Topping out

Gerald Cole

6 ways to cut waste and save money

Waste not want not on your site

Walk past a housebuilding site, or major renovation, and you can be forgiven for assuming it’s all a bit of mess. Piles of earth and rubble, pallets of bricks and blocks, stacks of timber, a lop-sided temporary loo and at least one skip.

The latter can contain examples of much of the above, alongside offcuts of wood, plasterboard, rigid insulation and a host of other items unused because they were damaged or proved surplus to requirements.

Construction, according to a 2018 report by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, accounts for a whopping 62 per cent of the UK’s total waste. A study from 2013 calculated that 13 per cent of materials delivered to building sites goes straight to waste.

But isn’t that in the nature of building? Bricks, blocks and tiles can be fragile on a busy site. Given the UK’s climate, timber, plasterboard and cement will be lucky to avoid the odd downpour. And what if the temperature drops too low to pour a waiting load of ready mix?

Waste, though, matters rather more today than it has in a long time. Brexit, Covid and a European war have disrupted supplies of materials, causing rising prices. At the same time thousands of workers have left the industry, either to return to Europe or take early retirement, boosting labour costs.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Just as rising fuel prices have made us reconsider the benefits of home insulation, booming build costs prompt us to reassess our approach to waste – to reduce it, dispose of it more usefully or even to incorporate it into our projects.

Here, then, are six hopefully useful suggestions for your project.

1. Soil

Excavated soil typically goes to landfill, on which landfill tax is levied, currently £98.60 per tonne. One way of avoiding this cost is to use the soil to landscape your garden, ideally using the JCB which excavated it.

Remember, though, to set aside the topsoil – the first five to 20 centimetres. This contains the organic matter needed for plant growth. It can then be spread over the more densely packed soil. But don’t store it in piles higher than a metre or the organic content will suffer. Alternatively, topsoil can be sold.

2. Rubble

Rocks and stones from excavations, and bricks, tiles and concrete slabs from demolition, can be broken down to form hardcore for your driveway or patio. A hired concrete crusher – preferably with an operative – can produce standard MOT Type 1 aggregate (consisting of 40mm stones and smaller), which can also be sold. Or you can sell rubble as it is, though it should be ‘clean’, ie free of wood, plaster or packaging, which could later decompose.

Alternatively, use rubble to fill gabions. These are wire baskets which can be linked together to form retaining walls (great for holding back all that excavated soil you’ve kept). Unlike conventional brick or stone barriers, they are porous so don’t need drainage channels.

3. Pallets

These are a good source of sturdy timber which can be reused, either by disassembling or employing them in their original form to build structures such as compost bins, dustbin enclosures or planters. If you plan to use the wood internally, check that the pallet hasn’t been treated with toxic chemicals, often indicated by the letters MB (for methyl bromide). Bright colours can also indicate this. DB, however, means untreated. Pallets in reasonable condition can also be sold.

4. Don’t automatically buy new

In a renovation, particularly a period home, consider recycling existing materials and features. Original singleglazed windows can be reglazed with vacuum insulating glass which offers the U-values of triple glazing within a total thickness of between six and 12mm.

If kitchen carcasses are in good condition, cupboard doors can be repainted or replaced and worn worktops covered with new laminate. Alternatively, opt for a second-hand or ex-display model, a good way to raise the specification of your kitchen while staying within a fixed budget. Check out: Used Kitchen Hub (, the Used Kitchen Company (theusedkitchencompany. com) and Used Kitchen Exchange (

Recycling, of course, also applies to other items, from reclaimed bricks and tiles to flooring, panelling and furniture. Check out: Salvo (, eBay, Freecycle and Craigslist, where demolition items can also be sold.

5. Return unused construction materials

If you are buying materials yourself from a builders’ merchant, check first that any surplus can be returned. If the materials are normally kept in stock this shouldn’t be a problem, though there will be a restocking fee. Special orders, however, are more problematic, but you can always ask.

6. Choose a prefabricated building system

Typically built under factory conditions, often in sections as large as single-storey walls, prefabricated systems avoid many of the drawbacks of open air construction: delays or materials damage caused by bad weather, poor on-site supervision, waste or surplus items going automatically to the tip rather than being retained and recycled for later projects. Check out timber-frame specialists and other companies which use modern methods of construction.