Reuse as a First Step in Sustainable Building

Thrift never looked quite so good as it does on the home of Andy Hill, Ely’s own construction specialist and reduce, reuse, and recycle extraordinaire. Hill is passionate about sharing his sustainable building tactics with the Northwoods community, a purpose which he hopes will ultimately lead to decreased environmental impact as we build the walls of, and build our lives inside, our humble abodes.

In highlighting Hill’s recommendations for eco-friendly construction, it’s impossible to ignore his foundation for success: building with salvaged materials. In all, Hill is using four major types of reused goods. First, the Hill home is comprised of recycled steel anchors, not one of which was purchased. As we tour the property, he identifies the anchors which connect the walls’ foundational posts to concrete slabs in the ground. Hill notes that these are valued at $400.00 in total for the house and affirms that the salvaged anchors he is using are “far better than the store-bought version.” While causing very little environmental impact, Hill isn’t hesitant to share that his initiative has, in contrast, made a substantial impact on his building budget.

Stepping into Hill’s garage, the sun shone through the open-space rectangular gaps in each sidewall. All of Hill’s garage windows are soon-to-be filled with what were formally thermal pane sliding glass doors. Turning doors to windows begins to seem like child’s play, however, when compared to the recycled racking spectacle for Hill’s solar array. The somewhat rusted yet stalwart racking towers above us both, the outline of what will soon power the entirety of his home.

Perhaps the most impressive cohort of salvaged materials in the home is his astounding collection of repossessed insulation- 90% of all the insulation in the home, to be exact. In summer 2018, Nelson Roofing rebuilt the Babbitt Northeast Range School’s rooftop, from which would have resulted in the waste of many a sheet of insulation, had it not been for Hill’s sustainable eye. “I can count 30k out of my construction budget when I count all my salvaged materials,” says Hill. “20k of that is insulation.” As often as he emphasizes the wallet-friendly nature of using salvaged materials does he also circle back around to the relationship between reuse and sustainable communities. Hill subtly reminds me of a key phrase in his overall mission: “When we recycle our materials, the earth doesn’t have to replenish the resources and the landfill also doesn’t bear the burden.” Simply put, to Hill, reuse is a no-brainer. Nelson Roofing shares Hill’s vision; the Hibbing construction company is eager to work with the local community to utilize the value in the insulation they remove from projects.

The picture comes together that Hill’s soon-to-be home comprises a plethora of salvaged goods, a handful of which he wasn’t hesitant to rummage through his local city dumpster to find. The St. Louis County Transfer Station, says Hill, has its own corner for reused building materials. “This is a good thing for the state of Minnesota. Other states don’t have this luxury.”

The last stop on our tour of Hill’s cornucopia of salvaged building materials, all of which he reminds us the City of Ely building inspector is required to authorize, proves to be an impressive spectacle of what he whimsically calls, “feng shui.” He points to the large, gangly tree trunks towering over his deck that serve a key structural purpose in supporting the elevated deck boards. With a coy smile, Hill prefaces that he purchased these trunks from the trendiest of magazines, or so he thought he could fool his future house guests into believing. The truth soon unfolds as Hill reveals that he handpicked the tamarack trunks from the woods behind his private cabin off of Highway 21. He explains that tamarack is rot-resistant and is, as a result, a practical choice in building material. “The woods were in an area of tree-release necessity,” says Hill, describing the well-known ecosystem management tactic. “The trees came from a force that needed to be thinned.” This category of re-use stands apart from that of dumpster diving for mechanical gadgets and adopting seasoned insulation, yet more intimately connects our buildings to the equally significant purpose of forest restoration. Ultimately we may all be able to agree that in the realm of home construction, whether it be bred from the forest or the frontier, the words sustaining and salvaging become one in the same.