2023 Bentway Public Space Fellow Ella Hough considers the role public space could play in promoting deconstruction and material reuse. By tracing the history of the salvaged lumber used to make one public bench, The Benchway: Salvaged Materials in Public Space tells the story of ancestral forests, Toronto’s 20th century development, the changes that led to our wasteful present day practices, and the people fighting to change them.
A few months ago, I met with a group of Torontonians informally named the “Reuse Collaborators.” They advocate for the environmental and historical value of material reuse enabled by deconstruction, the meticulous and thoughtful dismantling of a house with preservation in mind. They gather to share and support each other in their reuse ventures.
A newcomer to the group, I admitted I had only learned about deconstruction a few months ago. “How did you hear out about it?” they asked, eager to similarly spread the word. I told them it had come up in conversation with a member of my recreational soccer team. “Well…” said Stephanie Mah of Giamo architecture firm, “I guess we all need to join soccer teams!” What the ‘Reuse Collaborators’ ask themselves is how to activate a widespread cultural shift in the way we think about building materials.
There is a sense of urgency to their work. The construction industry accounts for approximately 38% of the world’s carbon emissions.  Approximately 50% of these emissions come from the embodied carbon of raw materials, including their extraction, processing, and transportation. The consumption of virgin materials by the construction industry is immense– as much as 40% of raw materials consumed in North America are used in construction.
Construction, renovation, and demolition activities also generate up to one third of municipal solid waste in Canada.  This poses a serious threat, as our landfills approach capacity. Material reuse helps to extend the life cycle of materials, reducing the embodied carbon of a building and keeping waste out of the landfill. A change like this, among other things, demands educators and trend-setters.
The infiltration of adult recreational sports leagues by a group of material reuse enthusiasts is, unfortunately, not going to be enough. We need spaces to spread awareness and communally visualise an alternative approach to building materials. As accessible cultural venues, public spaces could fill this role. What if, for example, Toronto’s public space furniture modelled circularity by using salvaged materials? Sourcing their materials from deconstructed Toronto buildings, our public benches could trace a material history specific to our city while keeping waste out of the landfill and avoiding the environmental impact of processing new materials.
By exemplifying material reuse, public space could be a major player in a necessary cultural shift, acting as the Ikea showroom of salvaged materials.
I decided to test this process by designing a public bench made of salvaged wood for The Bentway’s Under-Gardiner site. I sourced my materials from Meredith Moore of Ouroboros Deconstruction, who was taking apart the interiors of an early 20th century house in Toronto’s Little Italy.
The lumber is old growth Douglas Fir, a reminder that stunning, spiritually rich forest giants continue to be cut down, while the existing remains of their ancestors are often thoughtlessly tossed into demolition dumpsters.
Meredith was my first contact of the ‘Reuse Collaborators’ and I credit her contagious enthusiasm for getting me hooked on the topic of material reuse. She has a background in interior design and a deep attachment to the storied beauty of the treasures she uncovers through deconstruction. Her desire to recover old construction materials, however, goes beyond the aesthetic. Compared to demolition, deconstruction reduces the release of toxic dust and airborne pollutants, is less disruptive to the neighbourhood, and contributes to circular, sustainable construction practices which significantly lower carbon emissions. Studies suggest the economic benefit of waste diversion is four times greater than the net cost, and could create 7 jobs for every 1000 tonnes of diverted waste, as well as reducing waste disposal costs by up to 30%.
Construction sites characterise our city; Scaffolding, red safety fencing, and debris act as the visual identity of an exponentially growing metropolis, a motif dotting the urban landscape and historically staging the grounds on which we stand. Rather than throwing out the bits and pieces of a discarded Toronto, we could gather around them, sit upon them, and build with them.
 World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Net-zero Buildings: Where do we Stand? (July 2021): 8.1 (wbcsd.org)
 World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Net-zero Buildings,3.
 Canadian Council for Ministers on the Environment. Guide for Identifying, Evaluating and Selecting Policies for Influencing Construction, Renovation and Demolition Waste Management (2019): 1. Guide for Identifying, Evaluating and Selecting Policies for Influencing Construction, Renovation and Demolition Waste Management (ccme.ca)
 Canada. Minister of Public Works and Government Services. The Environmentally Responsible Construction and Renovation Handbook. Second Edition (2001): 69. The environmentally responsible construction and renovation handbook : P4-53/2001E-PDF – Government of Canada Publications – Canada.ca
 Delta Institute. St. Louis Deconstruction Market Assessment. (April 2019): 26 St.-Louis-Deconstruction-Market-Assessment.pdf (delta-institute.org)
 Canadian Council for Ministers on the Environment. Influencing Construction, Renovation and Demolition Waste Management (2019): 1.
 Canada. Minister of Public Works and Government Services. The Environmentally Responsible Construction and Renovation Handbook: 16.