As W.B. Yeats could have put it, ours is no country for old buildings. Each year, countless aging and outdated structures are dispatched by our $4 billion demolition industry. Even the recent economic retrenchment has hardly altered the nation’s out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new mind-set. In 2010 alone, an estimated 104 million tons of materials flowed in from project sites all over the country, accounting for as much as 40 percent of the U.S.’s annual solid-waste stream. The garbage comprises not only rubble and rotting beams, but also countless odds and ends from new construction such as cast-off nails and packaging. So whether they’re putting something up or taking something down, architects are indirectly making a mess.

What happens to buildings that we’ve replaced? The general procedure for clearing a site has remained more or less consistent for decades: Client contracts with architect, architect contracts with general contractor, who hires a demolition firm that turns refuse over to hauling company, and hauling company drops it off at the dump. Salvageable building parts, such as floorboards, tile, and windows, that could be pulled from the wreckage are often not, since few people know who might buy them and for how much, or where to stow them in the meantime. Likewise, taking the recycling route—in which materials are broken down into their constituent parts, reprocessed, and resold as new and, most likely, different products—could introduce a swarm of logistical challenges that builders have little incentive to pursue, particularly with so many cheap landfills nearby. As a result, with the exception of scrap metal, structural materials such as concrete (which can be recycled) often end up in the trash as well.

A Rebirth in Recycling
We are moving away from the status quo of how we handle our construction and demolition waste for many reasons. Dumping has become more expensive and thus less appealing for contractors and clients, says William Turley, executive director of the Construction Materials Recycling Association (CMRA), a national umbrella organization based in Eola, Ill., that represents 245 waste-management companies that give a second life to concrete, wood, and steel. Compared to Europe, which recycles an estimated 46 percent of its construction and demolition waste, the U.S. recycles at a rate of 30 percent. “Landfill prices [here] are still very low, but they’re getting higher,” Turley says.

At the same time, the design profession’s growing environmental consciousness has led architects to look for new uses for old materials—a shift that has been a long time coming. Our past enthusiasm for all things new in construction stemmed largely from the Industrial Revolution, when improvements in manufacturing flooded the marketplace with freshly fabricated materials. More than a century later, necessity helped us curtail our prodigal practices. Turley notes, “Think of the end of World War II: In Berlin, they crushed up the debris and used it as the basis for new cities. That’s where it [recycling] took off in modern times.”

Technological advances are also spurring the more recent emphasis on recycling. Recycling plants can now process more material types faster and at less cost. Recent years have seen substantial improvements in on-site equipment—extractors that carefully pull apart rather than pulverize buildings, and mixed demolition shredders that automatically sort materials by type and grade, before cutting them down to size to be transported to the recycler. “Everything is dumped in willy-nilly and sorted,” says Matt Griffis, project manager at Stanford University’s Department of Land, Buildings, and Real Estate. The technology is worlds away from war-weary Germans carting bricks around in wheelbarrows.

Griffis observed a shredder in action during the demolition of Stanford’s Frederick E. Terman Engineering Building. The 1978 classroom and office space had outlived its usefulness years ago and was rendered obsolete by state-of-the-art facilities on a nearby science campus. With no new building slated to go up on the site, the university created a public park that is now rising in place of—and with the help of—the defunct structure. A portion of Terman’s concrete walls and foundations, ground on the spot by the mobile processors, instantly became the backfill for the park’s sloping landscape. Altogether, 99.64 percent of the former building is being recycled on site or off. “It’s like animals on the Serengeti,” Griffis says. “Very little goes to waste.”

Efficiency is paramount in the new demolition culture; the more material that can be retrieved with the least hauling and hassle, the better. The USGBC’s LEED rating system has influenced this trend, granting a suite of points for the responsible handling of materials during building dismantling and design phases. LEED v3 lists seven potential credits in the Materials & Resources (MR) category; the award threshold for recycled materials is 10 or 20 percent of a project’s total materials cost for one or two points, respectively. “LEED recognizes and encourages strategies that consider materials and resources from a long-term, life-cycle perspective,” says USGBC spokesperson Ashley Katz. This holistic approach includes a point for regional materials sourced within 500 miles of the project site to reduce energy consumed in transport. That’s a good incentive to find on-site uses for demolition debris.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also launched a number of programs to encourage the building industry to look more closely at sourcing and disposal. Its Lifecycle Building Challenge, for example, invites architects to “design for disassembly” and compete in creating structures that not only deploy reused or recycled materials, but are themselves primed for recycling when the buildings are eventually scrapped. The EPA’s Construction Initiative encourages builders to look outside the typical sourcing channels to find recycled industrial materials. That process can go in reverse as well, with industry members looking to recycled construction materials for manufacturing materials; old wood pulled from aging structures, for instance, can be used to make biomass fuel.

Still, new buildings remain the prime destination for recycled materials, particularly as pre- and post-consumer waste products rise in demand among architects and clients. The recently completed Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, a 300,000-square-foot LEED Gold hub for technological research and education in Madison, Wis., surpassed LEED’s 20-percent mark for recycled building content. Getting there wasn’t much of a challenge, according to project architect Rob Voss, AIA, of Philadelphia-based Ballinger. “The difficulty … [of using recycled materials] is so minor,” he says. “The only thing that can happen is that something you specify turns out not to meet the requirement. Then you get back into product-research phase.”

With in-house expertise on where to look for quality recycled resources, Ballinger only has to confirm that its contractors hold up their end of the material-handling bargain. “The benefit is so great, and the challenge is so little,” Voss says.

The increasing prevalence and volume of recycled materials are supported by CMRA’s Turley, who, citing a USGBC Technical Advisory Group member, says that MR credits are the most claimed points in the LEED schema. With local governments also getting into the act—Seattle, for one, offers an expedited permitting process for deconstruction projects that meet specific guidelines—even more designers will turn to recycled products.

Save It for Salvaging
Recycling is only one half of the waste-not strategy. “We say it [recycling] is all very well and good, but we also say many of these [materials] could simply be salvaged,” says Anne Nicklin, executive director of the Building Materials Reuse Association (BMRA). As CMRA’s counterpart on the reuse side of the materials equation, BMRA advocates for putting building components back into the resource pool without preliminary treatment by a recycler.

Architects are listening. In 2009, the Kansas City, Mo., office of BNIM completed work on the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, a 6,250-square-foot learning space on a rolling campus in Rhinebeck, N.Y. The LEED Platinum project extensively uses reclaimed woods pulled directly from former farm and factory buildings in the region, along with plywood planks from the 2009 inauguration platform of President Barack Obama. “We made an impromptu decision to use them,” project architect Brad Clark says. In the reuse marketplace, getting the right materials is often a matter of timing. For a school in Kiowa County, Kan., completed in 2010, BNIM included wood salvaged from the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina.

“We’re really starting to get plugged into, in a much more architectural way, the stream of these materials,” says David Dowell, AIA, a principal of El Dorado Architects, also of Kansas City, Mo. Since expanding to include general contracting services, the firm has been working reuse deeper into its practice. For the Finn Lofts, a 2010 mixed-use residential and retail renovation and addition in Wichita, Kan., the firm didn’t have far to look for high-grade scrap: the old wood floors of the existing structure were turned into interior cladding, achieving just the right look for the project’s lighting and spatial plan. Once the initial design is in place, “you can weave in the sustainability story,” Dowell says, reassuring the client that the reused materials will serve the project and the environment well.