NOVEMBER 2009

Getting serious about reclaimed building materials
E-mail the author

Click to Enlarge - Reclaimed wood is put through stress testing to ascertain its suitability for use in other projects. Markets for recovered lumber are expected to grow as soon as current grading standards are updated to include standards for recovered wood.

Perhaps this slow economy has been the catalyst that has sparked a growing interest in reclaimed materials. It seems as though all the public education in green building practices has engendered a waste not, want not mind-set where reclaiming materials is not just about cost savings, but is also source of pride in conserving natural resources.

A broad understanding has been arrived at by industry – that a great deal of value is going unclaimed. With a little common sense and cooperation, reclaimed materials can be better managed and more easily classified as commodities and approved for reuse. An increased emphasis on reclaimed construction and demolition (C&D) materials could create new jobs and new revenue for contractors, recyclers, processors and retailers. Other benefits include conserving landfill space, lowering disposal costs, reducing the environmental impact of producing new materials and helping to lower construction expenses by negating purchases.

Due to the drop in new construction, the demolition and dismantling industries certainly need a monetary shot in the arm and even modest conservation of virgin materials is a net plus for everyone. It also appears that the government and business climates are ripe for change. Proactive green-building and urban redevelopment projects are popping up all over the country, the latter a potentially rich source of reclaimed materials as well as job creation.


Mike Taylor, executive director of the National Demolition Association (NDA), gave an update on the state of the industry. “With the economy slow, generation rates have dropped on the materials we are used to receiving. We estimate that we generate about 115 million tons of debris every year and we recycle anywhere from 40 to 50 percent. During these recessionary times it’s probably less.”

Taylor forecasts a steady recovery and he is beginning to see some positive indicators. “We think things will gradually improve as we move into 2010 and are optimistic that by 2011 we will be back on an even keel,” Taylor predicted.

Demolition expects to get its fair share of stimulus dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that allocated approximately $50 billion to infrastructure spending on bridges, roads, rail, and other transportation projects. The Department of Energy also has funds available that NDA hopes will produce work in building retrofits for energy efficiency to earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) points.
NDA members also indicate confidence in the future. Bookings for booth space for the 2010 NDA trade show are at or exceeding previous years’ growth being led by heavy equipment manufacturers. The association which represents more than 1,100 demolition and general contractors, civil engineering firms, recycling companies, landfill operators and salvage operations in the United States and Canada is now sharply focused on public policy issues towards increasing the volume of demolished materials that can be reused or recycled. “We want to work with federal EPA, state environmental protection agencies and local agencies to determine the next steps,” Taylor said.
The next steps towards increasing the volumes of marketable, profitable commodities derived from construction, demolition and dismantling appear to require several essential agreements: a broad recognition, especially by state and local agencies such as highway departments, planning boards and building inspectors that quality, reliable, non-hazardous supplies of these recycled materials will be available as stronger demand emerges from them, and that it is in the public interest to purchase these materials; a commitment by demolition contractors, reclaimers and recycling entrepreneurs to deliver commodities that meet expected quality control standards and faster, simpler procedures for approving or certifying reused materials for use in new construction.
Overriding everything is the fact that the transaction should be primarily a local one, because the costs associated with transporting heavy materials over long distances negate some of the positive aspects of using non-virgin materials.
Demolishing and dismantling structures result in a dozen or so potentially marketable commodities. Unfortunately, only a few can be practically monetized in volume: metal, concrete, asphalt and wood. Aside from scrap metal, much still goes to landfills whereas much more could be recovered, recycled or reused in more profitable applications.

Most ferrous and non-ferrous metals from the largest I-beam to the smallest fixture usually find their way to a scrap dealer. Architectural elements of value such as doors, windows, staircases and fixtures are often salvaged and find ready markets. However, as appreciation for these items increase, and as more dismantling companies are formed and retail outlets are established, industry experts believe that larger markets are likely.

The EPA estimates that well over 100 million tons of concrete are recycled every year, but much greater and higher-value recovery is needed. Concrete and brick can be crushed at the site and used there as fill or as a grading aggregate for new construction. This efficient usage avoids carting and disposal, and reduces or eliminates the need to buy and truck stone. In many areas of the country where virgin aggregates are scarce, therefore more expensive, concrete rubble is in high demand for back-fill, drainage or processing. It only pays to truck it short distances, however, usually less than 50 miles, before fuel and labor costs erode profit.

