Time was, and not so long ago, that you'd go to the city transfer station—a.k.a. the dump—and see hurried construction crews and heedless remodelers tossing out "trash" that would make a grown builder cry today. Into the waste pit would go everything old that couldn't be Sheetrocked over: antique pedestal sinks and gooseneck toilets, perfect small-pane wooden windows, old-growth full-measure lumber that you'd have to log a national park to replace today. The dumpers would then head down to the hardware store to buy some new clear-cut products.
Now another generation of homeowners is paying crazy money for the bungalows those bygone treasures came out of, ripping out the '60s "improvements" and trying to restore the original cozy glory. This breeds two types of remodelers: those who will pay anything for authentic materials and trimmings and those who've paid so much for their fixers that they must cut costs on fixing it up.
The result: a bull market in recycled building materials, especially in a boomtown like Seattle. Once, the field belonged to a few funky basement operations like Captain Sam's near Pioneer Square. Now salvagers are flocking here like software developers and fancy fashion shops, including three new operators in the past year alone. Bellingham's nonprofit Re Store, the region's biggest salvage outlet, opened a branch in a sprawling Ballard warehouse. And the Summer Beam Company, a ballyhooed recycled-materials vendor, relocated here from North Carolina.
"Recycled" doesn't necessarily mean cheap. At the high end, Salisbury Woodworking on Bainbridge Island mills flooring from salvaged beams of everything from familiar Douglas fir to Australian black gum—for 50 to 75 percent more than the price of new wood. Elite recyclers like Seattle Building Salvage in Belltown sell leaded windows, turned columns, and other vintage treasures for lots more than junk that does the same job at Eagle Hardware. But in 20 years, the vintage stuff will be even more treasured, while today's pressed-wood molding and plastic shower surrounds will be as appealing as avocado counter tops.
At the low end, the cheapest source of scrap is other people's spring cleaning; 90 percent of salvage is being around when someone wants to get rid of something. But if you don't have time to wait, 2nd Use, Seattle's biggest building-salvage outlet, is a decent mid-age hunting ground. It's cleverly, and eloquently, situated next to the city's South Transfer Station between Highways 99 and 509, where the consumer society's detritus goes to die. At places like 2nd Use, it goes for a second life.
Like the Re Store, 2nd Use recycles big lots from demolished schools and other public buildings. (Here's your chance to own one of those giant varnished hallway closets, complete with "School Safety Patrol" instructions tacked on the door.) But it also buys the doors, tubs, and two-by-fours home remodelers rip out—or, more often, it takes the stuff off their hands gratis, saving dump fees. A clever location, indeed. And unlike the Re Store, 2nd Use is in this for profit—though it passes on half the proceeds from donated materials to Habitat for Humanity.
From a practical view, scouring a building-salvage yard can be frustrating. You may find cabinets in every size and shape, and a few inconceivable ones—except the size and shape you need. The consolation is that with salvage, looking is its own reward. You can congratulate yourself on at least trying to lighten the load of waste and clear-cutting (one salvage operator in SoDo appeals to this impulse with its name, Earth Wise, and for many of the operators salvage remains a cause as well as a business).
The signs on the hardware bins—"Springs . . . Pulleys . . . Flotsam . . . Jetsam"—only begin to evoke the oddities lurking therein, from $5 brass toilet-paper dispensers built like (and probably extracted from) a battleship, to what I can only guess were medieval torture implements. (I didn't ask the price.) Down the aisle stand two museum pieces—working 1920s "Monitor-top" refrigerators, their compressors set jauntily like pillbox hats. But the most impressive item at 2nd Use sits at the front: a massive, elaborately turned spiral staircase of oak. It cost $20,000 new, explains yardman Mark Houston; for you, just $7,000. Ordinary spiral staircases are built on a single helix around a central axis, he adds; this one is a full double helix.
Immunex, the home of the Watson and Crick Caf鬠should snatch this relic up for its new headquarters. Why be proud? A few years ago, Bill Gates bought up all the very best old-growth Douglas-fir salvage beams for his mansion. There's a piece of scrap wood out there for everybody.