This Old House: It's About to Get Older

Photographer: Peter Kelly

Reclaimed lumber! Instead of cutting down new trees for the floors or beams of your house, you salvage material from the nation's (apparently endless) abandoned barns and factories. You have a beautiful, authentic floor, several hundred years old, the barn owner has made a killing and, to top it all off, you've made the environmentally sustainable choice.

Not quite.

"Before reclaimed lumber became a big business, the stuff was either burned or thrown away," says Rich Marilla, whose company, Barnyard Salvage in Lynchburg, Virginia, disassembles barns and then sells the lumber. "So finding homes for the lumber is certainly green. But it's how much processing goes into the material, and the specifications that some architects put on it, that determine whether or not it's an environmentally sustainable choice. ... If they only want 10-inch-wide antique white oak, well, material coming out of barns built in the 1800s only have so much of that. Then you have the other material that's thrown away."

All right, there's waste involved in the process. But after all, the trees were already cut. The true issue lies in the material's transportation and processing costs.

"There's probably more environmental damage done in the dismantling and transport of reclaimed wood than there is in just re-creating a 'reclaimed' aesthetic with new lumber," says Michael Clasby, managing director of Forvest, an agro-forestry consulting company that advises international investment funds. "How many of the structures you're taking wood from are covered in asbestos or lead paint? To dismantle a building, you have to deal with remediation, and then you have to actually treat the wood."

If it's not so great for the environment, why is reclaimed lumber so in vogue? "It's marketing," says Clasby. "You get someone who sees a spread in Architectural Digest and says, 'I want that floor and I want those beams,' and they don't have a budget. So they get it."

Which brings us to the question of price. Old timber can cost anywhere from two to four times the price of regular lumber, says Marilla. "Mostly, it's because you're paying the man-hours to tear the barn down, remove the metal from the material, and the amount of material that you have to throw away," he says.

Reclaimed lumber may not be as much a sign of environmental consciousness, then, as a luxury object. Nothing wrong with that.

"It's being able to say: Hey, I'm living in a museum piece," Clasby says. "They took down an old salmon cannery somewhere and I wanted an indoor basketball court. And I can do it. So why not?"

James Tarmy reports on arts and culture for Bloomberg Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.

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