Inside the dump of architectural gems

It was a Saturday afternoon when Lynn Edmundson met her then-husband in the driveway of their home in Houston, Texas: he had just come home from work as a doctor. “I said he couldn’t park in the garage because there was a completely deconstructed 1930s bungalow inside,” she recalled. This moment was a tipping point for architect Edmundson (and no doubt his puzzled wife): she had to find a way to save her home from all the salvage.

Her solution was to open a junkyard where she could be sold. The first, in 2004, was just 800 square feet, but two decades later the yard moved to take up about half of a 45,000 square foot warehouse, with more space outside. Edmundson says the price of architectural treasures there is about 20-50% below market value on average, with particular bargains on items such as high-end custom cabinets, which often cost 75-80% off. what they would cost at a conventional price. shop.

This is no ordinary dump. Edmundson asks them to move because profits from this architectural Steptoe and Son go directly back into the community — specifically, supporting his work leading a charity that aims to preserve Houston’s finest buildings, Historic Houston. .

She is not alone. Across America, there are plenty of pro-social salvage yards: take Earthwise Architectural Salvage, based in Washington state, or Philly Reclaim, part of the Philadelphia Community Corps in Pennsylvania.

In Portland, Oregon, a 2016 ordinance required all homes built in 1916 or earlier to be dismantled rather than demolished so that their materials could be recycled; in 2020, this law was extended to properties up to 1940.

One of Historic Houston’s deconstruction projects

This has created a virtuous circle that is both environmentally and financially sustainable. Each pro-social salvage yard scavenges trash destined for landfill and instead sells it for recycling, using the money it raises to keep more treasures out of the ground.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States generated more than 600 million tons of construction-related waste in 2018, nearly a quarter of which ended up in landfill. Only 5.5% of the total came from new construction, the rest from demolition.

To remedy this, nonprofits like Edmundson’s are relying on a loophole in US law that helps ensure a steady supply of scrap metal. Charitable donations can be tax deducted: donors can deduct everything from doors to windows, flooring to siding, strapping and wrought iron.

Edmundson became involved in preservation in Houston decades ago, and her nonprofit first began moving prominent homes, tearing them down and rebuilding them, on land set aside by the city. What is now known as Fourth Ward Cottage was the first such project and proved so eye-catching that donations quickly snowballed.

A pair of large, custom-made chandeliers are on display inside the historic salvage warehouse

A pair of chandeliers at the Houston Historic Salvage warehouse © Brandon Thibodeaux for the FT

She quickly discovered that there were too many houses to wholesale, so she opted instead to simply remove key details – floors and mantels, in particular – before the wrecking ball hit. Initially, she kept this loot in people’s garages, including her own, allowing visitors to grab whatever they wanted. The realization that she could monetize donations and, in doing so, fund other efforts transformed her nonprofit organization.

“I think we made $6,000 the first day, literally with my board members working in the warehouse. A guy said to me, ‘How much do the windows cost?’ and I was mentally thinking $25, and he was like, ‘Do you want to take $225?’ “, she says. “But it wasn’t a big enough space a few weeks after opening – all the houses kept coming.”

Soon they found this space bigger, but even when the money started piling up, she wasn’t tempted to start offering money for higher quality pieces. “As a non-profit organization, we decided not to buy salvage – in this industry there are a lot of things that get stolen in the middle of the night,” she says. After Hurricane Katrina, “we had people showing up at our warehouse with trailers full of stuff stolen from homes in New Orleans, driving around to see who would buy it.”

Yet, following the Great Recession, she found herself without operating cash and had to close the warehouse in June 2011. “After closing, I was coming home and there were two doors on my fence , maybe a light fixture that someone dropped on my porch,” she says. “It had become such a problem of the amount of material we were constantly throwing away.”

Within a year it restarted and reopened, this time forcing those deconstructing a home to fund labor — another cost, of course, that is tax deductible. This changed the majority of donors from teardown developers to wealthy, civic individuals and improved the caliber of what she typically receives. The financial benefits are obvious. “Tearing down a 1930s two-story brick house might cost around $25,000, but the charitable donation of the materials we salvage is around $250,000.”

