Construction waste

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle


Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Exciting new ways to reduce the Construction & Demolition (C&D) related waste of every project.

By Bill Hensley

Construction waste

IT WAS ONE OF THOSE NOISY DREAMS, as if waiting at a train crossing for the fast-moving freight to pass. But as it jarred me into a semi-awake state the sound of shifting gears and beeping moved the mental image from the rail to the road. As I opened my eyes to a pre-dawn morning, I could see flashing lights on the bedroom curtain that were totally unexpected. My first disorganized thoughts envisioned an ambulance coming with help for our neighbor across the street who lived with her caregivers and Alzheimer’s. But the noise was not that of a first responder and as I reached the curtains the source of light and sound became clear: The truck was here to collect the dumpster out of our driveway.

The bedroom sits on the second floor, above the garage where we’d recently finished an office addition. Pulling back the curtains gave a birds-eye view of a master at work, slowly backing into our driveway and engaging perfectly with the dumpster parked against the herbaceous border at the driveway’s edge. Perhaps it was the same driver who had dropped it off a week prior. We had marveled then at his skill in placing it far to one side so that we could still back out of the garage. This time, he first nudged its left side back so that the dumpster faced slightly toward the driveway center. He pulled forward, then reversed as the two long arms effortlessly engaged with the dumpster and lifted it into position on the truck.

It wasn’t a large project—just a 10 x 19 foot office carved out of an oversized garage — but the remnant ends of 2 x 4s, drywall, carpet, baseboards, window trim, window and door packaging added up. We recycled the cardboard and managed to give some of the rest away, including the larger pieces of drywall. But too much ended up in the dumpster, which we topped off with the unsalvageable parts of the fence and gate we replaced at the back of the property. The load was small but looked heavy, until the skillful driver made it look effortless.

According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), total housing starts for 2020 were 1.38 million. This COVID-19 impacted year still represented a gain of seven percent over the 1.29 million housing starts in 2019. The large majority of the 2020 starts — 991,000 — were single family homes, up 11.7 percent from the previous year.

A little over a decade ago a study by the NAHB estimated that the construction of a 2,000 square foot home generated on average 8,000 pounds of waste. Hopefully, we have improved as an industry, but let’s go with that number for this exercise. Next, we’ll extrapolate from the State of California’s CalRecycle website estimates on construction debris to arrive at 800 pounds per cubic yard as an average debris to-volume. That results in 10 cubic yards per new home, or close to ten million cubic yards per year across the new single family home market. It’s small compared to the volume of waste from the construction — and especially the demolition — of roads, bridges and commercial buildings, but still significant. But there are ways to reduce the impact of every project — whether it’s a new home or a remodel.


start with design

“The architect is not just creating the home design but acting as the client’s advocate in every step of the project,” said San Francisco based architect Krisjon Svanberg, who notes that energy conservation and sustainability should be incorporated and discussed at the outset of any project to ensure that the project is using up-to-date strategies and products. And it’s not just features like double-glazed windows or automated window shades to reduce heat transfer. “The process is important as well,” he continues. “We can and do make de- sign choices that not only deliver exceptional results fully in line with client needs, but which are also efficient in creating less waste or consuming less energy during the project.”

It’s not uncommon for elements of a new home to be built off- site, and this is not just for the economies of scale required by production homes. Perhaps there is a showcase structural element that lends itself to cross-laminated timber, leveraging the factory efficiency. “The CLT can be manufactured to custom sizes and create unified and high-tolerance constructions which reduce waste, improve performance and deliver a product in the least amount of time,” notes Svanberg.

The equation is a little different in a remodel, which starts with at least some amount of demolition. “Clients have differing levels of “waste tolerance,” continued Svanberg. “Some may ask to preserve as much as possible while creating a whole new ‘experience’ in the home. These are interesting assignments.”


think sustainable

Toni Sabatino is not just an award-winning designer and President of the Manhattan chapter of the National Kitchen & Bath Association, but a member of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, as well.

“Sustainable is something we need to think about on every project,” she notes. “It starts with avoiding mistakes in planning. Mistakes cause things to end up in the dumpster!”

