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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Using Salvaged Building Materials

The idea is attractive, but reuse is often hard to implement

This Caribbean solar hot water system makes good use of a salvaged electric water heater. Although the electric heating elements are probably burned out, this salvaged item can still be used as an insulated tank. Installed in a frost-free climate, the system never has to be drained. Water circulates from the solar collector to the tank by thermosyphoning. [Photo credit: Martin Holladay]

Green builders admire the idea of reusing or recycling old building materials. Facing a demolition project that might ordinarily result in truckloads of detritus being hauled to a landfill, a green builder might advocate the careful deconstruction of the building in order to save valuable materials and repurpose them for use in a new building.

Owner-builders often imagine that buildings slated for demolition might be useful sources of free materials. The most optimistic of these (usually young) builders assume that they might be able to assemble all of the materials for their construction project at no cost.

Some variation of these ideas circulate regularly among green builders. It’s time for a reality check.

Pulling nails and chipping mortar

Back in 1974, I helped other members of my family salvage usable materials from a house slated for demolition. The 100-year-old single-family house was a handsome two-story building that belonged to the college where my father worked. Having received oral permission from at least one person of authority, we removed windows, interior doors, a soapstone laundry sink, a few lavatories, most of a brick chimney, hardwood flooring, softwood subflooring, partition studs, and 2×10 floor joists. (As we removed these joists, the structural integrity of the house suffered. Sawing through the joists, we discovered that we had fewer and fewer places to stand.) We also removed coal from the basement coal bin and salvaged a considerable quantity of roofing slates.

Eventually, of course, authorities at the college started worrying about liability issues, and we were ordered to desist. But by then we had a pretty good haul.

We transported the salvaged materials to Vermont, and we found uses for most of the stuff. The hardwood flooring ended up in two different houses, including the house I now live in. The 2×10 joists were assembled…

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  1. jonny_h | | #1

    Salvaging 2x4s sounds all fine and good until you realize that rough framing lumber is a very small fraction of the project cost, but given lumber costs over the past couple years it does become more attractive. In my remodel we did keep and re-use lumber that was reasonably long and in good condition (but our labor was free) -- the rest was re-purposed to heat my dad's workshop ;)

    On the rigid foam note, I did get a bunch of reclaimed roofing polyiso and while it did save several thousand dollars, I'm so over that stuff and happy to see the remaining scraps go. I suppose this is more a warning to carefully vet your sources & the condition of the product you're getting than an outright declaration to never do it, but be cautious. The stuff I got was fiberglass-paper faced, which was both very itchy to work with, and also very moldy as it turns out the vendor just stored big stacks uncovered outdoors. I've thoroughly had enough of that s*$% and in retrospect would gladly have paid a couple thousand more to not have to deal with it!

  2. Expert Member

    Sound advice as always.

    Another impediment are building codes which require many materials and equipment to be graded, or meet various standards.

    Not exactly salvaging, but a good source for miss-ordered or slightly flawed products are the bone-yards of window and door manufacturers.

  3. vivian_girard | | #3

    As someone who has been there and done a lot of that (material reuse) I enjoyed reading this piece and agree with the premises of the column. Here are a few additional observations gathered from years of experience at being a cheapskate. I also care a great deal about the high cradle to grave environmental toll of building materials.

    In my area, (Boston) disposal can be pricey. If I don’t order an entire dumpster -something I avoid as much as I can- the remaining option I have is to get a truck and haul the building debris to a transfer station that’s only 6 miles away from my work area but can easily turn into a two hour round trip when accounting for traffic etc. The last time I was there, tipping fee was something like $150 a ton, probably more now. There are small businesses that will haul things away with a truck, but that’s even more expensive. By reusing, I save on both ends. A while ago it occurred to me that I paid almost the same amount to dispose of a 5/8 sheet of drywall as purchasing it new. When manageable, I'll even save good sections of used drywall to reuse in low profile areas, like closets or basements. When dumping is that expensive, reuse starts making more sense.

    Sorting, moving and storing used lumber is always more time consuming than I remember from the last time I did it. One has to be fairly organized and neat or it will be unpleasant. With the right state of mind, it can be enjoyable.

