June 26, 2006 | General

Too Good To Throw Away

BioCycle June 2006, Vol. 47, No. 6, p. 21
From coast to coast, building materials reuse stores provide markets that channel deconstructed lumber and other materials into homes and factories. It’s resource preservation involving the local community.
Josh Wachtel

A growing number of reused building materials stores are springing up in the United States – saving consumers much money in their search for hard-to-find items while the new stores quickly become self-sustaining and provide employment in their communities. As nonprofit organizations, many of these stores have stated missions:
Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores help raise funds for building projects. Boston’s Building Materials Resource Center supports renovations for lower income homeowners. Minneapolis’s Reuse Center – perhaps the first enterprise of its kind in the U.S. – focuses on promoting sustainable community development as a whole. In this article, two building materials reuse stores are profiled – one on each coast, with different but parallel missions.
“Eight years ago, we decided at CET we wanted to open a used building materials store,” says John Majercak of the Center for Ecological Technology (CET) and director of the ReStore Home Improvement Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. “I visited other stores across the country, took the best of what I saw, and we set it up in Springfield.”
The ReStore – not to be confused with Habitat for Humanity or other ReStores – is a nonprofit enterprise of CET, a 501(c)(3) organization with offices in Northampton and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. CET’s mission is to provide residents, businesses and communities with the tools to make it easy and affordable to live in a more environmentally sound manner. With over 30 employees, CET’s activities are so broad it is difficult to define. Its programs range from community education about energy efficient technologies and composting, to home energy assessment and paper recycling pick up. CET also hosts an online store selling sustainable products and conducts school programs, including the “Junior Solar Sprint” in which middle schoolers race solar cars of their own design.
The ReStore is just one of its programs with its own three-pronged mission: 1) Reuse valuable materials; 2) Make home improvement affordable for more people; and 3) Create local jobs and provide training.
Like other models, CET’s ReStore has aimed and succeeded to be fully self-financed after a short period of subsidy. Majercak says that for him there were three years of prep work, fundraising and site selection before the store could actually open in 2002. For the first two years of operation the store was partially subsidized. Grants totaling $240,000 covered start-up costs and absorbed the store’s shortfall. Since then, all the costs of operating the ReStore – rent, heating, electricity, advertising, supplies and salaries (60 percent of operating costs) – have been offset completely by sales.
“In the scale of things, this was not a lot of money,” says Majercak. “Sales covered 65 percent of operating expenses in the first year, 75 percent in the second year. Since then, as projected, the store has been paying for itself. We were able to do that type of approach because we learned from the pioneers. We waited to open until we had the money, and then we invested in advertising, which has really paid off.”
ReStore reports that for fiscal year 2005, its 7,400 customers saved $470,000 compared to purchasing new items, and they helped divert literally hundreds of tons of materials from landfills. Total sales – and operating expenses – were $320,000.
The ReStore has come a long way very quickly. Four years ago, the first employees were just Majercak and Jeff MacFarlane, a volunteer from AmeriCorps VISTA. Now the store employs six to eight full-time staff (depending on the season) and has continued to employ an AmeriCorps volunteer each year. Their first volunteer, MacFarlane, is now a full-time staff member.
Like the growing number of recycled home building stores across the country, ReStore sells everything and the kitchen sink. You can find hardwood cabinets, windows, doors, bathtubs, toilets, light fixtures and more. Inventory is constantly changing because the stock is dependent upon donations. Many people check in every week to see what new items have come in.
Marketing has been a key to ReStore’s quick success. In addition to print and other advertising, people can keep abreast of new inventory at the ReStore through its web site – – and there is a page titled “Hot Items.” These items have included reclaimed roof slate, salvaged keystone pieces, secure screen doors, a Tiffany style hanging light, oak balusters, a solar hot water system, used pine sheds, an antique Singer sewing machine, radiators and an atrium window. In the future, ReStore hopes to catalog its entire stock. Customers can also sign up on-line or in the store to receive e-mail updates on new products available.
Currently one special offering is “Bowling Alley Lanes” – reclaimed from a local alley that was closing – which the web site states “…make great floors, tables or countertops!” One block of lane has been turned into a table by a local crafts shop, Studio Cochineal, which has begun a partnership with ReStore to make unique pieces of furniture from scrap material. Most of the work will be on a custom order basis and the profits will be divided between the studio and ReStore.
