Last time we looked at a number of modern building code requirements that make it either economically impractical or else flat out illegal for green builders to use recycled building materials, even though the cities enforcing these codes may officially encourage such reuse. Some of the issues we covered last time, such as the requirement for safety glazing in doors and windows, stem from modern ideas about safety that didn’t exist when many salvaged materials were created.
Yet safety concerns are not the main reason current codes make the legitimate reuse of salvaged materials difficult. Ironically, modern energy conservation mandates are an even bigger roadblock to reuse. In the case of windows, plumbing fixtures, and lighting fixtures, energy efficiency standards all but mandate the use of brand new materials, since few salvaged materials can comply.
The majority of salvaged windows, for example, are single-glazed and don’t meet modern requirements for thermal efficiency or air infiltration--shortcomings that usually can’t be remedied without spending more than an old window is worth.
Salvaged plumbing fixtures often run afoul of energy efficiency standards as well. Most of the toilets available at salvage yards, for example, don’t meet the code-mandated maximum of 1.6 gallons of water per flush--in fact, some coveted antique models use as many as eight gallons. Likewise, the old faucets fitted to vintage sinks don’t have the flow restrictors mandated by modern energy codes. Achieving compliance usually means replacing the old faucets with modern ones, once again defeating the purpose of using salvaged items in the first place.
How can building departments reconcile the laudable practice of recycling building materials while maintaining modern safety and energy-efficiency standards? It would be neither practical nor prudent to forbid the reuse of salvaged doors, windows, plumbing fixtures, and lighting--many of a quality superior to new ones--simply because they don’t comply with modern building codes. These are, after all, the very same materials that are still in daily use in millions of American homes.
One way to acknowledge the reuse old materials as an alternate and equally valid way of saving energy would be for city building departments to grant “green credits” to people using salvaged building materials. These could be used to offset certain code compliance shortcomings, especially those having to do with energy efficiency.
An even simpler approach would be to “grandfather in” various kinds of salvaged items, just as the noncompliant windows, plumbing fixtures and lighting found in the vast majority of houses across the nation are deemed acceptable because they were legal when they were installed. While such an exemption might horrify code enforcement officials, it would remove one of the major impediments to using salvaged materials in lieu of new ones.
It’s troubling that in the face of widespread interest in green building, today’s inflexible building codes remain on a collision course with the environmentally friendly reuse of salvaged materials such as windows, doors, plumbing fixtures, and lighting. One thing is for sure: City governments can’t continue to have it both ways, promoting aspects of green building on the one hand while outlawing them on the other.