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From the Field

The Spectacle of Reuse: Recirculating Urban Salvage at Pittsburgh’s Construction Junction

Susan M. Ross examines a building-materials reuse center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, arguing that it is an important space for encouraging the reuse of materials, revealing material flows that are usually hidden, and promoting local social good.

Series: Urban Wastes, Present and Future

Urban salvage yards play an important role in recirculating materials by encouraging building-materials recovery, repair, and reuse (Ghyoot et al. 2018). This article examines Construction Junction, a building-materials reuse center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The site’s role has expanded through partnerships with grassroots players to include community engagement and skills training for those with employment challenges, thereby addressing gaps in professional development. Construction Junction demonstrates how the building deconstruction and salvage industry can foster an urban culture of repair and reuse by facilitating community access to low-cost, often high-quality materials, and displays the reuse potential of salvaged materials. The Junction is therefore a model site and sight for building-materials exchange. The Junction’s role as a site—a space where the distinct character of Pittsburgh’s built legacies informs new material uses while addressing complex histories of extraction, production, and destruction—also makes it critical as a sight for revealing hidden material flows and providing environmental education to a broad, public audience. Connecting site with sight expands the environmental impacts of materials reuse, amplifying the significance of architectural salvage and linking materials that matter locally with bigger patterns of material movement (Hutton 2020).

The discarded materials from building demolitions and renovations—or construction, demolition and renovation (CRD) waste—are accumulating in close step with rapid urban development in North American cities. [1] As demolitions that destroy, gut, or skin buildings accelerate, the reuse of reclaimed building materials is key to countering the demand for raw materials for new construction and the impacts of landfill (OECD 2018). The vast majority of reclaimed CRD materials are not reused but rather recycled, breaking down their materials for remanufacturing, and wasting embodied effects of earlier transformations and uses (USEPA 2012). Even in the EU, where the circular economy and integrated waste management have stronger footholds in the construction industry than in the USA, as little as 1% of reclaimed CRD materials are reused (Rotor/Interreg North-West Europe 2018). Though environmentally sensible, reusing CRD materials has its own, largely institutional, complexity. Each stage of taking a building apart for its materials—from deconstruction, to salvage, and finally reuse—has its own players, opportunities, and challenges (Addis 2006). Municipal ordinances requiring building deconstruction are emerging, and there is increasing interest in materials reuse design (Place Economics 2021; Gorgolewski 2018). The middle “salvage” stage, where materials are sorted, assessed, inventoried, possibly repaired, and hopefully sold for reuse, is critical to scaling up reuse.

The locations, business models, and societal impacts of these transactional sites for salvaged building materials will become even more critical as cities redefine their built inheritance as “urban mines” or quarries of anthropogenic stock (IOP 2019). Places and platforms that promote parallel objectives to materials reuse (notably training and the employment of trades and designers in historic materials’ repair and adaptation) and wider public education goals expand the critical roles of waste management. Landscape designer Mira Engler identified value in “urban-reuse social programmers”—organizations equally focused on the wise use of waste resources, creating jobs, and targeting urban communities with fewer resources—that make the environmental agenda more relevant (Engler 2004). Although reuse centers in the USA may not (yet) have a major impact on the diversion of materials from landfill, they can play important educational roles by building public awareness. As Engler explained, places supporting reuse also create important public hubs and community gathering centers. Such sites are therefore also important as sights, exhibiting alternate journeys for material discards, and connecting decisions about building-materials use and reuse decisions to the broader impacts of urban material cycles of consumption, waste, and inequities (Straw 2010; Pollans 2021).

Figure 1. Construction Junction’s scale and diversity of offerings, including vintage toilets in good condition

© Susan M. Ross.

Pittsburgh’s Construction Junction materials-reuse center and community hub

The city of Pittsburgh’s industrial and environmental history is important to consider in framing architectural salvage as part of environmental and social repair (Tarr 2002). Steel manufactured in Pittsburgh built cities across the continent—skyscrapers, bridges, and hidden infrastructure (Hutton 2020). While known as Steel City, Pittsburgh also produced aluminum, glass, and paint. The city’s history also includes massive demolitions; many areas of Pittsburgh are still recovering from urban renewal and postindustrial shrinkage. The city has thus produced mountains of CRD waste, in addition to the materials that urbanized the continent. The city is weaving these two legacies together in a new municipal policy for building deconstruction, which addresses an inventory of around 1,700 buildings it expects to “tear down”—but this time with awareness of the need for equitable redistribution of embedded resources, alongside job creation and skills training (Davidson 2021).

