It's All Grist

by F. Joshua Millman, AIA, LEED AP, CFM | Vice President, NuTec Design Associates, Inc.

My neighbor teaches fourth grade in one of the school systems in our county. She has asked me a few years running to speak about being an architect to her class on career day. Each year I have had a schedule conflict, and she has increasingly looked at me with more suspicion that I did not relish an hour with those boisterous, inquisitive minds. 

This year I made a point of adjusting my schedule to be available, if only to be sure that I retain occasional access to her power washer.

When my presentation turned to sustainable facilities, I asked the students what they thought “green building design” might mean. Like many of their parents’ generation, they did not fully grasp the concept, but each offered partial answers that together were a good point to start to talk about a light version of the triple bottom line. Afterwards, though, one student’s answer to my inquiry struck me as unique: “It means no landfill.”

The design community, as well as my presentation, is largely focused on sustainable designs that use significantly less energy, perhaps even “net zero.” Reducing and managing water use is often a distant second concern. Minimizing waste to landfills is rarely mentioned. I began to wonder whether, if we designed buildings so there was (practically) no construction waste headed to a landfill, would we so change the design paradigm such that energy and water use reduction strategies would be easier to accomplish? And make this happen for new buildings as well as renovations. The next step then would be to renovate a building such that the design first considers how to reuse or repurpose everything that was being removed! Recycling would be the last resort, and landfill never an option.

Some weeks later I attended a reception at the local ReStore business, which is working to accomplish that vision. ReStore accepts building components for resale, with all profits donated to Habitat for Humanity. Windows, doors, plumbing fixtures, and appliances are all for sale at ReStore. While some are surplus from lumber yards, the remainder are “gently used” components carefully removed as part of the demolition phase of building projects. I was then reminded of twin trash receptacles I had seen in Phoenix last winter: one was labeled “recyclables” and the other was labeled “landfill.” Hard to argue with that simple dichotomy.

If I am invited back next year to talk to the new crop of fourth graders, I will ask them to imagine a world where they could not throw anything to trash. No one could sell anything that could not be recycled. Think back to before the 20th Century, when everything was reused or repurposed. What if that philosophy again became part of our culture? I’d also hope to explain to them how, when I renovate commercial buildings, my design construction drawings indicate how each item to be removed shall be delivered to a local vendor who specializes in reusing that component or material. This would offer a much more hands-on green experience than watching turbine propellers or water meters.