or to build a retaining wall out of old tires.

To recycle an item is to reprocess it into a new raw material, for example glass bottles can be melted down and used to make new glass jars or can be used as a raw material for making fiberglass. And #2 plastics like milk bottles or detergent bottles can be transformed through recycling into frisbees or paint buckets or plastic lumber for park benches.

Of the four terms, “reclaim” is the most problematic because it has different meanings in different contexts. In the context of chemical waste, such as refrigerants and spent caustics, a waste product that has been reprocessed by a licensed facility to meet an industry standard has been reclaimed. But in the context of building materials, to reclaim an item simply means “rescuing” it from the waste stream without altering its form. In this sense, reclaiming an item is the same as salvaging it. Examples include weathered wood removed from a collapsed barn or plumbing fixtures removed from a building about to be demolished have been reclaimed. They may subsequently be reused, repurposed, or recycled.

Benefits of Reusing Building Materials

There are good financial, ecological, and aesthetic reasons for reusing building materials.

Cost

The cost of acquiring reclaimed materials for reuse generally is far less than the cost of purchasing the same items new. For example, installing reused hardwood flooring typically costs a fraction of what it would cost to purchase virgin hardwood flooring. And materials reclaimed from a construction site may, in fact, be new items, not previously used for any purpose. Studies show that up to 30% of building materials ordered for a project and delivered to the work site are not needed or used and can end up as waste. Fortunately, there are businesses that buy such surplus materials for resale to the public. And savvy builders know they can get some good deals by checking with contractors who are winding down a project to see if any surplus materials are available.

Many of the materials reused by homeowners and builders come from structures that are slated for demolition or have already been demolished. The greatest cost savings may be realized by obtaining materials from buildings that are being deconstructed rather than demolished. The goal of demolition is to reduce a structure to rubble quickly and efficiently; deconstruction is the careful dismantling of a structure to salvage as many of the building materials for future reuse as possible. Buying salvaged materials from a deconstructed building can give you a greater quantity of materials that are in good shape, so you could avoid buying new items, or buy less.

Environmental Impact

An estimated 25% of the waste stream in the United States comes from construction and demolition activities. Those building materials contain a lot of embodied carbon—the emissions associated with their extraction, processing, manufacture, transport, distribution, and eventual disposal. Keeping building materials out of the waste stream by reusing them in another building doesn’t add to their embodied carbon. Recycling them does add embodied carbon because the recycling process consumes energy and emits carbon, but less than it would take to produce more of the same items for initial use.

Aesthetics

You don’t have to collect antiques to appreciate the look of reused building materials. Old wood has a lovely patina and often some interesting flaws that add character to the structure in which they are reused. Old brick, reused in interior or exterior applications, adds beauty and charm.

Planning Construction with Reused Building Materials

Be aware that it takes additional planning and possibly a longer timeframe to build with reused materials. You can’t walk into a big box home improvement store and order a ton of old bricks or a couple hundred reclaimed barnwood planks, so the lead time for sourcing materials for reuse can be longer than if all materials are purchased new.

Some may welcome the challenge of searching out and salvaging reusable materials on their own. They enjoy the process of locating structures scheduled for demolition and construction sites where work on a new structure is close to wrapping up, negotiating a purchase, and even yanking out old nails, removing rust, and transporting their finds to where they will be used. They don’t mind having to store the materials they have acquired until they have enough to start building.

Those who are not diehard do-it-yourselfers or want to get their project off the ground faster can source reusable materials from one or more of the businesses that specialize in salvaging building materials and selling them for reuse. They may even find that such retailers have reusable materials in stock that they hadn’t even thought of. That’s why there needs to be some degree of flexibility in planning to build or remodel a home with reusable materials. It allows customization of the design to make the most of available materials, for example using reclaimed slate tiles on the patio rather than the old brick previously envisioned.

Possible Uses of Specific Materials

Wood

Only cement accounts for a larger percentage of construction and demolition waste than wood, which makes up 20 to 30 percent of the C&D waste stream. This includes both wood from demolished or deconstructed buildings and new wood left over from construction projects. Salvaged wood, such as wood beams and hardwood flooring, can be reused as structural elements or for decorative purposes, which is often the case with barn wood. Barnwood is in high demand for reuse in new construction or remodeling, but with the dwindling number of barns in the United States, it can be pricier than other reclaimed wood.

Reclaimed wood is great for shelving, decorative wall coverings, and furniture, like hand-crafted dining tables, coffee tables, benches, headboards, kitchen islands, and much more. There are exterior as well as interior reuses for reclaimed wood. Pressure-treated railroad ties often are used to edge planted areas or terrace steps on sloping land. Untreated lumber can be transformed into mulch for landscaping use.

Entire structures can be built from reclaimed wood—homes, garages, sheds, greenhouses, playhouses, tiny houses, gazebos, pergolas … you name it.

Bricks

Many find old, reclaimed bricks more attractive than newly manufactured bricks. Bricks have been a key building material for about 7,000 years, and can last for 500 years, which means they can potentially be reused multiple times before reaching the end of their life span. And even then, they can be crushed and used as aggregate in concrete.

Reclaimed bricks are ideal for repairing existing older brick structures where new bricks would most likely stand out like a sore thumb. You may need to do a little cleanup on bricks reclaimed from construction debris, unless you acquire them from a salvage company or retailer that already does that.

The reuses of reclaimed bricks are limited only by a builder’s or homeowner’s imagination and creativity. Here are some examples of projects that make good use of reclaimed bricks:

  • Indoor or outdoor fireplaces
  • Hearths
  • Pizza ovens
  • Retaining walls
  • Building foundations and walls
  • Interior exposed brick accent walls
  • Kitchen backsplashes
  • Pathways and sidewalks
  • Flooring
  • Driveways
  • Patios
  • Firepits
  • Roofs
  • Chimneys
  • Planters
  • Raised garden beds
  • Edging for lawns and garden beds
  • Water features
  • Garden benches
  • Pool surrounds
  • Tree rings

Drywall

You may obtain full sheets of unused drywall left over from construction projects, or reclaimed off-cuts that can be reused for a variety of purposes, if it hasn’t been contaminated.

Concrete

Reclaimed concrete can be crushed and used as aggregate, for pathways and driveways.

Plastic

Reclaimed plastic can be used outdoors as drainage pipes for managing runoff or indoors for air ducts.

Building Components and Fixtures

Salvage stores are a treasure trove of building components, architectural elements, fixtures, and furniture that can be reused “as is” or creatively repurposed. Examples include doors, windows, shutters, railing, banisters, and balustrades, cupolas, weathervanes, bathtubs, sinks, shower stalls, faucets, vanities, cabinets, ceramic tiles, light fixtures, hardware, fireplace mantels, columns, and posts, to name a few.

Toward a Circular Economy

Reusing building materials is an important step toward reducing our collective carbon footprint and moving toward a circular economy, which is based on making maximum use of resources and generating minimum waste for disposal. It is a model of production and consumption based on sharing, reuse, refurbishing, and recycling to extend the life of existing materials for as long as possible with minimal loss of value. We can all do our part to keep building materials from entering the waste stream, by reusing them ourselves or making them available to others for reuse.

Contact Repurposed Materials today to find out how we can help you find a new home for unwanted materials.