I Hear Design Episode 4: Chris Rutherford is Salvaging Architecture

08.20.2018
By Katie Downing, Michael Leonard, Kadie Yale, Christoph Trappe

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Christoph Trappe: Hello, everyone. Christoph Trappe here with interiors + sources and the BUILDINGS media podcast, and today I’m joined by Kadie Yale, she’s the interiors + sources editor-in-chief, of course.

Kadie Yale: Hello.

CT: And Chris Rutherford, who’s the executive director of the Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit. Thanks for joining us, Chris.

Chris Rutherford: My pleasure.

CT: And so, the way Chris and I actually met, if we can call that meeting, was through some articles that I saw in a national news source. I want to say it was CNN. And they were talking about how – somebody was creating guitars from materials, from commercial buildings that were no longer in use. And then your organization was mentioned in that article at some point.

Chris: That’s right. We work with a lot of different companies that take our salvage material and make it into things. And we actually help incubate those companies. There’s two articles last week, one about Wallace Detroit Guitars and he takes the materials that we salvage from buildings and turns them into electric guitars. And Detroit Audio Lab and we work with them to manufacture speakers and passive amps, again from the salvaged lumber that we de-construct buildings and structures here in Detroit and the greater Detroit area, and find new and great ways to reuse those materials.

CT: It sounded like a fantastic story to me. When I read it, I said, “I need to reach out. I need to connect with these guys, learn more about - of course, you were happy to come on our – I think happy, right – to come on.

Cautiously optimistic. I don’t know. But anyway, I’m just joking. So, tell us, how did the non-profit come about? What’s the mission? What’s your goal in life?

Chris: Yeah. We’re a 501 c3 non-profit corporation. And our mission is to transform waste into opportunity. And we initially came about by trying to keep these great materials out of the landfill. And you’ve seen lots of stories about Detroit and the depopulation of the city and all of the un-used homes that are otherwise slated for demolition. And that became a great opportunity to create jobs and to keep those fantastic materials out of the landfill.

I know the first time I walked out of one of those houses and I saw the structural lumber that the houses were built out of, my design background and training kicked in immediately, and I just thought what wonderful things could be made out of that material – furniture, wall treatments, guitars and speakers and anything that could be made out of wood.

It’s just beautiful material. It’s sometimes the original growth forest of Michigan or the second growth, depending on how old the house is, it’s just beautiful, wonderful material that creates jobs. And instead of an architect specifying lumber that’s from a forest in Brazil, they can specify materials that were harvested here in Detroit from the homes that are no longer in use. And gets remanufactured here in Detroit, creates local jobs, and a huge multiplier in the local economy.

And that’s what we’re in it for, to keep those materials out of the landfill, create jobs, and then we also get a lot of materials out of the houses that are great low-cost alternatives for Detroiters. So, if a local Detroit resident, furnace breaks down, they can get a furnace from us for pennies on the dollar. And that’s one of the other great services we provide to the local residents.

K: Oh, that’s wonderful. And so, you were talking a little bit about your background and how it gave you this ability to kind of see these diamonds in the rough. Will you talk a little bit about your background and what kind of gave you this eye and ability to kind of think through this problem and to come up with a solution?


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Chris: Yeah. This job is kind of the perfect mix of all the things that I love and do in life. My training and degree is in interior design and furnishings design. And I’ve worked as an architectural project manager at different firms. So, I have that background and then I’ve also done a lot of training and teaching. And so, the job training and job creation aspects are perfect too.

At the time I learned about deconstruction, I was actually doing training for weatherization, which was going in and making homes more energy-efficient. And an obstacle to employment for those guys that we were training was some of the felony backgrounds. And that was another thing that we thought about with deconstruction is you’re not going into owner-occupied homes and so the felony background really isn’t an issue.

So, it’s a great career pathway for those populations that are underserved or have less opportunity, and we can get them into all the construction trades and fields, which especially now, there’s not enough skilled workers to go around.

K: Yeah.

CT: So, is most of the materials, are they coming out of residential buildings? And then they’re used in commercial buildings? Or what’s the flow there?

Chris: Yeah. That’s a great question. It’s a pretty good mix. There’s also a lot of abandoned industrial structures and commercial structures here in Detroit, especially the old manufacturing plants. And those have a lot of great materials. And of course, the provenance of those materials, the story behind them, I think it’s a pretty even mix.

We do definitely a lot of residential deconstruction projects in the city of Detroit. And we do a lot of those also in the greater metro area. And those materials generally get re-manufactured and put back into developments happening in downtown Detroit or mid-town Detroit, or bars and restaurants all around the area.

Again, like I said, we’re also shipping stuff across the state and nationally.

K: That’s great.