John Grossman, manager of the ReStore, has been working in the store for the last year. He learned of the store as a customer when he was renovating the home he’d bought in Holyoke, Massachusetts. “The bulk of our material comes from our commercial partners,” he says. “These are contractors, retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers who donate materials that otherwise cannot be sold or used. After that it’s homeowners.”
According to ReStore’s 2006 progress report, “Donators give materials for many reasons. Some need the space in their warehouses, some want to save on disposal costs and some just can’t bear to throw away high quality building materials they know someone else could use.”
This is where environmentalism meets good business sense. Explains Grossman, “One customer actually said to me, ‘Look, I’m no tree hugger. But this stuff is too good be thrown away.'”
As a whole, ReStore accepts about a third to half its materials new from distributors, manufacturers and retailers, mostly in big loads, a truck or two at time. “If they don’t give it,” says John Majercak, “they have to pay guys to break it up and dispose of it.”
The other half to two-thirds comes used from contractors and homeowners. “We’re picky about what we take back from people,” says Majercak. “We only take the cream of the crop. We don’t want to be a middle point on the way to the dump, and people understand that.”
When ReStore does get something that won’t sell or has been damaged, like a door that can be fixed or refinished, they put it in a “free area” where many thousands of items are given away each year.
“A lot of people come regularly to look at this stuff,” explains Majercak. “We had some wallpaper rolls and shutters. Later we heard someone had taken them and was selling them on the street in a neighborhood. There’s a whole ‘scavenger economy’ out there and we’re happy to be a part of that.”
Another way ReStore has marketed itself and is promoting its new deconstruction program (see below) is to set up a tent each year at the Western Massachusetts Home Show. At this year’s show in March, ReStore’s display was the first thing people saw when entering the gates of the Eastern States Expo Center in West Springfield. Samples of stock were on display and ReStore staff gave periodic demonstrations of the denailing gun to promote and inform the public about their deconstruction services.
Last year, in conjunction with its parent organization, CET, ReStore hosted its first workshop for the public. Held in its warehouse where the truck is usually parked, ReStore presented to a full house a training on how to assess one’s home for energy loss and basic weatherization. This year the ReStore and CET are planning to host a whole series of “how to” workshops on weatherization, installing a door, installing windows, laying tile, lead safety and possibly home composting.
Additionally, last summer ReStore had two teens working as part of a local youth job training program. The teens were paid by Massachusetts Career Development Institute. To ReStore’s great pleasure, far from needing basic training, the high school junior and recent graduate were ready to work. One was a truck helper and the other served customers, worked on the computer and did web updates. ReStore plans to expand their participation in this program this summer.
In the last two years ReStore has launched a deconstruction program which is yet another way it acquires materials. This is a fledgling program that ReStore hopes to really develop in the coming years. “We purposely didn’t get into deconstruction the first few years,” says Majercak. “It goes hand in hand with the retail store. We wanted to make sure we had the retail under our belts first and then add deconstruction.”
Deconstruction means taking a house apart and recycling as much of the materials as possible rather than simply demolishing and sending all the waste to the dump. It’s more labor intensive and can take longer than demolition because deconstruction requires more people rather than heavy machines. But it can divert tons from the solid waste stream.
ReStore deconstructed a 2,600 sq. ft. house in two weeks, for example, whereas a demolition crew could have done it in three days. But doors, windows, cabinets and flooring, metal pipe and all the lumber and plywood were saved and resold at the store. It was estimated that demolition of the house would have sent 15 thirty-yard rolloffs to the landfill. Instead, ReStore only sent six rolloffs, but uncompressed, so the savings in weight were even greater. The main things that couldn’t be salvaged or recycled were the drywall and shingles. “But,” Majercak says, “there are even markets for drywall and shingles now.” All in all, 20 truckloads of reusable materials were taken from the house.
At this point, at least in Massachusetts, “Homeowners who choose deconstruction are motivated by the mission,” says Majercak. “Deconstruction is not saving homeowners tons of money.” When you factor in the tax deduction homeowners can take for donating materials to the ReStore, the cost can be competitive, but deconstruction is still more costly than demolition. “After a day or two,” says Majercak, “the payback of the labor goes down. When you’re deconstructing lathe and plaster, for example, you may want a hybrid method.”
This hybrid method refers to what may be termed “soft stripping,” or cherry picking the house for certain architectural features with resale value, and demolishing the rest. This can be done relatively quickly. Then the demolition can be done by conventional means and the waste landfilled. Some deconstruction firms are forming partnerships of this kind. ReStore recently participated in a big project of this sort in conjunction with Lend Lease Actus at a closed Air Force base in upstate New York where 172 military housing units were being torn down to make way for redevelopment.
