Skimming, cherry-picking, prospecting. Removing building materials from one structure and repurposing them in another isn't a novel practice. But it is gaining traction among architects willing to venture out on scavenger hunts in the hopes of finding the right item to perfect a project.
On the surface, the process is straightforward: First salvage, then reuse. The trick is finding the right product at the right time.
The process begins at the jobsite of a structure scheduled for renovation or demolition. "We're the first people in," says Dave Bennink, who has scoured more than 3,500 projects in the last two decades with his Bellingham, Wash, firm RE-USE Consulting. By volume, most of what his teams save is old-growth wood found in framing, siding, and paneling.
At design/build firm Carnemark in Bethesda, Md., project manager Frank Sis and his crew remove anything from a structure that has an inkling of being suitable for reuse: cabinets, lighting fixtures, bathtubs, sinks, counters, windows and doors, molding and trim, tile, appliances, and occasionally flooring. An average job takes a week, with items salvaged retailing between $3,000 and $10,000 per project.
Unlike demolition, deconstruction requires finesse instead of shear force. Reusable items such as cabinets and flooring can lose their value if they are damaged during the salvage process. To recover a window, for example, workers must remove its interior and exterior trim, cut fasteners in the frame, extricate the window, and store it safely on site until it is transported to a salvage yard.
Most of what Sis pulls out of homes goes to Community Forklift, a nonprofit salvage yard in Edmonston, Md., that caters both to members of the public and professionals looking for used materials at below-market prices or obscure pieces to finish off a project. At the firm's 34,000-square-foot warehouse, products such as windows, doors, cabinets, and kitchen and bath fixtures are cleaned, priced, and sorted by category.
Merchandizing salvaged products is an exercise in organized chaos. "We're selling quality, but to some people, it looks like junk," Bennink says. "[That's] because of the way it might be displayed, or the fact that you go down an aisle and every door is a different color and different size, and the paint might be chipped a little or there might be a scratch." Many salvage operations, including Community Forklift, take in products at such high volumes that they can't record each item's history. However, Housewerks in Baltimore knows most of its products' origins because its teams extract the materials themselves and limit the number of projects they take on.
"It's a treasure hunt," Housewerks' partner and owner Ben Riddleberger says. "You never know what you're going to find or where you're going to find it." Among his latest discoveries are light fixtures, work tables, and industrial parts from a chocolate-manufacturing facility and a former shipbuilding yard in Baltimore. Housewerks sells most of its products as is, but will finish them at a client’s request. "There's price X for in-the-rough and price Y for the work that we do," Riddleberger says.
Contractor Tom Joyal in Kennebunk, Maine, runs Old House Parts Co. out of an 11,000-square-foot, 1870s freight house that he restored before packing it with salvaged historical materials. Though his goods are worn, he's reluctant to refinish them prior to a client's purchase. "You never know what someone's really going to want," he says. "They pick it, and it has an original finish, the original dog scratch marks on it, whatever it is. I give them a price to do everything to make it the way they want it."
His bestsellers include flooring made of old-growth wood, stair parts, stained glass windows, hardware, and doors. Lately, he says, cast-iron pieces featuring emblems of animals or women have been particularly popular. "It's just what people are looking for," he says. "Everyone wants to find that coincidental moment, or that thing they can relate to."
Because clients are wont to flaunt their one-offs, salvaged materials are more often used as finishes than in structural assemblies. Plus, warranties don't carry over to the new applications and individual components such as bricks and pieces of dimensional lumber lose their grading. Lumber can be re-graded, a service that the ReBuilding Center in Portland, Ore., provides and that executive director Shane Endicott says is good business: Salvaged and refinished old-growth, clear-vertical grain 2x4s can sell for up to $6 per linear foot, he says, compared to newer boards which retail for as little as less than $1 per linear foot.
Small-business owner Ryan Gordan worked with a contractor to renovate and outfit a dilapidated building shell in Washington, D.C., with salvaged goods to evoke his bar and restaurant's Anglo-centric aesthetic. Those items include six doors that he says were removed from a former Philadelphia elementary school, large tilt-in windows, and two styles of tin ceiling tiles. "[The design] was kind of in our head," he says. "We built around what we found, since [the building] was such a clean slate."
Below-market prices and the opportunity to practice environmental conservation may entice DIYers and architects working on smaller projects, but the salvage market's unpredictable inventory keeps most architects at bay for all but the rarest of goods. "What they need and what we have don't often coincide," Bennink says. "If an architect says, 'I need 10 doors exactly like this,' I would probably say, 'I've got nine and a half doors that are almost like that.' "
Designer Mike Arnold, a partner at architecture firm Arnold & Arnold in Riverdale Park, Md., frequents salvage yards to find pieces to fit his client's early-20th century homes. Because historical inventory in the Washington, D.C., market is thin due to limited deconstruction activity, he often travels to salvage operations in Baltimore and New Jersey. Still, he says, sourcing salvaged goods is time-consuming and the lack of guaranteed inventory means he'll often need to visit more than one yard.
"Clients aren't going to pay me by the hour to go check this stuff out," he says. "To go through a catalog and say, 'I want this thing that looks like that thing,' takes a couple of hours. To go through the process of merging a modern thing with an old thing takes five times that amount of time. … It's very complicated."