March 16, 2010

Old barns yield architectural gold

— The Associated Press

John Williams
click image to enlarge

John Williams


click image to enlarge

Reclaimed wood flooring at the Mountain Lumber Co. plant in Ruckersville, Va., Friday, July 11, 2008. It might not fetch the prices of rare paintings or prized wines, but well-aged wood holds an intrinsic value that it is letting some who make a business collecting and selling the bones of old structures get by and sometimes even prosper in a difficult economy. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)


NEW YORK — It's one of the rare occasions when it's OK to gawk at the flaws of the very old. Designers and architects are plucking wood from old barns and other structures to give new projects character that otherwise can be hard to come by.

While mixing old with new isn't, well, new, the demand for decades-old wood is helping people who collect and sell the bones of old buildings prosper in a difficult economy. Interest in reclaimed lumber appears to be growing in part because the boards can fit with the environmental goals of some projects.

Many construction-related businesses have had demand fizzle as the housing market has retreated, but David Sacia has seen orders for reclaimed wood grow. The owner of Reclaimed Lumber Co. in Baraboo, Wis., mainly sells to wealthy homeowners on the East and West coasts and the designers and architects they employ. He says business is still growing, just at a slower pace than in recent years.

''It's up 5 percent this year. Every year it's usually up in the double digits,'' he said.

But this isn't a business like a discount grocery chain or a pawn shop that benefits from tough times. Shoppers for reclaimed lumber generally pay more for their history-stained wood than for the new stuff.

''To buy the material is as much as new lumber and usually two, three or four times the cost,'' Sacia said.

With the higher price tag and ever-shifting tastes, Sacia once worried that demand for the wood, which is mainly used in flooring or in decorative accents, would prove a fad. But he's been comforted as notions about what can be recycled have spread beyond soda cans and newspapers.

''The word 'green' has come into play,'' he said, predicting the environmental bona fides of old boards could help sustain demand.

Anita Lang, principal at design firm Interior Motives, in Scottsdale, Ariz., said clients are increasingly drawn to the idea of outfitting a home or business with something than can be reused.

And then there is the wood's resume: Its nicks and dents give it beauty, fans say. And the wood can be sanded and treated to preserve or minimize marks from a former life.

''It just continues to get more beautiful as you live with it,'' Lang said. ''The other thing with a reclaimed floor is it's never dated.''

She encourages clients to pay for the reclaimed wood and skimp on the more superficial items when they're building, renovating or redecorating.

''You can always come back and upgrade your sofa down the road,'' she said.

Still, some clients have lately balked at paying more than $20 a square foot, when, for example, they can get a fabricated floor made to look old for about $17 per square foot. But the difference between reclaimed wood and wood made to look old can be stark, she contends.

''You cannot totally replicate what 100 years does to something with factory equipment.''

John Williams, a senior account representative at Mountain Lumber Co. in Ruckersville, Va., said he's seen some slowdown but that the pedigree of the wood the company sells -- it's been installed everywhere from Mount Vernon to Monticello -- is still drawing business.

''One of our barometers we're seeing here is how many requests we're getting for samples. And that's actually gone up,'' Williams said.

Tricia Thompson and her husband, Todd, own Enmar Hardwood Flooring Inc. in Mesa, Ariz. She said the gulf between those worried about their finances and those who appear undaunted has widened. And demand for the more expensive reclaimed wood continues.

''Your very high-end custom homes are still going out here,'' she said.

But people looking to make a buck from reclaimed wood shouldn't necessarily go ripping down an old barn or home. While standards vary, the wood has be in good condition and buyers can be choosy.

Typically, the best deposits of lumber ripe for reuse are in the Eastern U.S. and parts of the Midwest where barns and homes were often built using large, old timbers rather than with more blue chip -- and less aesthetically pleasing -- wood as the country pushed West.

Marc Cree, national sales and marketing manager at Vintage Lumber Co. in Frederick County, Md., sees increased demand for people hoping to profit from their old buildings.

''There's definitely a larger scale of people calling in. They want money. I think they've seen the rise in the reclaimed market and they've seen the prices that certain companies get for the reclaimed market and they expect to make a considerable profit,'' Cree said.

But some prices have come down in recent years as more supply has hit the market, a benefit to those collecting the wood. Many barns can be had for $1,000 to $2,000.

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