We Can Learn from Savannah.

By Katie Rispoli, Executive Director

We demolish 1.75 billion square feet of building space every year in the United States (AIA, 2010). And where does it go? Some cities, like Long Beach, have a C&D program that encourages contractors to recycle these materials. Most don't. In most of our local cities, building materials go straight into the landfill taking up valuable space and leading to hazards like groundwater pollution. 


In Savannah? Where to start...

Last week I attended the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference in Savannah, Georgia. In addition to wandering a city nearly three hundred years old, eating piles of Southern food, and meeting fellow preservationists from across the country, I attended a tour. Scott Boylston, President of Emergent Structures led our group through Savannah to see how local organizations and communities in need have made use of building material from demolished cultural resources in their community.


Emergent Structures has worked with the city to help demolition contractors successfully recycle a sizable amount of building materials. After the salvage, the nonprofit works with the city to permit projects for local organizations, and has successfully coordinated the construction of greenhouses and community gardens.

The West Broad Street YMCA in Savannah is one of only five Heritage YMCAs left in the country. The club was originally built with segregation in mind, constructed to separate black children and community members from the white. 
Emergent Structures has been working with the YMCA to create a community garden that grows healthy, sustainable food. The garden beds have been built out of recycled building materials gathered by Emergent Structures, and now the nonprofit is helping the YMCA build a greenhouse on site. The greenhouse will be used by children, employees, and locals at the Y, and will be a workplace to grow healthy foods year round. Located in a food desert, the W. Broad Street YMCA is working on plans to develop a delivery service which will bring their 'home'grown produce to doorsteps around the neighborhood.


Design for Ability, a new and blossoming nonprofit in Savannah which focuses on helping high school students build skills to enter the workforce, is also using recycled building materials in the construction of greenhouses throughout Savannah. In the middle of a materials yard filled with material from demolished local buildings, Design for Ability is constructing their latest greenhouse.

This structure will allow for growing vegetables year round regardless of changing weather in the South, and will provide a classroom environment for high school students to learn agricultural practices.

And these are only two cases. Reuse on this scale is taking place all over Georgia. Emergent Structures event recently acquired the 1970s wood paneling removed from a 19th century home, and used it to build twenty community benefit projects in the state. 

So how can we learn from these activities taking place thousands of miles away? Primarily, we can take notice of the sheer amount of abandoned and underused infrastructure in our local communities, and begin taking steps to integrate those buildings and parks into meaningful, active places for people to occupy and interact.

Second, we can make use of the materials from buildings destroyed. Why do these materials need to go in a landfill? If Savannah taught me anything, it was that I learned everyone can see the utility in waste, everyone can contribute, and beautiful things can come from the neglected.

Katie RispoliComment