Green Building Continues after the Bricks Are Stacked

8 min read

Diverting construction waste from the landfill is good for both the environment and your bottom line.

In 2003, 170,000 million tons of building-related waste was generated in the U.S. annually, 9 percent of which was construction waste, 42 percent comprised renovation waste and 49 percent was demolition debris, according to the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)’s report, Estimating 2003 Building-Related Construction and Demolition Materials Amounts. The Agency also notes that the number of C&D (Construction and Demolition) landfills is on the decline, while tipping fees are on the rise.

According to the Agency, just 20 percent of this waste is currently being recycled. Reducing and recycling these materials, including concrete, wood, gypsum and glass, not only conserves landfill space, but also reduces the environmental impact of producing new materials and can reduce building project expenses.

“It’s also good business,” points out Phil Williams, vice president of sustainability and technical systems at San Mateo, Calif.-based Webcor Builders, which is a partner of WasteWise, an EPA program through which organizations seek to eliminate municipal and industrial wastes. The WasteWise Building Challenge encourages partners to reduce, reuse and recycle construction and demolition debris. Since 2009,Webcor minimum C&D diversion rate has been 90 percent on its projects.

“This is where sustainable cause meets with the budget bottom line in a really good way,” notes Daniel Gehman, AIA, LEED AP, principal, TCA Architects.

Construction remains down from its peak, Gehman adds, which has caused the industry to look for ways to increase productivity while spending less. “You shave dollars by saving time or reducing the amount of materials [used],” points out Gehman, ”and one of the advantages of doing it with the fewest number of pieces is that you produce less waste.”

Sticks and carrots

“Recycling … is an attractive LEED credit and it’s an achievable one,” according to Kenneth Howe, LEED AP, a Laguna Niguel, Calif.-based construction manager who is teaching a LEED Construction Management course at UCI (University of California at Irvine) Extension.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Materials Resource Credits 2.1 and 2.2 both deal with diverting construction waste from the landfill, with the goal of recycling and/or salvaging 50 percent and 75 percent, respectively, of the construction, demolition and land-clearing waste.

Additionally, some regions—most notably, the Northeast and Northwest—are experiencing an increase in tipping fees, according to the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Whole Building Design Guide, which tends to result in construction companies looking for alternatives to their waste disposal strategies.

Some localities, such as Los Angeles, for example, incorporate conditions for the waste stream into the entitlement and approval process, often using LEED-like methods such as requiring a certain percentage of waste to be diverted from the landfill.  Los Angeles County has a C&D ordinance, which applies to projects with a value in excess of $100,000, in which all applicants for covered projects must submit a recycling and reuse plan demonstrating how they will divert at least 50 percent of all soil, rock, and gravel, and at least 50 percent of all C&D debris.

“What happens in larger, urban areas always translates itself to other marketplaces,” Williams points out, so the industry should be on the lookout for more and more regulations. And, Williams predicts, when construction returns “full force,” there will be a new set of products and construction practices. “If done well,” says Williams, the industry will “use this an opportunity to get better—not just faster.”

Best practices

Building types such as multifamily have a high level of repeatability, which is conducive to reducing waste. Williams cautions, however, that if designed poorly, “it exacerbates the problem; if you’re going to waste a square foot of sheetrock, you’re not wasting one [square foot], you’re wasting one [square foot] for every wall of every apartment.”

To better maximize efficiency, then, Webcor works directly with its architects to improve design efficiency. For example, “if I have a wall design that causes me to cut sheetrock and throw it away, what would happen if I moved my wall one foot or six inches either way? Would I then be able to utilize materials more efficiently?” Williams questions.

On-site, in order to manage the construction waste stream most effectively, managers must engage with on-site staff to promote “a more rigorous discipline with regard to debris,” Gehman suggests. “You just have to tighten up the whole ship, and you can’t be casual about untidy worksites.”

