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The Future Is in Commercial Building Materials

Published on: Mar 01, 2022

When TRP launched some 30 years ago, I didn’t give a thought to commercial building materials. Eleven years later, after deconstructing elaborate sets from the final two Matrix movies, I still don’t remember considering commercial, and the same goes for the 20,000 square-foot commercial building at Northstar Ski Resort, which we completed two years later. Since that time, TRP has received a modest quantity of commercial materials from another company, Deconstruction and Reuse Network.

Still, in light of various deconstruction ordinances, and after conducting several webinars on deconstruction, building-materials salvage, Life Cycle Analysis and embodied energy, I’ve concluded that the future of salvaged building materials resides squarely in the commercial sector.

While the reasons are easy to explain, the path is torturous. With residential deconstruction, the cost of starting a deconstruction contracting company was, and still is, relatively insignificant. In hindsight, even the cost of starting a residential building-materials retail distribution center is not terribly consequential. Becoming a commercial deconstruction contractor is a bit more challenging. But the distribution of the commercial materials, when fully and properly executed, is truly daunting and will require tens of millions of dollars. Mr. Bezos, where are you?

Presently, several developments are encouraging commercial deconstruction.

First, over the past 30-plus years, customers have awakened to the benefits of buying and installing used materials: they are less expensive and usually of high quality, public interest in history, historic preservation and adaptive reuse is increasing, recent supply-chain shortages have put a crimp in the availability of new materials, and consumers are realizing that reusable materials are often better than new or recycled.

Second, many commercial materials, including lighting, cabinetry, carpet tiles and doors, are highly marketable in residential reuse.

Third, there’s demand everywhere for lumber and bricks.

Fourth, unlike the old days when we had to scrounge and dumpster-dive for enough materials to satisfy daily residential demand, today’s commercial projects yield abundant supplies.

At least 15 municipalities have deconstruction ordinances, or are in the process of enacting them. While 30 years ago such ordinances were unheard of, today we pretty much expect them. So, a lot less creativity is required to understand and accept salvaged commercial materials when we demolish, renovate, remodel or rebuild.

Managing the supply of used commercial materials is in itself a huge hurdle, and consumer demand can get fussy. There are approximately 10 to 15 doors in a single-family residence and 500 in a medium-sized office building. Suppose a buyer is looking for 543 identical doors and we only have 500. Since the buyer can’t find the other 43, they pass on the 500. Well, at least we have a ready supply in inventory.

But what do we do with the doors, store them? Where? What about code changes for fire rating, panic hardware or steel frames? How does a seller catalog the myriad specifications required by the commercial buyer? Ah, and don’t forget warranties.

Problems of logistics and specifications are numerous, but to paraphrase my favorite midcentury cartoon character, Pogo, “We have met the future and it is here.”

I love challenges.