Salvage Savvy: Use Salvaged Building Materials in Your Home

One person's trash is another's front door—maybe yours.

| May/June 2004

  • A salvaged window serves as a skylight in this bathroom.
    Photo By Paul Bardagjy
  • This bathroom’s tub surround is made of salvaged hammered metal, with copper tubing supporting the shower curtain.
    Photo By Laurie Dickson

One could argue that no single person has done more for the architectural antique business than Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who bought reclaimed old-growth Douglas fir timbers for some of the construction of his mansion near Seattle. All that material was put back into use instead of getting buried in a big hole in the ground, which is what usually happens to the 31.5 million tons of construction waste generated by the home-building industry each year.

People like Gates are preserving the embodied energy that went into making building materials, maintains Matthew Levesque, project manager of Building REsources, a nonprofit salvaged building materials center in San Francisco. “I don’t like to use that word ‘embodied’ too often because people start to zone out,” he says. “Instead I talk about the history of the material, its quality, and the workmanship that went into it. Everything that gets built is a repository of all the energy it took to build it, and we’re trying to keep that energy going. Plus, salvage materials allow for a lot of character, flavor, and individuality in a house.”

You don’t have to be a gazillionaire to enjoy the environmental and aesthetic benefits of salvaged building materials. From structural lumber to bricks, sinks, and tubs, there’s a wealth of cut-rate but quality materials to be found at a growing number of salvage yards around the country. Of course, not all the materials found in resale shops are good quality; it helps to arm yourself with a little knowledge.

There are two different kinds of salvaged materials on the market: architectural antiques like the old lumbar in Gates’s house and used goods like those found in Habitat for Humanity’s Re-stores. Architectural antique stores are great places to find period fixtures or millwork for historic renovations. Prices can be steep, but items such as pressed-tin ceilings, Corinthian columns, and stained-glass windows are one of a kind. Reuse or salvage stores may also carry some of these, but mostly you’ll find everyday building materials at prices up to half of what they’d be brand new.

Be prepared to shop with a tape measure, dig through piles of old doorknobs, and wander through cavernous rooms full of unmarked shelves. Also be willing to get out some sand paper, make a few extra cuts with the circular saw, or simply enjoy that antique look. “Most of the folks who come through these stores are homeowner do-it-yourselfers, but not all of them,” says Kurt Buss, chairman of the Used Building Materials Association and manager of ReSource, a used material program in Boulder, Colorado. “Some are people just looking for that worn, shabby-chic finish.”

Finding salvaged building materials has become much easier over the past decade as builders and homeowners realize the economic benefits of keeping old goods in circulation. If you can’t find a store near you, ask local contractors where they take materials after demolition. Even better, give them the sizes and dimensions of what you’re looking for and offer to buy it from them when they find it. “Most of them will say, ‘Hell yeah,’ because it’s going to save them the time to haul it to the dump and the money to dump it,” says Levesque.

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