CT: So, then when the materials get used, so I’m looking at the pictures here, I have I don’t know how many. It seems like 100 slides of fantastic looking – different rooms and steel windows, you know, all kinds of different things, and we’ll certainly share that in the article. When it’s repurposed, do they share where the material came from? “This is from the long-time plant that closed in 1982” or whatever the story might be? Or how does that look?

Chris: Most do. It’s a mix. Like I said, we also incubate a lot of different companies and a lot of companies base their entire product line on the materials that we provide and telling that story where the wood came from is a really important part of their work too. So, the End Grain Woodworking Company and they make a lot of beautiful frames and tap handles and lots of fun stuff. And with each piece they make, they engrave in it the origin and they put a little story together about where that wood came from.

Workshop Detroit, they make a lot of great tables and other pieces of furniture, and they hand-stamp on each piece the address that it came from. When you get into a project like the Detroit Foundation Hotel, which was originally the fire department headquarters in the city of Detroit, we reuse a lot of the materials that we salvaged from that project back into that project, as well as bringing in materials from other places. And they definitely tell that story. They created a whole video to tell it. And that’s part of their whole presentation to the public.

So, it’s definitely whether it’s written or stamped on the piece, it’s definitely part of the story that’s told.


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K: Are you seeing an increase of interest in kind of the historical background of materials? Because I know that I’ve noticed a real uptick in the last few years of cities being really proud of their history and their heritage, and they want people to know that they’re sourcing locally, that they’re creating locally. And especially having that kind of tactile and that tangible evidence of ‘this is the cities history,’ I would think you would have seen an increase and kind of interest in this type of material.

Chris: That’s definitely an increased driving trend, which is nice. The trend for a while has also been the reclaimed wood look, where it obviously looks reclaimed and it’s moving a little bit away from that and more towards a refined aesthetic where you don’t necessarily know that it’s reclaimed, but there’s that story and provenance there. And it definitely helps to have those reclaimed factory windows from Cadillac stamping plant or the trim work from the Packard plant and remaking those into guitars or whatever we might make them into. Telling that history.

And in the buildings, for sure, that’s a driving – I think that was one of the decision-making points for the Foundation Hotel, was to reuse local materials and to really invest in the local economy where they were building the hotel.

K: Mm-hm. That reminds me, I was looking on Facebook for some reused lumber to make a table out of. And I got a hold of this woman. She goes, “Call my dad. He just took apart his 120-year-old barn, board by board.” And so, I call him and he’s this old farmer and he’s like, “My kid showed up and saw that I was burning all this wood and they had my butt. And did you know people will pay for this stuff?” And I was like, “Yeah, dude.” And I was just shocked too. I was like, “I mean I’d be upset too if I found out that you were burning 120-year-old wood.” It’s just so beautiful and it can be used in so many different ways.

Are you finding though that when you kind of reuse this stuff, are there any problems with it? Or is there anything that has to be done when you’re processing it that people might be surprised about?

Chris: Yeah. There’s a lot of things that we’ve learned over the years. We salvage a lot of flooring and reusing that is tricky. And you have to have an installer that understands cleaning out the tongues and grooves and a client who also understands that it’s not going to look like a pre-manufactured floor.

Other issues like being aware of lead-based paint and most of that material we don’t end up salvaging or using. But if someone wants to match a historical molding or trim and we bring that in and it’s got lead-based paint on it, they just need to be aware of the hazard there and encapsulate it.

There’s a lot of metal in the wood, a lot of nails and content. So, when we’re milling it here, we go through a lot more blades than a typical mill would. And if someone’s buying it from us to re-mill it, that’s definitely something that they need to be aware of.


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Even when we de-metal it, we have metal detectors and lots of great tools to help pull that metal out, there’s still stuff that we miss. And those are some of the challenges. And when we’re working with the factory windows, for example, those have to be rectified and sand-blasted and re-welded and re-mastered to a certain extent, depending on what their new use is gonna be.

K: Okay, great. Is there anything that you have found, either, you know, you went into a place and you were just like, “Holy crap. I can’t believe this is still here.” Or anything that you found while working with these materials that you were just absolutely in awe of and so excited to have found this little treasure?

Chris: Yeah. One of the early things that I found in a house was in the attic floor boards was a diary of a woman who wrote in a daily diary. And it was round the time of the riots here in Detroit.

K: Oh, my God.

Chris: And that was really interesting to read. And we found the family and gave that diary back to them and that was neat then to have that little piece of history to go along with the material and also to return it to them. I think that was the most unique and interesting piece we found.

K: Oh. I love that.

CT: So, how do people – is there a way for people to get involved outside of Detroit? You mentioned earlier you ship nation-wide. Or how does that work?

Chris: Yeah. People can definitely buy the materials and we can ship it to them. There’s also the Building Material Reuse Association, which we’re a member of and I’m on the board of directors, and that’s a national organization that helps people find their local reuse outlet or deconstruction operator. So, there’s local outlets in many of the regions and the BMRA is an option to help find that, that they can certainly contact us and we can help them find those as well. Or we can ship the materials.

