Reusing Architectural Elements



The need to reduce the amount of construction and demolition waste by saving reusable items is greater than ever before.

Although comprehensive figures on the percent of building materials in the waste stream are not available, some data on waste wood are in the public domain.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that wood and lumber waste alone comprise 3.7 percent of the waste stream.

What does the figure 3.7 percent mean? For illustration purposes, an average-sized home with 1600 square feet may contain 20 windows, 15 doors, 14 light fixtures, 300 pieces of hardware (including hinges, knobs, pulls) and 1000 board feet of flooring. A commercial building has even more. In 1991, 545 demolition permits were issued in Hennepin County (one of seven counties in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area).

In one year alone, that could mean 10,900 windows, 8,175 doors, 7,630 light fixtures, 163,500 pieces of hardware and 545,000 board feet of flooring were sent to a landfill. 

The conclusions of a feasibility study of salvaging and recycling building materials found that reuse of materials, as opposed to recycling, is the best method for decreasing the amount of construction and demolition waste.  The reasons for reuse include: requires less energy, less processing and less transportation; has lower adverse environmental impact; is more viable for local/small-scale operations; requires less investment capital; and involves fewer regulatory guidelines.

While there is a large supply of construction and demolition materials available, the feasibility study found an interest - one third of homeowner survey respondents and half of contractor survey respondents - would consider using second-hand building materials.

According to the study, many salvage yard customers consider used hand-crafted woodwork to be superior to new. A used solid wood paneled door is better built, more attractive and usually less expensive than its modern counterpart - a flimsy, lightweight hollow core door. Also, many traditional styles aren't readily available elsewhere except as expensive reproductions.

From a practical standpoint, saving and reusing quality items will not end the continuous construction and demolition waste, but it will reduce the volume of material that enters the waste stream. From an aesthetic standpoint, reusing architectural elements will add unmatched old world charm, beauty, and value to home improvement projects.

Even though reuse of salvage material has become more common and its reuse can add value to new and remodeled spaces, it is sad to say that only 2 to 3 percent of buildings slated for teardown are actually salvaged or deconstructed in some manner.

(1) Hennepin County Comprehensive Recycling Study

(2) Salvaging and Recycling Building Materials: Feasibility Study, David B. Mason


Today's demand for salvage is high, primarily because building materials used in pre-World War II houses are—in most cases—of higher quality than those available now. Yesterday's boards came from old-growth timber stands, and were dried in lumberyards for as long as two or three years before being sold. From the early 1940's on, though, processed planks have been kiln-dried, and are planed to smooth out the knots that are more prevalent in new-growth timber.

Consequently, 2 X 4's are now actually only about 1 1/2" X 3 1/2" in size. When lumber is purchased in quantity, such shrinkage can add up to quite a loss of structural mass! (The difference in dimensions must, of course, be taken into account when planning any project using older wood.) On top of that, many builders consider rough-hewn or weathered boards particularly attractive. People who want to remodel the interiors of their old houses find that salvaged material matches the existing wood much better than does new lumber. Older plumbing and electrical fixtures, too, are often of better quality than are new ones. Toilet seats, for example, were formerly made of wood or porcelain instead of plastic.


Plan ahead. Give yourself time to find used products that meet your needs. Start looking early, and carry a list of the design elements you'd like to come from salvaged materials. Also keep specific measurements handy so you can determine whether salvaged elements will fit in your space.

Be creative. Think outside the box when it comes to using salvaged materials, because someone else’s trash could become your treasure.

Show flexibility. Searching for a single, specific item may take a lot of time and be frustrating. You should love what you select, but keep your options open. Be willing to let go of one idea if another opportunity arises.

Prioritize health, safety, and efficiency. It's not always good to reuse. Avoid materials that may introduce hazards into your home such as lead, asbestos, or unsafe electrical products.


Deconstruction has strong ties to environmental sustainability. In addition to giving materials a new life cycle, deconstructing buildings helps to lower the need for virgin resources. This in turn leads to energy and emissions reductions from the refining and manufacture of new materials. As deconstruction is often done on a local level, many times on-site, energy and emissions are also saved in the transportation of materials. Deconstruction can potentially support communities by providing local jobs and renovated structures. Deconstruction work typically employs 3-6 workers for every one employed in a comparable demolition job. In addition, solid waste from conventional demolition is diverted from landfills. This is a major benefit because construction and demolition (C&D) waste accounts for approximately 20% of the solid waste stream.