One Person's Waste...Is Another's Treasure

Salvaging building materials brings new life to otherwise discarded items.  Figuring how to reuse materials can inspire creativity and save loads of money in construction costs.  But you need to have a plan, or you risk spinning your wheels and burning out from all the leg-work involved.

all of the windows for this house are high-quality & energy-
efficient....and yes, they were all salvaged at huge cost savings
Below is the process that I share with my clients who want to make the most of salvage building materials in construction.  The key to success and keeping stress to a minimum is to start early and have a plan!  And don't forget to plan for a place to store what you find that ensures your materials stay protected.

Salvage-Hunting Process...

STEP ONE: make a list

Start by making a list of materials you will need for the project.  This way you know immediately when you see something interesting whether or not you can use it.  Try to avoid just purchasing items with a "maybe this will work...somewhere..." attitude.  You will end up spending a lot of time & money needlessly.
You also will want to track your list.  I use a spreadsheet with at least the following columns:
  • item (doors, windows, sinks, flooring, etc.)
  • location (this helps you keep track of your salvage items)
  • minimum size (what's the smallest your item can be)
  • maximum size (what's the largest your item can be)
  • special requirements & notes (to help you remember any specifics)
The goal is to have a shopping list to take with you as you go salvage hunting, with reminders of any limitations or special needs that each item has.

This built-in nook makes use of a salvaged church pew, cut to fit.
(The client had "two 4-foot nook benches" in their shopping list.)

STEP TWO: prioritize your list

Big items that can save you the most money include, doors & windows (see more info below), cabinets & counters, fixtures, and flooring. Other items can include framing lumber, railings, overstock insulation, patio pavers, etc. You can prioritize your list one of two ways:
  1. By construction timing - which item do you need first, second, third, etc. to keep your construction process flowing smoothly.  I think this method is best if your plan is to do your salvage hunting concurrent with the construction process.
  2. By which items can provide the greatest cost savings potential, such as windows, doors, and cabinets. This allows you to start looking for the items that give you the biggest dollar savings for your time spent, and by the time you get to the smaller items on the list you will be a salvage pro.
If you aren't sure how much energy you have in you for the salving hunt, then I would do option #2.  That way, if you start getting overwhelmed by the salvaging, at least you have collected big savings items.

This interior door is an old salvage door with single-pane glass...
not suitable for exterior use...but great for creating interior sound
separation while keeping visual connection between the spaces.

STEP THREE: research baseline pricing

In order to ensure that you don't overpay for your salvage items, you will need to do a little bit of research on what your items would cost if you purchased them new.  This can feel like a big task when you first start, but you will start to get the swing of it as you become a salvage hunting expert.

This counter is made of 3" thick maple, from a repurposed bowling
alley floor.  The total cost was 10% of what the counter would
have cost for new maple (or other solid-surface countertop).


STEP FOUR: don't give up performance

For items that have a performance implication, make sure you take that into consideration.  Otherwise you are saving upfront costs, only to find you need to spend money again later for higher energy bills or for replacement.  Performance criteria include:
  • durability
  • energy efficiency
  • structural integrity
For example, if salvage wood will be used structurally, it should be structural grade, show no signs of rot, be free of compromising holes, etc.  For windows, you will want energy efficient, double glazed windows in good condition. If the windows are used for passive solar gain in the winter, the windows also need to NOT have low-e glazing on them.  For appliances, you still want them to be energy efficient. You get the idea...

These wooden posts were salvage from 75+ year old building.
 The wood is hard and dense, and in great shape.  We had a
structural engineer inspect the wood before using it to build with.
(It could also be milled into beautiful flooring or trim.)

STEP FIVE: put in the time

Salvaging requires quite a bit of time & patience, so keep that in mind as you jump in.  And this is why I recommend starting early so you don't find yourself overwhelmed by a "holy heck we need this door tomorrow" moment.  I have included salvage resources that I find to be the most helpful in the region that I work (greater Washington DC/Baltimore MD region).  Feel free to post comments below to share your favorite building material salvage resources.

This metal railing was reused from another part of the same house!
The addition was built over a flat-roofed garage...the garage had a
railing all the way around, that was removed to build this art room.

Some specific Tips...

Salvage doors and windows usually provide the biggest savings for your time investment.  For windows, you have a few options. One is can find local companies that specialize in selling new & replacement windows. They often have a room in the back of new windows that were ordered wrong or were never picked up...orphans, if you will...that they are happy to sell at a discount.  It takes a lot of legwork, but this is a great way to get high quality, new windows for a fraction of the cost.
Used furniture can be nicely converted into a funky bathroom vanity.  You can check yard sales, local thrift shops, and even drive by upper-income neighborhoods early on trash day.
Another great resource is to check for a local Habitat for Humanity "Restore".  They sell donated, salvaged building materials & appliances at a great discount.  See to search for a ReStore resale outlet nearest you.  Proceeds go directly back to Habitat for Humanity.


These are my most-used resources in the Washington DC/Baltimore MD metro region. (in Baltimore) (in VA, but they have a lot of salvage building materials) (just outside of DC, in Maryland) (Alexandria, VA)


  1. (Richmond, VA)

    1. Looks like a good one! Thanks for posting.

  2. Try The Loading Dock also

    1. Yes, of course! Thanks for that reminder Jenny!!

  3. No mention of craigslist? Of course everyone knows about craigslist. :)

    1. Craigslist is hit-or-miss to me. Definitely worth a gander, but also definitely verify quality vs. price for anything you find.

  4. Love your blog, and the work that you do. Maybe I'm not seeing it in here, but what about kitchen cabinets in a straw bale house?

    1. You can "sew" a couple 2x nailing boards through the strawbale wall that allows you to attach cabinets directly. I will add this to my list of details to take step-by-step photos of so I can post. Or you can build a wooden wall in front of the strawbale and use that as attachment. Does that help clarify?

    2. Thank you very much. It does help clarify.

  5. Freecycle is an amazing resource that works extremely well in the UK, more for interior fittings and furniture than windows and doors but it's always worth a look. You can ask for items too!!

    I have yet to find such a resource in France, where I intend to build. Anyone?

  6. Can you modify straw bales plans or modify non-straw bale plans? We are a large family and unable to find plans that have enough bedrooms.

    1. Hi Catherine,
      If you are asking if I provide plan modification as a service, the answer is regretfully no. I currently provide only a full design process, start-to-finish with support through construction. I am working on pre-designed plans that will be available in early 2015, but those will focus on smaller homes. Please let me know if you are interested in pursuing a custom design process with me. Thanks, Sigi


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