Changing the culture of waste

Students learn to reuse construction materials to beautify the Athens community

Changing the culture of waste

Chris McDowell, a program director in the College of Environment & Design, teaches students how to use salvaged building materials to create new structures.

Photo by: PETER FREY

In an overgrown field off South Milledge Avenue, Chris McDowell hauls construction materials around a makeshift workshop. Old concrete columns, twisted rebar and splintered cuts of wood are among the piles.

To the average person this stuff is trash. To McDowell (MLA ’12), it’s a treasure of useful resources with potential. With a little time and creativity, the scraps can be used to beautify community gardens, public gathering places and outdoor classrooms. A program director with the College of Environment & Design, McDowell runs the Material Reuse Program, an initiative he started to construct community spaces in the Athens area with supplies salvaged from demolished buildings.

With McDowell’s supervision, students have recycled the construction materials to create a teaching garden at Clarke Central High School, a communal garden for the Latino advocacy organization Casa de Amistad, and an aquaponics greenhouse at the UGArden, among other things. In the process, they have diverted 125 tons of construction waste from the landfill.

During fall semester, students designed and built an outdoor classroom for the Athens-Clarke County Recycling facility.

“A lot of people win in this situation,” McDowell says. “I see more reward in finding an application for these materials instead of just stockpiling them.”

After earning his undergraduate degree in urban planning from the University of Cincinnati, McDowell moved to New Orleans to help with Hurricane Katrina relief projects, working as a deconstruction manager for a nonprofit organization. That’s where the idea for a reuse program originated.

In July 2012, he completed his master’s degree in landscape architecture at UGA and saw the opportunity to start a salvage network in the Athens area. Now he manages design-build projects for clients by matching them with students in environmental design classes that require field experience.

“Students learn more than just how to design on paper,” he says. “I’m teaching them the practicality of their profession.”

Using fencing salvaged from the deconstructed Snyder barn complex on College Station Road, student volunteers build fences to contain the goats kept at Tanyard Creek. The goats graze on invasive plants in the area to protect the creek. Photo by Peter Frey.

Katherine Nguyen, a fifth-year landscape architecture student, was part of the class that built the teaching garden at Clarke Central last spring. It was her first field experience.

“Being able to build this project we had designed with Chris’ help, and being able to give back to Clarke Central by giving the kids this teaching garden was the greatest experience,” Nguyen says.

In addition to educating students and saving valuable space in the landfill, the program saves UGA money. McDowell and the students don’t charge the university to demolish a building, and using the discarded materials saves money in the classroom budget for other purposes. It took McDowell’s team just two weeks to deconstruct an old horse barn off College Station Road, spending a fraction of what it would have cost UGA to have it bulldozed by an outside company.

“There are a lot of facets to the benefits of reusing materials,” McDowell says. “It benefits students through service learning, helps the school economically and benefits the community.”

McDowell’s network received notable attention when LABash, an annual student-run landscape architecture conference, met in Athens in March. While here, representatives and students from American and Canadian universities worked with McDowell and Habitat for Humanity to convert a corridor known for drug activity into a park in East Athens. The team designed and built the space by hand, using only recycled materials provided by McDowell.

“We have a culture of waste,” McDowell says. “We’re used to taking down buildings that were only recently built. The key is seeing the potential in these waste materials.”

This shed, which McDowell built from wood scraps, was part of the project for his master’s thesis. Photo by Chris McDowell.