- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It’s one of the rare occasions when it’s OK to gawk at the flaws of the very old. Designers and architects are plucking wood from old barns and other structures in Maryland, Virginia and elsewhere in the country to give new projects a dose of character.

Typically, the best deposits of lumber for reuse are in the Eastern United States and parts of the Midwest where barns and homes were often built using large, old timbers rather than with more blue chip — and less aesthetically pleasing — wood as the country pushed West.

While architects have long been mixing the old with the new, the demand for the beauty of decades-old wood is helping some people who collect and sell the bones of old buildings prosper in a difficult economy. Interest in the wood — known as reclaimed lumber — appears to be growing in part because the boards fit with the environmental goals of projects.

Many construction-related businesses have had demand drop as a result of the slumping housing market. But David Sacia has seen orders grow for reclaimed wood. The owner of Reclaimed Lumber Co. in Baraboo, Wis., mainly sells to wealthy homeowners on the East and West coasts and the designers and architects they employ. He says business is still growing, just at a slower pace than in recent years.

“It’s up 5 percent this year,” Mr. Sacia said. “Every year it’s usually up in the double digits.” And given what’s gone on elsewhere in the market with stalled projects in both the residential and commercial construction markets, any growth is worth noting.

But this isn’t a business like a discount grocery chain or a pawn shop that benefits from tough times. Shoppers for reclaimed lumber generally pay more for their history-stained wood than for the new stuff.

“To buy the material is as much as new lumber and usually two, three or four times the cost,” Mr. Sacia said.

With the higher price tag and ever-shifting tastes, Mr. Sacia once worried that demand for the wood, which is mainly used in flooring or in decorative accents, would prove a fad. But he’s been comforted as notions about what can be recycled have spread beyond soda cans and newspapers.

“The word ‘green’ has come into play,” he said, predicting the environmental bona fides of old boards could help sustain demand.

Anita Lang, of the design firm Interior Motives, in Scottsdale, Ariz., said clients are increasingly drawn to the idea of outfitting a home or business with something that can be reused.

Then there is the wood’s resume: Its nicks and dents give it beauty, fans say. And the wood can be sanded and treated to preserve or minimize marks from a former life.

“It just continues to get more beautiful as you live with it,” Miss Lang said. “The other thing with a reclaimed floor is it’s never dated.”

She encourages clients to pay for the reclaimed wood and skimp on the more superficial items when they’re building, renovating or redecorating.

“You can always come back and upgrade your sofa down the road,” she said.

Some clients balk at paying more than $20 a square foot, when they can get a fabricated floor made to look old for about $17 a square foot. But the difference between reclaimed wood and wood made to look old can be stark, Miss Lang contends.

“You cannot totally replicate what 100 years does to something with factory equipment,” she said.

John Williams, a senior account representative at Mountain Lumber Co. in Ruckersville, Va., said he’s seen some slowdown but that the pedigree of the wood the company sells — it’s been installed everywhere from Mount Vernon to Monticello — still draws business.

“One of our barometers we’re seeing here is how many requests we’re getting for samples,” he said. “That’s actually gone up.”

Tricia Thompson and her husband, Todd, own Enmar Hardwood Flooring Inc. in Mesa, Ariz. She said the gulf between those worried about their finances and those who appear undaunted has widened. And demand for the more expensive reclaimed wood continues.

“Your very high-end custom homes are still going out here,” she said.

Big retail home decor stores, for example, will use reclaimed wood to add a sense of character to their stores and to add to their green credentials.

But people looking to make a buck from reclaimed wood shouldn’t necessarily go ripping down an old barn or home. While standards vary, the wood has to be in good condition and buyers can be choosy.

But some prices have come down in recent years as more supply has hit the market, a benefit to those collecting the wood. Many barns can be had for $1,000 to $2,000.

Marc Cree, national sales and marketing manager at Vintage Lumber Co. in Frederick County, also has seen an increased demand for people hoping to profit from their old buildings.

“There’s definitely a larger scale of people calling in,” he said. “They want money. I think they’ve seen the rise in the reclaimed market and they’ve seen the prices that certain companies get for the reclaimed market and they expect to make a considerable profit.”

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