    A bonus of old lumber is that it’s done drying, shrinking and twisting. Unlike new lumber, a nice old straight stud will stay that way.

    For large disassembly jobs, my 60V Dewalt circular saw, a heavy 6’ steel bar (the heavier the better), heavy wrecking bar and a quality 20 lbs sledge hammer are a must. Heavier tools rarely need to be used with full force; only with the right amount of prying or tapping and that makes works more efficient and less tiring in the end.

    Two years ago, with some help, I salvaged thousands of board foot of lumber from some temporary structures. I bought a cheap pneumatic de-nailing tool. I didn’t have any power on the demolition site but since that tool requires little air power, I was able to run it of my small 18V battery-powered Ryobi compressor. It’s the Air Locker AP700 available online for about $50. It worked amazingly well and got us through thousands of nails without any issue.

    Old sheets of roofing rubber (EPDM) weighted down with a few stones can work great for keeping stuff out of the rain; much better than a plastic tarp.

    When putting things together, I use the fastening method that will allow for the easiest disassembly for reuse. I use the minimum number of screws on drywall and use decking screws for subfloors; ring shank nails and glue make valuable materials un-reusable.

    I was able to reuse much of that salvaged lumber during the 2021 lumber price spike. With lumber prices returning to pre-pandemic levels, the math for lumber reuse won't be as good unfortunately.

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #4


      Great post.

    2. GBA Editor
      Kiley Jacques | | #6

      This is the kind of information sharing that makes GBA so special. Thank you for your perspective, Vivian. It's really valuable to hear from all sides of any topic.

      1. dankolbert | | #10

        Yeah, I've got a de-nailer too. We were able to salvage many hundred feet of nice fir flooring relatively easily with it.

  4. user-7513218 | | #5

    Of course, the first image is of Latin America. Poverty is also a mother of invention. The Cubans are experts and even geniuses of reuse. When I built in Los Angeles, we would often buy an old house, knock it down, and then build a new one. To save money (we were not thinking environment back then), we would invite a Mexican crew to come and disassemble the old house. They took all the fixtures, brick, and lumber on a flatbed to Mexico for resale. The remainder went to the landfill, but less and about half the cost of tossing out the whole house. Years later, building in Mexico, I bought reused materials brought down from the waste of the United States. Karma.

    1. GBA Editor
      Kiley Jacques | | #7

      This is one of the reasons I value your voice on GBA, Fernando. You bring a perspective that speaks to a developing country's challenges, which lends practicality to your contributions.

      1. dankolbert | | #11

        Yeah, every time i go to the dump it makes me weep to see all the useful things getting tossed.

    2. user-438263 | | #17

      I love this story.

  5. user-6985796 | | #8

    I am an Architect/Builder in Colorado. Most comments above are right on the money, but my crew and I have managed to build careers out of making structures from forest floor and industrial salvage for the past 37 years. I've found that (besides needing very tolerant clients), it takes a couple of acres of stuff, a bandmill and a willingness to let serendipity play a part in design. It rarely works out to base design on critical pieces that you don't already have on hand, but it is surprisingly common for treasures to show up in the right quantity; at just the right time. For one early project, we purchased two semi-loads of timber from the deconstruction of a Northern California Army barracks. Once on our premises, we designed (and later built) a large horse barn around the as-found sizes. Our current project utilizes timber from the Port of Portland, Ash flooring salvaged from infected trees, 24" wide redwood planks from a timber found under sawmill tracks in California, boom sticks from the Columbia River and lots of fresh Sugar Pine sawn from fire-killed Souther Oregon trees. Roof "tiles" are flattened cyanide cans from a South Dakota mine. The list goes on.....

    1. MartinHolladay | | #9

      User 6985796,
      Congratulations. I've built structures with the approach you have adopted. It's very satisfying.

      I'm glad you've found "very tolerant clients" who agree with your approach!

      (I hope the homeowners haven't connected their roof gutters to a rain barrel or a cistern -- those roof tiles made out of flattened cyanide cans might make me a little nervous.)

  6. dankolbert | | #12

    Timely story. That's a clever play on words.

