Homeowners turn to salvage renovation

June 6, 2013

Where some people see junk, Rachel and Derek Liu see possibility. The do-it-yourselfers recycle all sorts of worn building materials and used furnishings as an economical way of fixing up their 1960s rambler in Vienna.

They frequently purchase salvaged items from Community Forklift in Edmonston, one of several re­use stores in the Washington area, where the homeowners were found loading wood-framed windows and a mantelpiece into their minivan.

“You can get good quality here at a minimal price,” says Rachel Liu, 43. “You can create a home with stuff that no one else has.”

A few weeks later, the homemaker showed off the refinished $150 mantel now decorating the brick fireplace in her renovated kitchen. After she sanded the worn piece, its elegant lines emerged from under several coats of paint.

The carved wooden frame hanging above the mantel and the stone tile on the hearth also came from Community Forklift, as did several pieces of furniture in the living room. “This is a way of getting heirlooms without having to inherit things from relatives,” she says.

From the salvaged windows and other recycled elements, she and her husband built a one-room pavilion in a corner of their back yard. “It cost us about $1,500 to complete, compared to the $25,000 that one contractor told us it would take to construct from new materials,” says Derek Liu, 44, a systems engineer.

The 14-by-14-foot structure is enclosed with stacks of the old windows and reclaimed doors so the walls are nearly all transparent. Rachel Liu says the garden retreat provides a well-ventilated shelter to refinish secondhand furniture, such as the beat-up glider given to her by a neighbor.

The type of repurposing practiced by the Lius is growing, as more homeowners look for cost-saving and environmentally friendly ways to renovate. At Community Forklift, sales of salvaged products — from Tiffany-style lamps to toilets — increased from 2011 to 2012 by 46 percent. The eco-conscious home improvement center plans to expand into a nearby 15,800-square-foot warehouse in Prince George’s County in the fall.

“We’re in a time when reuse makes a lot of sense,” says Community Forklift chief executive Nancy Meyer. “The overall contraction in the economy has made people more conscious of how they spend money and make purchases. Due to what’s happening in the environment, there is beginning to be a consciousness about waste and wanting to do things differently.”

Since opening in 2005, Community Forklift says that it has diverted nearly $8 million in construction materials from landfills and enabled 20,000 homeowners to repair and renovate homes.

On a recent weekday morning, business was brisk at ReStore in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County. John and Anne Macdonald, both retired Army generals, were hunting for used appliances for their rental property. “The price is right,” says Anne Macdonald, inspecting a gently used $875 LG refrigerator that would have cost $2,200 new. “If you can keep something out of a landfill, that’s good for the environment.”

The warehouse is one of 852 thrift stores run by Habitat for Humanity in the United States and Canada. Last year, according to a Habitat spokeswoman, the ReStores generated $82 million for the group’s affordable housing work — $6 million more than in 2011 — and diverted nearly 173,000 tons of reusable material from landfills.

A few miles away, the ReBuild Warehouse in Springfield sells stacks of lumber, hardwood flooring, hot water heaters, kitchen cabinets and appliances, and other useful stuff. The merchandise comes from houses dismantled room by room by DeConstruction Services, a for-profit sister company, whose business has grown by 20 percent over the past two years, according to its vice president, Daryl Spencer.

A first step in the recycling process, deconstruction is an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional demolition. It requires systematically taking apart houses to save building elements that are usually dumped into landfills.

Instead of smashing their way through the interiors, Spencer and his crews carefully disassemble features such as cabinets, doors, windows, flooring and timber framing so these components can be repurposed somewhere else in the home or sold to be reused in a different setting.

This labor-intensive effort is more expensive and time-consuming than a typical demolition job. Spencer says it costs $15,000 to $30,000 and takes about two to three weeks to deconstruct a house, compared with $10,000 to $25,000 and two to three days to reduce the structure to debris for a landfill.

Of course, the dismantling can be less expensive if done selectively — to remove kitchen cabinets or bathroom fixtures, for example. Homeowners can offset some of the cost by donating the materials to nonprofit reuse centers for a tax deduction.

But finding a skilled crew to do the deconstruction can be difficult; most building contractors prefer to demolish more quickly and cheaply, and have only recently begun to embrace more environmentally responsible practices.

“We have become much more serious in the last five years about donating reusable items and recycling materials,” says Bill Millholland, executive vice president of Case Design/Remodeling of Bethesda. “More of our clients are hopeful that someone else might be able to use what is being removed, but there is not a huge demand for deconstruction services.”

But Leroy Johnson, co-owner of Four Brothers, a District design-build firm, says about half of his residential projects involve deconstruction. About 30 percent of the firm’s home renovations integrate reclaimed materials, including beams, cabinets, doors, flooring, radiators and trim work.

Johnson cites the decorative value of such salvaged elements in adding character to a house. “They can be a nice counterpoint to a modern design and fit in well with historic buildings,” he says.

Although used items may cost less than new products, repurposing them can be more expensive because of the labor costs required for refinishing and repairing them. “You could spend six hours reworking an old door so that it closes right,” Johnson says.

Other challenges of renovating with salvage include finding enough matching material, such as tile, to cover walls and floors, or the proper-size cabinets to fit a kitchen. Patience is a necessity because the right combination of recycled elements often requires several trips to a reuse store, where the stock is constantly changing.

To save money and time, Johnson advises picking one or two reclaimed materials that fit with the project. “Don’t try to do a whole house with salvaged materials,” he says. “If you do, be prepared that it is going to take longer to find things and get them installed.”

Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.

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