The symbolism of steel adds value to Construction Junction’s adaptive reuse of the steel structure that once housed a city bus repair garage—and to many other elements of how the Junction’s site also serves as a demonstration sight. Started in 1999 by the state of Pennsylvania’s Resources Council, the Junction is one of the oldest of approximately 1,500 reuse centres in the USA (USEPA 2012). This not-for-profit center for salvaged and surplus building materials, appliances, and furniture is now run by an independent board of governors, with up to 33 staff, including a three-person deconstruction unit. All materials and other secondhand goods are acquired at no cost, by donation or through their own pickup and deconstruction services. The Junction’s annual sales of US$2.3 million account for 90% of the income needed to pay for a long-term lease, salaries, and other operating expenses. A major annual fundraising event, which also serves as an opportunity to engage with and expand the community of users, raises the difference. [2]

Connecting reuse to making materials more affordable and creating skilled labor is key to the nonprofit organization’s work. According to the Junction website, recycling and reuse generate nearly twice as many jobs as disposal per ton of diverted materials. An evolving array of partnerships developed over decades help support the organization’s social objectives. A combination of resale, redesign, training, social enterprise, and charity covers a range of economic, cultural, and environmental approaches to reuse. This includes a dedicated job-training program carried out together with Goodwill, employing people with disabilities; and a large reuse laboratory called Project‑Re, which partners with Carnegie Mellon University to educate architects for reuse and with the Pittsburgh Trades Institute to train formerly incarcerated individuals. They also lease space to many other organizations, bringing together community needs and reuse—from art supplies to computers and bicycles. The Junction’s role as a site of physical-materials reuse thus helps reframe the sight of materials-reuse possibilities through increased access and education.

Site-specific opportunities of location and scale

Historically, sites of salvage have occupied liminal locations, reflecting the need for space, but also the negative associations with metal scrapyards and postindustrial “wastelands” (Lynch 1990). Dissociating themselves from junkyards, pawn shops, or flea markets, building materials reuse centers are now often called hubs, junctions, societies, and other names indicative of placemaking and community-building (Build Reuse 2022). Construction Junction’s location, site, and building reflect its objectives. Reusing an existing building was important, as was the need to be in an older urban residential neighbourhood. The 9,000 m² (97,000 sq. ft.) enterprise is in North Point Breeze, a centrally located historic neighborhood, with highway access. The building is a 76‑meter‑long (250‑foot‑long), brick-clad, skylit warehouse, which is perfect for display and workshops. An equally large delivery, parking, and pickup yard bridges older residential streets and light commercial areas.

The large scale of building and site provide substantial space both indoors and out for storage, sorting, and display. The generous site also facilitates collaboration, providing space for joint activities and subletting to partners. Construction Junction makes good use of the high ceilings and connected open spaces; the atmosphere of exchange in the well-lit, oversized warehouse feels as much like a Crystal Palace as a builder’s yard. Integrated among endless rows of doors, toilets, and cabinets, sculptural assemblages made of discards inspire visitors to creative reuse possibilities. Works by local artists remind Steel City citizens that tin cans are close cousins to steel sinks and beams, helping refocus the values of locally significant materials towards transformative futures. The design of Construction Junction’s space makes discarded materials more visible. This helps to reintroduce these materials into the economy, showcasing information about specific material qualities and quantities while welcoming people into processes that are usually hidden.

Digital inventories and social media to foster reuse and storytelling

The visibility that the Junction provides can also be related to how such sites/sights of exchange can be places that foster the parallel retention and reinvention of the values of historic building materials (Ross 2020). Commodification risks detaching materials from their histories. Some value is retained as a story, called provenance if it adds to resale value. The internet, as both a site and a sight, further connects materials, places, and stories. New types of digital inventories, combined with the increasing use of social media to facilitate reuse, may be one way to address possible loss of meanings as part of reuse. Through thoughtful social-media campaigns, the Junction tells stories and creates communities around shared values of reuse. An Instagram gallery of reuse projects is generated as part of an annual competition. Other stories track the deconstruction process and fate of a source building.

The scale of the Junction’s operations led it to develop Reuse Retail. This tablet-based inventory-tracking platform fills a critical void in the industry’s ability to comprehensively manage donated building materials. They now sell licenses to this system, with “packages” geared to nonprofits. Such tools will also produce the data needed for deconstruction, salvage, and reuse policy development. As communities embrace local sites/sights of exchange, their potential is further expanded by both collaboration in larger networks of materials mobility and trade, and the information exchange possible on digital platforms. Opalis, for example, an online platform which shares information on over 500 materials resellers in three EU countries, demonstrates how collaborative digital networks can further develop materials exchange for reuse. Recognizing the specific roles and networks of the actors and organizations in places of materials exchange is key to developing comprehensive strategies to sustain and transform values through reuse. As governments consider new policies for circular flows of construction waste, the Junction model helps explain and demonstrate the physical infrastructure, digital tools, and skills training needed to develop repair and reuse activities.

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To cite this article:

Susan M. Ross, “The Spectacle of Reuse: Recirculating Urban Salvage at Pittsburgh’s Construction Junction”, Metropolitics, 16 May 2022. URL : https://metropolitics.org/The-Spectacle-of-Reuse-Recirculating-Urban-Salvage-at-Pittsburgh-s-Construction.html

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