According to Sabatino, one area often overlooked is packaging. Most cabinets and appliances arrive on the jobsite in corrugated cardboard. During the project a best practice is to use this cardboard as protection for floors or countertops while the work is going on, thus eliminating the need to purchase protective coverings. After this, it can be rather beaten up, but it’s important to resist temptation to throw it in the
dumpster. Cut it up — two feet by two feet or 30 inches by 5 feet (whatever is the local norm) — bundle it if required and put it out on recycle day. But material overages do happen, generating waste. And so does demolition, generating even more waste — and waste of a different nature. Both cases present opportunities for new uses, new markets and new business opportunities.


reclaimed flooring

While only a tiny part of the global flooring market (estimated to reach U.S.$621 billion by 2028), recycled flooring is a hot and growing segment. “It’s all about the character and aesthetics,” says Kim Wojahn, owner of American Reclaimed Wood Floors. “You just cannot replicate the look it delivers, a living character that can’t be matched.” Based near Portland, Oregon, Wojahn has been in the reclaimed lumber business
for seventeen years. We spoke with Kim and started with a question.

BILL: Where does most lumber that enters the reclaimed supply come from?

KIM: The majority is coming from the East coast where more older factories and industrial buildings are being torn down. It makes sense because the building stock is older in the Eastern part of the country. Here in the Pacific Northwest, barns are the most common contributors to the reclaimed lumber stock.

BILL: What types of woods are most prevalent?

KIM: In the East, we’ll see mostly white oak and pine. Around here, it’s most likely to be Douglas fir. All have unique charac- teristics, and each is beautiful in its own right.

BILL: So how does this work? A builder will call you and say, “I’ve got a barn or warehouse that we are tearing down. Can you take some of this lumber?”

KIM: In a sense, yes. The contractor’s motivation can be both financial—paying less to haul it away—as well as envi- ronmental by not cutting down more trees. We’ll first get a count of the lumber. Sometimes, it’s already removed from the building, but often we’ll go in and pry it up.

BILL: Beyond prying up floors, is there other lumber you are after, like structural timbers?

KIM: Yes, and these can be some of the most beautiful. Think of a 12 by 12 inch timber post. The outside edges are where you’ll find the most extensive character - aging, nail holes, worm holes - think of it like a crust. The character changes as you cut deeper into the timber. Each layer has its own beauty and nail holes can easily go three inches or more into the wood.

BILL: And the market is everything from the craft brewery to luxury residential?

KIM: Yes, the luxury home is not uncommon; we recently provided the flooring for a National Football League team owner’s home. It can be rustic, such as with the circle saw cut still visible, or as polished and refined as you want it to be.

Learn more about American Reclaimed Wood Floors

Reclaimed kitchen

the reclaimed kitchen

The kitchen can be the most incredible room in the home, that welcoming hearth with stories to tell and secrets to share. But sometimes for a new owner, the stories are all wrong and the secrets are best left unspoken. Even a high- end kitchen with luxury appliances might need a full make- over. Prying Douglas fir off an aging barn might have been a one-phone-call proposition, but a kitchen? With cabinets, counters, appliances? The aftermarket sounds complicated. But what if there was a non-profit organization that created jobs in construction, logistics and retail; diverted millions of pounds of fixtures, furnishings and architectural elements from landfills; and sustainably repurposed kitchens and interiors to establish a circular economy for the kitchen industry? And how about if it gave homeowners a nice tax write-off? What would you call this?

Founded as Green Demolitions in 2005, Renovation Angel “spread its wings” in 2012 to become America’s leading re- cycler of luxury pre-owned kitchens and showroom displays. If “pre-owned” sounds a little like the auto industry, that’s exactly the reference point Founder and CEO Steve Feldman uses. We caught up with Steve to learn more:



BILL: What does the designer, builder or even the home- owner need to know about Renovation Angel?

STEVE: The easiest way to understand it is to use the auto industry, where nothing is wasted, the product gets traded-in and remarketed as pre-owned. The kitchen and bath industry had no infrastructure like that. Until now.

BILL: What are the basic steps in the process?

STEVE: We start with an evaluation, going into the kitch- en to assess what’s in the space and whether it can be recycled or repurposed. The homeowner sends a pho- to, product information and address to see if it qualifies. Then we’ll do a pre-inspection to arrive at a “net value” estimate based on tax savings and the elimination of removal and disposal fees. The white glove team removes the kitchen and provides the paperwork for the tax donation.

BILL: Sounds like a complete ecosystem.

