What's Old is New Again

Tech alumni helped launch the nonprofit Lifecycle Building Center that's dedicated to keeping reusable items out of Atlanta’s landfills.

Winter 2016 | By Melissa Fralick

Shannon Goodman, MS Arch 98, may be one of the few people who can look at bathroom partitions in an old public restroom and see treasure. 

As executive director of the Lifecycle Building Center, Goodman knows just how much it means to keep construction materials out of landfills and give them new life. A set of these partitions, which were donated to a school for children with special needs, were among 40,000 pounds of material her organization salvaged from a single office building undergoing renovations.

“Stainless-steel toilet partitions are expensive,” Goodman says. “All of the money we save these organizations is money they can put toward their missions.”

Goodman is one of several Tech alumni who helped to establish the Lifecycle Building Center, an Atlanta-based nonprofit dedicated to recovering reusable items from renovation and demolition sites and finding new homes for them. The many Yellow Jacket connections make sense—it’s the kind of cause that efficiently tackles several problems at once.

“We all understand the value of solving problems—that’s one of the biggest gifts from Ma Tech,” says Alex Muñoz, Mgt 88, the current chairman of the organization’s board of directors.

The Lifecycle Building Center’s main mission is to keep useable building materials out of landfills. But on top of that, the organization also solicits donations, sells items to the public, sources materials for other nonprofits, provides education to homeowners and even works with Georgia’s thriving film industry.

One thing that sets Lifecycle apart from other organizations that sell second-hand or repurposed items is that it maintains its own deconstruction crew. These staffers and volunteers go out to commercial and residential sites to evaluate items that can be saved, and then properly remove them so they can have new life.

Deconstruction Manager Andrew Chew, CE 06, leads the charge. Chew says cabinets are the “bread and butter” of the deconstruction effort, but items you might not expect, such as flooring and even toilets, often sell quickly at the Lifecycle warehouse, which has a store that’s open to the public.

“My biggest challenge is integrating those three parts of the process—deconstruction, warehousing and retail—and making sure we’re moving product and getting sellable product as quickly as we can,” Chew says.

The heart of Lifecycle Building Center is its 70,000 square foot warehouse in Southwest Atlanta. The century-old industrial space has a gritty beauty, with rows of operable clearstory windows pouring sunlight into its cavernous space. Inside is a huge variety of wares: kitchen cabinets, doors, windows, ovens, bathtubs, light fixtures, lumber, water heaters, carpet tiles, duct work, and more—for sale at 50 to 95 percent less than they would cost new.

It seems hard to believe that at demolition or renovation sites, items like this are often destined for the dumpster. However, it only costs around $25-$40 per ton to dump at landfills in the metro Atlanta area, compared with $100-$150 per ton in places like New York or California.

“Atlanta has been behind in salvage mostly because our landfill costs are much lower than other major cities,” Goodman says. “There’s far less incentive to not throw things away, financially.”

But salvage fills a need in the community, and the desire for such a resource was there all along.

In 2009, Goodman worked as an architect for Perkins+Will, a firm with a growing Atlanta branch that needed a larger office. The company found a roughly 50,000-square-foot building in Midtown with a dated interior in need of updates. During renovation, the firm pursued LEED certification, which recognizes environmentally conscious, sustainable building practices.

“Perkins+Will is very focused on sustainable design,” Goodman says. “They wanted to have more LEED points than any other project.”

As demolition got underway, Goodman says her team began to wonder if there was anything better to do with the old materials besides grind them up and recycle them.
So she began calling around to local nonprofits and found that there were many people interested in reusing building materials.

They were able to distribute items from the Perkins+Will building to 19 organizations, including the Atlanta Ballet, Horizon Theater, Southface, Camp Twin Lakes and Georgia Organics. In total, Goodman and her team salvaged 125,000 pounds of materials during the renovation, which saved the nonprofits about $384,000 from what they would have had to buy new.

“That was my wake up call,” Goodman says.

The experience led her to Adam Deck—now operations manager for Lifecycle Building Center—who had already written a business plan for such an operation and developed relationships to support it. Aware of the huge need for salvage, she teamed up with Deck to help make Lifecycle a reality. Soon, Goodman met fellow Tech alumnus Jimmy Mitchell, CE 05, at a sustainability roundtable event. Mitchell was one of the first LEED managers in the state of Georgia and was frustrated by the lack of salvage options. “One of the aspects of LEED certification that no one ever attained was salvage, because there weren’t any organizations out there,” Mitchell says.

When Goodman told the roundtable group that she and Deck were working to create a salvage organization, Mitchell wanted to get involved. “When I met these other people wanting the same thing, I said, ‘I have to make this happen,’” says Mitchell, who serves on the executive council of the Georgia Tech Alumni Association’s Board of Trustees.
Mitchell gave Goodman his business card that day, and he went on to become the first chairman of the Lifecycle board.

The nonprofit’s big break came in 2011, when an employee of a federal agency told Goodman they were preparing to demolish a building on their campus.

“Building No. 1,” as it was fortuitously known, was the first project for the fledgling Lifecycle Building Center. The directors recruited 70 volunteers over multiple weekends to pull 33 tons of reusable material from the building before it met the wrecking ball.
Those items—which otherwise would have ended up in the garbage—became Lifecycle’s inaugural inventory.

The organization has grown by leaps and bounds since 2012. In the past year and a half, Lifecycle Building Center has gone from four to nine full-time staff members. Currently, almost 70 percent of the operating budget is covered by the sale of salvaged materials.

Mitchell says he’s excited about the future. The organization recently purchased its warehouse facility and is working on a strategic plan for the next five years. With continued growth and awareness, they are on a path to one day sustain the organization on the sale of materials alone, without having to rely on the support of donors.

“It’s an engineering-type nonprofit,” Mitchell says. “Here we are, using a waste stream to employ people and generate wealth to add value in a lot of different ways.”

Mitchell sees the Lifecycle Building Center through an engineer’s eyes, while Muñoz views it through a business lens.

Muñoz says he was drawn to Lifecycle because of its “triple bottom line”—people, planet and profits. In other words, providing discounted materials to help people improve their homes at a lower cost; helping the planet by keeping those items out of landfills; and funding the operation through the sale of items that would otherwise be considered waste.

“The triple-bottom-line approach is so attractive because it cuts across political, demographic and economic lines,” Muñoz says. “How could you say no to it?”