  7. dankolbert | | #13

    I like the word "theatre". And often we will do something purely for the emotional satisfaction. We recently finished a house where we salvaged some nice hard pine flooring. We didn't have a use for it inside so we used it as the porch ceiling. Didn't work out the economics (My daughter, home form college, did the de-nailing), but we didn't have to sand or finish it.

    Similarly, we've saved centuries old framing and used it as visible collar ties.

    The point, I guess, is it make a nice accent and leaves the house with a cool story to tell. But labor is so expensive that, unless the client is willing to do the tedious prep work, it rarely makes economic sense. And whether it makes environmental sense can probably only be answered on a case by case basis.

  8. bob_swinburne | | #14 Check out Emily Mottram's interview with Erich Kruger of Deconstruction Works based out of Southeastern Vermont.

  9. frasca | | #15

    I removed a wall at my last house and what with the room-to-room misalignment of the flooring, some previous damage, and my addition of a crawlspace access door, I decided to refloor the whole thing. I asked my flooring contractor if he would consider salvaging the old flooring since it still had decades of life in it and he just laughed at me.

    So I decided to pull it up myself, clean up each piece, and lay it back down, and just use him to sand and finish. I spent the better part of 2 weekends just cleaning the caked crap off of the tongues, as Martin said. To make matters worse I had a lot of decent-length boards with damage at one end or the other, and I decided to cut the damaged end off and put the appropriate tongue or groove on the end myself, but the tongue-and-groove router bit set I got wasn't the same tongue and groove as the rest of the boards. So I ended up with 3 "generations" of boards (old intact, old but with Max's new T&G, and new) that I had to stitch together.

    It ended up looking great, though my flooring guy said that sanding it down was hell on his machine. I am glad I did it as it would have been sad to throw away such good oak, and I find flooring to be peaceful, satisfying work. But I can't blame my flooring guy for not wanting to do it with labor costs what they are. Admittedly this was a point in my life where I had more time than I had money.

  10. user-438263 | | #16

    I started 20 years ago by building a tree-house for my two sons from salvaged everything from construction sites. Then when we did a renovation on my 1880's house I was compelled to save the old 2x4s, 1x10 sheathing boards, oak flooring, a door, windows, and some porch pillars that were rotted on the bottoms. I only needed one small truck load of old plaster taken to the dump since I saved everything else. Luckily the fellow who helps me sometimes is Mexican so he was enthusiastic with my thinking to save everything.
    I built a small "shed" to store everything from other salvaged parts. I reused the flooring in another part of the house, built a 10x10 shed with the wood, door, and windows, and gave the porch pillars to a neighbor who had the exact same pillars but shorter so could cut off the rotten part and have them fit perfectly (my Mexican guy knew I had the pillars when he was working on my neighbors house, it was magic how 100 year old pillars went from my house to my neighbors. It saved me a garbage fee and they got free pillars). The storage "shed" now holds snow tires and other odd seasonal items.
    Just recently I had to take the tree-house down since it was getting dangerous and I saved everything that wasn't rotten.
    I am now building a two story garage and have bought a truck load of reclaimed EPS insulation at a fraction of the price of new. I built a hot wire cutting table from an old table and the ever present scraps of wood I keep around. When we had the concrete floor poured, I made forms out of the old tree-house wood for pavers from the extra concrete that is always left over from a pour since I didn't want a pile of hardened wasted concrete. My concrete guy was thrilled that I wasn't wasting the concrete and said that in the old days everyone made a plan for the extra.
    Why does everything have to be cost effective? Aren't we just passing the cost into the future if we don't take care of our garbage now? I understand that it is not convenient and that systems aren't in place to take advantage of materials, but I think we need to collectively shift our thinking so that opportunities to salvage are not disregarded wholesale.
    There are websites like Craigslist and Facebook marketplace and other local give away forums where contractors could post when deconstruction is happening and instead of the toss into the dumpster, materials could be handled a bit more carefully for those who would come and get them.
    Which reminds me of one last story: I had to take off a piece of porch roof. It was two pieces of plywood with ice and water shield and nails. Truly ugly and downright nasty garbage. I took a long shot and posted it for free on the local giveway site. I apologized for posting what looked like unadulterated garbage but I immediately got a guy who answered and came and took it away to use for the roof of a chicken coop!

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