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  • Writer's pictureLuna Oiwa

Tackling Climate Change through those COVID-19 Outdoor Dining Structures

Within the hugely broad topic of climate change I am most interested in “embodied carbon,” the emissions associated with the sourcing, processing, transporting, and assembly of materials. Within the topic of embodied carbon I am interested in deconstruction and building material reuse. I’ve read some things, attended webinars, spoken directly with people involved, and passed on this knowledge through this blog. My next question is this: how can I apply this general knowledge to the context of my own city, NYC? What’s up with reuse here, and how can it be furthered?

Partly because my company is talking about reuse for its own office renovation project right now and partly out of my own curiosity, I did some digging around and found that there are pockets of reuse here in NYC too. In fact, an organization called Building Product Ecosystems has created a map of these reuse hotspots. This map is up to date with information on reuse stores, consultants, deconstruction companies, and so on—basically every resource you’d need to start donating or buying salvaged materials for a building project and actually helping to “close the loop” in this industry. Very cool.

And yet it makes me wonder how many people know about this amazing map, and of that select group of people, how many take the extra step to call up these organizations. Based on my limited experience in the construction industry, I know that building projects face tough logistics, timelines, and budgets even without getting sustainability involved.

It’s one of those chicken-and-egg problems. Reuse will undoubtedly be difficult for early-adopters because even when looking at the Building Product Ecosystems map, it is clear that the supply and demand has not been scaled to its full potential quite yet. But which will come first, a wave of general contractors deciding to purchase from reuse centers to increase demand for salvaged materials, or the opening of several gigantic reuse centers to ensure that there is enough supply to meet the demand? Could these two steps somehow happen at once?

Here is one response that has been floating around in my head recently. What if the concept of building material reuse was piloted through the outdoor dining structures now common throughout NYC?

Here’s my thinking.

  • One of the largest obstacles to reuse in building construction projects is that these types of projects are enormously complicated and financially risky to experiment with.

    • Outdoor dining structures on the other hand are simple and not terribly expensive.

  • Another problem with promoting reuse in buildings is that the time scale of a building’s life cycle is very long. Even when a building is “designed for deconstruction,” it takes a good deal of coordination to pass the message along to the people in charge of choosing between demolition and deconstruction at the building’s end of life.

    • Outdoor dining structures on the other hand are meant to be temporary structures. Those in NYC were built in the past year to address COVID-19, but it’s likely that many of them will be taken down in another year or so for a host of reasons.

  • Yet another problem with buildings is that because they are large, they require a heck lot of different materials. This makes separation, storage, and re-selling of the materials a difficult process.

    • These outdoor dining structures require comparatively fewer types of materials, and because they are small in size, storage spaces for any materials salvaged from them can be proportionately smaller.

And as a bonus, the construction of these temporary structures is very visible to the public because the projects are at street level and are erected without fencing. This presents an opportunity to showcase an interesting new way of doing things to members of the building industry, sustainability consultants, students, and anyone else interested. Deconstructing and reusing the materials that make up outdoor dining structures may not directly reduce emissions in large quantities, but it is a learning opportunity with the potential to catalyze a lot more. As I said in an earlier blog, as great as technological advancement and other common hallmarks of success are in the climate change discussion, education, motivation, and public interest can be equally powerful tools [1].

NYC is already pushing for some rather progressive climate change policy with respect to buildings—new laws to promote energy efficiency (Local Law 87, Local Law 95, etc.) and carbon caps associated with that energy usage (Local Law 97) [2]. By focusing solely on “operational” carbon, these laws gloss over the importance of embodied carbon [3]. Embodied carbon may be a little more difficult to conceptualize, but it is just as real. If NYC’s overall goal is to reduce the emissions it has control over, it should start thinking about embodied carbon too [4].

Why not start by addressing the issue from street level?


[1] I’d also like to point out that just as we can apply lessons learned from the construction of temporary structures to actual buildings, what we know about buildings can better inform the decisions we make about the construction of temporary structures.

For example, there has been a recent shift towards making large commercial buildings more energy-efficient, more adaptable, and better ventilated. No such requirements exist for outdoor dining structures (at least based on my review of NYC’s Department of Buildings sidewalk cafe permits). Why not look at these temporary structures as an opportunity to start with a clean slate, and bring in this same human-centric mindset?

[2] Scroll through this link for a good summary of those laws :)

[3] “Embodied carbon” refers to the emissions associated with building materials and the construction process. “Operational carbon” refers to the emissions associated with building energy use (emissions after the building has been constructed).

[4] And to look back at the bigger picture, President Biden has announced plans to get the country to reduce emissions by 50% (from a 2005 baseline) by 2030. That’s an ambitious goal, given that 2030 is less than a decade away. Because of its population, what NYC does will have a direct impact on achieving this goal. Because of its cultural and political clout, what NYC does will also serve as an example—good or bad—for other cities to observe, analyze, critique, and maybe even follow.

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