America’s history — tons of it — rests in the Distinguished Boards and Beams lumberyard. The timber here comes from old factories and barns all across the United States, a few dating back to before there was a United States.
“Right now we have wood from a 1775 Kentucky chestnut cabin and a barn built in 1890 in Michigan,” DB&B owner Robbie Williams told the Sopris Sun. “We took those buildings down ourselves and numbered all the boards, so they can be put back up again.” The barn was huge: 40-by-70 feet with a roof peak 48 feet high. The trees harvested to build it were at least 100 years old, so they began their lives around the time when Peter the Great was crowned Czar of Russia.
It would be tough today to find lumber this massive; some beams measure as much two feet square by 36 feet long and weigh more than a ton. The wood is denser than modern lumber because it came from slow-to-mature species in first-growth forests: hardwood oak, elm, ash, hickory and maple. The yard also holds softer woods like Douglas fir, redwood and longleaf heart pine.
Because DB&B relies on scouts across the U.S. to find outdated barns and buildings slated for demolition, nearly all of the wood comes from domestic forests. DB&B re-manufactures all of the lumber here in Carbondale.
DB&B’s reclaimed wood is used for flooring, paneling and ceilings in custom homes, restaurants and office projects. It can be seen in the bar at Hattie Thompson’s restaurant in River Valley Ranch, and at Town restaurant and Fatbelly Burgers on Main Street. Architects and interior designers in the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond prize the lumber because weathering, saw and axe patterns, worm holes and hand-cut mortise and tenon joints give it exceptional character.
Right now, in addition to the Michigan barn, DB&B’s stock includes two complete cabins, redwood salvaged from wine and yeast vats, and white oak reclaimed from a defunct factory — all of it dated before 1910.
“Every now and again, we find dates chiseled and signatures into the lumber,” Williams said. “We see Roman numerals cut in to tell carpenters how to put a building together. The builders would cut all of the wood and then move it and reassemble it in place.”
Although there are environmental benefits to recycling old trees, reclaimed lumber can contain rusty nails and hardware. It can host dirt, mold, bacteria and bugs. In addition, many types of wood shrinks and develops “face checking,” small cracks that parallel the grain, when lumber is moved from moister areas to Colorado’s dry climate.
To stabilize the wood, DB&B dries its lumber for five to 10 days in one of two kilns. Next, they square up the boards, trimming them to the client’s specifications, milling them to consistent depths and adding tongue-and-groove edges that prepare them for second lives as flooring or wall panels.
Met in college
Williams and his wife, Carbondale Board of Trustee member Pam Zentmyer, started Distinguished Boards & Beams about 10 years ago. The two met in Boulder during college. Williams, who grew up in Gunnison, spent a month climbing in Peru, and returned to the U.S. “completely broke.” He offered to housesit for friends in Zentmyer’s hometown and wound up becoming a Carbondale resident.
The company now keeps 14 full-time staffers busy. Three of them, including Zentmyer, run the office. The rest sort wood for orders; run big, commercial Wood-Mizer saws that can churn out as much 15,000 board feet per run; and create custom millwork for clients.
Williams’s first exposure to reclaimed wood came after a friend who had done a demolition job in Crested Butte suggested, “we should try selling this to people.” Soon after, Williams’s brother Brad invited him to help him pull down a New Hampshire barn that had been built in 1780.
“We brought the barn back to Carbondale and sold it in pieces,” Williams recalls. “We rented some space and stored the barn. That got the inventory started. Then we had a bunch of wood that came out of a big auto factory in the Midwest. Those beams were 17-by-17 inches and 20 feet long. We had five semi loads of them.”
Although the auto factory is long gone, Williams still has a piece of the barn. It’s a chunk of weathered wood that holds an inscribed brass plaque and a photo, a commemorative gift to Williams from brother Brad.
NOTE: This story originally appeared in the Sopris Sun, Carbondale’s community newspaper. Images courtesy of Distinguished Boards & Beams.
The following story originally appeared in the Sopris Sun, Carbondale, Colorado’s community newspaper.
The playfully modern furnishings that Brad Reed Nelson crafts in his Carbondale, Colorado studio are sold nationwide, and it’s easy to see why. Despite the name of his company — Board by Design — he’s clearly not!
“The name has an obvious a double meaning,” Nelson chuckled. “I wanted it to be provocative and contrary. I have a snarky sense of humor.”
Nelson’s humor shows up in his product names, as well as his design. For example, Board By Design (BBD) sells a “Very Holy” lamp; it’s a column of Plexiglas pierced all over in a polka dot pattern.
BBD’s “Elefunction” organizers are rectangular wooden plaques that spout long trunks. A bungee cord crosses the body of the wall-mounted block, functioning to hang wallets and sunglasses. Four “herculean earth magnets” are embedded behind the trunk so that keys will stick to it. You won’t be searching for your keys, Nelson quips, because the Elephant never forgets!
Nelson does use boards in Board by Design furniture. “I love wood for its beauty,” he commented. “It creates a sense of warmth, and you can decide just what parts of the wood you want to use.”
Nelson uses only environmentally sustainable lumber. His Red House table, a hefty rectangle of Douglas fir cradled in a red steel frame, was crafted from a discarded beam found at a Snowmass construction site. Some of BBD’s organizers are fashioned from beetle-kill pine.
