Against the Grain

Recycled Wood is Showing Up in the Best Houses

Most of the trees harvested in the U.S. don’t get made into paper; they’re used by the home building industry. In 1995, Americans built 1.3 million new houses, with the average single-family home using more than 15,000 board feet of lumber, according to the National Association of Home Builders. This average home required the wood of 88 trees, or 3.2 acres of forest, says David McKeever of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service’s Forest Products Lab.

As the supply of virgin wood drops and its price increases, some home builders are turning to an unlikely source of wood: demolition sites.

But, as supplies of virgin wood drop and prices increase, some home builders are turning to an unlikely source of wood: demolition sites. Salvaging old lumber for re-use is nothing new. Today, however, home owners can contract with builders who specialize in building with mostly recycled wood.

Jonathan Orpin, a home builder in Shortsville, New York, recovers scrap wood from old buildings as they are torn down, and then recycles the wood into material for new homes.

“We’re known for these beautiful, ecologically responsible homes built with timbers with a history,” says Orpin. He and his crew take the old lumber they recover, plane and re-cut it, and use it in new houses—for framework and also for building cabinets and flooring. Orpin says his clients enjoy the added “character” of the old wood, with its nail holes, uneven sizes and antique coloration.

Orpin points out, however, that reclaiming wood is not easy. He and a few other builders travel across the country searching for old buildings to salvage, and when they find material worth saving, they must carefully remove the timbers, inspect them, and arrange for shipping. At times, Orpin says, he has been known to patrol demolition sites with a few spare $50 bills in his hand to encourage equipment operators to protect large beams as they knock buildings to the ground.

Recycled wood makes a strong, shrink-free framing material…

“Recycled timber is really a better product,” says Tom Holmes, a timber framer with Glenville Timber Wrights in central Wisconsin. “Fresh-cut timber warps and shrinks because it’s not completely dried. With the recycled wood, these problems are eliminated,” he says, adding another reason why he prefers to reuse: “I’m a strong environmentalist.” Like other builders, he expresses concern about the heavy demand for virgin lumber and the effects of logging on habitat destruction.

Because the practice is in its infancy, using recycled wood can wind up being more costly than using virgin timber. But Orpin finds that his clients are willing to pay more. “What we do may be more expensive, but it’s three to four times more energy efficient and will last three to four times as long, so the true costs are less,” he says. “I believe in what we do, but I am the first to say that the power of economics is critical.” For better or worse, Orpin points out, economics drives our consumption of resources. If virgin timber remains cheap, he says, we’re likely to go on using it.

Steve Loken, president of the Center for Resourceful Building Technology in Missoula, Montana, says that the building industry needs reform. “We’re going to see a change in how we build houses,” he says. “The traditional materials that we’ve used in the past—large, old-growth trees that we’ve used for lumber—just aren’t around anymore.” Loken is the first to admit that the home building industry is wasteful. He notes that on a per-capita basis, the U.S. uses more wood for homes and buildings than any other country. Furthermore, we waste 20 percent on the job site, he says.

“When wood was cheap and plentiful, we practically threw it away,” says Loken. He notes that he used to work with trees 14 inches in diameter, but now must contend with logs half that size. “Many people are beginning to explore the ‘urban forest’ and other alternative ways of putting houses together,” says Loken, who recently received an award from the Energy-Efficient Building Association. He designed and built a house that—from the outside—looks like a conventional home, but uses only one-sixth the regular amount of wood.

…and it adds character to new house interiors.

Loken says he also tries to conserve raw materials by convincing his clients to build smaller. “There is a move to smaller, saner houses rather than those huge starter castles that appear in glossy magazines,” says Loken, who points out that, ironically, he builds the biggest houses for the smallest families.

But wood recycling is hardly an elitist enterprise. On the mean streets of New York City, Bronx 2000’s Big City Forest division has turned recycled wood, mostly from industrial pallets, into a thriving business. Big City Forest, which emphasizes community-based enterprise, has created 20 jobs in its wood recycling business, and has reclaimed some 9,000 tons of wood from 180,000 discarded shipping pallets and crates. “There are 600 million pallets made every year,” says Resa Dimino, Big City Forest’s environmental affairs advisor. “Most of them are turned into wood chips. We’re the only people taking the material in whole form and adding value to it.” Dimino says that since most of the pallets are made from hard woods, they are reusable as flooring, or as the raw material for architectural mill work, wooden plaques, and other uses. Prices are competitive with virgin suppliers, she says.

And Lou Host-Jablonski is an architect who practices the old-fashioned style of recycling: He trash picks. “I hate to waste things,” he says. “I’ve been a garbage picker ever since I was a little kid, and I’m not afraid to admit it.” Host-Jablonski put his scavenging techniques to the test earlier this year when he built an addition to his home. “Much of it I picked up off the street on trash collection day,” he says. “Wood has been plentiful and cheap for so many years,” says Host-Jablonski, but that is changing. There is potential for increased use of recycled wood as the price of virgin timber goes up, he predicts. And there’s always trash to pick.