“Green buildings use durable materials that are salvaged, have recycled content, or came from rapidly renewable resources. These materials significantly reduce the environmental destruction associated with the extraction, processing, and transportation of virgin materials.”
So reads a prominent display in the building department of one of America’s most environmentally progressive cities. It’s meant to exhort architects, builders, and homeowners to reuse building materials that already exist--a worthy goal, to be sure.
The trouble is, the building codes enforced by the very same department often make it difficult or impossible to follow this policy. Nor is this just one city’s problem. Current building codes simply aren’t formulated with the reuse of salvaged materials in mind, leaving well-intentioned green builders caught in a classic Catch-22: As a matter of public policy, many progressive cities encourage the recycling of building materials, yet in actual practice, the codes enforced by these same cities often render the use of recycled material either economically unfeasible or just plain illegal.
A common example: Modern codes require safety glazing in all glass doors as well as in many windows. Yet the overwhelming majority of glass doors gleaned from architectural salvage--not to speak of most windows--have plain glass which does not comply with these requirements. What’s more, the cost of reglazing, say, a pair of old French doors with code-compliant glass would typically far outstrip their value. Faced with this reality, most homeowners will either install such noncompliant items on the sly or else forego the whole idea of using recycled materials and buy new windows instead.
As you might guess by now, the legal reuse of salvaged electrical items is equally problematic. Many local jurisdictitons, for instance, require all newly installed lighting fixtures to carry an Underwriters Laboratories label, a standard that many old fixtures-- even those rewired with modern components for safety--cannot meet. What’s more, many state energy conservation codes no longer permit fixtures that use traditional incandescent bulbs--which constitute the vast majority of the salvage stock--in rooms such as kitchens, baths, laundries and garages, further restricting the opportunity for recycling such items.
On top of everything else, local restrictions dealing with lead paint and asbestos (the sale of both was outlawed only in 1978) can cause other problems for those wishing to use recycled architectural materials. Lead paint is practically a given on older salvaged items, whether doors, windows or cabinets. Asbestos shows up in old ironing board cabinets, clinging to the backs of old heating registers, and in vintage appliances such as toasters and heaters. In general, building officials tolerate the presence of these products in existing structures, but as regulations inevitably become more restrictive, these, too, may stand in the way of widespread recycling.
As if these troubles weren’t enough to discourage would-be green builders from using recycled materials (many of which are of far superior quality to newly-manufactured ones), the list of difficulties is far from complete. Next time, we’ll look at some more examples of building codes and green building efforts colliding head-on.