Sometimes it pays to consider old building materials before purchasing new. We caught up with Anne Nicklin, executive director at the Chicago-based Building Materials Reuse Association, which represents material suppliers in the U.S. and Canada that salvage and resell products, to talk about the current state of the industry.

Anne Nicklin leads the Chicago-based Building Materials Reuse Association.

Where in the U.S. is the market for building-material salvage and reuse the strongest?

There’s a reuse market anywhere people are building. We’ve seen strong growth in the Chicago area, which has a demolition-debris ordinance requiring [residential] buildings of a certain size to divert 5 percent of waste material [by weight] to reuse. Seattle has a well-established marketplace, preferential permitting for deconstruction, is pursuing a zero-waste ordinance, and has high waste-tipping fees. Detroit’s resurgence has closely aligned with its deconstruction and reuse markets, especially with regards to the deconstruction of its building backlog. The deconstruction and reuse operations that began in New Orleans as relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina have now become a mature market for affordable reused materials.

Reuse isn’t a new phenomenon, but it seems to be gaining traction recently. Why?

It’s a hugely old phenomenon. Recently, we’ve seen changes in city policies, including the way landfills will accept and charge for materials. On the East Coast, where you have more of a space limitation, you’re seeing some landfills just not accept certain waste; in the Pacific Northwest, the lumber mills aren’t accepting wood the way that they used to. Many traditional [waste] outlets have changed and suddenly we have more [waste] materials to deal with. And in the past five years, people have really loved the look of salvage.

What about deconstruction?

Deconstruction is more of a method than a goal. The goal is salvage. If you can do that with demolition, wonderful. I just want to see the materials saved. Deconstruction was standard practice 100 years ago, but the advent of crushing machines made for a much faster way to get rid of a building. We’re starting to see a resurgence in deconstruction. It creates jobs and it can be less disruptive than demolition to a community.

Is today’s building stock suited for salvage and reuse?

Architects are planting next year’s waste. Buildings from the mid-1970s and onward were framed and built very differently from those prior. For an entire era of buildings, all we’re going to get out of them are building materials like chipboard, hollow-core doors, vinyl windows, glass with a low-E coating, spray-foam insulation, and materials covered with construction adhesive.

Does that mean there will be a limited supply of salvageable material in the future?

We will always find a way to salvage. Building materials is a trickle-down economy. Granite countertops, for example, may not always be the high-end option but there will always be a way for somebody to use the material—as long as we don’t chop it into a million tiny pieces and bury it.

What should the architecture community know about building-material salvage and reuse?

Architects are becoming more curious about how to design for reuse. We get a lot of questions about selection—for example, how to pick out doors and store them for a few years [until the project is complete]. I encourage people to think about the process the same way they think about stone. You can specify a stone finish and then, often, when you’re ready for it in construction you can pick out your piece from what’s available. I don’t think architects realize how much they can reuse on their own sites. On most sites there’s a building that came down and still has a lot of [functional] materials—plywood, joists, glulam, stud walls, commercial steel—that are incredibly expensive to buy but are undervalued in the reuse market.

To learn more about material salvage and reuse, check out some of ARCHITECT's previous coverage:

While at the AIA Convention in Atlanta this past May, ARCHITECT visited reclaimed building-materials nonprofit the Lifecycle Building Center, shown in the video below, to talk about how architects can integrate salvaged materials into their projects.

Atlanta’s Lifecycle Building Center Encourages Material Reuse

The previous year, during the AIA Convention in Chicago, we ducked out for an afternoon to visit the Rebuilding Exchange, a nonprofit material salvage retailer in the city's Bucktown neighborhood and that also offers job-training programs.

And in November 2013, we toured the Edmonston, Md.–based nonprofit reuse retailer Community Forklift and a handful of area projects, shown in the video below, that use materials sourced from the dealer.