June 14, 2024

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Amid Bold Claims About Reusing Building Materials, What’s Really Possible?

8 min read

Last year, when banking giant JPMorgan Chase announced details about its new headquarters building in New York City, it included a striking statement. Company leaders said that during the demolition of its previous headquarters on Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, 97 percent of the materials were recycled, reused, or upcycled. Reusing and recycling building components has certainly been on the rise in recent years, as sustainability efforts become more widespread. But the idea that nearly every speck of a 52-story skyscraper in the heart of New York City could be repurposed or recycled certainly raised eyebrows, and questions, about the possibilities and limits of the circular economy in real estate development. One question in particular stands out above the rest: how much of a building can really be reused?

A history of deconstruction

In the United States, recycling became popular during World War II, when Americans were urged to collect materials like tin, rubber, steel, and paper to help aid war efforts for troops overseas. The campaigns were hugely successful, and by the 1960s, curbside collection recycling of metals, paper, and yard waste began to become common in neighborhoods across the country. The early 1970s saw a growing movement toward conservation and recycling, an era that inspired the iconic recycling symbol that was created by a California architecture undergrad. Today, the most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that about 94 million tons of municipal solid waste—which includes things like glass, metals, plastics, and wood—were recycled and composted in 2018, equating to a 32.1 percent recycling rate. 

In the construction industry recycling, reusing, and upcycling are starting to catch on. Driven by increasingly stringent regulations and green commitments from tenants, landlords, and developers, there is increasing pressure to avoid simply sending construction waste to the landfill after construction and demolition. The increased awareness around sustainability and resource management has led to many countries exploring new models of reuse and recycling, one of the most popular of which has been the idea of a circular economy. 

But recycling a building is not as easy as, say, an aluminum can. Every building is different and can represent different challenges to reuse and recycling. There are some materials that always get recycled. Steel is one of those, recycled steel from demolished buildings is widely used around the world. Metal that makes up a building that is recycled often becomes new structural steel. The material is taken to mini mills, smaller, less expensive mills, where it is melted down and new additives are added to reproduce the strength of new structural steel. It’s a big business in the U.S., according to experts, manufacturers don’t make as much new steel as recycled steel. 

Aluminum is another major building material that is easily recycled. Since the 1950s and 1960s, aluminum has been frequently used in the makeup of commercial buildings, especially on the facades of buildings. Making the material from scratch requires an enormous amount of energy, but the process of turning old aluminum into new aluminum is very simple. For this reason, much of the aluminum in use has been recycled. 

Copper and other precious metals that can be found in wiring also have a good chance of being recycled due to their high value. Increasingly, wood is being reused as a construction material as well. At the upcoming Paris Olympics, organizers are using recycled timber for many of the facilities and buildings for the event. 

The global push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is one of the biggest drivers of reusing and recycling building materials and the circular economy. A recent study of the circular economy of construction and demolition waste found that reusing and recycling materials could cut the need to import materials by a third. Many organizations and agencies have put out guides for developers and construction industry professionals on how they can cut down on sending construction waste to landfills by reusing and recycling materials. Some projects are considering reuse and recycling while planning a project before the design process even begins.

Putting it into practice

Talk to any professional specializing in reuse and deconstruction and they will bring up the Boulder hospital example. In 2020, after the city officials passed a new sustainability ordinance requiring that 75 percent or more of residential and commercial properties be recycled, reused, or go for organics management, more than 60 million pounds of construction waste has been diverted from landfills and instead reused or recycled. Last year, the former Boulder Community Health hospital was set to be demolished. Construction professionals, keenly aware of the new regulations, were tasked with painstakingly deconstructing the building, which was made up of concrete, metal, electronics, and other materials. The 250,000-square-foot hospital had sat empty for three years, after the owner made the decision to consolidate at a different location and abandoned the property. With the large building no longer a good fit for the walkable neighborhood that residents wanted, city officials ultimately chose to demolish the building.

“That is an incredible example, maybe one of the only examples that exists,” said Jessica Martinez, structural sustainability specialist at DCI Engineers. Martinez’s work focuses on educating staff on sustainability issues and advocacy efforts. Her specialty is life cycle assessment and performing those analyses. How much of a building can be reused depends on the owners and the desired use of that building, she said. “We always try to push developers to utilize any existing material on site before even considering demolition,” Martinez said. She has seen a lot of groups in the industry beginning to come together to support more reuse of materials like wood, which almost always goes to the landfill. In Seattle, city leaders have been encouraging developers to salvage wood materials and trying to allow the reuse of wood into residential projects and in mass timber projects. A $4 million federal grant was awarded to the city last year to help further support building out Seattle’s circular wood economy.

