ONARCHITECTURE- American dumpster: Builders deep-six too much material

Waste not, want not: Builder Darren Young and his helper rescue a load of wood discarded by a big local developer.

Recently, local builder Darren Young and his helper were busy doing something builders do all the time– loading wood for a construction job onto his trailer. But this load of wood, approximately 60 16-foot pieces of cedar-beveled siding and base trim, an estimated $1,152 worth of materials, wasn't at a lumber yard; it was in a dumpster at the site of an upscale development just outside town.

"The construction manager there told me the wood was ruined, and I could have it if I wanted it," says Young, who moved his company, Willow Tree Construction, here from Seattle two years ago. "The only reason to throw away wood is if it's infested or rotten."

Young says the wood was fine and he's grateful to have it. He agreed to speak publicly about the issue on the condition that the Hook not reveal the site.

"Go to some of the new housing developments," says Young, climbing into the dumpster, "and you'll find lots of good scraps."

Oddly enough, most of the houses in the upscale development had not been built: the sidewalks were in, street signs and lights were installed, but it was a neighborhood of staked-off dirt lots. 

"I didn't come here looking for materials," says Young, "but I couldn't understand why they were throwing it away. It seemed so wasteful."

Indeed, why throw away all that wood?

"It's called capitalism," says Blake Caravati, a veteran builder and former City  Council member. "Once that material hits the jobsite, if they don't need it, it's cheaper for them to get rid of it than it is to store it or try to recycle it. It's sad, but that's the way it is."

But brand new lumber?

"Unfortunately," says Charlottesville architect Gate Pratt, "the large production builders build at such a scale that it wouldn't be worth the expense to recycle such a small amount of material. "I don't know how you would prevent the waste short of mandated recycling."

One can imagine that having the general public picking through a construction site might not be the safest course. But Caravati also says that contractors are reluctant to let the public know about available materials on their sites for another liability reason.

"If someone uses a board taken from the site, and it turns out to be inferior," says Caravati, "who do you think is liable?"

What's more, says Caravati– who's skeptical of the so-called "green" building movement to begin with– it might actually be more "green" to throw the stuff away. 

"To store or recycle that stuff," he explains, "you're going to need someone to come out and get it and haul it away, and then they're going to need to store it and process it."

Think of dozens of trucks and workers driving around picking up small loads of waste from job sites. Dealing with the construction waste that way actually creates a larger carbon footprint, says Caravati.

When a builder, especially a large builder, makes a new materials order, it all arrives at once by train, then delivery trucks make a trip, and that's it. What could be greener? Still, Caravati hates to see good materials end up in dumpsters. 

"I don't know what the hell a 'green' builder is," he says, "but I learned things from my Mother, who grew up in the Depression and who saved and reused everything. I'm the same way. I save everything. Does that make me green? I don't know."

Of course, as a former Councilor and mayor, Caravati can't resist weighing in on the City's recently announced plan to build a living roof atop City Hall.

"It might feel good to put on that green roof," he says of the proposed $650,000 project, "but will it really do a damn? Why not invest in a geothermal heating and cooling system? That might be a better investment in the long run. The green roof," he says, is "a political statement, not a carbon footprint statement."

Young appears to share Caravati's skepticism. "For many businesses," he says, sliding a painted piece of trim on to his trailer, "the green movement is just a play on words." 

Politics and virtue aside, architect Jeff Sties, a member of the Charlottesville chapter of the James River Green Building Council, says there has always been an "enormous amount of waste" in both commercial and residential construction. According to EPA estimates, he says, 136 million tons of construction and demolition debris was generated in 1996, the majority of which could have potentially been recycled.

 Among the reasons it was deep-sixed: preventing delays, saving on storage costs, and avoiding the hassle of performing a "cut list," a list of wood materials and how they are to be cut up for use on the job. Then there's the fact that many suppliers charge hefty restocking fees on returned materials– or refuse to accept returns altogether.

"In my opinion," says Sties, "the way to reduce waste is to offer incentives to builders who implement the LEED rating system– and at the same time increase fees associated with dumping."

For example, Sties says that under the Materials and Resources section of the LEED rating system (the standard for builders seeking green street cred), builders can get one point for diverting 50 percent of their construction waste from a landfill to another source such as a Habitat Store or a recycling center, and an additional point for diverting 75 percent.

"But not having a project team interested in construction waste and recycling to begin with is the real problem," says Sties.  

"Recycling here is a real pain in the butt," says Young, wiping his forehead and pulling the last of his free lumber from the dumpster, as he recalls how discards are handled in his old hometown.

"In Seattle, people are given 55-gallon containers with wheels to put their recyclables in," he says. "The trash cans are small and the recycling bins are big– it's just the opposite here.

"Don't get me wrong," he quickly adds. "Any effort is good, but there are better ways to do it."