By Elsa Rintala and Jenni Särmä
Reclaiming building components from demolition sites and making them available for reuse has clear environmental benefits, including reducing the amount of waste generated, and preserving energy and resources required for recycling or making new products. It’s not practical or possible to reuse everything, but there are undoubtedly significant opportunities to reuse components.
At Helsinki Area Reuse Centre we prioritise items that are easy to disassemble or are freely movable from the site, such as doors with frames, lamps and refrigerators. Through CIRCuIT, we’ve been exploring how to upscale the uptake of reclaimed components from demolition sites by property owners in Helsinki. Here we present the findings from our trials and offer our recommendations for best practice.
Site audits and process management
Auditing the pre-demolition sites provides valuable information to plan the process of transportation, selling and organising storage. The efficient handling of the audit data in shared files is important. During the audit, items of interest are listed, photographed, and sometimes tagged with stickers. The data helps with marketing and the photos are useful for making webstore product entries.
Disassembly and transportation
Unless reuse is specifically defined in contracts, contractors and the teams responsible for disassembly and logistics aren’t motivated to ensure items are disassembled in good condition. There are also damage risks from handling and transport since the components don’t have protective packaging, while the diversity of shapes or sizes can make optimal use of storage space difficult. One way of tackling this is to sell items directly from sites.
We found that reuse was most successful when it was planned early and components were reclaimed prior to demolition commencing. This should be done directly after the building has been emptied to avoid vandalism, destruction and vanishing components. However, because contractors won’t yet be active at the site, someone will be required to be on site for auditors and the disassembly/transport team.
Sites can have issues with harmful substances such as indoor microbes or asbestos, but these are usually known about beforehand. Safety challenges can be addressed through a pre-demolition audit. Electrical appliances must be checked by a professional before they can be sold or given away. Normally this is done at the Reuse Centre’s workshops since electricity is often cut off at the pre-demolition sites.
Diversity of sites and building components
Each site is different, which makes reuse an interesting treasure hunt. A pre-demolition audit helps identify valuable products and estimated timescales for the job. All building components must also be checked manually prior to resale, which can make the overall process quite labour-intensive.
Costs vs. benefits
Component reuse can require more resources for the site owner than simply demolishing everything and having the remnants sorted to recycling, energy production and landfill. Costs include organising the pre-demolition audit, contacting the reuse operator and potential transportation fees.
Benefits for the site owner include building a reputation as a sustainable operator, due to the saved CO2 emissions and natural resources from reuse. These environmental savings must be made visible to the public by the site owner. One way to do this is for the reuse operator to give reliable calculations of these savings as part of their service. Reuse will only continue to grow in importance, therefore it is wise for all construction operators to prepare for it.
Helsinki Area Reuse Centre currently operates 10 shops and a webstore in Helsinki. During the project we organised an on-site sales event, which included selling items both online and off-line.
Off-line selling A one-day event where all sales were made and many of the items were given away for free. Customers were allowed to disassemble small items by themselves. Helsinki Area Reuse Centre calculated 20,000 kilos of CO2 emissions were saved during the one-day event.
Online selling The items were sold online via the Reuse Centre’s webstore, stating that items had to be retrieved directly from the site during a given timeframe. The calculated CO2 emission savings were 7,300 kilos.
Donating building components items to a reuse operator based on a pre-demolition audit continues to be the most effective operating model for us.
There are clear tangible sustainability benefits to reusing building components, and reuse is integral to improving circularity in the built environment, but there are still practicability challenges to overcome to upscale reclaiming and reusing building components as common practice.
The key barriers include ensuring items are disassembled and transported in good condition, accounting for the additional resources required, and associated costs.
Pre-auditing the demolition sites is integral to the process for determining the best components for reuse, as well as identifying potential safety issues, alongside suitable transportation and selling options.
Before accepting items for collection, reuse centres should take into consideration the sales potential of items and the current available storage space.
Lastly, for reuse to be a viable option, it should be seen as an advantage for site owners – for example reputational benefits, CO2 savings and increasing awareness of circular economy in local communities.
Find out more about reuse opportunities in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area here (site in Finnish)