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Used but Not Used Up

by May 11, 2020Architecture, Construction, Magazine

Reclaimed materials find their way into commercial, residential projects

A large, steel-frame house that was framed using all salvaged steel from different demolition projects.


There are a lot of reasons to build with reclaimed materials, from lower costs to decreased environmental impact to the fact that they can be used to truly customize a project. But before jumping on the reuse/recycle bandwagon, it’s important to realize that this method comes with a number of challenges.

This is especially true on the design side of projects, where it is imperative to know exactly what materials will be used and that they will be available when needed. There are also risks that come with planning a project using materials that may not perform as well as new products would and that may not end up being well-suited for their planned purpose.

“There is a lot more planning involved, both for the designer and the contractor,” says Carel Nagata, senior architect/associate at Stantec, an engineering services company. “It’s a lot easier to just order exactly what a project needs. When you’re given a pile of reclaimed material, you have to determine whether it’s enough material and how to patch it all together. You need a lot more time to plan, and that time is a cost that goes back to the owner.”

That’s not to say it isn’t worth it, however.

“All of the cool things in my house are either reclaimed or salvaged,” says Paula Bogdan, who along with her husband, Jeff, built a 3,000-square-foot home in Girdwood using roughly 25,000 pounds of reclaimed beams, among other items. “Flexibility is really important. You have to be open to new ideas.”

Concrete rubble being dropped for recycling at Central Environmental Inc.


Why Use Reclaimed Materials?

Generally when people consider using reclaimed materials, they do it for one of two reasons: they want to save money or they want to reduce their environmental impact.

“One of the biggest benefits is the huge cost savings; we sell most of our reclaimed building material for 50 percent or less than what it costs new, and projects also have reduced transportation costs because it doesn’t require shipping materials from China or the Lower 48,” explains Central Recycling Services (CRS) and Central Environmental Inc. (CEI) partner Shane Durand.

“While it’s sometimes a challenge to have to design with what we have—for example, someone wants a 2×6, but I only have 2x8s—if the price is right, they make it work,” he adds. “They adjust their plans based on the materials available.”

ReStore, part of Habitat for Humanity Anchorage, sees people buying these materials for the same reasons.

“Most of our reclaimed materials cost about half the price of new, if not lower,” says Norman Beasley, general manager of the nonprofit thrift store, adding that those prices are based on what materials can be sold for on eBay and not full retail price.

“We’re also seeing that people are becoming more conscious about what they buy,” he continues. “I’ve personally always been a ‘new’ buyer, but now I realize that I can fix things up if I spend a little extra time. Before, when people were buying new, they weren’t addressing the issue of how much waste one person can cause; now, we’re seeing more conscious builds.”

By making the decision to use reclaimed materials, individuals and businesses can have a positive impact on the environment.

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“We had 34,000 transactions last year, and even if you conservatively estimate that each person bought 2 to 5 pounds of stuff, that’s 68,000 to 170,000 pounds of materials not going into the garbage,” says Beasley.

Items that go to ReStore and can’t be reused are recycled, making even more of a difference. “If we can’t take light fixtures or ovens, for example, we recycle the metal through a partnership with Alaska Waste,” says Beasley. “Last year, about four tons of metal waste was diverted from the landfill.”

While both cost and environmental impact play a huge part in the reclamation trend, there are other reasons that people use these materials. Sometimes reclaimed materials have special meaning, and other times, it’s just, well, cool.

“When we started building our house, we didn’t want a cookie-cutter home,” says Bogdan, an IT project manager who served as the project’s general contractor. “I decided to look on Craigslist to see what I could find and found thirty-two beams, ranging from 11-1/2 to 20 feet, in Talkeetna. Half of them came from the old Denali School.

Central Environmental Inc. salvaging large wood beams from a building demolition.


