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Palo Alto Weekly
Friday, March 23, 2001

The second time around

Old lumber can be recycled and rebuilt into new homes

by Bill D'Agostino

When Rebecca and Mitch Mandich bought their property, they wanted to build a new home, but sitting where their dream home would sit was an old house from the turn of the century.

Not wanting to waste what they saw as perfectly good material, they called in Reusable Lumber to preserve usable materials from the site.

The four-year-old company, headquartered in Mountain View, was started by Jim Steinmetz, a former builder. Earlier, he began recycling programs in middle schools and worked as a recycled-paper product salesman.

Steinmetz said his company is the environmentally conscientious choice of demo crews, otherwise known as "excavators." "What they do to houses is borderline on the wrong and the very wrong," he said.

Many demolition companies have gotten into the habit of "scraping and dumping," he said, and thereby filling up dumps with materials still in usable condition, such as aged wood.

"Older growth lumber grew for thousands of years and it grew dense and beautiful. We mowed that stuff down," he said. "Now we're destroying it with an excavator in the same haphazard way we went through the forest."

Although he can't remove a house with the same speed as a bulldozer (a two-bedroom/one-bath home will take between three to six weeks to tear down top to bottom), Steinmetz said that Reusable Lumber serves a more important function than simply removing a home--they save trees from being cut down for new homes.

Reusable Lumber also reduces emissions of greenhouse gases, such as methane, by stopping excess waste to enter landfills.

Steinmetz got his environmental ethics from his father, who is a builder and former real estate broker. "My dad instilled recycling values in all his children at a young age," he said. "The idea that we fill up dumps with materials drives my dad nuts."

It was through necessity that Steinmetz's dad got involved in recycling building materials, though. The elder Steinmetz was building homes in the 1970s when double-digit inflation got him looking for more economical ways to build. So he began reusing materials from one site to others. His actions inspired his son to create his business.

One of Steinmetz's first jobs involved tearing down a house and a barn on the old Arastra Preserve property. The lumber then was used to build two barns here, and leftover materials were shipped to Tonga, partly to build a church. Steinmetz went along to supervise construction and did a lot of the work himself. (And a couple of years later, the minister of the Tongan church performed Steinmetz's marriage ceremony.) His latest project is working on a property near the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve at Stanford University.

Although lumber is its bread and butter, it's not all that Reusable Lumber recycles and reuses.

The company also can salvage bathroom and kitchen appliances and fixtures, pipes, doors, windows, lighting fixtures, drain pipes and carpets. The padding underneath carpet is often not in good enough shape to be reused. So Steinmetz, being ever resourceful, uses it as ad hoc packing material.

In addition to top-to-bottom work, Reusable Lumber can also come in for a quick scavenger hunt of the best materials, which can be done in as little as three days.

Steinmetz mostly sells in bulk to contractors and wholesalers, but occasionally he sells individual specialized wood or fixtures, some through his Web site,

There are treasures to be found in the deconstructing process, and one of his favorites is a wood carving of the Land of Oz. He kept that particular piece for himself, and he sells some garden items to landscapers.

Reusable Lumber occasionally has problems with neighbors walking through a site, not realizing it's a demolition site. "People see salvaging going on, and they think it's a garage sale," Steinmetz said with a laugh.

Nails in lumber can be a nuisance as well as a safety hazard. At first, the crew would take the time to remove nails from wood. Steinmetz quickly learned that it wasn't worth that precious time. But, he soon figured out that he could send nailed wood to Mexico, where cheaper labor costs make it viable to hire someone to spend the time removing nails.

A lot of the materials Steinmetz finds get shipped to Mexico, especially Tijuana. With real estate being developed at the rate of 1.5 acres a day there, they need the materials as fast as he can supply them.

Any copper piping he recovers gets shipped en masse to Tijuana as well, since American builders work almost entirely with PVC not copper.

Making contacts, both in America and in Mexico, is essential to keeping business alive. When he was first beginning Reusable Lumber, Steinmetz drove around construction sites in Tijuana in his Toyota looking for distributors. He spent two days there and at the end of the second day, he found one wholesaler who sold materials to many of the sites. Soon they struck a deal, and he has been selling to Mexican tradesmen ever since. He has also shipped some materials to Chile and would like to expand to other South American countries.

Houses from different eras pose diverse problems, including Steinmetz's nemesis--concrete from the 1950s and '60s. He took a loss on one home that was filled with concrete, which is both slow to remove and, as yet, impossible to recycle.

Steinmetz said he hopes to be retired when 1990s homes begin to be torn down. Many homes built in the last decade have used carpenters' glue, which makes reusing its lumber somewhere between difficult and impossible.

For now, though, Steinmetz is looking to the future, which he hopes is down in the dumps.

Garbage dumps, specifically.

Setting up shop in a local dump would give Reusable Lumber space to sort materials, as well as the ability to take materials from excavators as they unload them. The additional space will allow him to subcontract additional crews.

"What holds us back is space and wages on the Peninsula," Steinmetz said. "But cities would be serving their own purposes--to reduce waste--by allowing us to operate at their refuse and recycling facilities."

Reusable Lumber has a grant pending in Santa Cruz County and will submit a proposal to the city of Palo Alto in the near future.

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