For years, a billboard reading “Rome wasn’t built in a day” loomed ominously on the side of Interstate 90 in Boston. The sign served as the city’s justification for its disastrously over-budget and waste-ridden Big Dig, a public-works project designed to place Boston’s Central Artery underground. After 22 years, the Big Dig is now in its final stages. While the project may improve Boston’s roadways, it’s left a huge mess of metal and cement in its wake.

Luckily, Paul Pedini, former vice president of Big Dig contractor Modern Continental, came up with an innovative method of getting rid of some of the project’s 100,000 tons of waste. Pedini diverted thousands of pounds of garbage at his disposal into an environmentally friendly initiative, creating a house made almost entirely from Big Dig refuse. “It seemed illogical to pay to throw away the waste when you can just reuse it,” he says.

The state had paid huge fees to have the garbage trucked to a landfill outside the city. There, contractors crushed and buried the materials, expending energy and resources in the process. To prevent more material from ending up in landfills, Pedini contacted local architects Jinhee Park and John Hong of Single Speed Design in Cambridge, Massachussetts to help design the Big Dig House.

“[Pedini] saw the innovations of what we’re doing in wood, and thought that we could be equally innovative using Big Dig materials,” says Park, a cofounder of Single Speed. “The concrete and steel roadways are difficult and expensive to recycle, so they would have ended up in a landfill or dumped into the water.”

In 2003, Park and Hong began work on the home in Lexington, Massachusetts. With the exception of items like light-gauge metal framing, insulation, windows, and wood cladding, the entire structure of the house was built from Big Dig materials—some 600,000 pounds of salvage altogether. What were once concrete panels, steel columns and beams that held up Interstate 93 off-ramps in East Cambridge now make up the frame of the house.

The residence, which measures 3,800 square feet, was completed in 2006. With no shortage of waste from the project, Bostonians can expect more Big Dig-inspired buildings—Pedini and Single Speed are currently planning two more homes. Pedini put the original Big Dig House on the market in late September and plans to live in one of the future editions. He’s also working to pass legislation that would make pre-cycling mandatory for large-scale projects like the Big Dig. (Pre-cycling involves keeping deconstructed materials in order to use them in future projects.) Mandating the practice would aid in the design of public works such as libraries and schools.

"That way,” Park says, “you could really use the capabilities of the material as well as make some positive sustainable impact.”

Story by Mandi Wells. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Highway robbery
The Big Dig House turns thousands of pounds of refuse into a home with a point of view.