The construction industry is under increasing pressure to become sustainable. One way to address this is through the use of reclaimed materials. There are materials that have been previously used in a building or project, which are then re-used in another. The materials might be altered, re-sized, refinished or adapted, but they are not reprocessed in any way and remain in their original form. Materials that have been reprocessed and reused in the building industry are referred to as recycled materials.
Examples of materials that can be reclaimed include: bricks, slate roofing, ceramic tiles, fireplaces, doors, window frames, glass panels, metal fixtures and fittings, stairs, cobbled stones, steel sections and timber. A reclaimed material is often adapted for a different use - for example a roof beam might be used as a mantelpiece, and personally I have sold slate from a snooker table which was going to be used as a hearth to a fireplace.
The building industry has a massive impact on the environment in terms of energy consumption, use of natural resources, pollution and waste. Every year in the UK, construction materials account for around 6 tonnes of materials per person, 122 million tonnes of waste (1/3 of total UK waste) and 18% of carbon dioxide emissions - a major contributor to global climate change. On top of this, the embodied costs associated with the extraction, production, manufacture and transportation of building materials are immense. Using reclaimed materials can significantly reduce these environmental impacts, and save up to 95% of the embodied costs by preventing unnecessary production of new materials, and reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill.
Where to find materials
The best place to source reclaimed materials is direct from a demolition or re-modelling project. Many of these projects carefully dismantle buildings in such a way that their materials can be sold and re-used. In the building trade this is known as deconstruction.
Reclaimed materials can also be sourced from salvage centres, reclamation yards and other specialist companies, who buy and sell materials that they have salvaged themselves from demolished sites. There are hundreds of salvage companies, some which deal only in high-end architectural materials, and others that are more like junkyards. Good quality, rare and heritage materials can be gleaned from salvage suppliers, and while purchasing can be more expensive than those sourced directly from a demolition site, there is a much wider choice of materials available on demand.
An untapped market
Although there are substantial environmental benefits to using reclaimed materials, the market is virtually untapped. At the moment, only 1% of reclaimed materials are used in new building projects, a percentage that really should be higher. One of the barriers has been a lack of information about sourcing and using the materials in design and development - including knowledge of specifications, standards, legislation and performance. But there are economic barriers too, including the cost of extraction in deconstruction, the limited flexibility of reclaimed materials, and the problems of storing and double handling materials between sites. In addition, medium to large building projects cannot take advantage of the reclamation industry because the salvage supply chain is not yet equipped to deal with large orders.
Reclamation in sustainable development
On-going rapid development means that many historic buildings are being demolished to make way for new affordable housing and commercial space. Redirecting building materials from the waste stream of this process, and reusing them in other nearby projects is a critical component of sustainable development. There is a huge amount of construction waste, and the potential to reuse this to reduce landfill and new materials is enormous. When reclaimed materials are secured from an existing building site, the environmental impact is virtually zero. Even when they are sourced from far away, reclaimed materials are still the most environmentally friendly option for supplying materials to the building industry.
- Richard James