Landfill to Living Room: Salvaged Building Materials Are Catching on. (House & Home)

By Harkinson, Josh | E Magazine, March-April 2000 | Go to article overview

Landfill to Living Room: Salvaged Building Materials Are Catching on. (House & Home)


Harkinson, Josh, E Magazine


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 $15 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 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. …

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