“They were really cool, gnarly looking beams that were more than fifty years old, but the drawback was that we had to buy the whole lot,” she continues. “We planned to use them for open riser timber stairs and sell what we couldn’t use. We ended up using all of it for support and stair posts, decorative beams in the kitchen, a beautiful kitchen table, and we’ve got a coffee table in progress.

“Throughout this process, I’ve discovered a love of the patina of different woods, which is something you can’t create with new materials.”

The couple also had some of the wood milled to create barnwood siding on the house’s exterior and for baseboard and fireplace trim. While serving as a firefighter with the Girdwood Fire Department, Bogdan also learned about its upcoming station renovation and approached them about salvaging what she could.

“I told them, ‘Give me one day,’ and we got over there and took out all of the cabinets, which we’ve used in our kitchen, dining room, and guest suite. They were also throwing out cedar fencing, which we used to make beautiful barn doors.”

As a result of Bogdan’s search, the couple saved a huge amount on their 4-bedroom, 4.5-bath house. “My carpenter said that if I’d bought new beams, it would have cost around $65,000,” she says proudly. “I paid $5,000, so I saved about 90 percent. And the cabinets and fencing were free.”

The Kenaitze Indian Tribe of Kenai also used reclaimed wood in the building of the Dena’ina Wellness Center, which came from the demolition of one of the Columbia Wards Cannery warehouses. More than 66,000 linear square feet of wood was purchased from the tear-down of that building, including pieces that had the names of past cannery workers and tribe members inscribed in the wood.

Lumber from that same purchase will be used in a Head Start school building project that is currently underway at Stantec.

“If material reclamation is important to an owner’s values, like this wood that preserves the history of the people working in the cannery, it adds emotional ties to a building,” says Nagata. “In this case, this connection to the material may not be a cultural thing, but it’s important from a community history standpoint.”

The Bogdan’s 3,000-square-foot home in Girdwood showcases just how many different ways reclaimed wood can be used in a home.

Carel Nagata

The Challenges

There are a number of things to keep in mind when designing using reclaimed items. Before joining Stantec, Nagata ran her own company, Carel Nagata, which was involved in the design of the Bogdan’s house.

“One of the biggest issues that designers and contractors face is finding source material; we don’t really have a dependable supplier up here, and that makes it a challenge if a client wants us to specify reclaimed materials,” says Nagata. “While Habitat for Humanity does carry some reclaimed material, we don’t have a construction business here that specializes in this area, so you never know what will be available. In many cases, even if you do find the right materials, storage can be a big issue.”

In the Bogdans’ case, storing that many massive beams meant moving the wood around. More than once.

“Storage was an issue; we probably moved that same pile of wood ten times before we used it,” laughs Bogdan of the roughly 25,000 pounds of wood. “We had to borrow a friend’s lift to move it, but I still think it was totally worth it.”

Depending on the type of material reclaimed, designers and contractors also have to figure out the appropriate place to use it in a project.

“The cannery wood that we’re using on the Head Start project is Douglas Fir, which is super strong but physically soft, so you can’t use it where there’s a lot of wear and tear,” says Nagata, who is in the process of coordinating what size pieces are available so that she can complete the design process.

ReStore carries a wide range of reclaimed building materials, including lighting. If light fixtures or other metals can’t be reused, they are recycled through a partnership with Alaska Waste.

Habitat for Humanity Anchorage

“If the pieces are all 2x12s, it limits how we can configure it; we may need to mill it down into another size to create a custom component,” she says. “We may want to slice it smaller to make a wall finish or use it as it is.”

According to Nagata, residential projects are often a good place to use reclaimed materials because the timeframe isn’t as intense as that of commercial projects. “Reclaimed materials work best in smaller projects with flexible schedules when you have the contractor on board early,” she explains. “Being able to get to the materials during the design process to assess them for yourself also creates the right environment.

“It becomes more challenging on commercial renovation projects because of the schedule,” she continues. “If you’re [demolishing] a building, you have to take extra care; you can’t just rip something off a wall. Then you need a place to store it until you’re ready to use it.”

