When Mark Gonzalez bought the dilapidated, 150-year-old house next to his residence in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood, he knew it was a fixer-upper. The property had sat uninhabited for more than a decade and was in terrible condition. Many of his friends told him to just demolish it and rebuild from the ground up. As Gonzalez walked through the structure, however, he gained a profound admiration for the quality and aesthetics of its materials, some of which had admirably withstood the tests of time. For example, above the fireplace was an 80-year-old cypress mantle, which the former owner had repositioned using a newer piece of plywood placed behind it. Termites had eaten through the plywood, but the cypress mantle remained unharmed.
“You start to develop a real appreciation for materials used 100 years ago,” said Gonzalez. “There are dimensions of (salvaged) wood that you just can’t get anymore.”
Gonzalez, a lawyer and self-described “pack rat” who is “really into saving things,” said he recognized that the house contributed character to the neighborhood.
“I started to understand that the way the house looked was part of the way the community looked and part of the way the community felt,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not some 1970s build out.”
With that perspective in mind, Gonzalez became a regular customer of Green Project, a New Orleans marketplace for reclaimed and salvaged building materials. Gonzalez stuck with that mission, purchasing as many used items for his renovation as he could, including crown molding, windows, floorboards and gingerbread cornices for framing doors and windows.
Green Project executive director Phyllis Jordan says many of her customers opt for salvaged supplies based on similar sensibilities. The majority of her shoppers have one motivation above all: saving money.
Nationwide, pricing in the salvaged building materials market is anywhere from 25 percent to 75 percent less than that for new supplies. In many cases, homeowners may find an item made of older, superior material for around the same price they would pay for a new one made of inferior material.
“Doors are a good example,” Jordan said. “You can go to your local Home Depot and get a new door of very high quality, but it’s going to cost you, or you can find a very good-quality door in a reused or salvaged market for about the same price you would pay for a new door of lesser quality at that same store.”
EcoBuilding Bargains in Springfield, Massachusetts, a nonprofit that resells reclaimed building materials, has watched clients save big money by renovating this way, said Andrea Gauvin, a spokeswoman for the organization.
“One of our customers who rebuilt his home from the ground up saved $60,000 by building with reused materials for almost 50 percent of the construction,” Gauvin said.
Throughout the slowdown in new construction accompanying the recession that began in late 2007, Gauvin said, she has seen people focused more on renovation projects and on completing those projects inexpensively. “Homeowners are more conscious of where materials are coming from and are more price-savvy,” she said. “A lot of people are choosing to remodel in this way — with reused materials.”
When establishing the resale price of an item, EcoBuilding Bargains looks at the fair market value of the item. It reduces the prices of fairly new items by 50 percent. Items that are obviously not new may be reduced by as much as 75 percent.
“We have sold huge trash bags of reclaimed fiberglass insulation for $5,” Gauvin said. Hardwood flooring from a former dance studio went for $1 per square foot.
These lean recession years helped expand the number of sellers offering salvaged and reclaimed building materials all over the country, said Anne Nicklin, executive director of Chicago-based Building Materials Reuse Association, one of the industry’s largest member organizations.
Nicklin noted that BMRA grew significantly between 2007 and the summer of 2011, expanding into previously limited markets — including Montana and Texas — to a membership of roughly 3,700 businesses.
“Pricing and quality of materials as well as greater interest in sustainable building, is what is helping drive interest,” she said.
Gauvin said the majority of EcoBuilding Bargains’ reclaimed building materials ranges in age from 10 to 20 years, although it has sold doors produced in the 18th century and lumber harvested in the 17th century.
Sellers such as Green Project and EcoBuilding Bargains inspect the materials — all of which are donated from deconstructions — for sturdiness and energy efficiency, and to ensure they meet state guidelines. Still, they encourage homeowners to do their homework when starting a renovation. They emphasize the importance of being cognizant of your municipality’s rules for building code issues, such as low-flow toilets and lead paint. Jordan recommended that any item for which electrical safety is a concern should be purchased new.
The best purchases run the gamut from fixtures, cabinetry and flooring to hot tubs and items specific to a certain era’s style.
“It takes a special kind of consumer to find value in an avocado-green sink from the 1970s,” Gauvin said, “but it’s magical to see that connection being made.”