Using recycled materials in design and construction has become increasingly popular in the last few years, mainly due to their environmental benefits. With the building and construction industry contributing almost 40% of the global carbon emissions, it seems everyone is looking for ways to reduce their footprint, and using recycled materials in new ways is one of them.
Some commonly used recycled materials include concrete, asphalt, stone, wood, steel and glass. But, outside of the benefits to the environment, there are also challenges. Here’s the breakdown of things to think about before moving ahead.
The Good Stuff
- Environmentally Friendly – Recycling anything reduces waste in landfill, and can help deforestation. Then, there’s the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and reduced energy input during the extraction and manufacturing processes.
- Flexibility – Recycled steel is extremely durable and is flexible enough to be reshaped for new uses and extensive new designs.
- Money Saving – Mostly recycled materials are cheaper to buy than new products. You’ll need to do some homework, but using them for construction can help cut costs without sacrificing quality – if it’s done properly.
- Cost Effective – Recycled building products like timber, steel and aggregates can be significantly cheaper than new ones.
- Individuality – Getting creative can offer something special to your design, a uniqueness, and a splash of personality that’s outside of the norm.
- Easier Permits – Many local councils have sustainability targets and favour projects that use substantial amounts of recycled material.
- Tax Incentives – Many councils offer tax incentives, and there are Green Building loans available for builders using sustainable practices and products. (More below.)
The Not So Good Stuff
- Aesthetics – You may be limited in choice in regards to size, colours and other attributes, and that’s why the bulk of recycled materials are used behind the scenes, and don’t affect the overall finished design or appearance. Creatively, though, it doesn’t have to be that way.
- Legitimacy – Some lumber dealers have been known to rort the unsuspecting buyer, so, get an expert on your side, or buy from a reputable dealer with real certifications if you want to ensure your wood is reclaimed.
- Price – Yes, not all recycled products are cheaper. Reclaimed wood is one of them, because the process it undergoes to ensure it is consumer grade makes it more expensive.
- Toxins – Reclaimed wood can be treated with chemicals and paint, meaning volatile organic compounds (VOCs), adhesives, preservatives, insecticides and lead can be present. Testing is definitely recommended, along with expert advice. Recycled steel and metals can also contain lead, mercury and other hazardous materials if not handled properly.
- Pests – Inspect items for deconstruction and reclaimed wood to be safe.
Common Recycled or Reclaimed Materials: A Close-Up
Concrete Recycled concrete is commonly used in Australia as a base for roads, parking lots and driveways, as well as fill material and shoulder stone. It can also be used to create 5 – 10 cm recycled stone slabs.
It’s durable and can be crushed and reused repeatedly.
It should be noted that concrete is the most widely used construction material in urban development. By recycling, we are reducing the need for gravel mining, and reducing the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process.
The key difference between asphalt and concrete is the binder used for each material; asphalt uses bitumen, while concrete uses cement. The look, feel, cost and durability are all different.
Recycled asphalt is used in Australia mainly for road base and construction, and it’s a cost effective alternative to the new stuff. It’s also being increasingly used for footpaths, walking trails and new bike pathways.
In home construction, we are seeing more of it for driveways and paths, and in landscaping.
Reclaimed stone is commonly used in landscaping and outdoor application, such as retaining walls, patios and walkways. We are also seeing a rise in firepit designs, outdoor kitchens, column designs, stone veneers or accent walls, and floors; I predict we’ll see more moving forward – limited only by imagination and creativity.
Regardless of the increased costs, we are seeing reclaimed wood applied in many ways; hardwood flooring, decks, wall panelling, tables, countertops, shelving and cabinetry.
Steel is the big gun of recycled materials for the building and design industry due to its strength and durability. Its main role is in the structural elements of a build or building frames, as it has great load bearing capacity – even when reused. It is perfect for use in roofing and sidings as it is weather resistant.
Design-wise, exposing it offers great industrial-looking interior aesthetics; think staircases, railings, exposed beams and lighting fixtures. Reformed and reshaped, steel can also be used to create furniture. And we’ve all seen sculptural creations made from recycled and upcycled steel.
Recycled glass is becoming popular in building and design. It’s resistant to heat, moisture and pests, and when applied correctly can be stunning to look at. It’s relatively inexpensive compared to other recycled materials, and can be used to create unique designs, such as mosaic tiles, countertops and decorative light fixtures. Increasing uses are as an insulation material, colourful and durable flooring designs, and in decorative landscaping.
Need More Incentive?
The Australian and state governments, environmental and industry bodies, and the private sector support and offer tax incentives, grants and permits to promote the use of recycled materials in designs and builds. Here are just a few:
- The Green Building Fund offers grants to encourage the construction and retro-fitting of buildings using environmentally sustainable materials and practices.
- Sustainable Communities Fund provides funding for projects promoting sustainable living including using recycled building materials.
- State government incentives: Many states and territories offer their own tax incentives, grants, permits and certifications for the use of recycled building materials and products.
- There are also many private sector initiatives including certification schemes such as the Green Star rating system, and the Living Building Challenge.
Using recycled materials for construction is a sustainable practice that offers a host of benefits to the environment and your wallet. It is the future of building and design. Making sure you understand both the good, the bad and the ugly of it all gives you solid grounding, to ensure that the product is right for you and safe for use.
It is time to get creative.