The Best Brick Is the Brick You’ve Got

One of the things that has always bugged me about a lot of the certification programs intended to designate specific structures as ‘green’ is that they tend to focus entirely on new construction and new development. It’s about what new materials you can use to be environmentally friendly, how new designs can be made better, and so forth. This neatly ignores the work of people who are more interested in reusing and recycling than they are in reducing, and it creates a setup where people think green building is out of reach because it requires a bunch of expensive building materials.

When it comes down to it, if you want to talk about environmental sustainability, the best brick is really the brick you’ve got. Reclaimed materials are usually better, environmentally, than new materials because you’re repurposing things and putting them to good use. If you get those materials from within your community, even better. The expenses associated with fabricating and transporting them are over and done with and you can make the amount of environmental impact involved in moving them minimal.

But the best? Is reusing materials you already have on site, if you can. If you’re, for example, taking down an old brick fireplace, why pay to have the bricks hauled away when you could use them in another building project. You could rebuild the fireplace, make brick paths, whatever. The point is, here you have these great building materials sitting around. Why would you send them somewhere else and then order a delivery of new, different building materials?

There are, of course, reasons to do just that. I’m not recommending you reuse the asbestos tile you ripped out of the spare room. No, in that case it’s entirely appropriate to get some different material; if you can’t refinish what’s there, consider reusing materials from the community, if you can’t do that, then yes, you probably should order new. Likewise, materials that are fundamentally unsafe or damaged, like bricks not actually rated to line a fireplace, shouldn’t be used. People shouldn’t forgo safety in the interests of being the best little conservationists that ever were.

But when considering building and remodeling projects, it’s worth taking a look at the brick you’ve got before going off on an adventure to find new brick. What you have might not always be the prettiest and it might require a little bit of work to figure out how to use it, but it will have some environmental benefits. And it may cut costs, if you’re not having to pay for new fancypants spaceage materials and their transport. When preparing to tear something down, people can also talk to the contractor about how to conserve as much of the material as possible without adding work (and expense) to the teardown. This seems to be increasingly common and it is pleasing to see when it involves people recycling materials from their own homes and other structures on a property.

However, reusing building materials is one of those environmental things that a lot of people are doing, but often in weird ways. For example, I see a lot of remodels with reclaimed materials shipped from far, far away. Which I think is, well, to say the least, odd. It adds the environmental and economic costs of transport back in, which seems to defeat a big part of the point when it comes to reusing materials. In addition, it also takes those materials away from a place where they might have been needed.

One of the greatest sources for materials like reclaimed brick and stone is old factories. Many of these factories are concentrated in economically depressed areas. Harvesting and selling usable building materials primarily sends money back to the factory owner, although local salvage companies to a lesser extent also profit because they get the contract for the work. Many of these areas have homes in need of repair or developments under discussion and the cost of using reclaimed materials from the area would be prohibitive, because all of a sudden there’s a luxury markup on them. Reusing bricks, for example, has gone from being efficient and cost effective to trendy and lots of yuppies want to be able to talk about ‘origins’ when they wave their hands expansively around their lofts built with reclaimed material. Communities are literally selling themselves to meet the demand and communities cannot benefit from their own reclaimed materials, which is kind of borked if you ask me.

I’m glad to see a greater push for working with reclaimed materials in building renovation and new construction. I hope that it gets integrated more thoroughly into green building standards and that it becomes a part of certification programs. One way to do that, of course, is to make it trendy; people will want to use reclaimed materials so they will push to get them included in certifications so they can feel smug about doing the right thing for the environment. But at the same time, this sets up a class divide in terms of who can access those materials.

Before, people on limited budgets and contractors working in poor communities could contribute substantial environmental savings by reusing materials in construction. They couldn’t access certification with specialized materials in new construction, because it was too expensive, but they could still do the right thing for the environment. Now, they can’t even do that, because recycled materials have become so commodified; pricing out building materials, it’s cheaper for me to buy things that are environmentally unfriendly than it is for me to try and access recycled materials. Yet another reminder that ‘green’ comes with a high price tag and that being ‘environmentally friendly’ often involves borrowing from very old practices and then making them inaccessible to the people who originated them.