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The Modern Estate
The Older, the Better
by ROBERT FECKE

The irreplaceable wood of the mighty oaks, chestnuts, and heart pines of yesteryear is being preserved and reclaimed for use in homes today

When I began Reclamation Lumber 12 years ago, in the Winchester Repeating Arms Factory in New Haven, Connecticut, the idea of saving the planet—while a noble goal to strive toward—took a back seat to the more pressing needs of my fledgling business. Who sharpens oversize band-saw blades? I had to know. Who sells portable metal detectors? How do I find more old-growth lumber to cut up? How do we find folks who will actually buy this reclaimed wood? And where am I going to put all of this wood before and after we process it?

There’s actually a business term for this last conundrum; it’s called “inventory management.” In fact, my staff and I have discovered several terms that aptly describe what we’re doing at our remanufacturing plant—an old trolley garage in New Haven that we moved to in 2003. One of these terms is “green technology,” a concept that’s becoming more mainstream as our planet’s resources dwindle and become increasingly expensive and harmful to extract. What we’ve discovered is that, inadvertently, our business embodies many of the central tenets of the green movement—reducing the pressure to cut new forest and recycling existing building material (thus reducing waste destined for the landfill).

As craftspeople, we at Reclamation Lumber have long been aware of the magnificent properties of old-growth wood—unmatched dimensional stability (ability to withstand changes in humidity), unique grain-patterning, and the beautiful patina that old wood acquires. Our goal was to salvage structural timber and planking from mill buildings and barns destined for demolition, remanufacture this material, and then market it to architects and builders for reuse in 21st-century buildings.

When the earliest European settlers arrived in America, the country was covered, for the most part, in majestic stands of both hard and soft woods that had grown relatively undisturbed for centuries. As these trees grew to become forest giants, their growth rings became ever narrower. (That gives antique material part of its allure and desirability.) By the end of the industrial era, the construction of the mines, mills, and factories had consumed most of this original forest.

The forests remaining today, with their third- and fourth-growth trees, bear little resemblance to the original woodlands encountered by the colonists. Those forests are preserved, now, only in the older homes and factories of our country. For instance, a mill constructed before the Civil War would likely contain the wood of 200- to 400-year-old trees. As “progress” leaves many of these buildings obsolete and redevelopment obliterates them, the challenge arises: How can the original building material, whether it is timber, brick, or stone, be reallocated?

That question gave rise to the work we do—selectively “mining” the industrial forest. Our days are spent in not only reclaiming but remanufacturing vintage timber for the adaptive reuse of this precious resource. We are routinely involved in inspecting, acquiring, shipping, de-nailing, sorting, grading, and inventorying the material. Working with this wood every day, we have a fine sense of its highlights and best aesthetic and structural usage.

Old-growth forests are virtually extinct: They are no longer commercially viable sources for building materials. But as the supply of these trees is decreasing, demand is growing for materials with the exceptional characteristics of this nonrenewable resource.

At Reclamation Lumber we recognize the uniqueness of each supply of lumber that demolition firms offer us. These old materials give architects and designers, our primary customers, exciting options both structurally and aesthetically—from 40-foot beams to millwork, flooring, paneling, and cabinetry. The wood can be utilized “as is,” for a more rustic look, or re-sawn and planed for a clean, contemporary finish.

The condition and consistency of each demolished building’s potential cache of material vary widely. Utilizing reclaimed lumber can present challenges to the designer and builder who are not familiar with the materials’ idiosyncrasies. Moisture content, varying thicknesses, and numerous other potential inconsistencies in the material can leave the uninitiated pondering available solutions. Working with a reputable supplier can greatly ease this aspect of using reclaimed material.

The recycling of these once-mighty trees adds a dimension to today’s home that approaches the sublime. The patina, the texture of the wood, and the smooth, mellow tonality of its color and grain work together to produce ecological and aesthetic harmony. TME

Robert Fecke is founder and president of Reclamation Lumber, LLC, of New Haven, Connecticut. Most of the firm’s customers are architects and builders; however, individuals can make an appointment to visit the showroom at 424 Grand Avenue. 203.752.1204; www.reclamationlumber.com
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