She adds that it’s also harder to do a competitive bid project using reclaimed materials because there are a lot of variables that can’t be controlled on the design end. “Sometimes this becomes a barrier if the contractor can’t find the material locally, and it has to be shipped up.”

Quality control is also an issue as there are no standards to follow to ensure the quality of reclaimed material. Nagata recommends working closely with the owner and contractor to make sure that everyone is aware of the risks involved with this type of project.

Inventory constantly changes at ReStore, where shoppers can find everything from cedar chips and triple-paned windows to siding and lumber.

Habitat for Humanity Anchorage

Finding a Market for Reclaimed Material

While some reclaimed materials can be found on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, there are local resources as well.

“ReStore carries a wide variety of reclaimed items; anything from walking stones to cedar chips to steel frames for businesses or commercial complexes,” says Beasley. “We’ve got solid doors for home exteriors and business interiors, as well as lumber for patching part of a house or weathered wood for greenhouses. We also have hardware, caster wheels, fasteners, windows for log cabins, and even double and triple-paned windows at times.”

Some of ReStore’s inventory comes from people who are updating their homes, moving to smaller spaces, or moving out of town. Construction companies also provide a wealth of materials from countertops to siding, drywall, and heating ducts.

“One company gave us twelve pallets of siding, which was enough to redo a 2,000- to 3,000-square-foot home,” says Beasley, adding that reclaimed building materials are the number one item that the store sells, followed by hardware and furniture.

While companies can get a tax write-off for donating materials, they may also be able to get a tax credit. “That’s even more of a buy-in from a company standpoint,” says Beasley. “Rather than throwing things away and getting a write-off, they can work with their CPAs or the IRS to get a credit, which makes it better for them and for us.”

CRS and its sister company CEI not only collect and resell reclaimed material but also create their own products out of these materials that they sell to other markets.

“CRS’ focus is on reclamation and recycling of construction and demolition debris,” says Durand. “Our scrapyard takes steel, ferrous and non-ferrous materials, electronics, et cetera, and we process and recycle it to end markets, like steel mills and electronic processors. We also sell steel beams and steel plates for reuse—some people use it in house construction, for example, as metal decking and structural support.”

CEI is a demolition company that performs demolition work at sites like the Flint Hills Refinery and Pump Station #10 on the Richardson Highway. While larger industrial plant items such as generators are resold or reused, other construction debris—concrete, asphalt, and glass—are recycled to make new building materials.

The general construction debris goes through a giant shredder before landing on a large conveyor belt where material like aluminum cans, copper, some types of plastic, wood, brick, and concrete are separated before approximately 75 to 80 percent of it is sent to end markets.

“We probably recycle 80 to 90 percent of debris on a big commercial demo project,” says Durand, adding that their aggregate products can be used for foundations, roads, traction sand, pipe bedding, and landscaping purposes, among other uses. CRS also recycles tires to create a lightweight, free draining fill material that is used in building applications.

“Our crushed concrete product is probably the most used; last year, we sold more than 25,000 tons in Anchorage,” says Durand. “If we don’t crush it, it gets thrown away somehow.”

While CRS and CEI would like to see more of these materials being used in Anchorage, they tend to market it to more rural Alaska communities as well as national and foreign markets.

“The biggest barrier here [in Anchorage] is the municipality’s building code and enforcement,” says Durand. “If you want to use a reclaimed piece of equipment or wooden timbers or steel beams, there will be questions about where it came from and what it’s made of, so a lot of engineers in Anchorage shy away from reusing these materials. We typically ship them out to the Mat-Su Valley or more rural areas where they don’t have such strict building enforcement.

“Some designers and architects really embrace using reclaimed materials, some are still trying to figure out how to use it, and some won’t use it at all,” he adds. “But there always seems to be a market for these goods, whether it’s a bridge builder in Trapper Creek, a miner in Petersville, or a homeowner in Eagle.”

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