STEVE: Right. Most high-worth homeowners don’t even know their current kitchen has value. As that ecosystem builds, the influencers see us as a benefit to their clients. The architect, designer, builder or real estate agent contacts us with a “hey, this is a beautiful kitchen, would it qualify?” We take it from there.

BILL: Thus, you have kept the “pre-owned” kitchen from the landfill and made it easy on the homeowner. How about for the pre-owned kitchen shopper?

STEVE: We have created an aftermarket of luxury bargain hunter consumers who want sustainable pre-owned product. Often, they are price motivated, but are especially interested in the opportunity for truly custom results with unique histo- ries.

BILL: Describe success-to-date, what has this contributed?

STEVE: To date, we’ve recycled over 8,000 kitchens, which has kept about 50 million pounds out of landfills and created
$27 million in new recycling jobs.

Learn more about Renovation Angel at


Sasha Plotitsa


a new idea takes form

Meanwhile in San Francisco, industrial designer Sasha Plotitsa is building a business — and a brand — that taps into the construction waste pipeline to form something new. The brand, Formr, creates a line of exceptionally cool furniture pieces with descriptively quirky names like TIPsy, SITuation, underSTUDY, and unpredicTABLE. All are available in a vari- ety of colors and finishes.

The initial spark for the company came early in his career. “As an interior designer, I would show up on the jobsite to check progress and would see these massive waste piles,” Plotitsa describes. “I couldn’t come to terms with how much waste we were generating.” He began specifying greener materials to mitigate negative impacts. This was “well received in San Francisco despite the costs,” but it didn’t seem like enough.

Fast-forward a couple decades into a successful career, Plotitsa began thinking about creating a business that could “make a positive impact and even give back.” Of all things, it was an Instagram post — a ‘nothing super interesting’ coffee table — that provided the spark to pursue a furniture business. To make it sustainable he drew on his construction and design connections to build relationships for sourcing mate- rials off the waste piles generated by local construction proj ects. But he wanted to take it a step further and incorporate another “giving back” aspect, one that would complete the Formr brand promise.

Plotitsa began thinking about a segment of the population that was challenged in employment opportunities. Having worked in the medical cannabis industry, he had exposure to formerly incarcerated individuals and saw the challenges they faced securing employment. His wife knew someone in the San Francisco jail system, and before he knew it, he was talking with reentry organizations and interviewing the individuals who would become his first team members. In March 2020 he was ready to launch Formr. That same day, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. A week later the City went into lockdown, with the rest of the nation close behind. Still, the brand began to take off. And for marketing people, you must agree that the branding built around forming something new from the old and benefitting formerly incarcerated people is exceptional.

BILL: That is quite a story. Let’s focus on your access to materials.

SASHA: Originally, I thought it would be small pieces, cut- offs of 12 to 18 inches or so, and we identified early on that cleaning materials would be a big part of each project – nails, staples, dents, glue, etc. Our scale works, because we’re not competing with recycled flooring.

BILL: That’s a lot of small pieces and cleaning.

SASHA: Fortunately, it has turned out that eight-foot 2x4’s and 2x6’s are our most common haul. This means we spend far less time gluing into larger usable pieces, which greatly improves our efficiency. Some contractors are very recep- tive to what we’re doing. I’ll get a call saying “I have some mindset and showing that there are always ways to save and have less impact. Ultimately, everyone wins. We pick it up for free, keeping more stuff out of the landfill.


BILL: What’s next for Formr?

SASHA: We have a solid first collection, and we’re already shipping throughout the country. West Elm is carrying us, which has expanded our reach. We’re starting some B2B beautiful material…” and we get there and it’s all stacked and sales as well, such as hotels that are purchasing ten to fifty
ready to pick up. Other times it’s a pile of pipes, concrete and nail-filled wood that we pick through, it just depends on the contractor and the project. But either way, we try to bring pizza to share with the jobsite crew every time we do a pickup.

BILL: The contractors you work with see the benefit.

SASHA: Generally speaking, yes. Some are less inclined to work with us, and we realize that in construction time is mon- ey and their most urgent need is to get it off the site. It’s been an educational effort. We’re changing the contractor’s pieces of a particular table style. We’re focused on building Formr into a national brand.


As the Formr website says, the company is “creating furniture that supports a new life for formerly incarcerated individuals and construction debris.” The Formr motto says it all: Good design, doing good.

Learn more about Formr at