Having well-distributed concrete crushing plants is crucial to higher value and higher volumes. Modern concrete processors can effectively recover metals like rebar, as scrap as well as grind out consistent, quality products ranging from riprap to various sized aggregates that can be used for construction and road building, if approved by the local governing agencies.

“All of this material can be graded to size for sub-base on roads, parking lots and as an additive for the wearing course. Our plan is to get the Federal Highway Administration, state departments of transportation and American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to look at the quality control issues they need to have to guarantee that roads will be safe. If it lasts as long as virgin material, why not use it? It makes a lot more sense,” Taylor stated.

Asphalt recovered from pavement, roof shingles and roofing felt has a waiting market if an asphalt plant is close enough to justify the transport cost. Public policy encouraging the recycling of asphalt could lead to new plants and more recovery.

Reclaimed wood presents one of the most complex challenges. One of the country’s leading experts on reclaimed lumber is Bob Falk, a research engineer at the USDA Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. Falk is also president of the Building Materials Reuse Association (BMRA) and author of ‘Unbuilding: Salvaging the Architectural Treasures of Unwanted Houses’ (Taunton Press).

There is scant data on the size of the reclaimed lumber sector, but from anecdotal evidence there has been huge growth over the past decade in the number of new dismantlers, wholesale and retail outlets. The BMRA website (www.bmra.org) directory lists over 1,000 organizations related to reclaimed lumber that Falk admits is woefully incomplete.

“There’s been growing interest in our association and the reuse industry as a whole. We hold a national conference every two years and people attend from all over the country and around the world. The spectrum of people interested in reuse is growing and we are seeing a lot more federal and local government agencies getting involved – representatives from the EPA, local municipalities, recycling coordinators, architects, builders, and those interested in green buildings,” said Falk.

BMRA is collaborating on five Department of Labor grants under the Recovery Act to develop a national training standard for worker safety and industry recognized procedures for deconstruction and building material salvage. There are hundreds of thousands of buildings in rust belt cities that need to come down. In Chicago alone, for example, 600 structures need to be removed for the O’Hare Airport expansion. BMRA believes that even minimal training can prepare workers, create jobs, reclaim useful materials and transition people to jobs in new construction as well as create new small businesses in urban areas.

While there is a brisk market for reclaimed building materials, a hurdle facing the reuse industry is getting reclaimed lumber formally recognized in national and local building codes for reuse in house framing and other structural applications. Currently, allowable use varies by jurisdictional codes, or individual support beams must be approved by an engineer on a per project basis and then approved by the permitting agency. Many old beams are re-sawn for flooring and wood such as barn siding used for decoration usually do not present code problems.

Grading rules for lumber have been carefully developed over 200 years and are regulated by the Department of Commerce through the American Lumber Standards Committee (ALSC) which is composed of members from government and the wood industry. In turn, the ALSC accredits 20 regional lumber grading agencies in America that assure lumber quality through a grading and a lumber stamping process.

Some agencies are more interested in reclaimed lumber than others. The West Coast Lumber Inspection Bureau, for example, will grade old lumber using existing grading rules. They can be hired to provide structural ratings. But other rating agencies do not deal with old lumber. There is no uniform standard for reclaimed lumber. That’s the main problem. “We would see a lot more lumber salvaged if existing grading rules were amended to reflect the use of reclaimed lumber,” said Falk. “This will require a combined effort of the wood industry, the grading agencies, and the reuse industry. The market is there. Most people I talk to at reuse stores tell me that if they get reclaimed lumber in it’s gone in a few days. In many cases, it’s sold at new lumber retail prices.”

Falk has been working to get the wood industry to proformaly recognize reclaimed in the grading standards. At the USDA Forest Products Laboratory, he has graded and tested thousands of pieces of reclaimed wood to evaluate its strength relative to new lumber and concluded it is suitable for single-family construction. Many people think that lumber from big, old growth trees has to be better than new wood. In many cases it is, both in strength and appearance. In some cases it is not, since it has been through a lifetime of use, damaged when nailed in place and may have been drilled for wires and pipes and perhaps further damaged when dismantled. “There is some statistical strength loss, but not enough loss to say it cannot be used again. We just have to adjust where and how it is used,” Falk believes.

If reclaimed wood can be certified by professional graders, more of it will come into use. “In time, we will get to the point where reclaimed lumber will be graded as it is generated, be treated like any other lumber and go into second use construction. First, we have to get this lumber recognized in our building codes as adequate for structural reuse, then our industry needs to generate enough volume so it makes economic sense to bring in professional graders to lower the cost per piece,” Falk concluded.