Matt Polansky, an employee of the Historic Salvage Warehouse, arranges newly acquired doors inside the facility

Doors are best sellers © Brandon Thibodeaux

Historic Ithaca in upstate New York follows a similar pattern, although its executive director, Susan Holland, says she will occasionally buy key pieces that she wants to resell to a good house – purchased items like this represent 6-10% of the total. annual income, she said.

His non-profit organization was established more than 50 years ago in the university town to campaign to protect its historic housing stock from urban renewal. “We have a lot of houses built before the 1930s and in rural areas we see a lot of old farmhouses and Italianate houses from the 1850s to the 1920s,” she says.

The charity began recycling building materials in 1991 and now operates a 16,000-square-foot, three-story site open six days a week, with salvage sales generating around 40% of its annual budget, or about 190 $000 out of $475,000.

“Our inventory is priced to move and be affordable. We also have an equity lens: we try not to rip anyone off, but to earn enough to support our mission, doing a lot of community engagement and training,” Holland says. Her charity pioneered the now widespread idea of ​​the circular economy, she says, and they often have to strip a house down to its finest details with hours to spare before demolition.

The greatest find took place in an apartment building that had long been used as student residences; As the rescue team investigated, removing the drywall, they first found chestnut paneling, before peeling it back further to show 16 small leaded glass windows which had been covered and therefore perfectly preserved.

The doors are bestsellers, Holland says, although old windows can sometimes be coated in toxic lead paint that prevents their easy reuse. “Two of the hardest things to find are master keys and floor grids – think about it: in an old house, when people were in a financial crash, they sold things out of their homes, to start with the metal,” she says.

Upstate New York is home to not one but two pro-social salvage yards. Indeed, Holland managed the other, which is located in the state capital. Its current leader is Pamela Howard, who oversees the 12,000 square foot recovery site. The Albany Historical Foundation relies on resale to provide between one-third and one-half of the funding for its six-person operation.

Movie theater seats salvaged outside Earthwise Architectural Salvage in Seattle

Earthwise Architectural Salvage Pro-Social Salvage Yard, Seattle

Howard’s approach includes hosting a cocktail party at his warehouse a few times a year to attract new buyers to explore items such as the 19th-century chestnut mantel from a home designed by Marcus T Reynolds, which it just sold for $3,500, or an unpainted wooden Hoosier Cabinet, complete with its original flour hopper, which went for $750. Doors are popular here too, with or without stock hardware.

“We like to see when our things go to a good house,” she says. “It’s like puppies or kittens.” The doors could be reborn, perhaps, as a fashionable dining table. She wants to see things “put back into use, even if not for the original use”.

Pippa Biddle is one of his professional clients. Biddle runs the Quittner restoration and design studio in nearby Germantown with her husband Benjamin Davidson. The couple often scour Historic Albany’s warehouse for treasures they can rehabilitate and resell.

“Creating new products is inherently consuming, so it’s kind of obvious to try to find things that are already old to work with,” says Biddle. “Pro-social groups like this also have a filter – they don’t just take junk. There are some exceptional things that just need a little TLC – you may have to take the door apart yourself, but you get a $3,000 door for $400. It is an exceptional value.

Architectural charities are also much more likely to last than their for-profit rivals, at least according to Historic Houston’s Edmundson. These operations are usually drawn to cheaper areas, usually when they begin to gentrify; land is cheaper, after all, when supply and demand are at their doorstep.

Yet as the neighborhood improves, these huge sites often come at a price from that same gentrification. Pro-social rescue can operate with thinner margins, and often on given land, giving it greater leeway.

Edmundson now faces this challenge: the owners of the site where his yard currently stands have just released the 1880s warehouse and its two-acre site on the market. If it sells, its fate could prove particularly poignant because it is Houston’s last all-wood construction warehouse, with 10-inch-by-10-inch columns that rise 35 feet.

“Not a single group that has looked at it so far has had any interest in saving the building,” she says. “So we will most likely end up deconstructing the building as a final decontamination project.”

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