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Real sustainability 1: The reuse of reclaimed building material

Posted on | By Thornton Kay
Somerset, UK - The lack of building salvage businesses at the recent flagship construction exhibitions such as EcoBuild and Grand Designs Live shows that reuse is far from being considered sustainable by the mainstream construction sector and green building movement.

But the activity of reclaiming and reuse, as opposed to recycling and destruction, is at the centre of the sustainability compass and is usually the very best way to be sustainable. This has at least been recognised, via Brussels and the EU, in UK domestic law in the 2011 Waste Regulations which made it mandatory to reclaim, or 'prepare for reuse' as the EU described it, by giving reclaiming the highest ranking within the waste hierarchy of reclaim, recycle, energy from waste and disposal. Prior to the new Waste Regulations the activities of reclaiming, recycling and energy from waste were considered equally good which meant that much reusable material was either burnt, crushed, composted or mulched, since the latter are easier to undertake while reclaiming for reuse is often more difficult but usually better.

Sustainability in construction starts with the adaptive reuse of whole intact buildings, either in-situ or moved to a new location if necessary. This should mean sensitively repairing or replacing rot or damage reusing reclaimed material where possible, and simple upgrading of thermal performance by repairing cracks and installing draftproofing and insulation. When new services are installed, all fixtures and fittings including cornices, skirting and flooring should be marked or photographed, carefully removed and set aside for reuse afterwards. Reuse of reclaimed building material should dominate the specifications for building materials needed for the adaptive reuse or repair of existing buildings. But even the most sensitive repairs seem to generate a large amount of potentially reclaimable material, most of which is currently landfilled or recycled.

Reuse kicks in once complete or partial demolition is decided upon. This might be totally clearing away a building, or partially destroying by the gutting the interior of a building and only leaving the facade. It usually involves removing sound but unfashionable kitchens and bathrooms, removing old doors and windows, replacing roof coverings with new, and destroying and replacing all plants and landscaping. If any of these is being contemplated then everything conceivably reusable which is to be removed should be saved for reuse, preferably in the rebuild.

Oh, but there's no room on site to save everything, there is not enough time to undertake a careful dismantling, who wants an old kitchen or bathroom, and how do I get planning permission to reuse, I hear you ask.

Firstly check with your local planners that they are supportive of reuse. The Planning Acts do not preclude reuse and the Waste Regulations encourage it. Be warned that some officials have a strangely negative attitude to reuse, but do not let that put you off. Their subjective opinions must be grounded in law - so ask them which laws prevent the reuse which you are proposing. There are some arcane legal aspects which might crop up. The UK Water Bylaws, for example, disallow the reuse of old lead-lined cisterns (other than as a direct replacement) and early metal mixtures in newly installed plumbing. Technical problems of the legalities of reuse normally can be solved. Very occasionally you may hit a brick wall, so ask before you do anything. Call Salvo if things seems like a lost cause - we can often help when others cannot.

Salvo suggests that salvage dealers write to different planning authorities within their sales catchment area to make sure they are generally supportive of the reuse of reclaimed building material in construction. If they are not supportive the salvage dealer may be able to resolve the issue, or ask Salvo to tackle them, which could then pave the way for more reuse by their customers. Apart from the Waste Regulations, since 2008 the UK government's own Code for Sustainable Homes recommends the reuse of reclaimed building material in new build homes and conversions.

The client must be a reuse keeny, if not a fanatic, for maximal reuse. Then the client's professional team and construction contractors must all be chosen with their enthusiasm for reuse in mind. Ideally, the final part of the team should be a salvage contractor on hand to advise on deconstruction, to offer cleaning repair and storage services, to resupply reclaimed building material in the right condition and at the right time needed for the rebuild, and to make sure that reusable material which cannot be reused on the rebuild is advertised for sale so that it can be reused on other projects - the more local the better. If demolition, dismantling or deconstruction (call it what you will) does take place, every scrap of reusable material should be saved.

How can the reuse of reclaimed material be measured in its sustainability performance against new products?

Salvo first wrote about sustainability and reclaimed material in the early 1990s when it calculated the embodied energy of reclaimed building material and published simple statements about the embodied energy equivalent of reclaimed building materials, related that to the construction material in a new building (see the attached graphic from the 1993 Salvo Directory). This approach, although valid to a degree and well in advance for its time since embodied energy still forms a major part of LCA-thinking, would be far too simplistic for today's Life Cycle Analysis professionals of which there were none in 1993.

Sustainability today considers not just the environment, but also society and economy. Apart from embodied energy it covers environmental issues such as water use and pollution, as well as social and economic issues such as creating communities where people want to live and work and financial viability within a market economy.

Next: Real sustainability 2: The sustainability checklist

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The author was a member of the committee which produced 'BS8905: 2011 Framework for the assessment of the sustainable use of materials - Guidance'

Story Type: Opinion