Waste not, want not: embracing material reuse in design

Thoughts from Shelter team member Jakob Mahla

Is adaptive reuse the answer?

It’s no secret that the buildings that surround us are the result of massive investments in energy, materials, and money. These investments can also come at a large cost to the environment. It’s estimated that 37% of the world’s Greenhouse Gas emissions come from the construction and operation of buildings.¹ The ongoing green revolution has continued to evolve the ways in which we approach building design towards a more sustainable future. While the systems to light, heat, and cool our buildings have greatly increased their efficiency and have seen bigger efforts to reduce the operational costs of architecture over time, the same has yet to happen in building construction.

So… what has been attempted in the world of sustainable construction? One approach has been to not build new at all, but rather to use what we already have. As Carl Elefante, in a 2007 article written for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, coins, “The greenest building is the one that is already built.”² This has become an oft-used phrase for fans of adaptive reuse, preservationists, and sustainability advocates alike. Adaptive reuse, a term for the process of retrofitting or adding onto existing buildings rather than demolishing and putting up new ones in their place, tackles some of the challenges of carbon emissions in the construction process. The overarching idea is that existing buildings have already been “paid for” as the carbon used in the extraction, transportation, and refinement of materials already exists in the world. By using what we already have, we aren’t generating construction emissions to the same extent that a new building would.

However, adaptive reuse still requires some new materials, each coming with its own environmental footprint. While we do our best as designers to source materials with the lowest environmental impact and limit those with more substantial emissions, we still end up having to pay some amount of carbon-based price. With these considerations in mind, the question then arises: What if we took the same approach with the re-use of buildings as we do with the materials that we make them from?


Material reuse in action at the Minneapolis Art Shanties

Material reuse in architecture has found fringe applications in new construction, but widespread use has yet to be fully explored. This past winter, myself, along with Madelyn Gulon, Marshall King, and Derek Ronding explored this topic, pushing material reuse to its limits using our architectural backgrounds and construction abilities to build a shanty for the 2024 Art Shanties Project. Our team’s goal: Create an interactive structure made up of entirely reused materials.

The team implemented a slightly different design process than what we’d normally been accustomed to. Rather than creating the fully formed idea prior to building the structure, we had to center the process around what materials we could salvage – essentially designing and constructing as we went. For months, we trekked across the Twin Cities gathering donated and discarded materials from friends, family, and coworkers, visiting construction sites, and responding to the occasional Facebook Marketplace offers of ‘free wood’. Some of the materials gathered included bed frames, pallets, decking and floor joists, chain link fences, and sail cloth among other items once considered waste.

The team’s collected stash of wood.
Pre-existing paint from wood scraps added color to the structure.

From there, the crew tested out a variety of materials and construction ideas to gameplan how these discarded items could be re-designed to create some kind of enclosed structure. What challenged us was not having typical materials, sizes, quantities, and lengths that we were accustomed to in our typical design projects. The limits of what we could do were bounded by what we could find and how we could use it. Large pieces of wood became rare commodities, a standard 8’ 2×4 that could be purchased at any Home Depot or lumber yard was near impossible to find discarded. Larger lumber had to be used sparingly, leaving us with many small scrap pieces, off cuts, and ends that had been tossed aside.

Axonometric drawing showing detail of reuse.

These smaller scraps were often combined together to create a more workable element of the structure. Short lengths sandwiched together and connected with screws and bolts made large columns that supported the main beams. Small parts from pallets, flooring, and fences were stitched together on larger frames to make the floors and walls of the structure. The hodgepodge nature of working with reused materials quickly created a quirky aesthetic. Each piece of wood and reclaimed material carried with it a unique presence, sound, and aura – one that we felt needed to be highlighted in the structure.

Elevation shot of the shanty on the ice.

Pre-existing paint on pallets brought hues of blues, red-ish pinks, and greens to the design. Colorful oranges from peeling paint off the fence, bold grays and browns from the aging and weathered wood all worked together to contrast against the dark ice canvas.

When the structure was installed on the ice, it saw thousands of visitors for the Art Shanties opening weekend in January. However, due to uncharacteristically warm weather conditions, the life of the shanty was cut short due to dangers of thinning ice. The following weekend, the structure was de-installed and put into storage with the hopes of being reused at the 2025 Art Shanties. As the year and seasons have progressed, abnormal weather has continued to impact much of Minnesota as well as the rest of the world. This was a reminder that for us as designers, we will need to factor these changing climate conditions into our work and think more critically about the impact our designs have on global warming.