Each group—whether it’s mechanical, electrical, plumbing or concrete, for example—must be responsible for its own segregation, says Williams. And, he adds, implementing an internal competition could prove an effective incentive. With this in mind, Webcor acknowledges, on a monthly basis, the team with the highest recycled content among projects, inciting a jobsite competition.

The company has also put into practice a training program for all on-site employees, who must take—and score 100 percent on—a sustainability test, which includes questions about both construction and personal waste.

“Everybody on the job understands what the segregation on the site is about,” says Williams. “It’s general education and empowerment. It’s not just the manager’s job; it’s not somebody in the construction trailer or sitting in the architect’s office. It’s everybody on the job all the time.”

Once on-site, the first thing to consider, points out Howe, is taking out the existing building. Consider an on-site crushing operation. “If it’s cheaper to take that material, set up a crusher and crush your material on-site instead of hauling it off to a crusher.”

Product longevity is also crucial; LED lights, for example, not only use less energy but last much longer than incandescent or fluorescent lights; thus, installing such products also diverts waste. Carpet, while not necessarily an environmentally friendly product, has come a long way in terms of diverting waste from the landfill, with many major companies implementing a recycling program.

“We go into the marketplace and we take back carpet from our customers; we take them to a processing center that separates the materials and then we process them to create clean, raw material streams that can be reintroduced into new carpet,” explains John Wells, president, Interface Americas of the company’s re-entry program. Since 1996, the company has taken back over 200 million pounds of post-consumer carpet. “The vision is that one day we would regionalize this recycling process in areas of the country so as to put the recycling where the carpet is, versus bringing the carpet to the recycling center,” he adds.

Other companies have found innovative ways to divert waste as well. Kohler Kitchen and Bath, for example, has created a reuse program for discarded porcelain, or cull. Rather than send cull that has not passed inspection to the landfill, Kohler has partnered with other business to provide the material as aggregate in road pavers and drainage projects, epoxy overlay and blended in concrete and tile products, among other projects.

Just as important as capturing materials for recycling is protecting them, notes Williams. For example, drywall presents a terrific opportunity for recycling, but the caveat is that wet drywall is useless.

Reusing items, rather than recycling them, is oftentimes an even better option. Webcor, for example, is working with local charities to donate construction materials it can no longer use. “We may have material that we’re demoing from a project, or maybe there was a material product change or maybe [the team] bought 2 percent more than they needed just to be safe,” explains Williams. “We don’t reuse those because specs on the projects are so different. … Normally you’d take it to warehouse, have it sit there for six months, find no use for it and then recycle it.”

Waste less with prefab

Contractors who want to make an impact—both to their bottom line and on the environment—need to carefully plan the use of their materials, implementing such “tricks” as precutting joists, for example, in the shop.

“It’s learning how to plan the product to fit the use rather than just cutting it all to place. We cut it all to place because the waste is just considered a cost of doing business,” says Gehman. “If waste becomes more expensive, then it will be worth the fabricators’ and builders’ effort and money to engineer the application.”

Prefabrication, or modular construction, is one method of reducing waste from the start; it diverts almost all of the construction waste from the landfill.

“If we have a repeatable assembly that can be done in a clean, safe warehouse, it’s much more efficient … and it reduces waste,” notes Williams.

While there are still some kinks that need to be worked out in the prefab world, Gehman predicts that when the economy returns, some industry leaders will develop a program to roll out hundreds of units at a time. But, he says, for true industry acceptance, there needs to be “end-user buzz that makes them indistinguishable from a stick-built product.

“These conservative approaches to materials management that we all learned because we had to do it to survive will continue into a recovering economy and be valued as a methodology, even in good times, because of how efficient it is,” says Gehman. “That would be the most amazing silver lining of this very dark cloud.”

The following organizations can provide additional information on managing construction waste.

-The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC);

-Building Materials Reuse Association (BMRA);

-The Construction Industry Compliance Assistance Center;

-Construction Materials Recycling Association (CMRA);

-U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA);

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