Transforming Demolition Waste into Community Wealth

Posted on: June 11th, 2014 by Special Contributor 2 Comments

This is part of a series exploring the Field Studies at the 2014 National Preservation Conference, PastForward, Savannah, Georgia, Nov. 11-14. We’ll look at the organizations behind the Field Studies, as well as the Field Study itself and what participants should expect. Registration for PastForward and the Field Studies will open July 1. For more information on PastForward and other Field Studies, visit

By Scott Boylston

Buildings that represent something of our human experience are often endowed with special meaning. This is true both on a cultural and an individual level. We hold the same reverence for certain objects: a grandfather’s watch, a child’s first spoon, an otherwise worthless trinket from a place visited long ago. But what happens when the remnants of buildings are designated as unworthy of preservation? Are they worthless because they lack historic value? We aim to prove otherwise.

Emergent Structures is a Savannah-based nonprofit organization that seeks creative ways to reuse waste from construction and demolition projects. In doing so, we demonstrate the economic, ecological and social value of unwanted building remnants, no matter how old or new they might be, no matter how whole or fragmented. There is significant economic value to the bricks and boards we reclaim, but there is also a rich, historic value. To highlight that historic value, we create plaques for each new building we construct from the reclaimed materials. The plaques tell the story of these previously ignored materials, calling attention to the journey we’ve shared over time.

A Comprehensive National Strategy for Transforming C+D Waste into Local Wealth

An outdoor classroom at Shuman Elementary was constructed from over 90 C+D waste, including material donated by two “materialanthropists”. | Courtesy of Emergent Structures

An outdoor classroom at Shuman Elementary was constructed from over 90 percent C+D waste, including material donated by two “materialanthropists.” | Courtesy of Emergent Structures

Cities worldwide manage local resources such as their local waterways or scenic coastline in ways that accrue economic value for their community. Our belief is that construction and demolition (C+D) waste streams embody the same potential. Unlike regional resources, however, C+D waste is available to every single city on the planet. In fact, with more than 86 million tons of C+D waste generated every year in the United States alone, there are countless ways to generate equitable economic opportunities by tapping into the underappreciated value of these materials.

Many times the planning for C+D waste management in traditional redevelopment projects begins too late in the process, and is reactive rather than strategic. Emergent Structures has developed an approach that engages industries directly related to the C+D process at the earliest stages and provides an incentive for these industries to rethink their practices about C+D waste management.

Emergent Structures at PastForward

Participants at the National Preservation Conference can learn more about Emergent Structures as well as our “Materialanthrophy” program during a Field Study on Friday, November 14. Materialanthrophy is designed to celebrate people who open their doors to our organization so that we can deconstruct and reclaim materials from their houses, then steward those materials directly into projects that serve the surrounding community.

The soon-to-be completed E.34 Greenhouse is made from over 5 C+D waste streams, and will house a vocational education program. | Courtesy of Emergent Structures

The soon-to-be completed E.34 Greenhouse is made from more than five C+D waste streams, and will house a vocational education program. | Courtesy of Emergent Structures

The Field Study will begin at a house on E. Jones Street built in 1866. Many of the original interior features were stripped from the house in a misguided renovation during the 1970s, and the walls and ceilings were covered with red cedar and yellow pine. In 2009 the new owners invited Emergent Structures to reclaim this material in order to make way for a historic restoration.

Since that day, the house on E. Jones Street has become a training ground for deconstruction and reclaimed material preparation; its reclaimed materials have gone to more than two dozen community projects throughout Savannah. Tour participants will have the chance to visit several of these sites—a greenhouse, outdoor classroom, and garden—where materials reclaimed from this house have played a major role in the creation of beautiful structures that serve the community.

As the materials reclaimed from this house wend their way into more projects around Savannah, the rich narrative of these Materialanthropists’ generosity becomes more compelling. A history of giving has been established, and the stories of the homeowners who have donated materials from a house renovation that could have otherwise ended up in a landfill can be told.

Scott Boylston is president of Emergent Structures.

PastForward Field Studies take attendees into the community to visit preservation success stories, confront on-the-ground challenges, and explore the region’s unique historic legacy while interacting with local residents and business owners.

For more information on 2014 PastForward, the National Preservation Conference, including details on programming, registration and other Field Studies, visit

The 2014 National Preservation Conference, PastForward, is brought to you by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in collaboration with SCAD: The Savannah College of Art and Design and in partnership with the Historic Savannah Foundation.


2 Responses


    June 13, 2014

    Good Article!!!

  2. Margaret Betz

    June 13, 2014

    Nice reminder of how important this work is for the planet. I signed up for conference info, and will be there Nov.14.