One of the features that makes our area so charming is in the way in which we preserve and restore houses and buildings from our past. With the RE Store, Skagit Salvage and antique stores galore, it’s not difficult to find materials for an era-authentic remodel. This was not always the case, but the surge in DIY remodeling coupled with a new environmental sensibility has created a market for used fixtures, lumber and more. Construction companies like A-1 in Bellingham donate whole kitchens and bathrooms to the RE Store when starting a remodel, saving our landfill from sinks, tubs and pipes. And although searching for a specific item in a salvage place can be a bit like a treasure hunt, the reward is worth the time and effort.
The recycled building materials market is primarily the domain of DIYers, but not exclusively. The patience, creativity and uncertainty in the quality of the materials can make it a rough approach for contractors. But Duluth Lumber in Bow, WA manages to supply some major projects, including Niebaum-Coppola Winery and The Sundance Lodge and Film Institute with reclaimed lumber for flooring, tables, ceiling trusses and more. Another example of large-scale reclamation is the Depot Market building in down-town Bellingham, which has components of a reclaimed bridge in its ceiling
There are several considerations before pulling up your Fred Sanford truck to the RE Store and loading up — rot, lead paint, asbestos, are all present in vintage building materials. Those looking for a bargain might be surprised by the costs associated with restoration and refurbishing, which, when dealing with reclaimed flooring or salvage materials can be costlier than new products. But the distinctive touch of having a beautifully finished reclaimed timber floor can be well worth the cost. There’s also the additional asset that draws treasure-hunters and antique freaks: story. A beam from an old barn, a floor from a one-room schoolhouse, ghosts of the past that linger, these are wonderful ways to enhance and deepen living space.
Karina Rousseau of the Columbia Neighborhood in Bellingham remodeled her 1904 Victorian using as much of the original materials as possible, and only added materials that felt authentic to the house. “The dates represented in our fixtures are from about the 1920s to the 1940s, but it all feels very authentic to the house.” She worked with Dave Brogan of Bellingham Bay Builders, contractors who, in her words, were very patient with her need to find just the right fixture or cabinet. Brogan said of Rousseau, “She was great to work with because she was so proactive in finding just the right materials for the house.”
The house was originally near St. Luke’s (the old hospital) in Bellingham. It had been moved in the 1940s to its current location. Over the years, it had been through a few remodels, including a particularly rough one in the 1980s. A lot of work had been done to try to make up for other botched remodels. Rousseau’s plan was to turn back the clock on those remodels, fix some of the problems previous owners were trying to address—or cover up—and create a space that feels whole. “When people walk in here, I want them to think this was all just here.”
In addition to the materials Rousseau hunted down and found, like the newel post from Skagit Salvage that came from a tear-down, to the wide picture molding from the RE Store, she was also able to re-purpose some of the materials within the house itself. Wavy glass from the old single-pane windows became part of a built-in cabinet. A neighbor, Jim Gonzales, did some of the restoration work as well, and an old piece of painted plywood he had lying around became the back of a bookcase. “A lot of people pitched in,” Rousseau said. “They knew I cared about it, and that made them care about it.”
Rousseau took a slow and steady approach, investing energy in getting the project just right. “We did one window a year. We would pull it down, take out the ropes, save the glass, carefully remove the molding and replace it.” The result are energy-efficient windows that are beautiful and appropriate to the house.
Not only did Rousseau have the energy and good fortune of having so many great sources for building materials, she also had a very invested contractor and, most importantly, photos of the original house from 1904. She used those photos to reconstruct the house, from moldings to flooring to the silhouette. “They had turned a Victorian into a Colonial Revival, with cedar shake siding, narrow molding and a boxy exterior. “I wanted to bring it back.” The photos were an excellent resource to her, and to Dave Brogan.
“The house is all new, but it feels more authentic than it did before,” said Brogan. And that’s exactly what Rousseau was going for. “People going on house tours see a lot of remodels, and they walk in and say how great this one is, because it doesn’t feel like a remodel.”
So where does the casual re-user go from here? It’s good to know the code requirements for things like toilets and bathtubs (there are some) and how much weight your floor joists can take, etc. It’s best to have a specific outline of what you need and thinking about suitable alternates in case your favorite cast iron tub isn’t available. There are re-use consultants in Bellingham who can help you, or you can avail yourself of the counsel of the staff at a recycling store or salvage. Checking back over-and-over may be tedious, but may also be the only way to find exactly the item you want. If you’re looking for cabinets, getting a bank of matching cabinets can be difficult. Some places will keep an eye out for items if you give them the right information. Mostly, though, you’re on a treasure hunt that can take a while. The payoff is in having just the right feel for the room you’re creating.
A consideration if you aren’t used to remodeling from used materials is to start small. Refurbish a table or install antique fixtures in a sink. Get a feel for the way the older materials work with modern plumbing, techniques, restoration and wear. A beautiful brass or copper knob may only be lovely and un-marred for a short period of time, so make sure you choose wisely and know the maintenance on your item. Most contractors will recommend not using antique wood in your house, but it can be done. Just make sure you know what you’re installing and understand not only the outer layers, but the interior of the piece. A beautiful leaded stained glass window can introduce rot and beetles into a pristine window casing, and sometimes it’s impossible to know until you begin to refinish the piece whether or not it will work.
The most important element in using recycled or reclaimed building materials is to have confidence in your own work, as well as in the integrity of the materials. Though most projects with recycled materials are DIY, there is a lot of skill required in planing a door or leveling a bank of cabinets. The fortunate thing is that used materials can be an affordable way to hone your carpentry skills without having to start from lumber and a saw. The problem is, older wood and other materials can crack, split and splinter more easily than newer ones. Wear your goggles and gloves and dive in. The only limit is your own creativity.
Recapturing pieces of the past is a wonderful way to add character and charm to new construction. Just keep in mind that it is a process, and finding just the right object can take time and energy. But when you do, there is also nothing like the satisfaction of knowing you’ve added a unique touch to your home that is imbued with history and carrying a story all its own.
Stores and Resources
The RE Store
Bellingham’s answer to your remodeling and recycling needs, the RE Store not only provides unique and low-cost building supplies and fixtures, they will pick up and haul leftover construction lumber and fixtures for free. A great place to find the components of a funky lamp or a beautiful solid wood front door.
The golden Buddha says it all. A funky hut-of-treasures, Pace’s has lots of objects great and small to decorate your home. They are not a used furniture store in the sense of a traditional salvage—they acquire items from fire sales and such. They also have a lot of wholesale. But they do have great treasures at bargain basement prices.
A genuine salvage store, Skagit Salvage sells items off of tear-downs, old barns, historic knobs and doo-dads and more. A good place to hunt for picture molding, newel posts, old timbers and more.
Duluth Timber Company
Headquartered out of Minnesota, Duluth Timber Company has, strangely, a timber mill and salvage in Bow. From slabs to flooring to support beams, from big projects to kitchen tables, they have it all.