Starting in July 2006, new legislation goes into effect in Massachusetts banning the disposal of wood. Majercak isn’t yet sure if and how the new law will help tip the equation toward deconstruction rather than demolition. “There may be exceptions to the ban,” he says. “Wood can go to an incinerator, and both Pittsfield and Springfield have waste-to-energy incinerators. Also, when a dump is in ‘close off mode’ and being capped off it may be allowed to continue receiving waste wood.”
Since ReStore can only take clean wood that hasn’t been painted or treated, this is another limitation to lumber reclamation. “Except for very odd circumstances, we only get lumber when we take a house down,” says Majercak. ReStore uses specialized tools like denailing guns to save time when recovering lumber. Right now the lumber is not graded but simply eye-inspected. The purchaser can decide whether it seems usable, and some show it to their building inspector before using the wood. If it looks decent, the lumber might be used for studding out a wall, for example. “But the lumber we salvage hasn’t become part of the official lumber economy yet,” he says.
At present, deconstruction is a sideline for ReStore, a service that is offered but does not yet provide ReStore enough business to maintain a regular crew. Some of the ReStore store staff double as deconstructionists when projects come along. When ReStore needs to respond quickly, it has had to hire additional help through temp agencies.
Majercak would like to see this change. “Ideally we’d like to be able to hire staff from other mission driven organizations to do the work when we have jobs. I think there’s a lot of room for growth in our own deconstruction program. We need to do more marketing to show people that it’s an alternative.”
In Oregon, Portland’s Rebuilding Center is one of the stores Majercak visited when planning his store. In 1998, Our United Villages – a nonprofit organization founded by neighborhood volunteers seeking ways to improve their local communities by fostering dialog among local residents – launched the Rebuilding Center store. Along with two newer programs, DeConstruction Services and ReFind Furniture, The Rebuilding Center currently employs about 50 people and provides exclusive funding for its parent, Our United Villages.
Through the combined efforts of its three programs, the Rebuilding Center salvages 4.5 million pounds of material a year. In 2006, the organization continues to find itself in a period of growth. It has just remodeled its store, is expecting to double its salvage rate in the next few years and hopes to add 10 to 15 more jobs.
BioCycle last profiled Rebuilding Center in 2001, two years after its DeConstruction Services had been launched. At that time the potential for deconstruction (as opposed to demolition) was first being demonstrated and DeConstruction Services had quickly increased its staff to 40 or 50 people. The staff has now been reduced to 20 people, but DeConstruction Services has found it can actually do more work with fewer people.
Explains Brian McVay, Chief Estimator and Project Manager of DeConstruction Services, “There are a few helpful innovations that we’ve come up with, along with a more structured administrative backbone and uniformity of practices.”
DeConstruction Services did 175 projects last year, ten of which were full house deconstructions. Fifteen percent of the jobs were on commercial buildings and the rest were residences. This year DeConstruction Services is setting records. In the first quarter alone, 12 houses were deconstructed or were under contract and 64 projects were completed.
“Remodeling is still the bread and butter of the deconstruction industry,” says McVay. “We gut kitchens to the studs, roofs to the sub floor, take down falling down garages. We do everything.”
On a typical 1920s house, McVay says 65 percent of the materials are recovered and reused, 25 percent are recycled and 10 percent are disposed. The reusables include doors, windows, cabinets, flooring, plywood and lumber. Fiberglass and cellulose insulation that is not wet or moldy is bagged and resold at the Rebuilding Center store, too. Recyclables include broken pieces of clean wood, lath, ferrous and nonferrous metal, nonasbestos roofing material and gypsum wallboard made after 1980 (although markets change and wallboard is not always a viable recyclable). Plaster, painted wood, nonreusable plastics, asbestos, pre-1980 gypsum wallboard, vinyl flooring and lower tier reusables (like damaged and worn hollow-core doors or damaged fiberglass shower tap enclosures) are landfilled.
Recently, DeConstruction Services was offered a unique contract to be sole provider for deconstruction services in Clark County, Washington. This is a two-year contract, renewable for five years, to remove buildings on any public project requiring the service. The main issue is a watershed enhancement program which will require the removal of houses built too close to the waterway. McVay says, “It’s the first contract of its kind to exist.” He anticipates the deconstruction of six houses in the next couple years.
