Cover story: Reclaim and recycle while renovating

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When workers from Tenleytown’s Universal Floors recently started carefully pulling up the century-old floor of an old home slated for demolition, they found something unexpected underneath.

Tucked away below the floorboards were scraps of paper left by the men who had laid the original floor, filled with names, dates and even a bit of commentary on the state of the world. Interestingly enough, finding the unexpected is hardly an unusual occurrence in the world of deconstruction.

“We’ve found old coins, bags of silver, even a wallet that a kid must have hidden back in the 1930s,” says Sprigg Lynn, a principal officer for Universal Floors. “Luckily, we were able to get that back to him - there was ID inside, and he still lives in Cleveland Park. He still remembered some of the things in that wallet.”

Twenty years ago, workers might not have been so painstaking when pulling up an old floor. Now, however, there is a renewed interest in old materials, for reasons ranging from aesthetics to cost to the desire to go green. These days, with a bit of preplanning, just about everything from floorboards to plumbing is able to escape the Dumpster and find new life, whether in someone else’s home or in another part of yours.

“Reclaimed materials is the thing to do,” says Mr. Lynn, whose family has been in the wood business since before his grandfather did the wood for the Supreme Court building in 1935 - and brought the job in under budget.

“The trend today is not to have every board picture perfect - you want to show that floors have character,” he says.

Over the years, Mr. Lynn’s crews have taken wood from a Johns Hopkins house in Baltimore and installed it in a Georgetown town house. They have one of the largest stockpiles of old wood in the area, like the “rift and quartered” oak found in whiskey barrels and the long-leaf Southern heart pine (now, sadly, nearly gone) that once had squirrels jumping from branch to branch along a solid tree canopy that stretched from Texas to lower Virginia.

“If we can save anything out of heart pine, it’s a treasure,” says Mr. Lynn, whose firm will be hosting a grand reopening celebration at its Tenleytown location on March 15. “People don’t realize that they could actually be walking on floors that are 600 years old.”

It’s not just about the wood, though.

According to the Building Materials Reuse Association, those who choose to deconstruct rather than demolish can recover 50 percent to 90 percent of the materials from an existing structure, depending upon condition.

Using materials reclaimed from local building projects means you won’t be contributing to increased transportation and fuel costs incurred by shipping something from overseas.

“We always think about saving energy in terms of the light bill,” says Ruthie Mundell, outreach director at Community Forklift, an Edmonston, Md.-based nonprofit warehouse that supplies reclaimed and donated building materials to the larger community. “People don’t think that the most energy use is in the cost of production.”

Want a new look for your kitchen? You can find kitchen cabinets at a local warehouse for a fraction of the cost you would pay for retail. Need some counter space in your laundry room? You can refit and reuse your old kitchen counters and save yourself a trip to the store. You even can get a substantial tax break if you donate your old materials to a nonprofit community warehouse.

“We believe it’s a responsible way to design and build, says Michael Stehlik, principal at Bethesda, Md.-based Carnemark Design Build, whose work is grounded in the reuse philosophy.

Mr. Stehlik estimates that about 50 percent of his clientele choose his business because they know many of the materials they discard will be reclaimed.

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