Deconstruction and Reuse: The Future of our Built Environment

Have you ever watched a building come down? I’ve seen everything from a neighborhood of large block tenement buildings blown up, to a small cottage being crunched by a bulldozer in an hour. It’s kind of exciting in many ways, and rather distressing in others. What’s exciting is the power of our machinery to move that much material in such a short amount of time. What’s distressing is to think about the history of that building, the lives that were lived in it, and the materials and effort that went into creating it and maintaining it for years.

Buildings are an integral part of our lives; we all know that, we live, work, play and all that in them. Why then are we so separated from them at the end, how is it we divorce ourselves from all that history and meaning when we are done with them? Perhaps it’s born out of our disposable economy, our youth as a country, and our addiction to the new? Or, more likely, a combination of all of those factors?

Building material reuse is as old as building however. Since the first time we stacked one rock on top of another to build a shelter we have taken those rocks when done and stacked them again. How did we get away from this? And how do we get back? For get back we must I think.

We got here as a result of many factors of course but primary among them is the fact that we created wealth through processing raw materials into new products with amazing efficiency. Our economy is built on that process; has been for many decades, even centuries. The trouble here is that we have valued short-term wealth over long-term wealth. When short-term cash profits dictate our decisions we sacrifice quite a bit. In the case of our material wealth we squander our precious materials by mining, processing, then shortly after [months or decades its still relatively short when you think about it] bury them in landfills.

Nuts I say. And I know a lot of folks agree. Most in fact when you look at it this way. The question then is what to do about it? How to do it differently when our entire economy is built around this consumption? The answers of course are as complex as the questions however.

But I do believe there are answers. I do believe that we can reimagine our world and our built environment in such a way that we can pull ourselves out of this trend and this tremendously expensive habitual behavior. And like many complex issues sometimes its helpful to look back to tradition. In the past thousands of years humans did not throw away materials that were reusable. It was unthinkable. We got here because we changed our thinking about what is valuable. We can get back the same way; by rethinking what is valuable.

So this years Decon 18 conference is about Reimaging the future of our building industry. It’s about pulling all the various players that think about how buildings are built and how they come down together. And it’s about learning from each other; designers, planners, deconstructionists, researchers… because we still have so much to learn from each other. I talk to folks all over the country and hear many of the same thoughts and questions and ideas and I know that if we connect more, reach out and ask our questions together, and share our answers with each other, we will explode our potential to remake our world beyond anything we can imagine.

So come join us in Grand Rapids on September 19th – 21st and explore with us questions such as: If Building Material Reuse is as old as buildings themselves, why isn’t it the standard now? Is waste just a by-product of bad design? And why is a 2×4 from virgin lumber cheaper than a reclaimed one? These and other questions about the reuse of building materials are at the heart of Decon 18: the nations only conference dedicated to deconstruction and building material reuse.

As we were starting to plan this conference we looked deep and we felt that both the barriers, and the opportunities for reuse and decon go back to design. We all know too that reuse is all too often an afterthought; and that is clearly the greatest barrier to our industry. So as we look to reimagine we need to think about how to redesign.

And so for or our keynotes we are thrilled to have Gayle DeBruyn; a designer of furniture and other goods as well as a teacher and sustainability guru, paired with Dan Philips; also a designer and teacher who works exclusively with reuse materials to build low-income housing.

Our speakers and presenters represent some of the leading practitioners and thinkers in our industry. So if rebuilding our world in a much more sustainable way excites you as much as it does me, join us. Come hear what all these amazing folks have to say. And come share your ideas, and stories, and successes. We need to come together or we will miss the opportunities to learn from each other that are so essential to our growth and strength moving forward.

We are also still looking for sponsors and vendors; so if your company wants access to our industry this is the place. Just let us know.

By Joe Connell Executive Director of the Building Materials Reuse Association