An incredible 74 million tons (67.1 million metric tons) of debris are created every year from the demolition of commercial and residential buildings, according to U.S. Census Bureau data [source: EPA]. If all of that gets stuffed into landfills, it will create myriad problems, as landfills emit greenhouse gases, harbor disease carriers such as rats and flies, and reduce natural habitat [source: Penn State University]. Far better, then, to salvage as much of this detritus as we can.
Before the wrecking ball begins to swing on your home or business, consider removing valuable materials: everything from doors and windows to woodwork, fixtures and architectural accents. Much of this can be sold for a tidy profit. It may make sense to deconstruct your entire building instead of demolishing it. Deconstruction involves carefully taking apart a structure by hand to preserve reusable materials -- no wrecking ball required -- and can result in up to 90 percent of materials being reused or recycled [source: EPA]. While deconstruction itself generally costs more than demolition, you can end up ahead because you'll earn money from selling the salvageable pieces [source: Bowman].
But the benefits of salvaging construction materials go beyond protecting our environment and personal health, and earning money selling salvaged parts. Yes, it's environmentally responsible to keep debris out of landfills. But did you also realize that if you renovate an old building instead of tearing it down and creating a new one, you're saving the significant amount of energy it takes to produce a new building? There's a lot of energy spent doing everything from milling lumber and mining copper to shipping finished materials all over the map [source: Bowman].
Salvaging materials and reusing them also allows you to create something new and unique, and to preserve history -- maybe even your own. One Ohio woman, heartbroken at having to tear down her family's dilapidated vacation cottage, was able to use bead board from its fireplace surround as wainscoting in the bathroom of the new home she was building, plus use a fine built-in cupboard as a linen closet. She also took a bowling-alley lane from an old business in her area and turned it into a kitchen counter [source: Breckenridge]. Now her new house has a comforting, familiar feel, some interesting features and a great story. What's not to like about that?
Beware of These Salvage Issues
Rescuing old construction materials before they're sent to their death in a landfill can be a really smart idea. But not everything that's old should be saved and reused, even if it would look supercool in your home or office. Here's what you need to watch out for with some of the more popular salvaged materials.
- Lighting fixtures: Older fixtures with cloth insulation should be rewired, as the cloth gets brittle with age and can cause a short circuit or even a fire. This can be an expensive proposition, but if the fixture is of good quality -- and most older fixtures are better than those made today -- it'll be worth it [source: Gellner]. It may even be wise to rewire newer fixtures, because any time you install or remove one, the coating over the wires is stressed and may crack. Plus, even if the visible ends of the wires are in great shape, you don't know what they may be like inside [source: Bowman].
- Plumbing fixtures: It may be hard to resist that old pull-chain toilet, but check your local building codes before handing over any cash. Most parts of the United States stipulate newly installed toilets use no more than 1.6 gallons (6.1 liters) of water per flush, but older ones can use up to 8 (30.1 liters). In a similar vein, older faucets may not meet building codes if they don't have flow restrictors [sources: Gellner, Bowman].
- Cabinetry: It's not too difficult to score beautiful old cabinetry in salvage yards, as home remodelers often tackle kitchens and bathrooms. Just make sure they aren't too dinged up from use or removal, or so heavily painted it would cost too much to have them refinished [source: Gellner].
- Windows: It's tempting to purchase salvaged windows, because new ones are so expensive. Make sure windows fit your structure's openings, and again, check your building codes. Most codes specify replacement windows must be double-glazed and, if placed in certain locations, be glazed with safety glass. Vintage windows won't have either feature, and reglazing is pricey [source: Gellner].
- Doors: Check to see they swing open in the proper direction, as rehinging is expensive. As with cabinetry, watch out for doors with multiple layers of old paint, which may not be worth stripping off [source: Gellner]. Even if a door has a single layer of peeling paint, that could spell trouble. The peeling may indicate rotting wood underneath, and if the door was painted before 1978, that peeling paint may have lead in it, which is a health hazard [source: Bowman].
Recently, my sister-in-law acquired a new hobby -- stopping in at the local resale shop and purchasing old paintings. You know, the kind with elaborate wooden frames. She cleans off the pictures, then paints them with blackboard paint. Voilà -- she now has a decorative blackboard for her kitchen, where she can leave notes for the family. And a small one for the wall, where she can jot down a grocery list. And an immense one for her entryway, which she can place on an easel and use as a sign at parties to proclaim everything from "Happy 80th, Mom!" to "The party's downstairs!" She gave me a small one for my kitchen island, which I use to list the day's supper menu so I don't have to hear, "What's for dinner?" every time the next family member comes home. What a great, creative use of an unwanted item. Next time to you pass a resale shop, stop in and see what you can come up with.
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