For every 2,000 square feet of house built in the U.S. about 8,000 pounds of debris is created. The wasteful reality of the residential construction market, though, is being countered by a trend toward using recycled materials.
From Filipino fishers' nets to castoffs from coal power plants, the materials used to design your floor, roof, walls, bathtub and kitchen countertop are coming from increasingly diverse and surprising sources.
Nearly half the content in the Flor line of modular carpet tiles made by Interface in Atlanta is recycled material and all of its new products contain 100 percent recycled nylon yarns. The recycled nylon is purchased from Aquafil, a European-based producer of carpet fiber with a U.S. headquarters in Cartersville, Ga. Interface also recently piloted a program with Aquafil and the Zoological Society of London to recycle fishing nets from coastal villages in the Philippines.
"We involved partners outside the carpet business," said Chip DeGrace, executive creative director at the company, adding, "If you think broadly about design, you get a lot of creative partners around the table." Interface also implemented a technology it developed in 2007 to separate the carpet's backing from its face and reuse both components in new products.
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Thirty-five percent of the drywall National Gypsum sells now is made with synthetic gypsum—a byproduct of coal-fired power plants.
National Gypsum has built manufacturing facilities right next to power plants in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. It's a money-saver for the company and fits in with a corporate initiative to lessen its environmental footprint, said Jay Watt, marketing director for the company.
Kitchen countertops and backsplashes can also be made of recycled materials. Cosentino North America's Eco line of surfacing material is created using 75 percent recycled glass, mirror and porcelain.
The line is so popular the company just added more colors, said Lorenzo Marquez, Cosentino's vice president of marketing. "We started it in 2008, because consumers were looking towards more eco-friendly solutions for the home. And it's growing 40 percent year over year," Marquez said.
Although using recycled material often lowers costs for companies and consumers, recycled products can sometimes be more expensive. Carlisle, a company in Stoddard, N.H., specializing in wide-plank wood flooring, creates some of its most authentic-looking flooring from reclaimed barn and industrial building wood dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The wood gives rooms an historical look because of its knots, nail holes and mineral streaks. It's about twice the cost of comparable, newly sawn wood, both because of the labor-intensive processing involved and the finite supply, but revenue from sales of reclaimed flooring is up 28 percent year over year.
"You have the satisfaction of knowing that a dilapidated cow barn in Western Pennsylvania that was going to get buried by an excavator was reused and will live another 150 years in your home," said co-owner Chris Sy, adding, "When you look at it like that, the price per square foot isn't a part of the discussion."
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Metal roofing, generally comprised of 30 percent to 60 percent recycled metal, is often much pricier than traditional roofing material like asphalt shingles or clay tiles.
A roof from Mid America Metal Roofing in St. Louis is two to three times as expensive as asphalt. It contains anywhere from 25 percent to 95 percent recycled content and is itself 100 percent recyclable.
Owner Bill Hippard uses steel and aluminum manufactured to look like cedar shake, clay tile, slate and traditional shingles. His company is growing 20 percent a year, despite the higher price. "Part of my sales pitch is going through a whole list of the environmental benefits of using a metal roof," Hippard said.
Bathing in recycled metal is also an option: cast iron sinks and tubs are increasingly deriving a bulk of their metal from recycled sources. Rob Zimmerman, manager of engineering and sustainability for Kohler, said its enameled cast iron sinks and tubs incorporate at least 80 percent recycled iron, which comes from the scrap metal market and represents a significant cost savings for the Wisconsin-based plumbing manufacturer.
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"We want these materials to go into creating something else, whether that's an engine block becoming a kitchen sink, or a sink becoming another kitchen sink," said Zimmerman. Because of iron's durability and performance, these products tend to be a bit more expensive than their stainless steel counterparts.
A company's environmental footprint is increasingly important to consumers, and in the residential housing market, consumer consciousness is inextricably layered into the dollars and cents driving design decisions.
Trent Ross, managing director of the Global Reputation Centre at Washington-based market research firm Ipsos, said customers want to feel good about what they are buying and about the companies they buy from.
Design guru and co-founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry William McDonough said in an email that in the past decade manufacturers have responded to rising demand by consumers for environmentally healthy products and healthy buildings.
Indeed, it's entirely possible in today's U.S. housing market that you can walk the knotty planks of an 1880s barn or tread flooring formerly featuring the daily catch from the Pacific Ocean.
—By Eilene Zimmerman, Special to CNBC.com.