Digital Builder Ep 38: Strategies for Reusing Construction Waste

Construction waste is a major problem that has gone unchecked for years. Until now. 

In this special Autodesk University episode, hear Shannon Goodman, Executive Director of the Lifecycle Building Center, share her expertise on utilizing construction waste for more sustainable and reusable buildings. Learn about the latest research and projects from the Lifecycle Building Center, and get practical tips and strategies for builders and contractors. Join us and discover how to reduce waste on the job site and find new uses for materials.

Watch the episode now

You can also listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, YouTube, and anywhere else you get your podcasts.

After you watch the episode, continue reading below for an even deeper dive with Shannon Goodman where she discusses the benefits of salvaging and relabeling "waste", paving the way for affordable housing, scaling these initiatives to reduce waste on a broader scale, and much more.

Here's a not-so-fun fact: the construction industry is one of the biggest contributors to environmental waste.

According to a 2022 analysis, the construction sector produces around 35% of total environmental waste globally. In 2009, the EPA estimated we were throwing away 170 million tons of building materials every year. Fast forward ten years later, and that figure jumped to 600 tons—which is enough material to fill the Empire State Building 2,500 times.

These stats may be tough to swallow, but the good news is there are actions we can take as an industry to offset our negative impact on the environment. One critical step is to change how we label waste and, instead, recognize these unused or unwanted materials as resources.

The benefits of salvaging and relabeling "waste"

Salvaging materials can positively impact projects and communities. Materials we so casually throw away can actually help make our communities more sustainable, more equitable, and more resilient.

Reclaiming and reusing waste

You can drastically reduce waste by reclaiming unused or unwanted construction materials. The Kendeda Building at Georgia Tech is an example of this in action.

The Kendeda Building was built by Skanska, and is the most environmentally advanced education and research building ever constructed in the Southeastern United States. The project received the Living Building Challenge certification in 2021 by meeting rigorous sustainability standards.

To meet the requirements for reusing waste, the Kendeda project team salvaged materials from within the Georgia Tech campus. The building's stair treads were sourced from the campus' old Tech Tower from the late 1800’s, while its walls were created from old slate roofing tiles from Georgia Tech's alumni house from the same era. In addition, Lifecycle Building Center (LBC)  salvaged 25,000 lineal feet of 2X4 lumber from TV and film productions for use as non-structural spacers in the nail-laminated timber (NLT) decking panels for the project.

The Kendeda project also prioritized equity by providing job opportunities for community members who were struggling to find work. Skanska engaged with Georgia Works, a nonprofit in Atlanta that provides job training opportunities for men who are overcoming homelessness or prior incarceration. Six men were hired and used the salvaged 2X4s to construct 489 NLT panels for the project, with one worker later hired into a full-time construction job.

This creative design solution for the NLT panels enabled the Kendeda team to meet three Living Building Challenge goals. Sourcing reclaimed materials locally helped lower the project's carbon impact and achieve the Challenge’s Energy goal. Exposing the natural wood structural system contributed to the Beauty goal and providing workforce training opportunities helped meet the Equity goal. This creative solution also saved the project money. Skanska's cost to build these panels was 25% of the original NLT panel bid.

Paving the way for affordable housing

Salvaging waste doesn't just improve the environment; this practice also creates economic opportunities and helps make our cities more livable and equitable.

To that end, the LBC is supporting the city of Atlanta in its affordable housing efforts by reclaiming materials from existing homes and donating them to nonprofit organizations building affordable housing.

By reusing materials that already exist, nonprofits can significantly lower their construction costs.

Now, we are scaling up this work by partnering with nonprofits like Grove Park Foundation in Atlanta. They are seeking to construct 950 affordable units over the next several years.

To accomplish this, Lifecycle Building Center is partnering with the film industry to salvage and repurpose materials used in TV and film productions. Rather than going to waste, these materials can now be reused in housing projects to keep costs low while simultaneously creating a positive environmental impact.

Improving residents' quality of life

Building material reuse also helps create better living conditions in local communities. As an example, Shannon shares the story of retired army veteran Charles Jackson, who wanted to bring his mother back home in 2020.

LBC teamed up with Rebuilding Together Atlanta to help Charles rehabilitate his home, which was in poor condition and did not have a kitchen.

LBC provided kitchen cabinet sets, a kitchen sink, appliances, as well as tile for the floors, counters, and walls, and they brought in their longtime partner, DPR Construction, to install the materials.

The project was completed in December 2020, just in time for Charles to bring his mom back home for Christmas.

Scaling these initiatives to reduce waste on a broader scale

The steps and examples above show us that it's possible to reduce project waste and costs while building beautiful and equitable communities at the same time. We need more of these projects, and scaling these initiatives starts by shifting our mindset around the concept of waste. We can do this together by changing the label of waste into resources.

Another step you can take is to partner with reuse organizations in your area. In the US, Habitat for Humanity Restore has over a thousand locations in their network. You can also connect with members of Build Reuse, which is a national nonprofit that helps communities turn construction and demolition waste into local resources.

If you're involved in demolition projects, Shannon recommends conducting reuse assessments and setting minimum thresholds for materials that you want to salvage.

You can also look for opportunities to reuse materials or even entire buildings in your design projects. Even better, you can design buildings to be disassembled later so their components can be more easily reused.

Now, if you don't have a local reuse organization, consider starting one. LBC is teaming up with Build Reuse to create toolkits and resources to make this process easier.

Pittsburgh’s reuse center, Construction Junction, is a great example of an online presence for reclaimed building materials. Sites like these make it possible to catalog and harvest reusable materials before buildings are demolished. This is the future of sustainable construction.

It is a future where existing buildings become the palette from which we can select materials to reuse. A future where we can actually trace where materials came from and follow them into their next life. A future with a skilled workforce capable of capturing all these valuable resources, where members of this workforce can gain a living wage career while also helping communities access these materials at an affordable cost.

We invite you to join us in building this future where we value our material resources, and we recognize their ability to help sustain our communities and our planet.

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Digital Builder is hosted by me, Eric Thomas. Remember, new episodes of Digital Builder go live every two weeks.

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Shannon Goodman

Lifecycle Building Center Executive Director