One difficulty for the deconstruction industry has been insurers who insist on basing workman’s comp rates on statistics for demolition companies. Yet deconstruction companies have asserted that their work is safer and that there are fewer reported accidents. McVay says they’ve come to accept this situation but that there are things that can be done. “We have to use what we have in the insurance industry which wants to view us as full-blown demolition companies. But we no longer feel threatened and we ask workman’s comp providers what we can do to lessen costs. In general our rates have gone down.”
McVay describes a “functioning safety culture” that has been developed at DeConstruction Services. A part-time safety manager is employed to handle all communications and paperwork involved in implementing a safety policy. “Our safety policy is not fixed,” says McVay. “We are constantly assessing new requirements for safety.” One way this is done is by weekly “tailgate chats.” These are brief meetings on site where workers can voice safety issues and talk about solutions.
Additionally, DeConstruction Services gives monthly trainings for staff. These trainings include topics such as fall protection, scaffolding, electrical safety and respirator maintenance and fitting.
Trainings extend to other areas as well. For example, DeConstruction Services recently hired a professional speaker to train its entire deconstruction crew in customer service. “It is important to make the right impression on customers,” says McVay. “All our actions have a ripple effect.”
And there is plenty of competition. McVay knows of three other companies offering deconstruction services in Portland, and some are advertising on “Craig’s List,” the free classified ads web site. “There are more providers than ever and increasing numbers of jobs suited to deconstruction,” says McVay.
In 2001, BioCycle reported that $100 per house was spent by DeConstruction Services to create a portfolio for customers of their deconstruction projects. McVay says the process has been streamlined to reduce waste. The photos are digital now and customers can request they be emailed or put on a CD, though they can still receive a full portfolio if they want. “A few color pictures and a written inventory are all people need to prove the tax deduction,” says McVay.
Currently in Portland, the costs of deconstruction, particularly when prepping for remodeling, are on a par with demolition. For a full house, deconstruction is still a little more expensive. But McVay plays down looking at cost alone and talks about “the triple bottom line.” Economic decision-making is one part, but Deconstruction Services urges people to look as well at the social factor – like job creation and Our United Villages’ community enhancement programs – and the environmental factor – alternative sources for materials and reduced waste.
In Portland, this theme is resonating. “‘Preservation’ and ‘simplicity’ are terms that are more and more used in conversation, planning and policy,” says McVay. “Instead of trucking materials across the country, people are looking to find what they need in a 200-mile radius. For example, three bars have been remodeled with salvaged materials, all within walking distance of the Rebuilding Center.”
ReFind Furniture, the Rebuilding Center’s newest program, assists this mission in another way. Taking pieces of trim, old growth lumber with nail holes and blemishes, and other reclaimed odds and ends with little potential for reuse, it creates a line of one-of-a-kind pieces to be sold in the store.
ReFind has had three managers since its inception, each of whom, says McVay, has brought his own take on reuse and style. Currently the program employs a shop steward and an AmeriCorps volunteer who have started making a line of tables and benches in a very simple, linear “arts and crafts” style with an environmental finish.
Pieces are displayed on Rebuilding Center’s web site – There are all kinds of tables, cabinets, chairs, picture frames and mirrors. Items can be custom ordered as well. One Portland restaurant bought all its tables from ReFind Furniture.
The Rebuilding Center supports its social mission in many ways. It starts its employees at $10/hr, with benefits after 90 days. These include medical and dental insurance, a small life insurance policy, a cafeteria plan and membership in a recently established 401K. Pay for upper tier management is as high as $25/hr with the average worker earning between $12 and $15/hr.
Rebuilding Center works with other nonprofit organizations as well. Recently it sent four people to train and work with Mercy Corps disassembly staff in New Orleans helping clean up after Hurricane Katrina. Reclaimed materials went to a nonprofit in New Orleans. Rebuilding Center constantly donates materials to other nonprofit organizations who follow a regular procedure for requesting help.
As a nonprofit itself, much of Rebuilding Center’s profits go to its parent organization, Our United Villages, which employs three full-time staff to conduct neighborhood discussions in economically depressed areas of North Portland. Changing demographics in these areas create a climate for lack of communication between residents. These workers go door to door asking people what they like about their neighborhoods and what they would like to see changed. These neighborhood surveys give way to discussion groups to facilitate people getting to know one another and developing projects.
Rick Denhart, Director of DeConstruction Services, sums up the recycling activities of the Rebuilding Center and the social activities of Our United Villages like this: “What we’re involved in is not just a mechanical process. In a recycling program stuff might be wasted again. We don’t say waste management, it’s resource preservation. We involve the local community. We’re a learning center, to help people understand the world.”
