Mining architecture for spare parts

Aug. 12--Buffalo's supply of empty old Victorian houses, broken-down bungalows and closed factories is not blight to some, but wealth lying in wait.

Local treasure hunters are part of a growing national interest in "deconstruction" -- the salvaging, dismantling and reselling of old building parts.

One Niagara Falls man salvages factory beams made of dense oldgrowth pine that can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. In Buffalo, a new nonprofit store called "Buffalo ReUse" sells a range of salvaged items, such as solid pine paneled doors, oak flooring and old-fashioned soaker tubs.

"I feel like we're taking advantage of an urgent need," said Buffalo Re- Use executive director Michael Gainer, who has collected some $250,000 in grant money to hire staff and develop his nonprofit. His plans include taking down some of the city's empty houses, many on the East Side, and training people who need jobs how to do deconstruction work.

Deconstruction experts say national interest in leftover pieces of old houses and buildings made with rare ingredients and style has been growing in recent years. It fits with concern about the environmental cost of producing new things, teeming landfills and new reverence for the old. California found that construction debris is the third-largest part of the state's annual 92 million tons of garbage.

"A lot of it is this appreciation for what is thrown away," said Brad Guy, author of "Unbuilding: Salvaging the Architectural Treasures of Unwanted Houses" (Taunton Press). "There's just a lot of neat stuff that's out there."

A survey by Guy, who is also president of the Pennsylvania-based Building Materials Reuse Association, found that "used flooring" is one of the fastest growing retail categories.

The reuse movement is small but growing. Guy has 1,000 members listed on the BMRA Web site and sees evidence of new interest in the spike in attendance at the reuse association conference -- 170 this year compared to 50 five years ago. "There's so much being demolished in older cities," he said. "We've just kind of run out of some forest resource."

Homeowners say they like the looks of old stuff, and the way saving it makes them feel.

"We're buying materials wherever we think they'll fit in," said Bill Wolski, who figured he has saved $5,000 by spending $1,010 on a cast-iron tub, a medical-lab sink with a foot pedal and carved oak railings from Buffalo ReUse.

By the time he buys old flooring from the store at $1.50 a square foot instead of $6.50, he will add another $10,000 to his savings total.

"We're trying to build some instant history . . . We feel there's a certain energy we'll get by using 100- year-old houses that are being demolished," Kenmore native Wolski said of the good vibes he expects from the house he and his girlfriend, Melanie Carpenter of Toronto, are preparing to build in Colden.

For now, the couple lives in Boston, Mass. When they began working with an architect to design what will be a retirement house, Carpenter searched online for building materials and found Buffalo ReUse. "She couldn't sit down," Wolski said. "She'd say, 'Oh, look at this. Look at what I've found!' "

Interest from homeowners such as Wolski and Carpenter has contributed to an emerging nonprofit economic model: Nonprofits take on the job of deconstruction and open Home-Depot-like warehouses of used materials. A growing number of deconstruction related organizations have nonprofit status, such as Buffalo ReUse. Guy estimated that some 60 percent of last year's reuse association conference attendees were nonprofits.

David Bennink, a Washington state deconstruction consultant working with Buffalo ReUse, has been getting a call a week for help -- twice what he was getting three years ago. He has clients in 20 states. He figures he has dismantled and saved 350 full structures and salvaged materials from another 3,000 that were demolished or remodeled.

He also helped found, with a $25,000 grant, a used-materials store in Bellingham, Wash., 14 years ago. The "Re Store" now survives and pays employees on revenues alone.

"We saved 4 million pounds from the landfill each year," said Bennink, who now focuses on consulting work. "It's like an urban forest. Every building in Buffalo represents 'X' number of trees . . . If you just demolish that building it's like those trees are done and they're in the landfill."

Increasing demand for these materials has led some contractors to offer to dismantle buildings for free, said another who has helped Baltimore develop a city-wide policy. "The demand is there," said Neil Seldman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Local Self Reliance.

Deconstruction "creates small businesses and good jobs for people. It also reduces the cost of maintaining a city," said Seldman, who will be in Buffalo next week discussing policy with local demolition companies and city officials.

10,000 demolitions

In Buffalo, where an estimated 10,000 abandoned houses are slated to come down, the city is collecting deconstruction and demolition proposals. Buffalo ReUse is hoping to get a contract for $100,000 to take down 10 at $10,000 each.

Clearing out junk, and rats, turning off sewer and water, and learning to take houses down efficiently and safely is an expensive process, said Gainer, 33, a Pennsylvania native and a teacher by training.

He got the idea to start the nonprofit after going to "deconstruction" conference, moving to Buffalo and seeing the city's need.

"It's not really rocket science," he said, "but it is something that requires a little bit of diligence and attention to detail." So far his efforts -- with the help of 30 volunteers and Bennink -- have led to Buffalo ReUse dismantling two houses.

The results, combined with salvage jobs and donations, are a growing assortment doors, bathtubs, toilets and tables in an old warehouse at 459 Ellicott St. that serves as the temporary store open Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"The goal here is to sell local," Gainer said. "It's very affordable material and it's highquality material." Eventually, he intends to open a bigger store at a yet-to-be-finalized location near the Broadway Market.

His plans include a neighborhood lending library of tools, space for building materials and a quirky display the things found under floorboards and behind attic walls that he's dubbed "the museum." Items include glass milk bottles, worn high school pennants and vinyl records with the scrawled address where Gainer found them. (Michael Jackson's "Bad," 72 Winslow St.)

"We're going bonkers because it's too small and we're getting stuff coming in too fast," Gainer said of the increasingly crowded warehouse.

Valuable factory floors

Russell Franjoine, who used to work for Frontier Industrial Corp., an Amherst demolition company his brother Dennis owns, discovered the value of the old wood he'd been sending to the landfill in the early 1990s. Back then, he was taking down a packing company in Texas. A man pulled over to ask if he could have the wood that was on the way to a landfill.

"It just opened my eyes to the value of this material. It was something I could see that I could obtain and generate a good income off it," said Franjoine, as he stood by a pile of beams made of long leaf yellow pine stacked on an empty lot in Lockport on a recent afternoon. "It's just not available today -- in old growth-timber," he said.

The dense wood, routinely used for building in the late 1880s, can develop a rich reddish patina when made into floors. Its potential compelled one Dutch client, tipped off by a Franjoine ad in "Fine Home Building" a few years ago, to buy and ship back more than 1 million board feet that Franjoine had salvaged from an old Sears merchandising center in Chicago.

For Franjoine, gathering, remilling and selling the old beams is a part-time job. He drives excavators on union jobs and deals in wood. He takes the nails out, planes the boards and sells the results when he accumulates enough, as he has now.

Most of the 1,100 beams he has came from the old Buffalo Forge air conditioning plant on Broadway. The rough brown splintery wood will turn into about 80,000 square feet of flooring with deep-yellow hues that can fetch from $4 to $17 a square foot.

"It's just beautiful how you can have something like this," he said. "When it's sliced, it's like gold."


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