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The Case for Reuse

Sept. 26, 2017

When it comes to used products and furnishings, recycling is an option but it’s not always the best one.  

For commercial interior designers and architects involved in renovation projects, the question of what to do with the existing products, furnishings, and building materials within them used to elicit a straightforward response: toss them out. The problem with that shortsighted (and environmentally irresponsible) approach is most interiors are refreshed every five to 10 years, which means a lot of construction waste ends up in the landfill. How much, exactly?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that in 2014 alone, 534 million tons of construction and demolition debris was generated in U.S. landfills. In fact, nearly 30 percent of all landfill waste comes from construction demolition and debris, according to Public Architecture’s report, “Design for Reuse Primer.” What’s even more alarming is the fact that more than 25 percent of existing buildings will face replacement by 2030, representing a staggering amount of potential waste that may end up in landfills, according to Environmental Building News (EBN).

Thankfully, with the global adoption of LEED and other widely accepted sustainable building strategies, most A&D professionals now practice more responsible construction waste management and separate materials that can be recycled from those that end up in the landfill. What’s even more encouraging is the fact that many specifiers are becoming aware of the value and impact that furniture and material reuse can have on the built and natural environments.

This shift toward material reuse is being facilitated in part by the most recent iteration of LEED—version 4—which now rewards project teams that choose to specify repurposed materials over new ones. While recycling is an extremely valuable component of construction waste management and product manufacturing (and also a vital part of LEED certification), there’s nothing as inherently sustainable as extending the natural life of existing furnishings and materials by reusing, repurposing, or even donating them.

Coming Back for Seconds

While not every piece of furniture or building material can be repurposed, obviously, there are plenty of products that are relatively easy to salvage and lend themselves to reuse. For example, products such as ceiling tiles, carpet tiles, doors, door frames, hardware, flooring, furniture, and plumbing fixtures, can be removed without too much complication and used again—especially if they have been designed for disassembly or reuse.  

“Intentionally thinking about how those products are made and will be disassembled lends itself to certain types of materials [being repurposed],” said Holley Henderson, LEED Fellow and founder of H2 Ecodesign. “In other words, things like ceiling tiles—someone was thinking about that when they designed it—it’s a plug-and-play type of system. Same thing with carpet tiles—those things are easy to palatalize, quickly pull up or pull out, and reuse. Furniture is another one, but in terms of structural elements in the interiors, I think of metal studs, glazing, doors, plumbing fixtures, etc. All those types of things would be examples of products that are pretty straightforward to reuse, assuming they’re in good condition.”

And thanks to advances in technology, lighting is another category that can be easily reused by retrofitting existing fixtures with LEDs while realizing significant energy savings in the process.

Of course, not every material or piece of furniture that can be salvaged will be, as the costs may be too prohibitive, or the existing materials simply may not align with the design of the renovation. Nevertheless, whenever possible, reusing or repurposing products results in significant savings, according to Michael Gaffney, senior associate vice president at CallisonRTKL’s Seattle office. “Obviously the capital expense, if there are savings associated with re-using as opposed to replacing, that’s an important factor,” he said. “If we can save money by re-using existing fixturing or finishes or re-purposing materials that are already in the space, that’s one thing that drives that decision.” He added that clients are often the ones making those decisions in a collaborative effort with the entire project team.

Donating is Recycling

When it doesn’t make financial sense or design parameters prevent reuse, project teams should consider donating existing materials and furnishings, which is perhaps the most sustainable alternative for disposing of them. There are a many schools, non-profit organizations, and civic agencies with limited budgets that make it difficult for them to allocate funds toward new furnishings. Often, the problem is finding recipients, as secondhand entities such as Goodwill can’t always handle the volume of commercial donations.

Fortunately, organizations like the Asset Network for Education Worldwide (ANEW) have been established for the purpose of connecting donors and recipients. “With the objective of maximizing your corporate social responsibility through surplus donation, we match donor surplus with recipient need,” said Glenn Sparks, communications coordinator at ANEW. As a non-profit organization with the mission of “doing what’s right with what’s left,” ANEW was founded in 2005 by Rose Tourje, who spent 25 years in commercial interior design. Upon observing a large public agency in downtown Los Angeles getting rid of furniture by the truckload, she decided to make a “midlife career correction.”

Tourje continued, “Our expertise is in the social aspects of how to connect this surplus to society and how by doing so, it improves life and strengthens communities. Our primary mission is to change the way in which surplus is thought of and to redirect and keep it within a 50-mile radius in its community.”

Since ANEW’s inception in 2005, the organization has diverted more 3 million pounds of furniture annually from landfills nationwide. Its typical process is repurposing and donating discarded furnishings from major corporations to underserved groups within the community

In addition to helping deserving charities and the community at large, the benefit to organizations and project teams that donate used furnishings and materials is that they are not only eligible for tax credits, but also, LEED points. In short, it’s a win-win for all.

“The real value is in expansion and elevation of corporate social responsibility, although ANEW can match or beat the price of regular demo and hauling,” Sparks said. “Going green is not only the responsible way to do business—it is, or soon will be, the profitable way.”

As architects and designers approach renovation projects in the future, it’s important to consider all the options available for existing furnishings and materials. And remember: One man’s trash may be another’s treasure.

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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