The lines of Nelson’s chairs echo the grace of mid-century modern style, but their wood slats are accented with a playful fillip of color that comes from steel framing. “I love steel for its directness,” said Nelson. “Steel can be very thin and strong. If you want something light, steel works better. And we love color! Color adds fun and humor.”
Nelson’s Windsorrondack line of swings and rockers — handsome, classic chairs that sell for $4200 in the single-seat version — can be crafted from mahogany, ash or North Carolina walnut, and their steel frames are offered in shades of poppy red, Caribbean blue, Bermuda blue or Fruita green.
Nelson, who earned a master’s degree in sculpture from Arizona State University, first came to the Roaring Fork Valley to study at Anderson Ranch, eventually becoming its interim director. He founded Board by Design in 2001, running the firm from the Aspen Business Center for seven years.
But Brad and his wife wanted to live in Carbondale – enough so that they turned down a two-bedroom affordable housing unit in Aspen, Colorado’s Burlingame development after winning it. Nelson and his wife, a jewelry designer, now lives here with their seven-year-old daughter. Brad opened his Carbondale studio in 2007.
All of BBD’s furniture is made in that studio. Nelson, who says that he would “like to be the inventor and have it made by someone else,” often partners with other Carbondale artisans for manufacturing. Local furniture maker David Rasmussen, for example, assembles BBD’s organizers.
Currently, Nelson is creating benches for Fold, a new Carbondale restaurant located just few doors down from BBD’s studio on Dolores Way. BBD furniture is also sold through the Harvey Meadows gallery in Aspen.
But more BBD products are exported beyond the Roaring Fork Valley than are sold here. Last summer, BBD shipped 41 tables to Shaw Media in Toronto. BBD sells accessories nationwide via the Etsy online website, and BBD furniture is offered by William Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, Urban Outfitter and Y Living stores, among others.
Nelson markets his work at two national furniture fairs, and although he calls himself “an analog boy in a digital world,” the Internet is contributing to Board By Design’s fame. Recently the Design Sponge blog wrote about BBD, and the international Apartment Therapy website named BBD’s hanging Bike All rack one of its favorites.
“I try to make beautiful, functional objects that solve problems and are not being shipped from everywhere,” commented Nelson. “I want to make things that will always be cherished. With good materials. And made in America.”
Once a silver mining town, Aspen was reborn after WWII as a retreat that sought to nurture mind, body and spirit. That’s the “Aspen idea,” and it made the little mountain town an international crossroads for ideas, arts and architecture. I have long felt called to come back here.
I can almost hear my West Coast friends chuckling. Colorado architecture? What the heck is that?
I recently listened to some bright folks wrestling with that very question. The occasion was an American Institute of Architects (AIA) event called “Aspen’s Significant Architecture, Past, Present and Future.”
During the evening, Aspen architects Willis Pember, Suzannah Reid and Harry Teague gamely picked out a number of Aspen area buildings that could warrant that “significant” moniker. While applauding their choices, I also found myself fretting over a major omission. Since I couldn’t very well climb onto the stage and add my two cents, I will use this post to nominate a few buildings of my own – and to point out why Aspen and its little Colorado valley have a golden opportunity to play a significant, and even crucial role, in contemporary architecture.
But bit of background is in order first.
A Climate for Change
As Harry Teague told the AIA’s audience, a distinctive regional architectural style usually arises out a combination of cultural influences and climate. Traditional, pre-architectural buildings around the world provide plenty of examples.
For example, Islamic culture – specifically the Muslim prohibition against depicting the human form – influenced the handsome, geometric (and cooling!) tile that adorns homes in Morocco. A Zen aesthetic influences Japanese homes and temples.
Climate gave rise to New England’s salt box houses with their long, asymmetrical, wind-breaking roofs. It was also the impetus behind India’s bungalows. There, people do most of their living on deeply shaded porches that surround a central courtyard. The roofless courtyard creates a “stack effect” that allows sweltering heat to exhale upward and ventilate the home’s living quarters.
Back to the Future
Now, as human activities threaten to undermine the ecosystems that support us, architects who are interested in sustainable building have begun to plumb traditional, pre-architectural dwellings for inspiration. Before modern engineering harnessed fossil fuels and nuclear reactors, no one imagined creating buildings that would have to be scaled by elevators or lit by electric lights. Our ancestors couldn’t import exotic materials from afar, or fill their homes with electronic devices, or create landscapes that were alien to the local climate. With no option but to use local materials and to adapt to the weather, they built green and came up with some impressive passive heating and cooling strategies.
At the turn of the 20th century, cheap fuel transformed building technology and gave rise to modern architecture.
Today, residential and commercial buildings, taken together, use 76 percent of all electricity produced in the US. The architectural sector consumes “a whopping 48 percent of total US energy consumption,” according to architect Edward Mazria, author of a ground-breaking 2003 article called “It’s the Architecture, Stupid.” In that article, which was published in Solar Today, Mazria argued convincingly that it is architects who hold “the key to the lock on the global thermostat.”
Although still too few of them know this, one thing is certain: our use (and abuse) of energy will transform architecture all over again in the 21st century.
Considering the stakes involved in climate change, I was surprised that the Aspen architects neglected to include Amory Lovins’ green home at Snowmass in their survey of significant local buildings.
I was doubly surprised when the whole issue of sustainability – not just energy, but water, climate and air quality – rated scarcely a mention.
