What Are Upcycled Building Materials?

There is a fair amount of confusion about what upcycling is and how it differs from recycling. The more familiar term, recycling, refers to the process of breaking products down to their basic materials, which then are used to make new products. Upcycling aims to preserve the value of the original materials and turn them into new products that have more embodied value than the originals.

Another term to be familiar with when it comes to upcycled building materials, is embodied value is the sum total of the value added to products at every stage of their production, from acquisition of raw materials, through the manufacturing process, to transportation, sale, and use—monetary costs, labor, and everything else that goes into them.

Then, of course, there is downcycling, which also breaks products down to their basic materials and transforms them into a lower-value version of the same products. Relatively little of the recycling that occurs today is upcycling.

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What Are Upcycled Building Materials?: 5 Principles of Upcycling

Five key principles emerge from the existing research on upcycling:

  • Upcycling involves the use of waste.
  • That waste is adapted for repurposing through a process of creative transformation.
  • The old materials are present in the new product, in one form or another.
  • Upcycling is value-driven to produce an end product that conveys value.
  • Upcycling contributes to a slow, circular material cycle.

Together, these principles make it possible to extend the life of natural resources and materials as long as possible, keeping them out of the nation’s landfills.

What Construction Materials Can Be Upcycled?

With a little ingenuity and a commitment to reducing waste, there are relatively few construction materials that can’t be recycled or downcycled, but finding cost-effective ways to upcycle them on a large scale is a different matter. Upcycled building materials used in construction materials are more common in Europe than in North America. Here are some examples of how upcycled construction materials currently are being used in new construction, here and in other parts of the world.

  • Plastic shingles made from upcycled PVC windows and gutters. PVC window frames, downspouts, and gutters salvaged from demolition projects and collected from neighborhood recycling centers are shredded and formed into diamond-shaped exterior cladding shingles that are more valuable than the original PVC items.
  • K-Briq looks and performs like normal clay brick but with better insulation characteristics. Composed of 90% construction and demolition waste, it generates 10% less in carbon emissions during manufacturing than occurs in the manufacture of traditional clay brick.
  • In Austin, Texas, an old warehouse was demolished and replaced with a smaller, multi-tenant office building constructed by recycling 100% of the material and fixtures from the old structure. Anything not upcycled as materials for constructing the office building was reused as decorative elements.
  • A building in Singapore, a former vocational institute, was repurposed as an inclusive and accessible community center. Metal shipping containers were upcycled as bridges between the various wings of the building. Concrete pipes were upcycled into secluded reading spaces and resting nooks. Oil containers became planters.
  • The primary structural element of the Circular Pavilion in Paris, France, named after the ideal of a circular economy, is reclaimed and upcycled doors—180 of them, to be exact. Fully 60% of the materials used in constructing the Circular Pavilion are upcycled timber doors. The building’s interior was built primarily from furniture found in the Parisian solid waste stream and upcycled to create walls and paneling.
  • The Upcycle House in Denmark was created as a demonstration project, exemplifying the principles of upcycling. Built of processed recycled materials, Upcycle House shows how much the CO2 footprint of the typical single family home can be reduced by using upcycled materials to the fullest extent possible. The structure consists of two upcycled shipping containers with the roof and façade cladding made from recycled aluminum cans and façade panels of post-consumer upcycled granulated paper pressed together and treated with heat. The kitchen floor is tiled with leftover champagne cork and bathrooms with tiles made from recycled glass. OSB panels made of wood chips from various production sites were pressed together (without glue) and used as all and floor coverings.

Everyone Can Contribute to Upcycling

There are upcycled building materials and upcycling for households alike. Everyone can play a part by making sure that materials that might otherwise end up in a landfill go instead to those who can add value and repurpose them through upcycling.

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