Even with surging interest in green building and sustainability, new construction and renovation projects continue to deplete vast quantities of resources. Remodeling, in particular, is a double-edged sword—the new house consumes materials, the demolition of the old structure generates debris.

You can build efficiently with sustainable products, and many architects do, but reusing building materials salvaged from old structures is yet another way to help Mother Earth. The concept is simple: the tons of usable materials that already exist in commercial and residential applications can be carefully deconstructed, cleaned up, and reused in new buildings.

Recycling in this manner is an old tradition, but the practice has grown as an increasing number of architects consider it the ultimate sustainability strategy. “Using something old is often easier on the environment than buying new,” Jennifer Roberts writes in Redux: Designs That Reuse, Recycle, and Reveal (Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2005). “Reuse reduces pressures to extract or mine nonrenewable resources from the earth or to harvest slow-growing renewable resources.”

John Abrams, founder and president of the West Tisbury, Mass.-based design/ build firm South Mountain Co., has long advocated the reuse of building materials. He says the built environment already has many of the materials we need and sees no reason to “fill up our vanishing landfills with perfectly good materials.”

It's hard to argue with his logic. With increasing frequency, architects and builders are scoping out high-quality materials during renovation and restoration projects and using them in new ones. They're also mining salvage yards, which can be excellent sources for period fixtures and fittings.

revivalist thinking Salvaged lumber is one of the most popular reuse categories for the recycling savvy. “In many cases, the materials in old buildings are of far better quality than new materials,” Abrams argues. The reason: “Old buildings were often built with slow-growing first-growth timber, which is denser and more stable than new, fast-growing second-growth or plantation timber,” he says. This explains why South Mountain uses salvaged lumber in more than 80 percent of its interior and exterior finish work, he adds, and why the firm designs buildings with salvage availability in mind.

Minneapolis- and San Francisco-based LOCUS Architecture also takes this approach. Though the firm sets no limits on the materials it uses, wood products of all types make up a large portion. “In one of our first projects, 60 percent to 70 percent of the wood was reclaimed,” says principal and partner Paul V. Neseth, AIA. Reclaimed products included maple and oak flooring, dimensional wood framing lumber, and redwood trim.

Lumber is just one of many salvaged materials available for reuse, however. Bathtubs, chalkboards, sinks, cabinets, mantels, shutters, stairs, and tile also can be reclaimed. LOCUS, for example, has used old plumbing fixtures, billboard vinyl, and sidewalks that were cut and installed as pavers and stair treads. “Most commodity items, such as dimensional lumber, timber, bricks, and stone, can have value,” says William Zoeller, senior architect with Norwalk, Conn.-based Steven Winter Associates. “Plumbing fixtures—especially sinks—and finished hardware are also good choices, and lighting fixtures can be easily rewired and upgraded.”

Getting your hands on such materials is getting easier too. In recent years, nonprofit salvage yards offering high-quality building materials have proliferated. One of the largest is The ReBuilding Center of Our United Villages, a nonprofit in Portland, Ore. The center started as a small yard but soon grew into a large operation that now diverts 4.5 million pounds of reusable building materials from landfills each year. It even has a division that provides deconstruction services.

Reuse opportunities need not always come from houses or buildings, however. John Hong, AIA, LEED AP, and Jinhee Park, principals of Cambridge, Mass.-based Single Speed Design, prove that a little imagination can turn the most unlikely elements into beautiful architecture. Single Speed had been exploring the idea of reusing a local armory building when a client approached the pair with a challenge: build a house with steel and concrete salvaged from Boston's Big Dig highway project. Their efforts produced an industrial, yet beautiful, 4,300-square-foot home with a structural system comprised of more than 600,000 pounds of recycled materials from the nation's largest public-works project.