Recycled Building Materials

Recycled Building Materials
According to the Natural Building network, which sites a study revealed on both Public Broadcasting Radio and a Los Angeles Times article, the square footage of a typical home in the United States has doubled since 1949, yet the average size of an American family has decreased. The Environmental Science and Forestry website cites the National Association of Home Builders’ statistics that “the average 2,085 ft2, single-family home can include 13,127 board feet of framing lumber alone. That is roughly equivalent to a 15,000-foot long two-by-four board” . This inefficient use of space is relayed to the inefficient use of building materials, construction methods and the overall design of the modern home. For instance, according to the Construction Materials Recycling Association, 325 million tons of construction and demolition (C&D) materials are produced every year by the United States alone which, as relayed on the natural building website, also results in 10-30 percent of landfills being comprised of wasted materials from construction sites. Cornell University’s Department of Design and Environmental Analysis cite a study conducted by the USFPL, which found that even in 1993 7.1 million of the total 60.4 million tons of wood products consumed by the U.S. construction industry were wasted; 6.3 million tons of which were salvageable. Beyond building materials and construction, an average house emits 4 metric tons of carbon dioxide as noted by the US Environmental Protection Agency. If the unnecessary large scale waste of our natural resources and the harm that both the construction and running of buildings causes to the environment weren’t enough, the materials and methods we do implement are not even as energy or cost efficient as sustainable alternatives. The US Environmental Protection Agency advocates energy efficient cooling and heating equipment along with higher quality insulation, which can save an average homeowner up to 20 percent of what they spend on heating and cooling. These statistics are only a few from the wealth of information proving the poor environmental standard of today’s building industry. Due to this, many architects, builders, planners and others have pioneered new technologies, methods and materials to reduce the ecological footprint of buildings. According to William McDonough and Michael Braungart, “Human industry and habitations can be designed to celebrate interdependence with other living systems, transforming the making and consumption of things into a regenerative force” (The Extravagant Gesture: Nature, Design, and the Transformation of Human Industry, 14). This can be achieved through the use of alternative, more sustainable building materials.
Learning from Traditional Building Methods
Many cultures have used local natural resources for centuries to build their shelters. The film “First earth-Uncompromising Ecological Architecture” by David Sheen explores cultures around the world that have successfully built their homes from the earth. Communities in Gahna were interviewed to discover the building technique they use in which they pound the earth with river bed sand and water until it hardens, then finishing it with a solution made from boiling leaves of the Dawadawa tree which provides water resistance and strength. The roof is then constructed of dried grass, which insulates well as is resilient enough that it only needs to be replaced every 15 to 20 years. The Taos Pueblo Indians use a mixture of adobe, water and straw which in some cases has produced buildings that have remained standing for centuries. Even in Yemen, adobe is used: blocks are left out in the sun to dry, turning them into a type of concrete block. The strength of these blocks allowed for tall constructs to be built centuries before modern building techniques came into practice. In Thailand, research was done on communities that use lightweight materials such as bamboo and straw. These traditional materials have been translated into the more modern adaptation of natural building materials including rammed earth, mud brick, compressed earth, and molded earth such as cob. In “Earth Architecture”, Ronald Rael describes rammed earth as a material that is “durable, adaptable, and responds to growing environmental concerns”. Although many of these materials are used in a more traditional building style and are not easily translated into construction people today view as aesthetically modern and comfortable, “the availability of sustainable soils for building has resulted in rich and diverse traditions of earth architecture across the globe”.
The Use of Salvaged and Recycled Materials

These earth materials and other sustainable alternatives primarily still rely on harvesting some percentage of new, albeit renewable resources. Recycling trash such as old bottles, aluminum cans, and tires is another method that requires even less energy on producing the finished material and involves recycling rather than down-cycling. Architect Mike Reynolds has been experimenting with building off the grid homes made out of these materials in the New Mexico desert since the 1960s. In the film “Garbage Warriors” about his efforts, the properties of these materials are outlined. By packing dirt into old tires and using them as the framework for a wall, a thermal mass is created that effectively absorbs heat during the day to keep the house cool, and then release it at night to maintain a constant temperature. Stacking old bottles and cans with an earth mixture as the cement basis works in a similar way, effectively insulating the house. Using glass bottles both allows light in, but filters it to keep the heat out. Although Mike Reynolds had his architect license revoked in the United States for building houses that weren’t up to code, he managed to bring his ideas to many places in the developing world. For example, he traveled to the Adaman Islands after the tsunamis in April 2005 to help rebuild the communities that were completely wiped out. He employed the locals to help construction with local resources as well as waste such as bottles and tires. This provided cheap housing that was quickly erected yet durable and allowed the people to live comfortably without power or water supply. Reynolds also did work in Mexico after Hurricane Rita devastated certain areas, applying the same techniques and materials that were available. Similarly, Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects have focused on sustainable housing in areas of Africa, including Tanzania and Senegal using both naturallocal resources and wasted materials. The Women’s Center, built in Senegal between 1995 and 2000 uses “materials (that) emphasize localness and recycling; for instance, wood is used only in places where it no other material could be used. In detailing, old car wheel rims are used as ventilation holes and the bottoms of old glass bottles for windows. The reinforcement irons in the concrete are made of recycled iron”. These techniques and materials make it far easier to maintain and cheaper to build things like community centers that are the first step to helping developing areas pull out of poverty and toward education and empowerment.
