Repurposing building materials

Issue 31 Words: Emma Scragg Photography: Emma Scragg

Working with salvaged materials is labour-intensive, and often doesn’t come with the savings imagined. But it can add character, history and plenty of satisfaction, as committed reuse architect Emma Scragg explains.

Repurposing building materials makes sense. Up to one third of all waste in landfill is generated by the building industry, a substantial proportion of which could be redirected into new building projects, saving precious resources and money. Reusing building products in this way can reduce the embodied energy of a new house by up to 95 per cent. The gains speak for themselves.

However, reuse-building requires a mind shift for all involved – designers, tradespeople and owners. Conventional architecture typically develops a composition of forms and then seeks materials to achieve this. As architect Alejandro Bahamon puts it in REMATERIAL From waste to architecture, “In the case of architecture created from recycled materials…the process is inverted: the design team must first identify the sources of materials suitable for reutilization and then start to define the details”.

Sourcing secondhand materials and finding understanding builders and tradespeople takes time. Staging building work can allow necessary pauses to gather components, prepare them and design them in, unlike a traditional build timeline. Flexibility is also important; you can never be sure you will find quite enough of what you want, or you may find something you’d never considered, and want to modify the design to accommodate it. Owner-building can allow this flexibility, with owners able to use their own skills (or pure sweat) to save money, engaging experts when needed.

Despite the challenges, working with salvaged materials can add history, texture and character, and often results in great satisfaction. Reusing materials can also save money, but even when it doesn’t (and often it won’t), the benefits gained through reduced landfill and new skills can pay off generously.

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Cover of Issue 31
You can read more about Repurposing building materials in Issue 31 of Sanctuary magazine.

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