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Material Reuse: A Core Part of Watershed Row

Updated: 4 days ago

By Malu Froom and Julia Perbohner

The term “salvage” might as well be Watershed Row’s middle name. While we embrace new materials and systems where they really count, we are scrappy at heart, always seeking to make the best of what is on hand. Promising green building materials are invented every day, but the greenest are the ones that already exist. By repurposing old materials, Watershed Row gains character and treads lighter on the world.

Onsite deconstruction produced over 57,000 pounds of salvaged material. This includes piles of electrical conduit, metal pipe, junction boxes, brass valves, doors, etc. The bulk of the material is lumber, totaling 14,760 board feet of framing and 5,084 board feet of vertical grain fir tongue and groove, plus 50 sheets of plywood. In the current market, the lumber alone would cost over $36K new!

The economics of salvage

If we compare the extra cost and effort of “deconstruction” to standard demolition and subtract the value of materials saved, it’s probably close to a wash. However, with some deeper accounting, salvage is clearly the better deal:

  • Spares landfill space (and dump fees)— our efforts at Watershed Row have so far diverted over 28 tons of waste from our local landfill (equivalent to the amount 34 average Americans throw out in a year)

  • Spares all the energy needed for extraction, manufacturing and transportation of equivalent new materials

  • Recycling also uses significant energy compared to reuse (hence: reduce, reuse, repair… then recycle)

  • Keeps more jobs and dollars in our local economy

  • Preserves the history and special character of our place

Every material has a lifecycle and associated costs, which can be measured as embodied carbon. That’s the energy needed for extraction, processing, transportation and disposal. The sticker price we pay rarely reflects lifecycle costs, which tend to be dispersed and obscured; cheap energy and externalized costs can make materials appear affordable when they are anything but. On the flip side, salvaged materials represent far-reaching savings.

Embodied carbon differs from a building’s operational carbon, which looks at the carbon and energy required to power the building day to day. Buildings hold a lot of embodied carbon. With the world's building stock projected to double by 2060—that’s adding a New York City worth of infrastructure every month for four decades—we’ve got to lean up our act by using new materials wisely and keeping them in circulation longer.

So what are we going to do with all this old stuff at Watershed Row? 

Plenty of the conduit and j-boxes are still serviceable for electrical wiring; framing will go into new walls, mezzanines and casework; shorter lengths will be worked into a trellis outside the gym; that beautiful clear tongue & groove will clad the coffee bar and some interior walls; wood scraps and miscellaneous 1x will become custom birdhouses for town and country cavity nesters in the Basin.

Masonry rubble will be incorporated into gabion walls around the courtyard and garden.

(Gabion is mesh cages filled with stones and/or rubble to make very sturdy, durable and visually pleasing walls.)

Other materials require a greater stretch of the imagination. When the old windows come out, we’ll pull the glass and repurpose the steel frames on the ceiling plane to support acoustic paneling in the large hall; gas piping—obsolete in the remodel—may be welded into outdoor sculpture (a musical fence?); antique electric panels (there’s a whole pallet of them) could become wall vases in the boiler room bar; old valves and fan blades may transform into custom light fixtures or mobiles… Hopefully, with careful planning, collaboration and creativity, everything can be put to good use!

Much of what our fast-paced economy throws out is treasure in a resilient, circular economy. Watershed Row is opting for the slower, more resourceful path. The reward will be a whole building’s worth of rich stories told through well seasoned materials.

Have you ever reused building materials? Tell us more about it in the comments below.


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