In San Antonio, Texas, city leaders have also made reuse and deconstruction a priority. The city formally established a program for the efforts in 2022, but officials had been working on reevaluating demolition policies in the books for years in response to community pushback to historic and older buildings being demolished or redeveloped. The efforts by San Antonio officials followed shortly after Portland, Oregon officials adopted a deconstruction ordinance in 2016, the first U.S. city to do so. The rule requires that residential homes designated historic or built before 1940 must be deconstructed rather than demolished, meaning the materials will be salvaged for reuse. “We looked to them frequently for guidance and strategy and followed in their footsteps for a city like ours,” said Stephanie Phillips, Senior Deconstruction & Circular Economy Program Manager at the City of San Antonio in Texas. Other cities that have followed Portland in implementing deconstruction ordinances include Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Palo Alto, and San Jose, California.

(De)construction barriers

Of course, changing the way the industry has done things for decades comes with a number of challenges. Demolishing a building entirely is something that can be done relatively quickly, depending on the size of the property. However, deconstructing a building can take considerably more time, increasing labor costs as workers need to carefully salvage and recover materials instead of just taking a bulldozer to the building. If the materials salvaged during the process are valuable, that can help offset the extra time and labor, but that may not always be the case. 

Often, what exactly can be found inside a building isn’t known until the actual deconstruction is taking place. “Anytime we talk about deconstruction and demolition, we talk about whether it will cost more and how long it will take,” Martinez said. One expert in the field, who did not want to be quoted, said that developers choosing to recycle building materials doesn’t happen if they don’t make money on it. 

Some of the most common materials in buildings are challenging to recycle and reuse. Glass, for instance, has the potential to be melted down and used for many other kinds of products. But most glass used in buildings has been treated and contaminated, and while there is a lot of research being conducted, experts haven’t yet figured out a way to cost effectively reuse it. Concrete, another ubiquitous building component, can be reused for roadfill, but it doesn’t always work for new buildings, as recycled concrete can soak up more water than new concrete, which could cause a lot of problems like cracking and weakening. Gypsum, a key material used in drywall, is in strong demand but just two percent of the millions of tons of gypsum waste produced every year is recycled into wallboard. 

While the U.S. has a long way to go in recycling more of its construction waste, other countries are making a lot of progress. In Europe, cities are retooling the flows and processes surrounding construction to better support reuse and a circular economy. “The U.S. is probably 10 to 15 years behind European cities,” Phillips said. “It’s just commonplace for architects and designers to prioritize reuse in buildings.”

Another key factor is the facilities that actually remanufacture materials like steel and lumber. If there aren’t reprocessing facilities nearby, it can add more time, costs, and carbon to a project. More training is also needed for contractors to learn best practices on deconstructing a building in the right way so materials can be reused. “It’s a much bigger question than designing and specifying, it’s really the reformatting of our entire economy to focus on reuse rather than throwing away and landfilling,” Phillips said, pointing to the importance of partnerships in rethinking how building materials are reused. 

She added that the public will to undertake these efforts plays a big, often overlooked role in scaling reuse and recycling efforts, and policies that either incentivize or require reuse could help tip the scales in favor of reusing over landfilling. Innovations could also help further drive reuse efforts, and there is currently tech being explored and researched at Cornell University’s Circular Construction Lab that could help architects and construction professionals better understand what can be reused from a building.

JPMorgan Chase and its architect have not responded to questions about the details of the recycling done at its new HQ in Manhattan. Unless they reveal the exact breakdown of what materials were reused and recycled, we may never know just how they did it. But according to experts, the Boulder hospital example proves that 100 percent reuse is not impossible. Recycling building materials is highly dependent on several factors: the makeup of the building, the ecosystem in place for recycling, reusing, and upcycling, and the desire of the developer/owner. All challenges and innovations in recycling and reusing aside, as many professionals in the building sector have pointed out, the best possible reuse of a building and its materials is to not demolish it in the first place. And while that’s obviously not feasible on a grand scale, the amount of thought, research, and effort being put into expanding reuse and recycling in real estate construction is a good sign for the industry and the world.

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