The completed Reduce, Reuse, Re-Xylophone shanty out on the ice during colder conditions.


Considerations in the material reuse process

Since reuse is not yet a commonly adopted construction practice, this impacts its practical application today. While finding an antique door, funky hardware, Mid-Century fixtures or other one-of-a-kind pieces can certainly bring a level of charm and personality to a home or commercial space, going even further with reuse in construction can pose challenges, most notably including:

Availability and ability

Materials you may need or are looking for just might not be out there to be reused. It might be rare, in a landfill, or just waiting to be discovered and deconstructed from somewhere else. Additionally, not all materials can be reused. Some scraps after aging and being deinstalled just don’t meet the standards and capabilities needed to construct something new.


Deconstruction and then the processing of the deconstructed material is labor intensive and often requires more work, coordination, and cost than buying new.


Once deconstructed, materials need to be stored somewhere while awaiting reuse. Since these items are typically one-of-a-kind, they may need to remain in storage for longer periods of time before someone finds the perfect place for it in their space. Materials may be purchased and held in storage for years while awaiting construction.


Re-used materials are not covered by any sort of builder’s warranty, leaving some reused materials untouchable by builders. Most often, any damage or failure of the reused materials and potential risk are the responsibility of the owner.

Materials stored at the Better Futures MN ReUse Warehouse from various deconstruction projects around the cities.


Better Futures paving the way for material reuse in Minnesota

Re-using materials is still somewhat of a novel concept in the building industry at large scales, in part due to some of the challenges outlined above. But, there are a few companies in Minnesota who are stepping up to take on the challenge. The Shelter team had the opportunity to visit Better Futures Minnesota last summer to tour their reuse warehouse and learn about the organization’s overarching mission. Established in 2007, Better Futures Minnesota is a “non-profit social enterprise dedicated to reintegrating high-risk adults, primarily African American men, into society by providing a platform to help them succeed”.³ A primary part of its program is its social enterprise, which provides on-the-job training in deconstruction and reuse. Materials salvaged through this deconstruction work are sold in their ReUse Warehouse in Minneapolis. This process helps divert around 700 tons of building materials each year from landfills and provides necessary funds to support the nonprofit’s work.³

Shelter & Better Futures MN team members in the ReUse Warehouse.

The Better Futures staff graciously toured us through their ReUse Warehouse full of discarded lumber, cabinetry, appliances, and a plethora of other construction materials awaiting new life post-deconstruction. Better Futures strives to make deconstruction materials more accessible to the general public as reuse saves 5x the amount of carbon emissions as compared to recycling or landfilling the scraps. On average, a single home deconstruction by Better Futures offsets nearly 116 tons of carbon emissions. Organizations like Better Futures, Bauer Brothers, Art and Architecture, and LumberStash all offer deconstruction services and materials for reuse. Hennepin county additionally offers grants to help fund deconstruction and reuse projects for home and business owners.

Our team checking out the inventory in the ReUse Warehouse.
A poster in the warehouse illustrates that a typical deconstructed house offsets 116 tons of carbon.

Applications to our work at Shelter

In short, “reduce-reuse-recycle” can (and should) be applied to the way we approach design, architecture, and construction. Sustainable design is a key tenant of our work here at Shelter. We’ve helped many clients incorporate Earth-friendly designs and materials into their spaces. Material reuse is another impactful approach we can incorporate into our projects.

Reuse offers many benefits, from reducing embodied carbon to maintaining the historic qualities of a building to adding a unique touch of character to a space. While availability, processing, and storage of materials can pose challenges, organizations like Better Futures Minnesota are leading the charge in making these practices more accessible. As design professionals, contractors, homeowners, and business operators continue to explore innovative reuse solutions and advocate for environmentally conscious approaches, we can start to minimize waste and contribute positively to our planet’s health through our built environments. Balancing functionality, beauty, and sustainability is possible. Environmentally mindful design is not a new undertaking for us, but we’re passionate about exploring different approaches alongside our clients.

Interested in discussing sustainable solutions for your home or business? We’d love to chat. Send us a note.