Calgary Firms Accept Zero-Waste Construction Challenge

Connector February 2021
Integral’s zero-waste office space. Credit: Chris Amat

How difficult can it be to keep a new office tenant improvement project waste-free? The teams at Integral Group, Eton-West Construction and LOLA Architecture have found out with a challenge they accepted two years ago. Together, they reduced the typical interior office construction project’s site waste from seven tonnes (1kg/ft2) down to zero.

It all started when Integral Group, a global engineering and design firm, decided to fit-up a Calgary office space. A fit-up involves developing a unit within an existing empty space, including partition walls, plumbing and everything in between. Integral saw it as an opportunity to set environmental priorities, mirroring other projects they take on for their clients.

“Our mission for green buildings has a history in Calgary, specifically with the Panda Passage at the Calgary Zoo, the first project in Alberta to achieve the Living Building Challenge Petal certification from the International Living Future Institute,” comments Eric White, Integral sustainability associate. “With our office fit-up, we wanted to achieve industry certifications, minimal waste, and building efficiencies while creating a landmark project and welcoming space.”

With that vision in mind, supported by management’s direction on design to make their workspace “granola chic”, the team set out to accomplish a mission they thought might be impossible – a zero-waste office project.

Integral engaged Eton-West as its construction manager and LOLA Architecture as the interior design visionary. They credit early planning to the success of the project.

“We first had to define what it meant to have the greenest office fit-up in Calgary,” states lead architect Erica Lowe. “This could result in different priorities. We decided it meant the achievement of the LEED and Fitwel certifications, and that no waste would go to landfill from the project, while also diverting waste from other projects and planning to reduce the number of offcuts that lead to waste. Items had to either be recyclable or reusable.”

By creating the project elements with these goals established, the team’s next step was to find materials.

They salvaged what they could from other projects. As items were headed for the bin, the team diverted them to their project. What they found surprised them. They salvaged butcher block counter tops, tile leftover from another construction project and plywood from apple cider crates that were repurposed as interior wall panels. They received 17 bike wheels in one day from a local repair shop that were transformed into customized light fixtures.  

Window samples repurposed into a wall. Credit: Chris Amat

“Some areas were easier to target than others. We wanted to use exterior window samples that are one square foot sealed units delivered to contractors and architects for approval —that otherwise get landfilled—so we managed to collect our own as well as procure others from glazing subcontractors,” adds Erica.

The team also found they achieved a lot just by talking to contractors and asking questions. Many contractors were keen to supply materials including off-cuts and extra, or discontinued, stock that would otherwise not have been used. The team also utilised Kijiji and other industry resources and contacts to find items and divert materials they couldn’t use.

Light fixtures made from bike wheels

Finding the salvaged items was just one part of the project; the other was ensuring no material was sent to landfill. This again required a lot of collaboration with contractors as well as intentional actions to ensure zero waste was a priority. The team had to track and manage the handling of excess material per LEED requirements.

“We had to talk to our processors and recyclers to ensure we could account for all materials that were going to be reclaimed or recycled including drywall, wood and cardboard,” adds Nikki Turner, project manager at Eton-West. “We thought garbage onsite would be an issue, but we purposefully didn’t bring in a garbage bin and the contractors took to it, especially with their own lunches and consumption–we made it clear–zero waste throughout all aspects–from coffee cups to caulking tubes.”

The team even built a 20 cubic foot fishbowl into the main office space, which was designed to showcase all the materials they could not find a home for. The final remaining item, one ball of bubble wrap, is now on its way to a local plastics recycler.

Display case, “fish tank”, made for the waste from the project

The team believes this type of project is truly achievable and financially sustainable for others.

“It was surprising, but because of the salvage aspect, we saved on landfill fees from one project and also material fees for the new project. Money was just spent in other areas, to refurbish or update the items we collected. We had to stay within the client’s tenant improvement allowance, so we did not have to spend more to achieve a positive environmental outcome,” Nikki adds.

The resulting data shows savings of six to seven tonnes of waste from the 6,800 square foot space, achieved through proper planning, procurement and construction management. Eton West’s projects average one kilogram of waste per square foot, with 60 to 85 per cent of waste diverted for similarly scoped projects; though it all depends on whether it’s a new build or an office fit-up like the Integral project.

The team shared a final piece of wisdom, emphasizing the importance of intentional sustainability planning from day one. Materials can be collected and stored, and spaces can be designed for the use of second-hand items. Communication with all partners and trades personnel proved invaluable, and the team found tremendous support among many throughout their endeavour.