Aspen Influences: Buckminster, Barns and Bauhaus
As Willis Pember noted during the AIA event, Colorado’s vernacular buildings include mining structures, ranches and barns, log cabins, and the Victorians that were in vogue when the 1879 silver rush peopled the place with white folks. (Truth be told, Ute Indians settled the region eight centuries before all this happened. But the Utes lived a nomadic lifestyle and their wikiups weren’t meant to last.)
Silver mining faded and Aspen, which was first called “Ute City”, struggled through the Great Depression. At the end of WWII, the town was a bit dilapidated, but it still had a newspaper, an opera house, a post office and the iconic Hotel Jerome. The west side was filled with Queen Anne and Victorian homes, and in 1941, a downhill and slalom championship breathed new life into the town. The east side and modern architecture got a big boost when architects Fritz Benedict and Bauhaus-trained Herbert Bayer arrived in the mid 1940s.
During the 1950s as the Aspen ski resort began to grow, a few Bauhaus-style modern residences were built. Among these avant garde structures were Frederick “Fritz” Benedict’s Hallam Lake residence, built for novelist John Marquand, and the “Waterfall” house he built for D. V. Edmundson. Both houses have been demolished.
A similar fate may soon befall another mid-century modern Aspen landmark, the Given Institute for Pathobiology, which was designed by distinguished Chicago modernist Harry Weese. (It’s owned by my alma mater, the University of Colorado, which wants to sell it – or more precisely, the land on which it stands – because CU is strapped for money.)
Aspen also felt the west wind blowing in from California, picking up influences that ranged from Yosemite’s famed 1927 Ahwahnee Lodge to Buckminster Fullerton’s geodesic domes, plus a dose of Haight-Ashbury-type weirdness in the form of buildings erected by Chip Lord’s Ant Farm avant-garde architectural and media group. They were the folks who planted all those Cadillacs in the ground. (Oh yeah, I’m right at home here!)
Among the modern buildings the panel named as being significant were architect Victor Lundy’s house (still standing and used as a vacation rental), the Aspen Interfaith Chapel, the Aspen Bank, the Institute for Physics and the Aspen Institute. The three tents used by the Aspen Music Festival, designed by Eero Saarinen, Herbert Bayer and Harry Teague, also merited nomination.
Among the as-yet-to-be-built modern buildings that promise to be significant is the new Aspen Art Museum. Plans for the 30,000 square foot building have been drawn up by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. (I’m happy to note that the new AAM will be built green, and it will exceed LEED standards.)
Nicolette’s Picks for Significant Architecture
No one asked me, but I’m going to nominate a few more buildings as being significant.
Another of my favorite local buildings is the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork, located about 25 miles from Aspen. As regular readers know, I’m a fan of straw bale building. The insulating quality of the walls creates a deep, contemplative hush inside the house while also providing thermal insulation. The walls can be shaped into curves or angles that hold deep-set windows, and they can be used to create stunningly handsome buildings. I love the Waldorf School’s roof line and the way its angles echo the mountains that surround it.
My third pick is a rammed earth solar house that captured my imagination when I read about it in a blog called Carrie’s Design Musings. Designed by Studio B Architects and built by Quentin Branch, it’s the first – and only – rammed earth home in Aspen. Rammed earth building has been around for hundreds of years; to make rammed earth, the builder compresses a mixture of damp earth with sand, gravel, clay or cement.
The process was used to build the Great Wall of China and pyramids in Mexico, and this house is only slightly less humble. It has won three awards and has been featured in Elle Decor, as well as in Carrie’s blog. It’s for sale – for just $10.8 million. (Take a look at the photos in Carrie’s “My Aspen Love Affair” post; the interior by Larry Laslo is also stunning.)
My Own Love Affair with Aspen and her Valley
I have known and loved Aspen for decades. I grew up hiking and skiing in the area. In my teens, I graduated from the Outward Bound wilderness school in nearby Marble. After my first year at CU in Boulder, disillusioned and wondering what Beowulf had to do with the rest of my life, I dropped out to find meaning. I sought it in Aspen, and wound up living the Roaring Fork Valley for a year.
What appealed to me about Aspen years ago is what appeals to me again: the stunning setting, the town’s walkability, its sense of history, its artsy feel and its scale. (The AIA panelists, who included local entrepeneur George Stranahan, builder Steve Hansen, and Amy Guthrie of the Aspen Historic Preservation Commission, were chuckling over whether three stories would be too much on Main Street!)
In many ways, Aspen reminds me of Mendocino, California, a small town perched prettily above the Pacific. It’s similarly filled with artists, artisans, hippies and holiday makers, and it has taken similar pains to preserve its Victorian-era architecture. Like Mendocino, Aspen is filled with folks who love the setting, and who by extension, want to preserve the natural environment.
But arguably, what has set Aspen apart is its devotion to ideas. Aspen, and by extension much of the Roaring Fork Valley, is a place where leading thinkers come to converse and solve the vexing problems of our day. It’s a cultural crossroads, a place where Albert Schweitzer, Arthur Rubinstein, Mortimer Adler and Ansel Adams have all come to speak and perform. The place has attracted presidents, statesmen, diplomats, judges, ambassadors, and Nobel laureates.
That’s why I think that it’s not enough for Aspen’s architecture to be attractive or avant garde. This is a place that matters, a spot filled with people worthy of taking on a significant challenge. And heaven knows, we certainly have one before us.
They call it the “Inspired In-Law” but I was more than just inspired when I saw it. I was gobsmacked. This cute little house was assembled in just one day?
Yes, it was. The pieces of this handsome pre-fab cottage were trucked in on Wednesday, craned into place Thursday and then the house was erected that same day. There it was, all put together and sitting in the parking lot at Fort Mason in San Francisco, ready for me to see it at the West Coast Green building festival. And I was inspired when I walked inside. This cottage is awash with sunshine (thanks to great window placement), beautifully detailed, and so well laid out that I could imagine myself living there.
While I’m having my own housing issues at the moment, the 500-square foot cottage was meant to solve the problems of folks a bit older than me.
Specifically, what do you do when mom is really no longer able to live alone, but is dead set against going to a “old folks” home? Here’s a relatively affordable alternative. Depending on options you choose, the cottage will run from $50,000 and $100,000. (In the Bay Area, where I live, you can’t buy a garage for that!)
As for mom and the old folks’ home, I can relate. The AARP’s most recent poll says that a whopping 89% of baby boomers and seniors do not want to move, but rather to stay home and “age in place.” I count myself in the majority on this particular issue.
Whatever the age of the person who’s extending the family, this in law unit can enable everyone to live together without having to live on top of one another.
No matter which of the four floor plans one might choose, the cottage offers up a complete little home with a separate entrance, a living room and bedroom, a kitchenette and a bathroom.
The Inspired In-Law was beautifully designed by Larson Shores Architects, who created it with an eye to both environmental and human sustainability. Inside, the cottage is finished with handsome and eco-friendly materials and details that promote better light, better indoor air quality, and better mobility. For example, the bathroom sink is configured so that it can be used by someone seated in a wheelchair, as is the “roll-in” shower. The windows are placed to maximize natural light, minimizing the need for artificial lighting during the day and improving safety for those with dimming vision.
Among the green materials used in the cottage are cork flooring – springy and easier on aging knees than wood or tile – and Kelly Moore Enviro Coat paint, which limits off-gassing of toxic VOCs (volatile organic chemicals). Because the builders have avoided products containing VOCs and formaldehyde, the cottage provides a healthier environment for those suffering from asthma and allergies.
Among the in law’s other green features are a solar energy unit, rain water collection cisterns and a wall garden.
The in-law unit is a pre-fabricated cottage that can be purchased and installed in your back yard.
Given the time needed for arranging utilities, site preparation and planning, the units typically take about a month and half to put in place.
Plans for the four different types of cottages are available online from HousePlans.com for around $3000.
A Little Reverie
When I get older, losing my hair Many years from now, Will you still need me? Will you still feed me? When I’m sixty-four?
Sigh. I remember all too clearly when 64 was “many years from now.” And when George Orwell’s “1984” sounded futuristic. Who knows where the time goes?
Given the economy these days, my summer travels have been taking me more to design blogs than to exotic locales. But design blogs are wonderful places too; you’ll find many of my favorite design destinations in the blogroll at right. Coincidentally, several of those blogs have recently caught my attention with posts on unusual round tiles.
Yesterday, I stumbled across this striking image on the Dornob blog. It’s a hotel entry where the floor has been paved with old copper pennies! An interestingly literal take on the idea of “penny-round tile.”
I’m not sure this application is entirely legal. Then again, I doubt that Uncle Sam would bother to go after these designers when he ignores all the tourists who are engraving little images of the Bay Bridge onto pennies with currency-crushing devices here in San Francisco every day. In any case, I’m sure that the cost-per-square foot for this hotel flooring was pretty easy to calculate.
I would love to try this with mixed coins. It would be a great accent for someone who did a lot of foreign travel. (Sigh. I recall a time when I came back from Europe at least once a year, my pockets loaded with centimes, pence, and lira – dozens of interesting coins too small to merit putting back through the currency exchange process. They would have made a very interesting floor.)
Penny Round Makes a Comeback
Penny round tile is a classic, and one that’s appearing in some modern new guises, in part thanks to some new materials, including ceramic, glass, stone, cork and metals.
Metals other than copper can add panache to round tile, as the version at right attests. These penny round tiles are created by wrapping a thin stainless steel around porcelain and then mounting it on a mesh backing that is forgiving of imperfect surfaces and makes for easy installation.
For its sheer beauty, my favorite round tile is a glass tile mosaic from Evit. This is high-end stuff and it comes with a high-end price tag. Because Evit is located in Italy (ah, to be in Tuscany this summer, or anytime, for that matter) their tile has to be shipped across the Big Pond. That means that it comes with a carbon footprint and it requires lead time to get here.
But, che bella! The mixed sizes of the round tile glass tile give this mosaic a fanciful bubble-like quality. The subtle blue-green hues handsomely accent the cool steel shades of the modern faucet in Evit’s bathroom design.
Round Tile from Recycled Materials
For creativity (sans currency) my prize in the round tile category would have to go to an organic winery in Western Australia that built a wall from more than 13,500 wine re-purposed glass wine bottles filled with water. The winery’s owner, Peter Little, a fomer architecture lecturer at Curtin University and long-time passive solar design advocate, noted that, “Water… can store more energy, heat, or cool than any material we know.” The winery received a government grant that has been used for a thermal imaging program that studies how the wall helps to control indoor temperatures.
Another interesting use of materials coming round to a second life is the recycling of wine corks into floor tiles. Although the corks can’t be used in wine bottles a second time, there’s no reason not to use them in flooring, and that’s just what Jelinek Cork does. The penny round cork tiles even come in a mixture of colors. Jelinek cuts the corks into discs about 1/4″ and glues them onto a special paper that is then afixed to a subfloor and grouted like tile. To seal it, the floor is covered with urethane.
More Round Tile Options
These choices barely begin to scratch the surface of the options I found when I made the rounds on the net, searching for interesting round tile.
Mission Tile offers a penny round mosaic tile called Emperador Dark Penny Round that is made of tumbled stone. The naturally mottled color of the slate gives this tile a handsome texture that would provide a handsome surface for bathroom floors or shower walls.
The Tile Store online offers a glass bubble tile, somewhat like the Evit tile featured above and at right. The Tile Store’s version comes not only in the red version shown, but also shades of green, blue and smoky grays. (Be careful about installing glass tile on floors; it’s easy to crack, and it’s also slippery. It’s much safer to save it for walls and back splashes.)
PennyTile.com offers both glossy glazed porcelain penny tiles in six colors, and matte porcelain penny tile in five more. (Porcelain is extremely hard and one of the most durable flooring materials you can install.) PennyTile also offers classic black and white versions.
Finally, this web walk-about would not be complete without mentioning the popularity of naturally rounded river stones and pebbles, which are now used as both flooring and back splashes. Because the manufacturers split them in half and adhere them to a backing, they can be installed and grouted with a reasonable minimum of fuss.
I’m seeing river rock everywhere. It’s being used for shower walls, bathroom floors, kitchen backsplashes, and fireplace surrounds. While I love the look, I would never recommend installing such an uneven surface as a kitchen backsplash (a cleaning nightmare) or as a shower floor (many tender-footed types would be unable to shower without wearing rubber thongs). It would be great on a porch, on a fireplace, or on a bathroom wall that isn’t in the shower. It seems to be widely available, even at Home Depot, and comes in a rainbow of natural stone colors.
This post contains 100% recycled content! It was originally was published on Paul Anater’s fine blog, Kitchen and Residential Design, where it premiered as a guest post.
David Gottfried’s LEED Gold certified home in Oakland. Photo courtesy of David Gottfried.
If old timber could talk, the stairs on David Gottfried’s Oakland, California home (at right) would have some wild tales to tell. The bullet holes testify to something that happened in an earlier life. The wood was once part of a century-old highway bridge, before it became part of Gottfried’s LEED certified home.
Gottfried happens to be the founder of the US Green Building Council, and his use of recycled materials is part of a trend. It’s a small trend – currently, less than 1 percent of discarded building materials get reused – but the trend is growing.
New Digs from Old
The LEED rating system encourages builders to re-purpose materials, awarding points when wood, brick or other materials from an earlier structure are reused. The results can make for a good story as well as for a sustainable practice. Recently, Paul Pedini, a civil engineer who worked for 11 years on Boston’s Big Dig, built a house from the site’s leftovers.
836 Market Street, renovated by the Challenge Program in Wilmington, Delaware.
Photo courtesy of the Challenge Program.
Pedini’s comment about this puts the practice of dumping building materials – refuse that takes up nearly 1/3 of the space in many urban dump sites – into sharp focus. “These materials are as good as you can get,” he said. “We were being paid money to junk this stuff. There’s something inherently illogical about it.”
In a few places, there’s also something illegal about it. Here and there, cities have begun writing ordinances to encourage the recycling of not just the odd item or too, but large amounts of building material. For example, Orange County, North Carolina has drafted an ordinance that requires builders to separate wood, metal and drywall discards at construction sites.
Alameda County, California’s Measure D, passed in 1990, called for a whopping 75% reduction of dump-bound refuse over a 20-year period. That 2010 deadline has arrived, and Alameda County has gotten close to meeting its goal, in large part because of the county’s emphasis on recycling and re-purposing building materials.
A Rose by Any Other Name
As I have worked to launch my home remodeling design business over the past couple years, money has been tight. That hasn’t kept me from my favorite hobby: gardening. The beds in the garden are bordered by discarded brick and the “urbanite” that borders the sedum shown in the top photo.
I’m fascinated by home demolition sites. I find myself peering through the fence at the rubble behind them, wondering what useful treasures are hiding there. Many of the treasures I find wind up in my garden; short of money for the last couple years, I have created quite a paradise from seeds, cuttings and cast-off chunks of concrete that are dignified with the name “urbanite.”
I’m not alone in finding gold amid the dross. Nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity and historical preservationists both share my interest in gleaning gems from old buildings. Kitchen designer and master blogger Paul Anater, who kindly invited me to write a guest post for his blog., Kitchen and Residential Design, tells me that he sends materials salvaged from his remodeling jobs to a ReStore, the materials storehouse run by and for Habitat for Humanity. (This post originally appeared on Paul’s blog and is reprised here. If you haven’t read Paul’s blog, I heartily encourage you to check it out.)
Art from Found Materials
In addition, a growing number of designers share a fascination in designs that find new uses for found objects. I’m amazed that a couple thousand ordinary paper clips can be woven into the silvery and sinuous chandelier shown below.
It was from talking with furniture makers that I learned that reclaimed wood is often much better quality than newly harvested timber. The reason is that old buildings were built from first-growth wood, which is stronger, denser and taller than the second- and third-growth forests now being cut. This is why the length and mass of beams in old buildings is so impressive – they simply don’t grow ‘em like that anymore.
