Chris McDowell, now director of UGA’s Material Reuse Program, came to the university’s College of Environment and Design about two years ago. He’d just spent five years in New Orleans working with a nonprofit group that salvaged old lumber, bricks, pavers and other materials from ruined buildings, and helped older New Orleans residents rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
“I found out it’s applicable anywhere,” McDowell said. “It’s good environmentally, but it also saves money on a project.”
Here in Athens, McDowell launched a small program, scrounging building materials and then using them to build such things as raised garden beds at the Athens Community Council on Aging and other places.
McDowell recently graduated with a master’s degree in landscape architecture. But Dan Nadenicek, dean of the College of Environment and Design, was so impressed with what McDowell was doing he hired the Alabama native to head the new materials reuse program.
“A great deal of construction and demolition material ends up in our landfills unnecessarily,” said Nadenicek. “Through projects like the Material Reuse Program, our students are learning alternative, more sustainable approaches to construction.”
Last semester, UGA undergraduate students in a service learning course put some of those ideas to practical use, completing or beginning such projects as a plan for an outdoor learning laboratory at Clarke Central High School and replacing and updating raised beds at the Brooklyn Community Garden.
“It’s good hands-on experience for them,” McDowell said. “Students don’t always learn how to build things on their own.”
The projects are getting bigger, too.
This spring, McDowell will be working with the state Department of Natural Resources to build a birding blind at Panola Mountain State Park, he said. He will also be working with UGA’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Institute to build a teaching pavilion and other upgrades at UGA’s Latin American Ethnobotanical Garden.
McDowell also has taken on a pretty big demolition project: taking down a horse barn of about 6,000 square feet off College Station Road, with about 8,000 linear feet of oak lumber.
Construction on a new teaching hospital for the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine soon will begin there. Students can help build things with salvaged building materials, but not with taking structures down; there’s too much risk for the inexperienced, he said.
McDowell also trying to build a sort of network of people, businesses and organizations who have or need reusable building materials.
“You can’t use salvaged materials if there’s not a network,” he said.
Athens is a place where that kind of network could work well, McDowell believes.
“Athens has a pretty good heritage of reusing stuff, anyway,” he said, mentioning buildings or businesses such as Jittery Joe’s Coffee, which uses recycled building materials, and others that convert old buildings for new uses.