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A Bay Area Reuse Tour: Part 1 of 2

I spent almost three weeks this summer in the Bay Area. And since the Bay Area to me is a place full of deconstruction and building material reuse enthusiasts (in addition to other attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge, oldest Chinatown in the US, etc.), I thought it would be a waste not to take that time to visit some reuse centers!


As soon as this thought came to mind, I emailed the wonderful Timonie Hood, who works in the EPA’s Bay Area office and seems to be connected to just about everyone in the realm of reuse in some way or another. Within two hours, she responded with a whole list of reuse centers, the contact information of the individuals running those stores, and a “you can tell all of these folks I sent you”! So I did just that.


On my first stop, I had the honor of meeting Ted Reiff, the President and Founder of The Reuse People, in Oakland [1]. He gave me a warm welcome and launched straight into a generous tour.




















The first thing to note about The Reuse People (TRP) is that it is a giant space. Now having lived in Manhattan for most of my life I have a low bar when it comes to the availability of space, but I think this place is objectively pretty big— 40,000 SF including the offices. It is filled with doors, cabinetry, sinks, lumber, carpet tiles, and so on, and of the many, many materials found in the store, an impressive 99% are salvaged as opposed to new. On top of collecting, storing, and selling materials, TRP offers large-scale project management and consulting services, as well as deconstruction trainings across the US (the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Chicago).

Interestingly, next to TRP is a Habitat for Humanity Reuse Store. While the two look similar at first glance, Ted explained to me that they carry slightly different products. Habitat for Humanity is comparatively pickier about what it accepts and sells, and because it relies more on volunteer labor it is not as well-positioned to sell lumber (which requires a degree of expertise to sort and appraise) as TRP. The two stores actually boost each other’s sales thanks to their proximity.


I asked Ted about the scalability of deconstruction and reuse, and he said that in a lot of ways, technology would help with that. I asked if he’d heard about Google’s interest in deconstruction, and he responded that he does not believe that Google is as serious as it says about deconstruction based on personal experience. In his experience, perfectly deconstructable buildings under Google’s management were never deconstructed despite the company’s promises to do so.


Ah, I thought. This is exactly the kind of insight I would never have gotten solely through reading online publications.


When I asked him about his vision for the future, Ted said that he is interested in exploring the market for reused goods in foreign countries.


“But isn’t it more environmentally sustainable to keep materials local?”


“There are already new materials being shipped to Ghana, so why not do the same for older materials?” He had a point.



Next, I met up with the great Timonie Hood herself at one of her favorite Burmese restaurants in San Mateo.


We sat outside; me in the shade and her in the California sun. Over tea leaf salad and garlic noodles, she told me her life story.


She had been an environmentalist from the start. In her early days, she had taken part in protests against McDonald’s use of Styrofoam (now a relic of the past, as she happily pointed out). When she was told that she wouldn’t get far through protests because she didn’t understand policy, she decided to go to law school. From there, she worked an “environmental” intern position that turned out to be controlled by wealthy, polluting businesses. She was then recruited to manage a colorful group of civilian and military staff members and run the recycling program of a 35,000-person military installation. She then joined the EPA and has since worked on a wide range of projects— among them a design-for-deconstruction competition titled The Lifecycle Building Challenge, green building projects in partnership with indigenous tribes, and a zero waste plan on Guam. And since late 2017, she has been co-leading the Bay Area Deconstruction Workgroup, bringing deconstruction and reuse experts together with government officials to advance policies and actions [2]. When she was finished with her introduction, my own felt very short indeed.


Timonie reiterated the military’s interest in and research on deconstruction and sustainable construction, and told me that the federal government as a whole has recently taken an interest in the concept of reuse— the US General Services Administration had a meeting centered on the topic of material reuse just this summer [3]. She told me that in parallel to this awareness on a federal level, a well-known network by the name of Architecture 2030 is now pushing a discussion about embodied carbon and another group called the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group has developed a new deconstruction guide for cities [4].


