Not too long ago, structures slated for demolition inevitably found their demise in a landfill. Now, their chance to find second life as a source of design inspiration for architects and their clients is substantial. Exterior wood shingles, for instance, can become flooring with an authentic weathered finish, and a sturdy maple floor can make for a shelf or cutting board with a compelling backstory.
While furniture made from reclaimed materials may retail higher than a piece made from virgin materials, the story can become a key selling point. Combine that with a 25 percent increase in the volume of material flowing through debris-diversion businesses since 2008—thanks, in part, to the recovering economy—and designers incorporating reclaimed materials may be at the start of a golden era.
Take, for example, Loyola University’s Alumni Gym, a 1924 building designed by Paul V. Hyland that was razed two summers ago in Chicago. Before the heavy machinery came in, the university had the foresight to dismantle the maple flooring—where the men’s basketball team went undefeated en route to the 1963 NCAA championship—and sell pieces to alumni and fans. However, the majority of the flooring ended up seven miles away at the Rebuilding Exchange, a five-year-old, Chicago-based nonprofit enterprise dedicated to saving reusable materials from the waste stream. Meegan Czop, the organization’s director of business development, says that the sturdy material is similar to what one may expect when ordering a custom butcher-block counter.
Damien Casten, a local wine importer, estimates that he has bought nearly $10,000 worth of materials from the Rebuilding Exchange in the past three years. His purchases, which include light fixtures, glass panes, wood siding, and some of the historic gymnasium flooring, which he turned into a cutting board, bathroom vanity, and combination shelf-and-wine glass rack.
With demand for salvaged materials growing, deconstruction professionals such as the ReUse People of America, based in Oakland, Calif., post photos of upcoming projects online so customers can scout the inventory before it’s removed from its original site. Lumber has the highest demand, followed by cabinets, doors, windows, and appliances.
Ted Reiff, ReUse People’s president, says that 90 percent of his material stays local, but occasionally something special attracts buyers from as far as Japan. At $24 per board foot, American chestnut is one such coveted item. “There’s no sense in shipping 30 cents a foot around, but there sure as hell is in shipping $24 around,” Reiff says. Along with its texture and character, the scarcity of American chestnut—due to a fungus that decimated the native trees more than a century ago—adds to its desirability.
In some cities, demand for reclaimed material exceeds supply. In Rebuilding Exchange’s early years, a basketball-court-worth of lumber might have lingered on the showroom floor. Now, Czop can’t keep high-quality material in stock for more than a couple days, she says. Loyal customers such as Icon Modern, a Chicago furniture maker and designer that has outfitted Whole Foods and Starbucks stores with six tons of material from Rebuilding Exchange, even send their own trucks to deconstruction sites to get first dibs. Because supply is always changing, Czop encourages designers to keep project proposals lumber-neutral .
The environment also benefits from the popularity of salvaged materials. Manufacturing framing lumber and wood flooring from virgin materials takes more than 10 times the energy than from salvaged materials, according to a 2010 survey by Forest Products Laboratory, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The study used data from 13 deconstruction firms to calculate the difference in embodied energy.
End users, meanwhile, often rave about owning a piece of history. In Chicago, wine importer Casten loves recounting his furniture’s past to friends and clients. Meanwhile, visitors to the Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland will find “2516 Market Ave.” stamped all over the brewery’s Market Room bar, a signature of local furniture maker Reclaimed Cleveland, which stamps its pieces with their origin’s address. In Great Lakes’ case, most of the lumber comprising the new bar, tables, and chairs came from the brewery’s offices in the adjacent 1870s building that has hosted taverns, apartments, and law practices.
The environmentally conscious brewery never “considered picking a generic table out of a catalog,” says general manager Jeff West. Along with salvaging wood from its office renovation, it delivers beer that would typically go down the drain at the end of the brewing process to Mitchell Brothers Ice Cream for its popular chocolate-chip-porter flavor. “We could certainly find cheaper materials or cheaper tables,” West says, “but it’s worth every penny to spend the extra money.”