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Reclaimed Building Materials in the Age of COVID

Using reclaimed building materials is a great way to save resources and lower the embodied carbon of a building, but obtaining these materials has created a new set of legal and ethical challenges.

April 1, 2021

In a rush to lower the carbon footprint of new construction and ward off the worst impacts of climate change, design teams are increasingly turning to reclaimed materials. Furniture, cladding, wood flooring, stone, and even structural beams can be repurposed at a fraction of the environmental and fiscal costs of new materials, and architecture firms are starting to take advantage of this what’s-old-is-new-again material sourcing. But obtaining these materials in the age of COVID is challenging current building conventions and creating ethical dilemmas for firms and suppliers.

badly installed tyvek on an unfinished building

Though some building owners woke to find their cladding missing, MBZL has been fortunate to avoid these setbacks, with its latest project scheduled for on-time completion as soon as reclaimed windows and housewrap become available.

Photo: Scott Ehardt. License: Public domain.
“With product supply lines disrupted and new materials becoming more expensive due to the pandemic, we’ve had to look for alternative materials and methods to keep our schedules on track,” according to Pearl Loine, head of sustainability at the firm MBZL. “Reclaimed materials have become a perfect fit for us.” 

MBZL’s recently completed four-story multi-use building in Reno, the Grand Stakes Casino, incorporated reclaimed materials throughout. The flooring and cladding were obtained from regional buildings undergoing renovation, and repurposed furniture was from another office complex. The project saved nearly $2 million compared to buying new, Loine said.

But sometimes the path from demolition to installation is shrouded in secrecy. For the Grand Stakes project, there is increasing concern over where the materials for the project came from and the methods used to obtain them. And much of that concern centers around the distributor, Legitimate Building Products, Inc.

Company representative John Smith said, “Hey, we’ve been reclaiming things for years. If you need product, we can get product, and get it fast.” For architects such as Loine, the promise of getting any material on time is worth the risk, especially when their usual distributor was quoting at least a 50-week lead time. The wood flooring, for example­—the same style used in an office building a few doors down—arrived out of the blue. “One morning, we got an anonymous call saying the flooring was piled out back,” Loine said. “I mean … that’s amazing, right? No one expected it so soon, but we’re thrilled, and what a coincidence it showed up just when the contractors needed it.”

Though the use of reclaimed material has kept the Grand Stakes project on schedule, there are more and more questions over the sustainability of these supply chains. Shortly after BuildingGreen spoke with Loine, police raided a warehouse in Sacramento and found materials from several area office buildings in what police are calling an “architectural chop shop,” including an entire floor of a “modular office building” that had gone missing during the pandemic. Police reports indicate that the offices had become easy pickings for criminals. “Frankly, no one’s been in these offices for months,” said Sergeant Bill Oakstrom, “and no one seemed to notice the stuff was missing.” 

Though Smith has disappeared and phone lines for Legitimate Building Products have gone dead, authorities suspect a main ringleader with the inside knowledge necessary to pull off such brazen heists may still be in the area. As for Loine, “We’ve been one of the few firms that’s been able to stay on schedule during the pandemic. Thanks to reclaimed materials, we’ve been busier than ever, and our profits reflect that,” she said as she rolled away in her brand new black and chrome Escalade. Pointing to her spinning hubcaps with dollar sign emblems, she exclaimed, “I got your circular economy right there!”

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Comments

April 1, 2021 - 9:08 am

architectural chop shop, please!

April 1, 2021 - 9:22 am

Looks like we may be starting a movement....
 

April 1, 2021 - 11:00 am

I've also heard the R-value from desiccated desk plants is impressive when they're ground up and blown into wall cavities.

Only problem is no one has figured out how to sanitize away the guilty consciences of their past owners. :-(