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New York City's Potential

I have to say, I have been lucky. While looking for people to talk to about building material reuse in NYC, I may have found the best group I could possibly find. What’s more, last Saturday I had the opportunity to meet them in person at the Oculus Beer Garden.



[1]


Here is a brief introduction to who was at the (picnic) table that day:

  • Allison Arlotta, who studied historic preservation at Columbia University and is the Secretary of the nonprofit organization Build Reuse. I think of her as my reuse-community guardian angel because she has directly or indirectly introduced me to almost everyone I know in this space.

  • Amanda Kaminsky, who has a background in architecture and a good deal of experience in construction. She is the creator of the awesome Building Product Ecosystems map from my previous blog post.

  • Alan Solomon, who is a co-owner of Sawkill Lumber, a reclaimed wood and flooring store in Brooklyn (and a destination on the Building Product Ecosystems Map).

  • Dan Bergsagel, who is a structural engineer and the co-author of a great paper about the massive amount of high-quality old-growth wood being put to waste as NYC’s older building stock is rapidly demolished.

  • And then me of course :))

Some of the topics touched on at this gathering:

  • What it might look like if salvage assessments were more common in NYC

  • The high cost of real estate in NYC and how that has been a barrier in increasing warehouse space at reuse centers

  • The difficulties of the transportation logistics required to scale up reuse operations in NYC

  • The fact that NYC is much bigger than the (mostly-West-Coast) cities that currently have deconstruction ordinances in place

  • The idea of developing policy to serve as an incentive for building projects to salvage and reuse materials in NYC

  • The idea of proposing a “Local Law 97” (the emissions-cap law for operational energy currently in effect in NYC) for embodied carbon

  • How the mayoral elections will determine the city’s response to such a proposal

Needless to say, there was a lot to discuss, a lot of knowledge exchanged, and an abundance of questions. How to get started on this mammoth goal? How to develop the policy needed to incentivize these efforts at the same time as developing the infrastructure (funding, logistics, necessary expertise, manpower, etc.) the policy would require? How to spotlight the issue of embodied carbon and get the right people to prioritize it?


Surprisingly, I think the answer may have a strong tie to public art. When I explained why to the folks gathered ‘round the Oculus Beer Garden table, they seemed to think I was onto something. Allow me to expand on this.


I believe that one of the biggest issues with embodied carbon is that it is difficult to conceptualize. When looking at a piece of new wood on a construction site, most people will not think about all that this piece of wood went through to get there. The wood took years to grow to a usable state. Very likely, a fair amount of energy was required to harvest it, transport it to a facility, shape it down, and transport it again to the project site. This kind of energy use and the associated emissions could theoretically be cut down quite a bit if we were in the habit of reusing wood. Then apply the same thought to steel and other theoretically reusable materials, and multiply by the volume of construction projects in NYC. These emissions are hard to visualize and hard to track, but they add up.


Yet one of the most promising ways to address the challenge of embodied carbon is reuse, and reuse in itself is a rather intuitive concept. Reusing a material rather than producing anew generally means less waste, less energy required, and fewer emissions. You could teach a kindergartner this.


If what we need is this simple reframing of the issue, public art could be a very good medium for it [2]. More specifically, I am thinking something along the lines of a pop-up bare-bones structure that is assembled one day and just as gracefully taken apart the next day in full view of the public eye. A modular, designed-for-deconstruction streetery-like structure, that pays tribute to Legos in its clean rise and fall.


To tie back to my most recent blog, this project would ideally be undertaken in collaboration with the designers and contractors behind NYC’s outdoor dining structures [3]. It could spark a discussion about redesigning outdoor dining structures to take end-of-use into consideration, and perhaps pave the way for an ecosystem of deconstructable streeteries whose materials have a chance at reincarnation.


Perhaps at this point it would make sense to have an experimental public display (inspired by the Union Square countdown clock) that would report an estimated volume of landfill waste and energy consumption avoided as a result of the reuse initiative.

Perhaps city government would take an interest as the project receives more and more attention from the general public, creates a few new jobs, and allows the city to take on the identity of an innovator in sustainability.


Perhaps then the project could be used as a case study for architects, engineers, general contractors, and all those involved in the realm of buildings. Perhaps the EPA and big investors in innovation like Google would be intrigued enough to offer their share of support and funding.


And perhaps at that point, there would naturally be more talk about salvage assessments, and more money available to keep reuse centers open and expanding. Maybe by then, the challenge of transportation logistics, the challenge of scaling to the size of this massive city, and the challenge of generating the political and social support needed to pass something as big as a “Local Law 97 for embodied carbon” would fall into place.


This is of course, only one of infinite visions for how the future of building material reuse can play out. Who knows with this stuff? That’s half the fun of it.







FOOTNOTES:


[1] Haha, maybe not the best photo out there... we asked some random guy to take it. Kudos to him regardless for his kindness.


[2[ And yes, I am biased in saying this, as the daughter of a rather successful artist who does public art projects occasionally. Check out http://www.oscaroiwastudio.com/ if you’re intrigued.


[3] At the moment, I have reached out to a handful of outdoor dining structure designers, asking to chat; hopefully I’ll have more to say on this in a future blog post.


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