These techniques have been applied to more modern homes as well, with methods that allow for a more appealing aesthetic. As exhibited in the September 2009 edition of Architecture record, Indonesian architect Ridwan Kamil chose to build a house that incorporated 30,000 red bull bottles. Ridwan Kamil chose to build a house that incorporated 30,000 red bull bottles. According to Kamil, “The bottles are 60 percent of the façade, and, especially at sunrise and sunset, they both direct light into the house and reflect it as if they were mirrors.” The use of these bottles also allowed for insulation as “somehow heat was captured inside the bottles and not transferred into the space inside, especially when there is a gap between a bottle wall and a glass wall” explains Ridwan. “This gap gives you an insulating system that totally stops the sun’s heat from transferring inside.” The result is that most of the rooms in the completely air-conditioning-free house remain a comfortable 75 degrees on a warm day.
Contemporary Sustainable Materials
This section outlines a few of the many readily available recycled alternatives to the standard materials of today. Many of these materials are available for both residential and commercial use and can be bought directly from the supplier. These materials can be easy replacements in the home that can help produce an industry geared more towards sustainable manufacturing.
Cotton Insulation
Cotton Insulation is made from up to 85% post-industrial reclaimed cotton fibers, most of which comes from denim. This therefore produces a final product that is 100% recyclable. This type of insulation makes use of cotton’s inherent qualities of sound absorption for noise reduction, as well as thermal insulation. Cotton insulation also meets ASTM testing standards for smoke and fire ratings, fungi resistance, and corrosiveness; making it ideal for both commercial and residential insulation. It is often used in modern architecture. For example, Arkin/Tilt Architects uses recycled insulation in their Kashou/Caron Residence in California. As outlined in “Off the Grid Homes” the secondary walls are composed of “frame walls with recycled denim insulation and salvaged redwood, cedar siding, of gypsum board with Alyss finish”.
Alkemi Solid Surface
Alkemi is composed of recycled aluminum set into polymeric resins. It is commonly used in place of granite countertops, and makes use of flake aluminum milling scraps that would have had to be compressed before it can be reused or recycled into aluminum. Since compressing these fillings are an expensive process, these fillings usually end up in landfills. Instead Demir Hamami, of Renewed Materials, uses this post-industrial waste by casting it into a solid finished material that can replace conventional counter materials with a high recycled content of 34% by weight and 60% by volume.
Rubber Flooring
Rubber flooring is composed from post-consumer rubber materials, mostly tires that would have otherwise ended up in landfills. They are usually held together by water based polyurethane polymer, and can be used to create durable flooring that is both shock and slip resistant, with fairly low maintenance required. It is approved for both interior and exterior uses, as well as commercial and residential buildings.
Paperstone is composed of between 50%-100% post-consumer waste and recycled paper. The final product is heat resistant, durable, and stain resistant; making it an ideal product for commercial and residential use. It is an especially good material to make countertops, wall cladding, door thresholds, or window sills. Off the Grid Homes outline many homes that use this, including the Capitol Hill House in Seattle by BLIP design. The house uses Paperstone on the kitchen counters, adding both to the aesthetic and practicality”.
Glass Terrazzo
Glass terrazzo are composed using recycled glass aggregate that is set into either an epoxy or concrete. This helps eliminate large amount of wasted glass while incorporating it into a modern design and a durable material.
Leather Tile
Leather tiles can be produced from factory scraps which are then combined with a mixture of natural rubber and acacia bark. These recycled leather tiles are ideal for both residential and commercial applications. They are fully renewable within a five year cycle, and are harvested with a process that does not harm the trees.
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