Indeed, the definitive Waste to Wealth website notes that, “The value of recovered wood is rising, because many species of wood are no longer available from forests. Furthermore, older wood typically is stronger and of higher quality than new growth wood, and it has already shrunk to its permanent size. Another key factor is landfill tipping fees, which are $65/ton in Connecticut.”
Back from the Brink of the Grave
Diversion coffee table by Michael Yonke. Color results from the natural aging wood patina from two year open air treatment. Materials: Reclaimed and re-purposed tropical forest true mahogany.
It’s expensive and wasteful to bury building materials in what designer William McDonough has called “product graves” – i.e., dump sites. And it’s not just what gets carted away after the wrecking ball hits an old building that gets trashed. Dumps also runneth over with left-overs from new buildings. A new 2,000-square-foot house typically contributes nearly 8.5 tons of materials to the dump!
But spurred both by changing economics, legislation, and a desire to do the right thing, a number of firms across the US now specialize not just in reclaiming and reusing parts of the house, but in deconstructing and recycling the whole darn house! The field, called “deconstruction,” is related to but different from demolition, the traditional swing-the-wrecking-ball method of taking down buildings.
Of course, people have been selectively harvesting items from old buildings for centuries – there are many buildings in Northern England that were constructed of stones taken from Hadrian’s wall. And there has long been a market for salvaged items from Victorian houses, despite the fact that it’s a lot harder to pull nails out than it is to blow them in with a nail gun.
But both the reasons for and ways of recycling building materials are growing, led by firms such as those mentioned below.
Three Cheers for the Good Guys & Gals
The Reuse People, a mostly-West Coast nonprofit that began in San Diego in 1993, have worked hard to standardize efficient building deconstruction practices. They have taken down hundreds of buildings in the San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Boulder areas, and have done much to educate the building trade. They write an informative newsletter called the Velvet Crowbar and and have even written a detailed training manual on deconstruction. Their website includes an annotated listing of 100 related local businesses and resources for deconstruction minded consumers in the San Francisco-Oakland region.
Habitat for Humanity Restore volunteers Vince Perkins and Bill Bumby (wearing red hat) remove salvaged doors from the Rennebohm building at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Photo by Jeff Miller
Reconnx, Inc., a deconstruction firm that is located in Boulder, Colorado, has the distinction of creating the Nail Kicker de-nailing gun. The company was started in 1996, by Jon Giltner, a registered structural engineer, who like Paul Pedini, was frustrated by seeing useable 2″ x 12’s” and other construction materials being dumped in a landfill. His career in reuse began. He first focused on developing finger jointing, and adapted table saws and multi-phased drills for deconstruction. Reconnx is now the premier equipment supplier for the deconstruction industry.
Another laudable organization involved in deconstruction is the Challenge Program, a non-profit youth training program in Wilmington, Delaware. Through the program 18 to 21-year-olds are given 6 months of intensive construction training that includes 700 hours of site-based construction training, deconstruction of buildings and on-site classes. As the biographies of the participants make clear, trainees come to the program without high school diplomas, but in many cases with prison records. Through the program, they gain both their GEDs and job skills. So it’s not only building materials that are being “upcycled” – it’s also human lives.
If there’s one place you can feel good and green about going glam, it’s in your kitchen. Right now, choosing counter tops for a kitchen remodel makes me feel like a kid in a candy shop! It’s hard to commit to just one, but this post should help you narrow the field.
These days, it’s hardly counter-cultural to choose a material that contains recycled content. Green building materials have come of age, in part because they are so beautiful, in part because even though they may cost more at the outset, they are more cost effective over the long run. One key to sustainability is choosing good quality materials that will last, instead of repeatedly paying to install and tear out flimsy stuff.
Old Fashioned Values
Seems to me that that’s just good sense! My grandpa Toussaint would never have called himself an environmentalist. He was a welder, a builder, and a patriotic union man with strong values. He believed in craftsmanship, in getting “value for money”, and in building to last.
When I was about 7, I helped him build a staircase. Grandpa was persnickety about his lumber, avoiding anything that was warped or had knots. He admonished me to measure very, very carefully. He wanted those to stairs fit snug so that they would last a long time. He said that the stairs should still be good when I was older than he was — and he was ancient! I couldn’t imagine how old he was or fathom ever living that long.
Since he had recently retired, I now suspect that Grandpa must have been in his mid-sixties. I bet that whoever owns his house in Denver will indeed be using his stairs in the targeted year — which should be around 2015.
If you choose wisely, your gorgeously green counter tops should be around for your grandchildren.
Here are some of the best choices in sustainable counter tops. At the bottom of this post, under the heading “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us”, you’ll also find a few tips about how to choose something that will work with your lifestyle.
If you love color, you’re going to love recycled glass counter tops. They are made from all sorts of cast-off glass: wine bottles, beer bottles, vodka bottles, window glass, even old traffic light lenses.
The glass is mixed into a cement, concrete, or resin base, then baked like a big chocolate chip cookie. Later, it’s cut and polished into a beautiful composite material that has a marble-like quality.
Pros and Cons: On the upside, this composite is stunningly beautiful, very durable, and resistant to stains. Like granite, it’s strong and heat-resistant.
