The ultimate in recycling

Reusing old buildings and construction materials in new structures preserves our culture—and our environment

Consumption drives the North American economy and for a long time that's meant throwing out the old to make way for the new. But that's changing in the construction industry.

Developers, designers, and demolition contractors are looking at old buildings in a new way, viewing them as sources as materials rather than simply as piles of garbage.

Case in point: come 2011, The Bow will not only tower over downtown Calgary, but it will have a firm foundation in the city's heritage. Components of the historic York Hotel, which opened in 1930, will be used in the new office and retail building-the new headquarters for EnCana Corp.-tying Calgary's new cosmopolitan image to its earthy roots.

"Two of the four sides of the [York] were basically peeled off brick by brick," explains Tony Ciarla, business development manager at Hazco Environmental & Decommissioning Services in Calgary. Hazco handled the deconstruction and demolition of the hotel and had a specialized restoration contractor remove the brick.

Each brick was numbered after removal and the walls will be reconstructed as part of The Bow. In addition, two unique concrete friezes painted to give the appearance of carved stone were carefully removed and will be reused in the new building. The St. Regis Hotel, which opened in 1913, will reportedly also be renovated and become a boutique hotel in The Bow's south block, a retail and cultural section.

Retaining the culture embodied by the York is one reason materials are being reused in The Bow.

"Many of these buildings were places of gathering, and this spirit will be preserved through the development of a social hub on The Bow south block," according to developer Matthews Developments on its corporate website.

And then there's the history embodied in the material itself. The brown brick of the York's walls, for example, is from Clayburn Brick in Abbotsford, B.C., reportedly the only manufacturer of firebrick in British Columbia after 1906. Clayburn bricks came in a wide range of colours, shapes, and textures. Architects and contractors loved them and the bricks were used in many buildings in the early part of the 20th century.


Preserving our heritage is an important reason for reusing materials and buildings. But preserving the environment is the real force driving the shift in how old buildings are valued.

"Your first motivation is always sustainability," says David Jefferies, principal of Zeidler Partnership Architects in Toronto, explaining how to decide whether to reuse buildings and materials. It all comes down to how much energy you have to expend to recapture the energy embodied in the material.

The presence of toxic materials such as asbestos, for example, can make reuse problematic.

"What has to be done to get the reusable material out?" Jefferies asks. "If you are expending massive amounts of energy, is this really, environmentally-speaking, what you want to do?"

The Zeidler Partnership worked with England's Foster + Partners on the final design of The Bow and is overseeing construction, which is being handled by Ledcor. The company has reused buildings and construction components in many of its projects.

"When you go in to renovate buildings or try to reuse buildings, your first objective is to keep as much of that material in place as you can," explains Jefferies. Using the Regis Hotel in The Bow is a perfect example.

Other materials, such as the bricks in the York, are torn out and reused. Still others can be removed from the building and either sold for reuse elsewhere or recycled. This includes construction materials such as concrete, wood, and steel as well as items like radiators, doors, and porcelain fixtures.

Salvage has always had a place in the demolition industry.

"We always tried to salvage as much as we could because we knew there was value in it," Hazco's Ciarla says. Steel is one example. Hazco has been recycling steel for years, using specialized equipment to shear large pieces before taking it to the recycling facility.

Thanks to programs such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and the Building Owners and Managers Association's Go Green, as well as greater environmental awareness, there's now a market for a plethora of construction materials. Concrete, carpet, drywall, metal, porcelain, tile, insulation, ceiling tile, and some wood can be diverted from landfills and put to another use.

Calgary's Alberta Demolition Ltd. has salvage and recovery down to a science. The company approaches every demolition job as a deconstruction project whether the owner requests green demolition or not.

Deconstruction is done in stages, with each recyclable material sorted on site and removed for reuse, resale, or recycling. On a recent project, the company was able to divert 96 per cent of the materials from landfills.

"We've got the processes and training in place so it's standard mode of operation for us," explains Laura Asbury-Cates, vice-president, Alberta Demolition, adding that environmentally sustainable deconstruction doesn't have to take longer or cost more than straight demolition. Alberta Demolition routinely wins what Asbury-Cates terms "regular demolition jobs."

"And when we win the jobs, which we do quite often, it's based on price, which proves we can do it in at least the same amount of time and if not for the same money, then less money," she says. "And there's the bonus of recycling."

About 25 per cent of Alberta Demolition's clients request salvage and recovery for either reuse or recycling, a figure that Asbury thinks is partly due to the belief that recycling costs more.


While salvage and recovery can take longer-Ciarla reports that the York project took several months longer than if it was simply being demolished-recovering the value in the materials can make up for higher costs. Consequently, the role of the demolition contractor has evolved to include client education on the benefits of salvage.

"We're now able to educate a lot of our clients to show them there is some value in this material," Ciarla says.

Hazco is increasingly invited in by clients and architects at an early stage in the project to advise on what can be reused and recycled.

High profile projects such as The Bow play a significant role in showing developers, designers and the construction industry what's possible when old buildings are viewed in a new way. And as our cities evolve, reuse of buildings and building stock will become increasingly important.

"One of the biggest challenges we're going to have is what to do with our existing building stock," Jefferies warns.

"It's fine to be designing LEED or really great buildings now, but what about the dog across the street that's sucking energy and looks like crap? Are we just going to wreck it?"

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