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Building the new with the old: the secret world of second-hand construction

Building the new with the old: the secret world of second-hand construction

Posting in Design

BERLIN -- Specialists preserving the German capital's complex past and present say construction groups could save time and money by opting for second-hand materials.

BERLIN -- When the Evangelical Methodist Church commissioned architect Johannes Penzel to repair the roof of its 108-year-old building in Berlin-Mitte, Penzel knew he had his work cut out for him.

"It's impressive when roof tiles hold out for 30 years, but 80 years is really something -- not least because it puts me on a wild-goose chase for century-old replacement tiles," Penzel said. That wasn't all. Nooks and crannies in the roof were filled in with broken tiles and sheet metal to shield against snow, wind and rain, he explained. For his repairs to last another 80 years, Penzel knew he would need 400 original roof tiles, which weren't being manufactured anymore.

But his network of small-business peers quickly put him onto Brita Marx, the owner and namesake of three sister companies based just outside of Berlin that specialize in construction waste management and material recycling.

"Suddenly I had someone telling me they had 400 original ceramic roof tiles available from the same manufacturer as those on top of the Methodist church," Penzel said. "Incredibly lucky."

The Brita Marx companies have become a kind of local fixture in the town of Luckenwalde, just south of Berlin -- even having been tapped to work on the set of Roman Polanski's The Piano in the early '90s. Under the direction of Marx herself, the group specializes in the "conservational" demolition of condemned structures, a process through which any worthy materials are salvaged -- from wood and cobblestone to debris that can be used in streets and sidewalks -- before canning the rest. In beating other waste services to a demolition job, Marx and her team can rest assured that everything recyclable is pushed back into the market -- instead of a landfill or burn pile.

"In the beginning it was really just a shame to see so many beautiful things thrown away," Marx said, recalling the first item she ever salvaged.

"Stones. Beautiful old stones. Everyone's clamoring to reconstruct these things, and you can always tell that it's a reconstruction -- yet we're throwing away these old bits."

Marx's intense preoccupation with used and historic materials saw her establish the Berlin chapter of the Bauteilnetz, or "construction parts network," an online catalogue of second-hand historical and modern construction materials for purchase -- all in top condition.

The national network of second-hand construction material markets, which features everything from classically styled doors, staircases and windows to light fixtures, handles and doorknobs, is designed to cut down on environmentally harmful "gray energy" -- energy produced from the burning of fossil fuels -- inherent in the manufacture of new construction materials. What's more, it is also helping to salvage historical construction materials -- which are often unmatched in quality or no longer available on the market.

Launched in 2006 by renovation architect Ute Dechsantreiter in Bremen, Germany, the Bauteilnetz project has been honored multiple times as an official UNESCO "Decade Project" for its positive environmental implications and web presence. Most warehouse locations around Germany are state-sponsored and staffed by public employment agencies, but Brita Marx is an exception: the company funds its Bauteilnetz operations with revenue it earns through its demolition waste service.

But six years after the launch of the Bauteilnetz, the construction industry seems to remain relatively cold to the idea of second-hand construction. Dechsanreiter says that the project's sponsor -- the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU) -- has commissioned a survey to shed light on why the Bauteilnetz remains somewhat unknown and untapped by mid- and large-sized construction groups as a construction material resource. The results are due out in September.

Penzel says the material thrown out in the demolition of many buildings is actually superior to many new products: "Many older stones were dried in a way that made them better at keeping moisture out, better insulated and longer-lasting than anything made today," Penzel says.

Marx says that even with the success of her waste management service, it will take a few years before she can pass the money-making business down to her daughter, giving her more time to focus on the Bauteilnetz.

"There is so much unrealized potential in this concept," says Marx. "Architects and construction engineers need massive inventories, and we're only beginning to build these up and catalogue them now."

But she says projects like that of Penzel and the Evangelical Methodist Church that prove the company is on the right track: "What if someone had thrown those roof tiles away? Someone has to step in to rescue the past and present. That company is us."

PHOTOS: Shannon Smith

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure