How to Salvage Building Materials: 5 Tips

Ready to turn some "trash" into treasure?

Brick from salvaged chimney

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Reclaimed or salvaged building materials come from development projects or buildings that have been deconstructed, demolished, or remodeled. Salvaged building materials can also be sourced from the excess construction material of building sites to reuse in other projects.

For builders or DIYers, incorporating these reclaimed construction materials into projects is better for the planet and more financially responsible—since building out of all new materials can be expensive. Plus, recycled building materials often come with a unique history or one-of-a-kind appearance that adds a special touch to your project.

Read on to learn some tips and tricks on how to recycle, reuse, and salvage building materials.

Did You Know?

Reusing old wood, windows, metal, brick, and even concrete seems like a no-brainer (even some animals recycle used materials!), but it sadly doesn't happen as often as it should. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, between 230 million and 530 million tons of construction and demolition waste are produced yearly in the United States.

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Determine Your Region's Best Practices

Building materials at a scrap yard

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Before finding salvage materials for your project, check your local Builders' Associate and your state or provincial environmental agency for information on your region's best practices. These organizations can help you plan your project and also help ensure that your project adheres to the local government regulations.

If you receive clearance to demolish part or all of a building, deconstruct it first to remove all salvageable items as early on in the project as possible. Then, separate all the different types of debris into categories to keep everything organized (wood, metal, concrete, etc.).

Treehugger Tip

If the deconstruction process is new to you, hire a skilled crew to remove difficult items like cabinets, appliances, drywall, or other reusable products.

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Source Your Materials

Organized stacks of salvaged hardwood

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Habitat for Humanity ReStores, a nonprofit donation center that sells used furniture, building material, and more at reasonable prices, is one of the best places to start. Even better, the money they make will go toward building affordable housing for people in your community and worldwide. Also, check to see if your neighborhood has a Freecycle account—it's a nonprofit focused on connecting residents of the same town to exchange free, gently used building materials to keep as much out of landfills as possible.

For wood and wood products in North America, look towards ReuseWood.org, a reuse and recycling directory organized by the American Wood Council, Canadian Wood Council, and the Building Materials Reuse Association.

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Get Creative

Architectural salvage yard

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Not everyone has access to resources like Freecycle and Habitat for Humanity ReStore, so sometimes it's necessary to look in more unconventional places.

Craigslist is a surprisingly great resource for materials like wood, bricks, flooring, roofing, and furniture that are either being resold or given away for free. Similarly, check your local neighborhood's Nextdoor page for postings about available reclaimed materials.

Of course, you can always go straight to the source by calling contractors in your area to ask if they can set aside reusable materials during their next tear-down or home remodel project. Try asking neighbors, friends, and family working on their own large remodeling projects if you can hunt through their construction waste—but again, be sure to research your local regulations and policies beforehand.

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Look Early (and Often)

Stacks of reclaimed doors

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Once you're ready to start looking for reclaimed building materials, think of it like thrift or antique shopping. Since stock changes daily depending on what's available, salvage building materials are typically limited. Start looking as soon as possible and think outside the box. Reclaimed floor material, for example, can serve multiple purposes, such as doors or tables.

Once you've discovered some treasures, don't be afraid to take advantage of good opportunities. Remember, there's no guarantee that the item will be there tomorrow—and there's a good chance it could end up in the trash if you don't take it home.

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Take the Proper Precautions

Rusty metal pipes and beams at construction site

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Sourcing and utilizing salvaged building materials doesn't come without its hazards. Keep in mind that all reclaimed materials used in structural support should always be inspected by a qualified professional to ensure it's safe to use. The same goes for salvaged bricks, which should also be tested for durability.

Salvaged materials from older buildings might contain hazardous components, such as asbestos or lead, and must also be assessed by a qualified professional when presence is suspected. Electrical appliances and old light fixtures may also contain hazardous materials such as mercury or have damage due to faulty wiring.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Are recycled construction materials cheaper?

    In general, using repurposed building materials rather than those made from scratch is typically cheaper than buying new ones. The cost of recycled and reclaimed building materials may vary depending on their age (such as items that are considered antique) and quality.

  • What are the environmental concerns of salvaged building materials?

    According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a small percentage of construction materials may be harmful to the environment if improperly managed, such as asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and lead.

  • Where can I recycle building materials?

    Before planning any home renovation, construction, or deconstruction projects, take some time to plan where to dispose of the waste you'll produce. Most construction waste will be too large and heavy for curbside programs, so opt instead for an on-site dumpster through a company like Waste Management's Bagster, and ask about the recycling options when you order. Use the recycling locator from Earth911 to find out where to recycle construction waste locally.