Natural disasters and recycling

reclaimed wood

The reclaimed wood ceiling is but one of the sustainable design features of this kitchen

Residents of New Jersey and New York continue to face the daunting task of cleaning up neighborhoods ruined by Superstorm Sandy. Most of them understandably don’t care how municipalities plan to get rid of the piles of debris that used to be houses and other buildings. They just want it out of sight as quickly as possible. I hope that the officials whose job it is to dispose of the mess can take a longer view. Landfills and incinerators may be the most obvious means. They’re the fastest. Just not necessarily the best for the long term.

At least one company that deals in reclaimed wood is actively seeking to acquire salvageable wood to use to make unique, sustainable furniture, floors, and cabinetry. All the signs of the wood’s former use actually give character to the new pieces made from it.

Overview of reclaimed wood

Many barns, mills, and other wooden buildings have been abandoned after outliving their usefulness. They remain a familiar sight in rural areas all over the country. They have no economically viable uses any more. They represent fire hazards. Meanwhile the land they occupy might be quite valuable. Yet the wood is still strong, and in some ways superior to harvested timber.

By the 1970s, some once-plentiful woods had become scarce. Chestnut, for example, suffered from a deadly blight that spread across the country early in the twentieth century. So some companies began to sell reclaimed lumber. The industry began to grow in the 1990s. It had become apparent that dismantling an old building for its wood was an economically viable alternative to demolishing it.

It has a good environmental impact, too. Burning wood releases all manner of air pollution, including greenhouse gases. Disposing of it in landfills wastes increasingly valuable landfill space, and to this day landfill operators have not systematically begun to harvest and use the methane they give off. Flaring that off likewise degrades air quality.

But builders who use reclaimed wood can get credit toward LEED certification for their products. (LEED is a system of designing, building, and operating green buildings.)

Reclaimed wood is more expensive than harvested timber and will likely remain so. Its nails, bolts, and other metals require either manual removal or the use of saw blades and other tools capable of handling it. Nevertheless, using reclaimed wood has become a big business and a product in high demand.

The wood in houses destroyed by Sandy is probably not as high in quality or value as that from old buildings erected from old growth forests before the nation’s air became so polluted. Even so, there are considerable benefits in reclaiming it rather than destroying it. I hope the people responsible for the cleanup will be open to selling it or even giving it to reclaimed lumber companies rather than burning it up, which I’m sure would be faster.


Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Jeremy Levine Design.
Here is a photo gallery of other reclaimed wood projects.


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