How to build affordable housing with recycled materials

How to build affordable housing with recycled materials


The lack of affordable housing is a growing issue across many communities. As housing costs continue to rise faster than incomes, finding ways to provide quality, inexpensive shelter has become increasingly important. One potential solution is using recycled materials to construct new affordable homes. Building with recycled materials can reduce costs while also diverting waste from landfills. This article will provide an in-depth look at how to build affordable housing using recycled materials.

Benefits of building with recycled materials

Constructing affordable housing from recycled materials offers several key benefits:

Lower materials costs

The main advantage of using recycled building materials is lower costs. Materials like scrap wood, recycled plastic, and salvaged doors and windows are often free or available very cheaply. This allows builders to save significantly on the materials needed for each home.

Reduced environmental impact

When recycled goods are re-purposed for housing, it keeps these materials out of landfills. Construction waste accounts for over 35% of all landfill waste, according to the EPA. Finding uses for this debris conserves landfill space and natural resources.

Potential for faster construction

Since recycled building components are often ready for installation, it can speed up construction timelines. Walls pre-fabricated from recycled materials can be erected more quickly than building them on-site from new materials. This allows affordable housing projects to be completed faster.

Unique designs and features

Incorporating salvaged materials allows builders to create unique, one-of-a-kind designs for affordable homes. Recycled items like old doors, windows, and wood pieces can add custom architectural details. This gives each home personality and character that tenants appreciate.

Key materials and sources for recycled building components

Several types of recycled materials are well-suited for use in affordable housing construction:

Scrap lumber

Reclaimed lumber and wood pieces provide a versatile, renewable building material. Sources for recycled wood include:

  • Old pallets – Wood pallets used for shipping can be deconstructed into framing lumber, siding, and flooring.

  • Remnants from mills – Local lumber yards often have small scrap cuts and pieces available for very low cost.

  • Reclamation centers – Non-profit salvage warehouses sell recycled wood at discount prices.

  • Tear-downs – Much usable lumber can be carefully removed and salvaged from old buildings before demolition.

Recycled plastic

Plastic recycled from items like bottles and bags can be remanufactured into housing materials like composite lumber, shingles, and pipes. The recycled plastic content lowers costs compared to new plastic products.

Salvaged fixtures and components

Doors, cabinets, sinks, windows, and hardware leftover from demolished buildings can be reused in new affordable housing, rather than purchasing new fixtures. Architectural salvage companies are the best source for these items.

Design considerations

Certain design approaches help maximize reuse of salvaged and recycled building materials:

  • Flexible framing – Using standard lumber dimensions makes it easier to incorporate recycled wood pieces.

  • Adaptable layouts – Adjustable floorplans allow usage of whatever recycled doors, windows, and fixtures are available.

  • Prefabricated components – Assembling wall panels, rafters, and other elements offsite from recycled materials can speed up on-site building.

Construction methods for recycled housing projects

Here are some recommended practices for efficiently constructing affordable housing out of recycled materials:

  • Carefully deconstruct (not demolish) existing buildings to preserve reusable components.
  • Create an inventory database to track availability of salvaged materials.
  • Maximize usage of prefabricated assemblies built offsite with recycled content.
  • Adjust framing and layouts to flexibly accommodate available recycled components.
  • Use durable recycled plastic materials for exterior finishes like siding, roofing, and trims.
  • Test used electrical and mechanical components before installing to ensure proper function.

Sourcing recycled materials for affordable housing projects

Finding sufficient recycled materials requires tapping into multiple sources:

  • Connect with local recycling and salvage organizations – they can help identify available recycled materials in your region.

  • Partner with waste management companies – they may donate or discount recyclable materials pulled from the waste stream.

  • Establish deconstruction practices – salvage usable materials from existing structures before they are demolished.

  • Use recycled content vendors – manufacturers like plastic lumber companies offer products with built-in recycled content.

Case Study: The REHOME Project

An excellent example of building affordable housing from recycled materials is the REHOME project managed by the nonprofit LifeSpaces in Oregon. REHOME salvages materials from houses set for demolition and uses them to construct low-cost modular homes.

Key facts about the REHOME affordable housing project:

  • Built 30 modular cottages for low-income residents using over 500,000 lbs of salvaged materials.

  • Each 380 square foot cottage was built for around $60,000 – far below typical construction costs.

  • Over 80% of the building materials used were salvaged from deconstructed houses.

  • Average cottage was built in 90 days thanks to prefabricated panels.

  • Unique designs made use of salvaged windows, doors, sinks, lighting and wood pieces.

REHOME demonstrates that with smart design and salvage processes, recycled materials can successfully create high-quality, sustainable and inexpensive housing.


Constructing affordable housing out of recycled materials is an innovative, environmentally friendly solution to the growing need for inexpensive shelter options. Salvaging reusable components from existing buildings provides quality materials at a fraction of the cost of buying new. When thoughtfully designed and properly sourced, recycled materials can be transformed into durable, unique and energy-efficient housing. With some creativity and effort to source salvaged goods, recycled building materials provide an effective method for stretching budgets and constructing affordable homes.