The last 10 years have been very fruitful for building materials reuse and recycling. In the coming years it will be interesting to see how markets for reused building materials and deconstruction continue to develop. Already it is economical to reclaim and resell these materials. As oil prices and landfill tipping fees continue to increase, and as public awareness grows around the multiple benefits of reuse, there may be more for-profit companies joining the ranks of the nonprofits which have been paving the way.
A big “welcome back” to Josh Wachtel who years ago did an internship with BioCycle and In Business.
One area for development in the deconstruction industry involves military housing. With base closings and redevelopment of military housing, there are tons of material ripe for reclamation.
The Stewart Terrace Military Family Housing Area in Orange County, New York is currently being redeveloped by Atlantic Marine Corps Communities (AMCC), a public/private partnership of the Department of the Navy and Actus Lend Lease created through the Military Privatization Act. The project involves demolishing 296 homes and replacing them with 171 new homes and a community center.
John Majercak of the ReStore in Springfield, Massachusetts got a call from Actus Development Manager Ryan Kleinau after Kleinau viewed a television report on the ReStore in the fall of 2005. “This was a case where there were a lot of materials and a developer who wanted to see the materials reused,” says Majercak. “Usually ReStore gets paid for hire, but since there were so many materials and they were easy to remove, we did it for free.”
Because of the large number of houses to strip at once and there was time pressure, ReStore engaged the help of Construction Junction, another nonprofit reuse center based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Four semitrucks of material were taken from the site, two each for ReStore and Construction Junction. Each truck held seven pine wood storage sheds taken from yards which were filled with kitchen cabinets, windows, handrails and other interior fixtures. Later ReStore made two more trips with their truck and took 13 more cabinet sets, 71 windows and about a dozen handrails. Construction Junction took a total of 20 sheds and 30 cabinet sets. Habitat for Humanity also worked with AMCC to take another truck load worth of material.
“To get so much material is unique,” Majercak says. “There’s a lot of potential here for the industry. When you look at it, we have barely scratched the surface.”
As more buildings are deconstructed nationwide, the question of grading old lumber will become a larger issue. It will affect consumers, deconstruction firms, reused building materials outlets, contractors, architects, engineers, and building regulating agencies.
Bob Falk of the USDA Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisconsin, says there are two issues. “When it comes to big timbers,” he explains, “they are usually resawn into flooring and other nonstructural building materials because of their greater value, or else they are used for timber frame construction. But each timber frame building is individually engineered.” In these latter cases, the timber can be graded individually for the structural needs of the building.
“The other case is the ubiquitous 2x4s’ material which is used in most single family construction,” continues Falk. “That’s where you want to have a grade stamp for each individual piece.”
In the Pacific Northwest, grading agencies have already trained and certified graders to regrade Douglas fir for structural use. The assumption is generally that old is better when it comes to reusing old growth high density wood. This is true for the ReBuilding Center in Portland where Brian McVay reports its grading stamp never gets used because old growth fir is sold as soon as it arrives.
At this time, though, not all grading agencies will grade reclaimed lumber for structural reuse as they are not yet sure old lumber is adequate for new structural situations. Falk has been working on this issue for some time and has graded and tested thousands of pieces of reclaimed lumber. “Old growth wood in use for 50 or 100 years, with nail holes, notches and other damage from deconstruction, is not the same piece of lumber as when it got its initial stamp,” he says.
Currently he is looking at reclaimed lumber, testing it for strength and residual use and analyzing the data gathered in the Forest Products Lab. In the next few months, Falk hopes to report his findings. This may lead to the development of grading standards specifically for reclaimed dimensional lumber. These may include engineering tables (load and span), how to deal with nail holes, splits and damage you don’t find in new lumber, and what to do about wood species mixture, since species vary in strength and can often be hard to distinguish, especially when aged.
Falk foresees not only the implementation of standard grading practices, as we now find with new lumber, but a new sub-economy dealing with reused lumber. “I envision, as reuse entrepreneurs market more of this material, a broader acceptance of graded reclaimed lumber for reuse in housing.”
Decon ’07, the next national conference on deconstruction and building material reuse, will be held at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin on May 14-16, 2007. It will be hosted by the Building Materials Reuse Association (BMRA), the USDA Forest Products Laboratory and WasteCap Wisconsin. Detailed information will be available at

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