From Landfill to Living Room

Salvaged Building Materials are Catching On

In 1976, Dr. Dan Knapp quit his teaching job and started hanging around the dump in Lane County, Oregon. On a mission to rescue reusable items, he rooted through tons of trash, undaunted by the landfill's “No Salvage” signs. “I thought that [prohibition] was kind of silly,” he says, “so I would salvage things anyway.” Until, at least, county employees tried to run him over with a Caterpillar tractor.

Now Knapp owns Urban Ore, which, with $1.5 million in sales last year, is Berkeley, California's largest salvage business. And his relationship with the hometown's dump officials is more than cordial: “We're allowed to go onto the site and salvage under license from the city,” Knapp says. Urban Ore rescues up to four tons of reusables daily from the city bulldozers.

A New Industry

When Knapp founded Urban Ore in 1980, he was a pioneer in what is now a rapidly-growing enterprise. In the past three years, the number of reuse stores in North America more than tripled, says the Used Building Materials Association, and that number continues to grow.

This burgeoning business gains force from an increase in the dumping fees many states charge at their landfills. That's an incentive for builders to hire a deconstruction service—now offered in-house by many salvage stores—to dismantle old buildings and divert tons of debris away from the scrap heap. And since many of these services are nonprofit, customers get a tax write-off, too.

But deconstruction has its hitches, says Montana architect Steve Loken. “The houses that we have been building over the last 25 to 30 years are really glued, screwed, tatooed and stapled together, and they are going to be very difficult to take apart.”

That's why Loken, founder of The Center for Resourceful Building Technology, includes principles of “dismantle-ability” in his building plans. He employs fasteners that saws can cut through without breaking the blade, screws capable of unscrewing, and easily-removable modules of particle board.

But until Loken's utopia of facilely harvested “urban forests” becomes a reality, conscientious homebuilders intent on using salvage will face obstacles. All salvaged wood slated for structural use must receive a new stamp of approval from an inspector, which usually costs between $150 to 200 per visit. Plus, structural wood reclaimed from older homes often comes in slightly different dimensions than used in contemporary construction, which means it must be re-milled. Yet few conventional mills will accept salvaged wood, because a single undiscovered nail embedded in a beam can destroy a $600 planing knife.

However, some mills, such as the one just opened by The Materials for the Future Foundation (MFF) in Oakland, California, specialize in reprocessing salvaged wood. Lisa Geller, MFF program director, hopes that if such mills can buy up large, sporadically-available windfalls of salvaged wood and establish a stable supply, the price of remilled lumber for structural applications might become competitive with virgin. Nevertheless, adds Geller, “The real reason right now that virgin is cheaper than salvage is because there are immense subsidies for the virgin timber industry.”

But not all salvaged lumber is prohibitively costly—wood for fences, decks and floors, which doesn't require inspection or remilling—is often inexpensive, and for the creative builder, the savings don't stop there. Marion Rice's Portland, Oregon potting shed, nearly 100 percent salvaged, would have cost about three times as much if it had been built new. And, she adds, it comes with built-in character. Indeed, part of the allure of salvaged products comes from their visible history.

Laura Pare, who visited the Harvest Earth salvage yard in Connecticut recently looking for materials to remodel her suburban home, takes a more practical approach to buying salvaged. “One of the things that we are finding is that the stuff we are getting is more in keeping with our house—it's weathered,” she says. “You just can't get new wood that way.”

But whether buyers are looking for a perfect replacement for a turn-of-the-century doorknob, or simply a cheap alternative to a new bathtub, reclaiming conserves resources: Salvage a sink and you'll save enough energy to power a 100-watt bulb for over 100 days and enough carbon dioxide to compensate for driving almost 1,000 miles. And reuse makes sense—a recent study found that 30 percent of a two-story apartment building was salvageable by volume. Those kind of savings could go a long way to reduce the 136 million tons of construction and demolition waste—more than one third of the trash—that American homes and businesses generate every year.