Housing: The Next Generation / Material World

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When Nicole Tai was growing up in San Francisco, she tried repeatedly and to no avail to convince her grandfather’s construction company to go green. By the time Tai had earned her master’s degree in community development at University of California-Davis, her mother was running the family business, and Tai saw her chance. She talked her mother into letting her put the construction company to work on a project of Tai’s own.

“The company basically did rehab jobs, meaning they would go in when a tenant left a rental space and take out all the great stuff and toss it,” Tai recalls. “And so they let me borrow the dump truck for several months, and I would drive it around to all the sites they were working on and have the guys fill it up with whatever they had that day, like sinks or carpets.” Tai sold the materials to resale yards, and returned the revenue to the company. Her venture broke even, but Mom needed to turn a profit, and that was the end of that.

That was in 1998. She was just a few years too early. Today, used building materials are becoming a profitable business, as public awareness grows both of their existence and of the need to stem the tide of garbage. So Tai is trying again, this time on the opposite side of the transaction–and the other side of the country.

Now a New Yorker, Tai is opening New York City’s first trading post for used construction materials. The store, scheduled to open in March, will stock everything from doors and windows to bathtubs, sinks, lighting and other fixtures and cabinets–all secondhand, perfectly usable, and salvaged from demolition and renovation projects, for sale at 20 to 50 percent of retail prices.

Tai, who says she realized in college that recycling was her destiny, has spent the last two years working to bring the city into step with the grassroots movement that’s been slowly making its way to the mainstream, one resurrected two-by-four at a time: building with materials that would otherwise have nowhere to go but the landfill.

Known as “deconstruction,” it is not highbrow literary criticism but the systematic dismantling of buildings, by hand, with the aim of reusing their parts. Up to 80 percent of the typical residential house can be directly reused, and much of the remaining materials recycled. In 2000, New Yorkers threw away 45,882 tons of waste a day, according to a report by the city’s Independent Budget Office. While the New York City Department of Sanitation could not provide local figures, the waste management company HDR estimates that up to 40 percent of all landfill content nationwide is construction-related debris.

Working with the nonprofit New York Waste Match and a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, Tai initially explored the feasibility of starting up a deconstruction outfit in the city. But she kept running into the same problem: what to do with the salvaged materials. Resale yards in Westchester and other nearby locales–such as two run by Habitat for Humanity–were already overloaded with supplies. “We were receiving tons and tons of calls from contractors who really want to recycle their stuff,” says Tai. “They don’t want to throw it away. They would like to make some money off of it. But there just was no end use–there wasn’t an outlet.”

So Tai set out to create one. Partnering with the nonprofit ARROW (Astoria Residents Reclaiming Our World), she secured a Department of Sanitation grant, administered via the environmental research group INFORM [see “Fast Trash,” page 7], for $90,000. Founded in 1989, ARROW began as a curbside recycling group before the city instituted its own program. “When I say curbside,” laughs Chris Tokar, ARROW’s treasurer, “I mean, we hung out on the curb and people came to us with their trash.”

The ARROW store will accept donated materials and provide a tax deduction. (Down the line, it may begin paying for materials, but Tai says that model is at least a year away.) The store, staffed largely by volunteers, will accept drop-offs Tuesdays through Saturdays, and will offer pick-ups, too. The income generated from sales will go toward operating costs. Her goal is to make the emporium self-sufficient within three years; in the meantime, Tai is currently seeking additional grant funding.

Tai plans to pay close attention to the volume of materials that pass through the store, so she can measure just how much waste she’s returning to good use. Size and other constraints will prevent the store, located at 21st Street and 51st Avenue, from accepting some materials. Wood, for example, can be no larger than two-by-fours and must be free of nails. (Tai may yet invest in a denailing gun, which quickly cleans lumber.) And while they will accept bathtubs and sinks, they will not accept toilets, mainly because the site has no outdoor access to water, and therefore no way to clean them. “Toilets I just cringe at,” says Tai.

Nationally, used materials yards are thriving in progressive towns like Berkeley, Boulder and Madison, but also in less obvious areas such as Minneapolis, Baltimore and Houston. “One of the great things about being involved in this is that you can visualize a backhoe going to a landfill and digging up a trunk with cash in it,” says Jim Primdahl, deconstruction manager for the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a national organization. “That cash goes right back into the community. This is cash from trash.”

Julee Herdt, a Boulder-based architect and professor at the University of Colorado, believes trash is the key to the future of architecture. “We’ve used up our resources and left them in piles of waste,” Herdt says. “So that’s our new resource.”

Tai faces obstacles in bringing the movement to New York City, with its high costs of labor, real estate and transportation. But friends in the recycling community believe she is up to the challenge. “Nicole is a true champion,” says Primdahl. “I tell every group I work with that these enterprises are never accomplished through committee. It always takes a community champion.” Primdahl thinks Tai’s project will succeed despite the hurdles because Tai’s roots in the construction business give her firsthand knowledge of what’s involved. “Nicole fully understands that our industry is a convergence of the construction industry and the recycling industry,” he says. “And she understands the mechanics of both.”

For her part, Tai says the biggest challenge she’s encountered so far is real estate. The current space, a private warehouse she just found this February with the assistance of the Long Island City Business Development Corporation, is less than 3,500 square feet. “We had to compromise by taking our current site just to get going,” she says, “due to lack of sufficient funding or a large enough space donated by the city.” But she is confident that the city will come through with a bigger space within a year. By Tai’s calculations, the ARROW project could eventually use over 70,000 square feet in every borough. She has her sights set on a 5,000-square foot building in Williamsburg, a former architectural salvage warehouse that was run by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Architectural salvage has until now been the main form of used building material sales in the city, with shops such as Urban Archaeology selling columns, mantles, and other decorative artifacts at upmarket prices. (There’s one other deconstruction outfit already in business: Brooklyn-based M Fine Lumber, which deals exclusively in used timber.)

Despite New York’s inhospitable climate for such a project, there are also factors that seem almost guaranteed to make the ARROW store a success. For one thing, there are thousands of small contractors in the city, and Tai hopes these will be a source of both materials and sales.

Tokar says she expects the city’s artistic and theater communities to become good customers. And she also believes the store will draw small landlords. “When you look at the city as a whole, there’s a very large number of people not only who own their own home or who own an apartment but who own the building they live in with three other units,” says Tokar. “The other units support them, and they do a lot of the work there themselves.”

Tai and others believe New York is a big enough market for other players to get into the salvage business, too. “If you’re looking at an individual renovation project, a substantial portion of the material may actually be recoverable in some form by someone,” says Steve Hammer, president of Hammer Environmental Consulting, which has worked with businesses, nonprofits and city agencies on a wide range of recycling-related projects. “That doesn’t mean it’s all going to go through Nicole’s shop, but it’s part of a system that can be made to exist in New York City.” Hammer hopes that several companies will set up deconstruction operations in the New York area, funneling their materials through the ARROW store. “We’re talking New York City. It’s a huge market out there, but other than the ultra-rich it hasn’t been tapped.”

Tai says she wouldn’t mind some competition. “At least we’ll be the catalysts,” she says. “And if not, we’ll be the ones who are running everything, just reclaiming the whole world.”

Hillary Rosner is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colorado.