Giving Building Materials a Second Life

Giving Building Materials a Second LifeAs a baby boomer who has spent over 35 years in the architectural and real estate development professions, I'm aware that the current economic downturn has made many of my peers revaluate where they are going in both their personal and professional lives. Some have regretfully waived the defeat flag and headed for retirement. Others have reinvented themselves in second careers, and in so doing given themselves exciting new lives.

In an analogous rebirth, perfectly good building material that once would have been buried in a landfill is now enjoying a second life through creative reuse.

Building-materials reuse was once considered the backwater of do-it-yourself homeowners on a limited budget. Today reuse serves a vital role within the mainstream of state-of-the-art design and construction, in both the residential and commercial sectors of the industry. This trend is driven by building professionals and building owners who have become more conscious of the financial and environmental benefits of materials reuse and the potential tax benefits of choosing deconstruction over demolition.

In California, an entirely new driver is the new CalGreen Building Code, adopted in 2011. Although building industry professionals have mixed opinions of the code, it is now the law. The code mandates requirements that encourage the adaptive reuse of materials and, in some municipalities, actually offer developers and owners incentives for creatively reusing building materials. Although the code only affects construction in California, a similar set of codes and mandates is in the works with the International Code Council, which will affect the majority of states when adopted over the next few years.

The reuse of building materials falls into three basic categories:

1. Conventional reuse of materials
2. Adaptive reuse of materials
3. Recycled content reuse of materials

The conventional reuse of building materials involves building or remodeling with materials salvaged from older structures. One of my favorite examples is the "Big Dig House." The Big Dig was one of the largest infrastructure projects in North America in the late 20th century and involved the creation of a major loop transportation system around the city of Boston. The Big Dig House was constructed with over 60,000 pounds of salvaged material from structures that were demolished or deconstructed in the path of the Big Dig. The final construction cost was approximately half that of a comparable custom home built with conventional new materials.

The Big Dig House, Boston, MA
The Big Dig House, Boston, MA

Adaptive reuse involves salvaging a material that was used for one purpose in its original structure and reusing it for a different purpose within a new or remodeled structure. For example, a glass curtain wall from a commercial building might be used to create a new residential sun room. A more spectacular example is the Malibu "Wing House" in which architect David Hertz used wings from a retired 747 jetliner as the roof of a new custom home.

The Wing House, Malibu, CA

Taking Hertz's vision to the extreme is a custom hotel suite in Costa Rica constructed from the entire fuselage of a recycled 727. If planes could talk, this one would tell you what a great second life it's having at the beach!

The third and final category of building material reuse is recycled building material content, which involves taking previously used material and, through some type of manufacturing process, turning it into new building material. This is an exciting niche within the building industry that has inspired both small entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 companies to come up with new products made from old products.

New counter tops made from recycled wine bottles
New counter tops made from recycled wine bottles

On May 6-7, at one of the west coast's finest sustainable-building trade shows, AltBuild 2011 (, the ReUse People will showcase its "ReUse Haus," a backyard structure that can be used as a studio, guest room, playhouse or gardening shed, and is built from predominantly reused, salvaged and recycled materials. AltBuild is free, open to the public, and packed with displays, presentations and vendors dedicated to giving building materials a new life. I encourage you to attend!

Special Events Reminders

2011 Reuse Contest
Due to the possible expansion of the 2011 Reuse Contest, entry rules and prizes are yet to be announced. That doesn't mean you should sit on your hands. Get started on your project now and check back regularly for more information.

New Inventory


The Oakland warehouse has received a wealth of beautiful materials from the deconstruction of a 3,180 sq-ft home, including numerous windows, doors, light fixtures, four complete bathrooms, kitchen cabinets, appliances, redwood paneling/shelving, lumber and much, much more.


The Los Angeles (Pacoima) warehouse, we've received several gorgeous three-panel interior doors in different sizes. These beauties will add class to any room!

  New inventory at our partnering warehouses:
The Away Station, Fairfax CA: Beautiful tight-grain barnwood is still available in 2x, 3x, 4x and 6x6. Don't miss out!
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