On the trail of residential construction waste | Digitized House

On the trail of residential construction waste

On the trail of residential construction waste
On the trail of residential construction waste

In a futureworld, sustainability-optimized construction site, your builder uses a high-tech robotic saw that automatically embeds recyclable RFID tags into each piece of lumber as it is cut to size, such that the on-site construction management network can be informed precisely how much of each board was installed versus how much, if anything, was discarded to the recycling bin. At the end of the day, you look at an app on your smartphone and view at a glance how efficiently the builder has been managing the use of building materials through a cumulative material utilization and recycling metric.

construction waste management
Residential construction waste management can be a dirty business. How is your builder planning to minimize the creation of construction waste, and how will the excess be recycled or reused?

Unfortunately, the day has not dawned when every building component has a digitized history of its life within or beyond the walls of your new home, replete with a cradle-to-grave audit trail. Until that day arrives, we will need lower-tech methods to find out how much of our hard-earned construction budget is getting tossed away in discarded materials. And the best way to start down that path is to ask a prospective builder how he is planning to minimize the creation of construction waste, and just as importantly, how the excess will be recycled or reused.

Get with the program

LEED for homes
Getting your home rated through a recognized green building certification program can be a forcing function for effective construction waste management. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED v4 program awards up to 3 points in its Construction Waste Management category.

If you are considering building a sustainable or zero net energy home that will be evaluated and rated by using one of the recognized green home certification programs—such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program or the Austin Energy Green Building (AEGB) program—then you are probably already on the right trail, as most of these systems will have a portion of their numerical scoring based on the efficiency related to recycling or reusing materials and resources.

Ideally, you will want to seek architects, builders, or design-build firms fluent in what it takes to plan, design, and construct homes to meet the desired level of certification through the respective rating system. In the case of LEED for homes, that can include working to achieve the base level of Certified, or striving for the higher levels of Silver, Gold, or Platinum. For the AEGB program, where the certifications are done on a star rating system, your goals can range from the base level of 1 star to the maximum of 5 stars.

As part of the LEED v4 certification, where a residence can earn a maximum of 110 points, there are 3 points to be earned on the construction waste management (CWM) metric. According to the USGBC LEED v4 Homes and Multifamily Midrise reference amended in January 2016, the intent of this metric is “To reduce construction waste generation and to reuse and recycle debris,” and furthermore, to “…Divert from landfills and incinerators a large proportion of the waste generated from new construction.” To earn the full 3 points, the project must reduce the amount of waste by 60% over the somewhat complex LEED baseline parameters as published in the reference.

construction waste management
In the Austin Energy Green Building certification program, points can be also be earned in the construction waste management category. Like most green building programs, verifiable documentation is a requirement.

Similarly, in the AEGB system—where rated homes must meet all of the standards set in the Basic Requirements section to earn a 1-star rating and can be awarded additional points to progressively rise to the 2-star through 5-star ratings—a maximum of 3 points can be earned in the CWM category. For projects meeting or exceeding 50% of waste recycled or reused, the full 3 points can be awarded.

Ask and you shall receive

How can you be confident your builder is actually performing to the letter of the green builder program on managing construction waste? As part of the certification process, which is typically overseen by a staffer of the respective rating system, the builder is required to provide verifiable documentation on the outcomes of the recycling or reuse process. As the homeowner, you could presumably ask to see that documentation. But there is no substitute for getting the information you need first-hand by entering the hardhat zone, so we would suggest that you schedule a walk around the construction site with your builder so you can see the CWM process in motion.

construction waste management dumpster
Large green dumpsters, or so-called roll-offs, are commonplace around construction sites. Was this dumpster headed straight to the landfill, or was it destined for processing at a recycling facility? Only your builder knows for sure.

Other indicators as to the builder’s level of commitment to managing construction waste can be found in the various types of dumpsters and recycling bins which may be visible around the site. In a recent visit to a large residential development where production homes were under construction, we noticed a large green dumpster, or so-called roll-off, filled to the brim with not only the expected excess building materials and cardboard packaging, but bags of trash, lawn trimmings, and other debris. So was that boat-sized metal dumpster—located next to a nearly-completed home—headed straight to the landfill, or was it destined for transfer to an intermediate facility where it would be emptied and properly sorted into recyclable versus landfill-bound materials? We don’t know the answer to that. But only by asking your builder about this process will you know what to expect on your specific build.

construction waste management dumpster
The presence of smaller, site-built wooden recycling bins can be an indicator that a builder is practicing effective construction waste management. In this case, a 4-foot tall wooden bin also encourages construction workers to reuse materials that would otherwise get recycled or sent to a landfill.

By contrast, builders striving to excel on CWM may elect to use a dedicated construction waste contractor. Again there are no absolute indicators, but if you see a construction site outfitted with a number of smaller, site-built wooden recycling bins, the likelihood of excess materials getting properly recycled or reused is much higher. In these scenarios, the contractor may visit the site on a scheduled weekly or monthly basis to empty the bins, pre-sort the contents, and then process them in the most sustainably-responsible manner. And as a final step, they will deliver solid documentation to feed into the green certification process.

construction waste management truck
For this build, a construction waste management company was hired to regularly visit the site to sort through the recycling bins, process the materials, and deliver documentation.

But even if you are not planning to formally comply with any of the green building certification programs in your new home construction or remodel project, it still pays to ask the right questions around how construction waste will be handled before choosing a builder. Doing so just makes good sense, and can lead to signing on with the right builder who can help reduce your overall construction cost while enabling a higher degree of sustainability for your build.

construction waste management
A construction waste management company separated these aluminum cans and pieces of wire from construction materials before hauling everything to a recycling center.

It’s your money and your environmental footprint

Someday, there may be an app that delivers real-time, finely-grained metrics on your new home’s compliance related to holistic CWM and environmental responsibility.

Until that time, in order to hedge your bets we suggest you follow the trail of money—it is your money on the line, after all—and pose a few constructive questions on CWM as you interview prospective builders. Doing so can help you unearth a builder with an effective strategy to minimize the production of construction waste, maximize the recycling and reuse of any truly excess materials, and potentially reduce the size of your construction budget. That’s a win-win-win in our playbook.

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More info about this topic:
U.S. Green Building Council LEED program
U.S. Green Building Council LEED v4 Homes and Multifamily Midrise reference
Austin Energy Green Building program
Austin Energy Green Building 2013 Single Family Rating guidebook


Tom Kolnowski

Tom Kolnowski is the Chief Content Officer & Founder of Digitized House Media, LLC, the publisher of Digitized House | Guide to the Connected Home. When he isn’t writing about smart home technology, sustainability, and high-performance architecture, you’ll find him exploring faraway destinations with his family.
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On the trail of residential construction waste

by Tom Kolnowski

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