The downside: It does need to be sealed at the factory and sometimes again to maintain it. (Vetrazzo is made with one sealing layer and Icestone comes with two.) Glass counter tops are pricey, running $50 to $55 per square foot at the factory. They run between $100 and $175 a square foot once you pay for shipping and installation. (With all counters, labor, and installation vary by region.)
The Green Story: Although the percentage of glass used to make the counters varies between different manufacturers, all recycled glass counter tops divert glass from landfills. The glass is mixed with cement and concrete – the curing of which does create greenhouse emissions, by the way – but some manufacturers use a kind of concrete that contains fly ash, a waste product from coal-burning. That reduces the greenhouse gases that get produced during cement manufacturing.
Concrete counters, some of which look strikingly unlike concrete, have become very popular, and terrazzo surfaces have been popular ever since Venetian artisans invented terrazzo in the middle ages. (Strictly speaking, the glass counters I just discussed would be classed as a terrazzo. Terrazzo is a marble-like surface that contains stone or glass chips held together with a binder of concrete.) Terrazzo is a kind of faux marble, and like concrete, it’s usually opaque. It can contain post-consumer glass, stone chips, and shells other items.
Concrete, by contrast, often looks like concrete – and some people want it to look that way. It can also be colored or textured so it looks like marble or stone; the example at left could be mistaken for slate. It can even be inlaid like the counter below at right; at first glance, one might think this is inlaid marble. In contrast to the plain gray, rough material you see on sidewalks, concrete can be quite handsome. (Sadly, the company making Syndecrete, one of the concrete counter tops most favored by designers and architects, has fallen victim to the economy and closed up shop.) But there are still great options, as the photo gallery at Concrete Network and the links below will attest.
I consider concretes and concrete-based terrazzo good substitutes for stone counter tops, which, with few exceptions, aren’t green options. It’s just not energy-efficient to dig up a mountain, blast out chunks of stone, grind them down, and then ship them halfway around the world (usually from China, Italy or Turkey). The one exception would be Caesarstone, which is an “engineered” stone. It’s made of quartz, which is an abundant material. The company is owned by an Israeli kibbutz. Caesarstone does contain a modest amount of recycled material (less than 10%) but the company does take pains to comply with ecological standards and monitoring organizations. Caesarstone is durable, easy to clean, and it resists stains and burning. It’s also pricey. Expect to pay from $50 to $120 per square foot for slabs, then to pay for cutting — and to have to discard the parts of the slab you don’t use.
Pros and Cons: Both terrazzo and concrete can be beautiful, and they offer the same advantages as their recycled glass cousins. They are very durable, resistant to stains, easy to clean, strong and heat-resistant. The disadvantages: They do need to be sealed (and sometimes resealed) and they are very heavy. That means that it requires lots of energy to transport them. Some concretes need to be cast on your site, and they can kick up a lot of dust during installation and finishing. Some are surprisingly expensive, running as much as $80 per foot installed.
The Green Story: These counters don’t “off-gas” toxic substances, which is good for indoor air quality. They are made of readily available materials, which is good. If they contain at least 30% fly ash (as a substitute for cement) they also limit the greenhouse emissions that are created when concrete is made. But buy as close to home as you can since heavy materials do generate a big carbon footprint in shipping.
Ceramic and porcelain are available in a dizzying array of tiles of varying sizes and colors. Prices run about $10 to $20 per square foot for ceramic and $5 to $12 per square foot for porcelain, plus installation costs. (It’s a good idea to have a professional install your tile. If the surface is uneven or if the mastic is not applied correctly, you will soon have cracks in your beautiful tile.)
Pros and Cons: Ceramics are durable and need little maintenance. They resist stains and burning, and retain their color. However, some tile will chip. This is most likely to happen when the colored glaze is applied to the surface only. If you choose a “through body” tile, meaning that the color goes all way through and doesn’t just sit on top, it won’t show chips.
Some ceramics are harder than others, and porcelain is the hardest. It stands up to years of tough wear. Because it’s difficult to clean and easy to soil, the grout needs to be properly sealed. Wide grout lines can be annoying to clean, and all of those little gaps collect dirt, so it also helps choose large tiles. If you choose tiles that are least 18 inches square and keep the grout lines thin, the problem should be minimal.
The Green Story: Ceramic and porcelain are made from naturally occurring and plentiful materials, but it takes a lot of heat, and thus energy, to fire them. In addition, because they are heavy, it takes a lot of energy to transport them. Look for locally manufactured tiles with high recycled content and avoid lead-based and radioactive glazes.
Bamboo counter tops look a lot like butcher block. They are made the same way; the manufacturer glues slender rectangles of end-grain bamboo into panels. These handsome surfaces come in natural shades of brown and gold. Expect to pay around $25 per square foot before installation.
Pros and Cons: Bamboo is strong and durable. It can be fastened to your cabinet with hardware, so no glues are needed. It’s stronger than maple, which is commonly used to make butcher block. However, cheap bamboo, which is harvested too soon, can be fail to “lignify” and harden.
Like butcher block, bamboo gains a pleasant patina with use and it can be sanded down to remove scratches. Colors are limited, and the process used to darken natural bamboo to chocolate shades can weaken the material. Bamboo will burn or scorch, and it is somewhat subject to stains. It requires regular care, including sealing or oiling (depending on what coatings are on the surface when you buy it).
