Shanon Miller &Stephanie Phillips
The Material Innovation Center is reducing the amount of construction and demolition debris that ends up in landfills by salvaging and reusing valuable waste, while supporting skilled tradespeople. Organized under the City of San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation, MIC works with local reuse stores, contractors, and donors to take in excess and reclaimed materials and redistribute them for free to support affordable housing preservation and production efforts.
Construction and demolition waste is the largest source of waste sent to US landfills nationally – more than double the volume of household trash we throw out. Landfilling high-quality, reusable building materials exacerbates equity disparities of material access and affordability and maintains our collective dependency on brand new materials and extractive systems. In response, the Material Innovation Center serves as the “last stop before the landfill,” combining the redistribution of building materials, trades workforce development, and applied housing repair programming to redefine building material waste as a tool for community resilience. Our project connects historic preservation to waste reduction by creating a replicable circular heritage model that reframes salvaged building materials as an economic engine, educational resource, and heritage asset.
A few years ago, a community member in a historic district told us that if a building in their neighborhood was approved for removal, the neighbors should have first access to salvaged materials to repair and restore their own homes. Big picture, this is the reuse ecosystem our project is building: one where a home might have reached the end of its life, but its parts and pieces help extend the lives of dozens of other structures, like an organ donor. In this scenario, not only are building materials treated as cultural assets, but neighborhood continuity and social connections are prioritized and nurtured. The landfill doesn’t deserve these materials – our communities do.
The biggest near-term challenge is the ability to scale our services to meet demonstrated community demand. In just one year, we’ve seen a 350% increase in material donation requests and a proportionate increase to access materials for affordable housing and community service projects. Requests to host community workshops on tool operation, creative reuse of reclaimed materials, and hands-on repair skills for older buildings have increased more than 100%. This wealth of interest is almost exclusively a result of word-of-mouth. The Prize will support the scaling of external-facing community services, including deploying more donated materials to affordable housing rehabilitation sites; expanding our community reuse workshops; and providing capacity to engage with our growing network of local partners.
We’ve been inspired by leaders across that country that are building a more sustainable, equitable building industry through reuse, including the teams at Re:Purpose Savannah, Reuse Warehouse in Houston, ReBuilding Center in Portland, Lifecycle Building Center in Atlanta, Second Use in Seattle, Construction Junction in Pittsburgh, Historic Ithaca’s Significant Elements salvage warehouse, and the Reuse Innovation Center model out of Washington state, to name just a few of many. Counteracting our current take-make-waste system, especially in the building industry, is incredibly challenging and requires the partnership, collaboration, and enthusiasm of leaders in every community. We are so grateful for the vision and determination of our peers.
Our project is represented by a property owner looking to make repairs with an affordable product that more closely matches the period of construction of their home than what is available off the shelf; an architect exploring ways to reduce the environmental impact of a renovation project while supporting the local economy; a nonprofit working to build pollinator houses for community gardens to restore native habitats; a contractor seeking to build a new accessory dwelling unit for a multigenerational resident affordably so their aging parents can stay close. The Material Innovation Center reorients our relationship with waste management by establishing a replicable, scalable model anchored in community care, cultural heritage, and environmental justice – and the diversity of our users drives that mission.
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