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Cover story: Reclaim and recycle while renovating

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2011

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.

"You can save transportation costs all up and down the manufacturing line," says Paul Hughes, president of DeConstruction Services LLC, a Fairfax, Va., company that specializes in disassembling existing homes. Mr. Hughes also is founder and executive director of the ReBuild Warehouse, where many of the results of his deconstruction projects end up.

DeConstruction Services and other deconstruction companies take down a house in a process that starts with the fixtures, trim and baseboards and ends up leaving just the foundation and a cement slab. Just about everything except the drywall and plaster can be recycled or reused.

"You can recycle roof shingles and use them for road patch," Mr. Hughes says. "We'll denail the wood so it could be used again. Even metal ductwork is recyclable."

Once those materials are donated to a warehouse, the ensuing tax deduction can help offset the costs of deconstruction. Even without the tax deduction, many homeowners opt for deconstruction because they feel that helping save the environment is worth the cost.

Often, older materials are of better quality - and more distinctive - than their newer counterparts.

At the Brass Knob in the District's Adams Morgan neighborhood, owner Donetta George has been reclaiming old materials for 30 years.

"I'm looking for anything that has good design," Ms. George says. "That can be sometimes funky, sometimes interesting, sometimes beautiful."

At the town house crammed with recovered materials - these days mostly acquired from other dealers - savvy shoppers can acquire everything from stained glass to chandeliers to a variety of decorative pieces. Regardless of what they're seeking or what they find, Brass Knob patrons are united by one thing, Ms. George says.

"It takes a particular kind of person to look at a specific item and think about how to work it into the decor," she says. "Not everyone can do that."

Though that aesthetic sense has not changed all that much since Ms. George opened her store, her clientele has. It definitely is getting younger, in keeping with both her changing neighborhood and a new focus on older things.

"A lot of younger people are thinking now about quality," she says. "Twenty years ago all they cared about was clean, modern design."

For those who are not all that interested in the past, reclaimed materials can hold another value - lower cost.

At Community Forklift, potential buyers can browse aisles of furniture, appliances, fixtures and yes, building materials ready for reclamation or repurposing.

"We're kind of like a thrift store, except that we have home improvement supplies," Ms. Mundell says. "Anything you might find at Home Depot, we're likely to have. It's a really nice way of reducing the cost of a project."

Need a window or two? You'll find them here, some even in their original packaging. (Apparently, there are a lot of people out there who just can't measure properly.) The warehouse once had an entire log cabin - in pieces - that was reassembled somewhere in Western Maryland.

"You might have a neighbor who has gotten rid of a granite countertop," Ms. Mundell says. "Buy that, and it's a lot less energy than shipping granite from overseas."

There's no actual forklift here, by the way, unless you count the spirit behind the idea of the place, which also offers green jobs training.

"The name comes from our nonprofit status," Ms. Mundell says. "We want to lift up the community."

It's the same spirit you'll find at Habitat for Humanity's ReStore Warehouse in Montgomery County, where profits from its array of products go toward building affordable housing. (Other jurisdictions have their own ReStore warehouses, connected with the local Habitat organization.) Like many community warehouses, ReStore has trucks to pick up items, although its doors also are open for direct donations.

"Our biggest draw for customers are kitchen cabinets," says Adeela Abassi, marketing and communications manager for ReStore Warehouse of Montgomery County. "When they're put in by a professional, you can't even tell the difference from something brand-new."

Large sets of 14 cabinets generally run from about $1,300 to $1,700 at ReStore. Smaller sets of eight to 10 cabinets run from about $700 to $1,000.

Of course, if you are looking for a particular item, you might have a better chance at Home Depot or Lowe's. But warehouse browsing carries with it a bit of serendipity. There is always the possibility that you'll find something even better than you expected.

"Right now, we've got a set of white cabinets with granite countertops - 14 pieces - for just $1,790," Ms. Abassi says.

Yes, deconstruction is more expensive than traditional demolition. But donations can mean tens of thousands of dollars in tax savings.

Using reclaimed materials - or even just donating them to a warehouse - does take a bit of planning. For one thing, you will want to let your contractor know well in advance which materials you want to save. And because deconstruction takes longer than demolition, you'll want to make sure you contact your deconstruction team in plenty of time. Nonprofit groups, especially, often are booked months in advance.

Note also that some older homes may contain hazardous materials, so you may need to hire abatement specialists to deal with them. And even the best-planned deconstruction project can go wrong, if fixtures are so old that they don't come out in one piece, or if floors turn out to be glued rather than nailed down. Some things just are not salvageable. But other things are.

These days, whenever Universal Floors puts down an old floor or lays in a new one, the workers tuck away a few slips of paper themselves.

"We do the same thing as they were doing a hundred years ago," Mr. Lynn says. "We write our names, what the average pay is, what's going on in the world."

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