The Green Story: Although it’s a great substitute for wood, bamboo is actually a fast-growing grass. That makes it a renewable resource. However, most of it comes from China, and it uses a lot of fossil fuel to get here. In addition, cheap bamboo products can be assembled using toxic glues and coatings. Look for versions that are marked as low formaldehyde and toxic-free.
Eco-top Forest Stewardship Council-certified 50/50 blend of bamboo and recycled wood fiber salvaged from demolition sites
There’s no getting around the fact that a tree takes four or five times longer to grow than a stalk of bamboo. But butcher-block counters can be made from trees that have been sustainably harvested or made from reclaimed or recycled lumber. Recycled old-growth lumber — wood that can come from old factory floors, beer barrels, or wine vats — often has tighter grain and better quality than contemporary lumber. Sustainable wood has a medium to high cost compared to traditional butcher blocks. Expect to pay $50 to $100 per square foot, plus installation costs.
Pros and Cons. The advantages and disadvantages of butcher block counters are the same for bamboo and wood versions – see above.
The Green Story: Using reclaimed wood reduces need for harvesting new trees. Look for Forest Stewardship Council-certified, salvaged, or reclaimed wood, and ask for a Chain-of-Custody certification when you buy. You should also avoid products with added formaldehyde and look for sealers and cleaners that are environmentally benign.
Counter tops made of paper? I couldn’t believe that one when I first heard it. Paper is so soft! How could that possibly work?
Well, it does! Beautifully. When recycled paper is combined with a resin base and industrially compressed, it forms a material that looks a bit like honed stone or tile. But unlike those cold surfaces, this material feels warm and almost suede-like. Compressed paper surfaces come in thicknesses ranging from ¼ inch to 2 inches. The colors available from Paperstone are stunning, but Paperstone’s success has attracted some handsome competitors too. Compressed paper counters are reasonably priced, between $30 and $50 per square foot before installation.
Pros and Cons: A compressed paper counter top can be cut and shaped with standard woodworking tools, and that makes it ideal for the budget-conscious do-it-yourself craftsman. The surface is easy to clean, impact and heat resistant, and quite durable. On the other hand, it can be scratched. The lighter colors may show stains, and darker or brighter colors can fade in direct sunlight.
The Green Story:The greater the percentage of recycled paper the counter contains, the greener it is. These counters can contain nasty glues, and compounds that off-gas “volatile organic compounds.” To preserve your indoor air quality, look for a counter top with low VOCs.
Counter tops can be made from recycled metals, most often stainless steel or aluminum. You can also find the occasional recycled copper counter top. The metal can be recycled in multiple ways: it can be melted and remolded, combined with other materials, or made into tiles. It can also be cut into sheets and used whole.
One of the most dazzling examples of recycled metal is Alkemi, a solid-surface material that is made from postindustrial scrap aluminum shavings held in polymeric resin. It’s gorgeous, as the photos in this post show, but it’s expensive. At around $300 per square foot, it costs as much as high-end granite.
Another handsome option is Eleek, which is made of 50 to 90 percent recycled aluminum. Counter tops can be as wide as 3 feet, and because Eleek also makes include sinks and hardware, it’s easy to assemble a sleek, integrated look.
Counter Culture Chick
for Your Kitchen?
Since sustainability is now mainstream, I’m not really a counter-culture chick nowadays. But I am a certified green building professional, and I certainly would like to help you remodel your kitchen.To learn about my services, visit my Comfort and Joy website at www.comfortandjoydesign.com
Aluminum counter tops run between $40 to $100 per square foot. Because stainless steel counters and sinks have been used in restaurants for years, you may be able to find a great bargain by looking for an existing counter and/or sink and simply re-using it in its original form.
Pros and Cons: The durability of metal counters, of lack thereof, is directly related to the gauge of the metal. A thin counter, with a gauge under 18, will dent. (A thicker gauge is indicated by a smaller number; a 20 gauge sink is thinner than an 18 gauge sink.) Metal sinks, particularly the thin ones, can also be noisy. Water running in the sink can actually be intrusive enough to make conversation difficult. Aluminum and stainless steel won’t discolor, but copper will first darken and then develop a green patina. If you don’t like that, your choices are to make sure you choose a sink with a very durable surface coating, to spend time polishing the tarnish off your sink, or avoid copper.
The Green Story:To get green benefits from a metal counter, you should use salvaged metal or look for high-recycled content. Because you will attach to substrate with mechanical fasteners, you will be able avoid glues and VOCs, and that’s good news for your indoor air quality. Recycled metals are also recyclable, which means that they can be used again after you’re done with them.
The memorable phrase above comes from the Pogo comic strip. It was written and drawn by the Walt Kelly, who died in 1973.Walt coined the phrase for a poster drawn for the first Earth Day in 1970. It soon became a rallying cry for all kinds of counter-cultural protests, and was frequently associated with protests against the war in Vietnam.
Your Counter’s Worst Enemy?
Look in the Mirror! Yes, it’s true. You are public enemy number one where your counter is concerned. (Or maybe public enemy number two if you have children in the house!) That’s why it’s so important to match your counter choice to your lifestyle and cooking habits.A great way to decide on which counter to choose is to get a sample of the counter top material, and then pour some common staining substances over it. Pay particular attention to the ones you use most often:
You might also want to try chopping on your sample with a sharp knife to see if it scars. Then place a pan full of hot water on it to see if it discolors.