Inside the junkyard 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 was just coming home from work as a doctor. “I said he couldn’t park in the garage because there was a fully deconstructed 1930s bungalow inside,” she recalls. That moment was a tipping point for architect Edmundson (and doubtless, her bemused spouse): she had to find a way to salvage her home from all the salvage.

Her solution was to open a scrapyard where it could be sold. The first one, in 2004, occupied just 800 sq ft, but two decades later, the yard has moved to take up around half of a 45,000 sq ft warehouse, with more space outdoors. Edmundson says that the architectural treasures there are priced about 20-50 per cent below market value on average, with particular bargains on items such as high-end custom-made cabinetry, which often costs 75-80 per cent what it would at a conventional store.

This is no ordinary junkyard. Edmundson prices them to move because the profits from this architectural Steptoe and Son are ploughed straight back into the community — specifically, underwriting her work running a charity that aims to preserve Houston’s best buildings, Historic Houston.

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

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

One of Historic Houston’s deconstruction projects

This has created a virtuous circle which is both environmentally and financially sustainable. Each pro-social salvage yard takes landfill-destined detritus and instead sells it for upcycling, using the monies it raises to keep more treasures out of the ground.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the US generated more than 600mn tons of construction-related waste in 2018 — almost a quarter of which ended up in landfill. Only 5.5 per cent of the total was from new construction, with the rest coming from demolition.

To remedy this, non-profits such as Edmundson’s rely on a loophole in American law that helps ensure a constant supply of scrap. Charitable donations can be tax-offset: donors can write off everything from doors to windows, floors to siding, shiplap and wrought iron.

Edmundson became involved in preservation in Houston decades ago, and her non-profit first began moving significant houses, dismantling and rebuilding them, to land set aside by the city. What’s now known as the Fourth Ward Cottage was the first such project and proved so attention-grabbing that donations quickly snowballed.

A pair of large custom-made chandeliers are seen on display inside the Historic Salvage Warehouse facility
A pair of chandeliers at the Houston Historic Salvage warehouse © Brandon Thibodeaux for the FT

She soon found there were too many homes to take wholesale, so she instead opted to just remove key details — floors and mantels, particularly — before the wrecking ball hit. Initially, she kept that haul in people’s garages, including her own, allowing visitors to grab whatever they wished. The realisation she could monetise donations and, in the process, fund further efforts transformed her non-profit.

“I think we made $6,000 on the first day, with literally my board members working at the warehouse. A guy said to me ‘How much are the windows?’ and I was mentally thinking $25, and he said, ‘Will you take $225?,’” she says. “But it wasn’t a big enough space within weeks of opening — all the houses kept coming.”

Soon, they found that bigger space, but even as the cash began accruing, she wasn’t tempted to start offering money for higher-grade pieces. “As a non-profit we made the decision that we would not buy salvage — in this business, there’s a lot of stuff that gets stolen in the middle of the night,” she says. After Hurricane Katrina, “we had people showing up at our warehouse with trailer loads of material stolen out of New Orleans homes, shopping around to see who would buy it.”

Still, in the wake of the Great Recession, she was left with no operating cash and had to shutter the warehouse in June 2011. “After we closed, I’d come home and there would be two doors on my fence, maybe a light fixture someone dropped off on my front porch,” she says. “It had become such an issue about how much material we’re constantly throwing away.”

Within the year, she rebooted and reopened, this time requiring those who deconstruct a house to fund the labour — another cost, of course, that’s tax deductible. It’s changed the majority of donors from teardown developers to wealthy civic-minded individuals and improved the calibre of what she typically receives. The financial benefits are evident. “The deconstruction of a two-storey 1930s brick house might cost around $25,000, but the charitable gift of the materials we reclaim is somewhere around $250,000.”

Matt Polansky, an employee at the Historic Salvage Warehouse, organizes newly acquired doors inside the facility
Doors are bestsellers © Brandon Thibodeaux

Historic Ithaca, in upstate New York, follows a similar model, though its executive director Susan Holland says she will occasionally buy key pieces she’s keen to resell to a good home — bought-in items like that form 6-10 per cent of the overall revenue annually, she says.

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

The charity started recycling building materials in 1991, and now operates a 16,000 sq ft, three-floor site that’s open six days each week, with salvage sales generating around 40 per cent of its annual budget, or around $190,000 of $475,000.

“Our inventory is priced to move and be affordable. We have an equity lens on it, too: we’re trying not to gouge anyone, but make enough to support our mission, doing a lot of community engagement and training,” Holland says. Her charity was a pioneer in the now widespread idea of the circular economy, she says, and they often have to strip a house bare of its best detailing with hours to spare before demolition.

The finest find came in an apartment building that had long served as student halls; as the salvage team investigated, pulling off drywall, they first found chestnut wainscoting, before peeling back further to show 16 small lead glass windows that had been covered up and therefore perfectly preserved.

Doors are bestsellers, says Holland, although old windows can sometimes be covered in toxic lead paint which precludes their easy reuse. “Two of the hardest things to find are skeleton keys and floor grates — think about it: in an old house, when people faced a financial crash, they would sell stuff out of their houses, starting with the metal,” she says.

Upstate New York is home to not one but two such pro-social salvage yards. Indeed, Holland used to run the other, which is located in the state’s capital. Its current head is Pamela Howard, who oversees the 12,000 sq ft salvage site. The Historic Albany Foundation relies on resale to provide between one-third and one-half of the funding for its six-person operation.

salvaged movie theatre seats outside Earthwise Architectural Salvage in Seattle
Pro-social salvage yard Earthwise Architectural Salvage, Seattle

Howard’s signature approach includes hosting a cocktail party in her warehouse a couple of times a year to draw new buyers to explore items such as the 19th-century chestnut mantel from a Marcus T Reynolds-designed home, which she just sold for $3,500, or an unpainted wooden Hoosier cabinet, complete with its original flour hopper, which cost $750. Doors are popular here, too, whether with or without original hardware.

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

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

“Creating new products is inherently consumptive, so it’s sort of a no-brainer to try to find things that are already old to work with,” says Biddle. “Pro-social groups like this have a filter, too — they don’t just take junk. There’s exceptional stuff that just needs a little TLC — you might have to strip the door yourself, but you’re getting a $3,000 door for $400. That’s an exceptional value.”

Architectural charities are much likelier to endure than their for-profit junkyard rivals, too, at least according to Historic Houston’s Edmundson. Such operations are usually drawn to cheaper areas, usually as they begin to gentrify; land is cheaper, after all, while both supply and demand are on their doorstep.

Yet as the neighbourhood improves, these huge sites are often priced out by that same gentrification. Pro-social salvage can operate at slimmer margins, and often on donated land, which gives it greater leeway.

Edmundson faces that very challenge now: the owners of the site where her yard currently sits have just put the 1880s warehouse and its two-acre site on the market. If it sells, its fate could prove particularly poignant as it’s the last all-timber construction warehouse in Houston, with 10in by 10in columns that soar 35ft.

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

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