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Scrapping together a much-needed primer

Architectural reuse certainly seems to capture the public’s imagination. When Public Architecture led the design team to build “ScrapHouse” in front of San Francisco’s City Hall in 2005, more than 10,000 people came to tour it during the four days it was open.


ScrapHouse, designed by Public Architecture. Photograph by Cesar Rubio.

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“The house was made completely out of junk. Nails and screws were the only things that weren’t scrap,” says Liz Ogbu, associate design director at Public Architecture. “Even though it doesn’t exist anymore, ScrapHouse remains one of our more popular projects.”

Based on this success, Public Architecture was invited to collaborate on the development of a new community center and headquarters for the nonprofit Technology Access Foundation in King County, Washington. The hope was to again create a building prominently featuring salvaged materials, and Ogbu says the firm was “excited about exploring architectural reuse on a bigger scale and in something permanent.” With a commitment to ensuring that the reuse components wouldn’t be more expensive than conventional construction, Public Architecture kicked off the design process with project architect The Miller Hull Partnership.

However, the team quickly ran into roadblocks.

“One of things we found is that while the salvage market works OK for residential construction, it doesn’t work so great for commercial construction,” recalls Ogbu. “Although we’d done this kind of build on a smaller scale, it was like we were trying to reinvent the wheel.”

She found that she had to catch contractors just as they were undertaking an improvement project if she was to source salvaged commercial building materials at all. “For the most part, it is cheaper for contractors to take those materials to the dump and to pay the tipping fee than to find a place for them to go,” explains Ogbu. “And a lot of salvage businesses do not carry the scale needed for commercial projects because they don’t see a lot of those kinds of clients and can’t justify setting that kind of space aside for those materials.”

Ogbu says that compounding those problems was that it was difficult to find examples of how people had successfully used salvage at a commercial scale. “The information is out there but not in a format that’s easily accessible,” she says.

Ultimately, the Technology Access Foundation’s building was designed to include an exterior of salvaged-wood composite panels, a pedestrian bridge made from timber joists from a former public-housing project nearby, office partitions finished with salvaged fire hose instead of Sheetrock and salvaged wood flooring in the conference rooms. The project is scheduled to break ground this summer. Its challenging design process will have a legacy beyond the building itself, thanks to a $10,000 BSA Research in Architecture grant.

Ogbu, Brad Leibin and Cali Pfaff of Public Architecture, and several volunteers are using the BSA grant in conjunction with $15,000 from The Adobe Foundation to create the Design for Reuse Knowledge Exchange (Designforreuse.org), an online knowledge exchange providing insight on how material reuse can work at a commercial scale.

The web portal builds off the Design for Reuse Primer, an electronic publication that Public Architecture released last fall with the support of a USGBC research grant. The primer, which is now available online through this knowledge exchange, will be supplemented with more content over the coming year. This will include additional project case studies and profiles, knowledge-based essays from building professionals and local officials experienced in working with salvaged materials, and lists of resources.

“Material reuse seems foreign. No one really talks about how to spec it, and there’s no standardization,” she says. “But we can help make material reuse become as common as recycling by increasing the construction industry’s knowledge of how to handle both its opportunities and challenges.”


Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers science, nature, animal issues, travel, food and passionate people for acclaimed publications such as Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine, Wired.com and the Boston Globe. Her website is www.genevieverajewski.com.

Top image: “ScrapHouse,” designed by Public Architecture. Photograph by Cesar Rubio.