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Second Life: Old Building Materials Are Big Business for Big Dreamers

At Pittsburgh’s reclaimed materials warehouse Construction Junction, owner Mike Gable and Manager Brian Swearingen never met a mantel or a piece of copper piping they didn’t like. Supported by the state’s oldest grassroots environmental organization, the Pennsylvania Resources Council, Construction Junction salvages building materials from demolition and development sites, giving everything from studs to sconces a second life instead of a trip to the landfill. So when a construction crew brought in an old jewelry counter from a tear-down they had done nearby, Swearingen didn’t flinch and the counter graced his showroom for months. What Swearingen didn’t see coming was the buyer.

When a middle-aged woman came into his showroom one day and asked about the large, glass display case, Swearingen asked “So, do you own a jewelry store?”  

“No,” the woman casually replied. “But I do own an iguana.”

As simply as a jewelry counter becomes a terrarium, America’s discarded and obsolete edifices are providing materials for both public and private development. After witnessing the collapse of the American mortgage industry two years ago, homeowners and building developers are staying put, content to shine up their châteaus on the cheap. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in Pennsylvania, where its history as a leader in both urban industry and rural agriculture has left the state littered with leftover structures waiting to be salvaged. For those already in the business, what was once old is new again--and it's profitable.

“We get a lot of foot traffic here and people vote with their pocketbooks,” says Swearingen. “Some things we think will be big don’t go anywhere and other things, we can barely get them off the trucks before people are queuing up to take them from us. The customers teach you what is valuable.”
Before Pennsylvania was the Keystone State, it had another nickname: “America’s Breadbasket.” In Colonial America, Pennsylvania was the leading producer of grain, with farms dotting the entire eastern half of the state. As Southeastern PA urbanized and the breadbasket moved with expansion to the Midwest, Pennsylvania became known for materials like steel and coal, leaving regions like rural Northeast PA with abandoned barns, silos and other structures.

Today, the region is home to 15 reclamation businesses, specializing in everything from hand-hewn beams (originally cut with an axe and predating the Industrial Revolution) to metal sheet roofing. In Northeast PA’s reclamation realm, few have been doing it as long as the Susquehanna carpenters at Conklin’s Authentic Barnwood. Founded by Leo Conklin in 1970, Conklin’s has received numerous awards and features in publications like Architectural Digest and Custom Builder. With 40 years under her tool belt, Sandy Conklin has examined every method for transforming an ordinary piece of wood into something special since the day her late husband hired her. Their Susquehanna facility specializes in flooring, architectural appointments, and even custom furniture, all salvaged from the barns and stables of America’s first breadbasket.

“The first time I came through the shop, I thought ‘how are you going to make a living off this dirty old board,” Conklin says. “Over time, we learned how to treat the wood, experimenting with it and then I learned different ways to treat the same board to get a different look and that’s how we started going.”

While Conklin’s woodworkers treat their products like works of art, they admit they are no match for the artistry of nature. Like a fine wine, aged wood has spots and chips and knots that prove its age and shows character. In a world where science and synthetic materials have made blemish-free wood and stone a reality, it is imperfection that you pay a premium for.

“As wood ages, it gets a richer patina, a richer coloring and depth,” says Conklin. “New wood is white, not much grain, it’s almost like a mutant. We rarely find the same thing twice. Most of our wood predates 1890 and in those days, you had to use the wood that was around you at the time you built your barn.”

As interest in the environmental movement has spiked, building with second-hand materials has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. And the fad may have caught on just in time. Today, it is believed that 20-25 percent of U.S. landfill space is occupied by construction trash, and in developing, post-industrial cities like Pittsburgh, those numbers can be much higher. In the case of Construction Junction, PRC backs the retail effort, which creates jobs and reduces construction waste in city landfills, turning a negative into a positive.

“Reuse is a form of recycling and becomes a part of the building process,” says Swearingen. “There may be an organization or a small municipality or a company concerned about their public profile looking for a way to reduce their waste stream. And there are many ways to do that. We can repurpose these items and we expect to do a lot more of that as companies try to reduce their environmental impact.”

For some municipalities, discarded building materials have impacts beyond the environment or a finely appointed living room. Since 1976, York County preservation activists at Historic York Inc., have been fighting to keep history, originality and architecture in this scenic, central PA landscape. The two-person operation is driven by its architectural warehouse, a building salvage and antique donation house where local citizens can bring unwanted door knobs, stained glass windows, claw-foot tubs and other materials for a tax-deductable donation.

For the last 34 years, all profits from the warehouse went to Historic York, funding an architectural walking tour program designed to connect local citizens and visitors to the famous family homes of the Revolutionary War era. The warehouse project has become so popular that earlier this month, a partially-for-profit board took it on as an investment, hoping to add jobs and increase inventory while still contributing to the historical preservation of York County.

“Historic York wanted to focus on preservation and their advocacy efforts because retail is a totally different animal than fundraising for a non-profit so they felt they were a little too diversified,” says warehouse manager Bonnie Oberlander. “This way, with us being affiliated, they still make a profit on a percentage of what we sell for them. And we still do a lot of stuff during the year at festivals and fairs, so we can teach people what Historic York are all about.”

Just like Home Depot would, reclaimed materials retailers love to help DIY weekend warriors make their rehab dreams into reality. Conklin’s has a display home full of reclaimed wood additions and both York Architectural Warehouse and Construction Junction offer classes and consultations on tax credit programs and basic building techniques. But most reclaimed retailers will tell you no amount of knowledge can compete with a small budget and a big imagination.

“If something looks like an interesting piece of material, we will bring it back because we know some customer will look at it and see potential,” says Swearingen. “We have restaurateurs use big sewer pipes for basins in bars, turning doors into tables. We see something and we think it's an 'X' and it becomes a 'Y;' that’s our customers. Give them an interesting mix of materials, on a budget and they need to be creative, it’s really amazing what they can do with our stuff.”


John Steele is a freelance writer and blogger in Philadelphia. He enjoys music snobbery, trash television and laughing at hipsters. Send feedback here.

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Photos at Conklins by Jason Farmer:
Photos at Construction Junction by Renee Rosensteel

Dwayne Conklin uses a table saw to create a pedestal in his wood shop.

Sandra Conklin, owner of Conklin's Authentic Antique Barnwood and Hand Hewn Beams in Susquehanna, sits with her dog, Zoey, inside her home that was built using recycled materials.

Dwayne Conklin uses a lath to shape a pedestal made from recycled wood, for a table.

Derek Stoltz assistant store manager at Construction Junction, Pittsburgh, PA.

Clawfoot bathtub for sale at Construction Junction.

Mantles for sale at Construction Junction
 
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