Looking back on it, Timonie had by far the most optimistic view of the future of reuse. It has to do with the nature of her position— it is literally her job to learn about and encourage the development of the latest and greatest sustainability initiatives in the US.



The following stop was in San Francisco, where I met with the lovely Kat Hanrahan at the GCI General Contractors office.


GCI specializes in building and site renovation projects (as opposed to ground-up construction). A lot of construction companies nowadays claim to be sustainable, but GCI really acts on its belief that environmental sustainability should be prioritized more in businesses. The company is a member of the Bay Area Deconstruction Working Group (which, as mentioned earlier, is led by Timonie Hood); it has taken part in Living Building Challenge projects (a very rigorous sustainability certification— think LEED on steroids); and I think most impressively, it partners with its sister company Madrone to salvage, store, and push for the reuse of building materials throughout its projects.


What was currently on Kat’s mind was the reality that successful reuse programs require a centralized place to store the collected materials. The most forward-thinking product manufacturers nowadays offer to take back their materials at the end-of-life stage for reuse or recycling, but these takeback programs are difficult in practice because large quantities of materials must be sent every shipment for the efforts to be economical. This means that manufacturer-driven takeback programs or not, reuse tends to require a good deal of storage space. And storage space is expensive! The Reuse People was able to rent its 40,000 SF space from St. Vincent Paul Church in a relatively nice location and at a relatively affordable rate, but that is a rarity. Thankfully, the City of San Francisco has offered to partner with GCI/Madrone to develop a centrally-located warehouse space and supplementary online retail platform in the near future.


Besides that highly exciting project, we chatted about the difficulties of quantifying embodied carbon. Existing software that track data on emissions associated with landfills and materials are generally not very transparent, and are pre-set with materials that may not match the materials used in a given project. It’s a difficult problem that pops up all the time in conversations regarding “green” and “healthy” products— how can we ensure that the standards that define “green” and “healthy” are rigorous enough to be meaningful, without making it too cumbersome to categorize new products as such? I don’t really have an answer to that, but it is something I wrestle with almost daily as a sustainability consultant.


Kat also remarked that based on her experience with deconstruction projects, designing buildings that are meant to be taken apart would be a game-changer in making reuse more feasible and practical. This, my friends, is the real-life need to “design for deconstruction.”





FOOTNOTES:


[1] Ted too has a blog, except that his blog is based on a lifetime of experience on this topic. Check it out here! https://thereusepeople.org/presidents-blog/


[2] The Bay Area Deconstruction Workgroup now reaches far beyond the San Francisco Bay Area, with participants from across the U.S., Canada, Germany, South Africa, and New Zealand.

https://www.stopwaste.org/at-work/built-environment/construction-demolition-debris/bay-area-deconstruction-workgroup


[3] The “General Services Administration” is a bland name, but Timonie told me that they do a lot—the construction, management, and preservation of government buildings; the leasing and management of commercial real estate; the management of private sector services, equipment, supplies, and IT to government organizations and the military, and so on.

https://www.gsa.gov/blog/2021/04/05/the-embodied-carbon-imperative-gsas-next-big-sustainability-opportunity

https://www.gsa.gov/governmentwide-initiatives/federal-highperformance-green-buildings/policy/green-building-advisory-committee/advice-letters-and-resolutions


[4] For those who do not know, Architecture 2030 is a collective of architecture and building industry leaders that strives to dramatically reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions associated with the built environment on an accelerated timeline. I am familiar with it because I have worked for the Ithaca 2030 District.


I am hesitant to write the details of the Architecture 2030 commitment here directly because it has been evolving in response to the increasingly clear need to address climate change now.

https://architecture2030.org/accelerating-the-2030-challenge-to-2021/


The C40 is an international collective of cities taking bold climate action. Here is a link to their Deconstruction Guide:

https://www.c40knowledgehub.org/s/article/How-to-start-deconstructing-and-stop-demolishing-your-citys-buildings?language=en_US

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