Right now, we’re deconstructing an old horse racing track and all of the stables there, so it’s 100,000 square feet of buildings and over 300,000 board feet of lumber and we’re going to be shipping truckloads of that all over the country at very good prices.

CT: I mean is there any fear or maybe that’s the goal to run out of places to deconstruct?

Chris: No. I don’t have any fear of that and I do get asked that question a lot. Certainly, at some point with Detroit’s revival, the abandoned homes will be taken care of. Well, we all hope that. But even when they are, the homes that have survived are going to outlive their useful life and need to be replaced. And those would be great opportunities for deconstruction. And that’ll continue to happen. I don’t really see that ever stopping. And hopefully, as we move forward into the future, we can also design things for deconstruction and eventual reuse.

So, I don’t see any risk in running out of materials. And design trends always change, and we have to adapt and find new ways to use the materials and as the materials change. Once we get into the deconstructing homes that were built in the 1980s and ‘90s with lots of adhesive, we’ll definitely have some new challenges in front of us, but just like asbestos and lead now, we figure out ways to deal with them.

CT: What kind of concerns do you hear from building owners when they think about partnering with you? Is there anything we can address?

Chris: Well, I mean I think that’s one of the best kept secrets, which hopefully won’t be a secret much longer is it really, the opportunity to de-construct is really a no-brainer if they can plan it properly. Because if they can pay us to deconstruct the building, and we’re a 501 c3 non-profit, so those materials are a donation to us, and we work with third-party appraisers to make sure that’s all – we don’t determine the value of that. The third-party appraiser does.

But for example, on a residential house, you might have $100,000 in donated value of materials. And demolition may cost $20,000 and deconstruction may cost $30,000. But if they’re in a tax bracket to get let’s say they’re in the 39 percent bracket, they’re going to get $39,000 back and be $9,000 in the positive in the deconstruction of that building.

Or same case with business owners, you know, it’s going to be more in the 20 percent bracket now with the tax changes. But if they have a tax liability and they pay us to deconstruct and they get a donation receipt for $100,000, they’re going to get $20,000 back. And they’re still be over demolition $10,000 in the positive.

So, those are quick round numbers on different approaches. But once we have the opportunity to talk to folks, it’s a pretty easy sell.

Concerns that they have are generally the timeline, is it going to impact their timeline? And if we get involved at the right point in it, it shouldn’t. Deconstruction, taking apart a building by hand is obviously going to take longer than crunching it up and throwing it away.

But typically, the buildings sit there for a while and permitting and different parts of the process, where we can get in there and get our work done before it affects them. Because we can get in and start doing interior removal and a lot of things, depending on jurisdiction before you even have a demolition permit or deconstruction permit would be nice, but I don’t think there is such a thing.

K: That’s great. One thing too is it drives me crazy whenever people try to break things up into generations, but I’m going to do it right now. You know, one thing that we are noticing also is that looking at Gen Z as they are starting to come out into the market, and they are starting to have more buying power is that Gen Z as a whole, stereotypically wants to be doing things and wants to back up companies that are providing great opportunities.

You know, you were talking about people who have criminal records and being able to help them and being able to reuse these products and everything. We’re really seeing that there’s going to be a massive increase in what that generation thinks is valuable.

And that’s something that I know I’ve talked to a couple designers about, that architects and designers and building owners really need to think about for the future is if you’re putting together something that’s supposed to be there, you know, building for 10, 20, 30 years, you need to be looking at like, “Well, how can I create the best possible space or building that is going to get a reaction from the people who have buying power in the next 20-30 years?”

So, I think it’s not only a great story, but I think something that building owners and designers need to take into consideration is who is the future and what do they care about right now?

Chris: Yeah. The businesses that we’ve worked with that have made the reclaim materials a feature of their space have definitely seen the benefit of that in their business. And really those places are what’s creating some of the trend to that extent too, because they, you know, some of them made the decision to do that before that was popular and have helped establish it. And definitely bring business in because of that, because of the aesthetics and because of the story. So, I think it’s a triple bottom line impact for everyone involved.

K: I always love to close out with just asking, is there anything that we may have missed that you think is really important for our readers to know about and to keep in mind either working with your company or working with reused goods?

Chris: I think the key is to make sure the people who don’t know about the opportunity about deconstruction know about it and know about the benefit, not only to the environment and the local economy, but to themselves and the tax benefit.

It’s really – once everyone knows about the opportunity, it’s a no-brainer. And there’s people around the country that are providing these services. And they can certainly give us a call or connect to the BMRA and find the local deconstruction operator or reuse store to keep more of these materials out of the landfill and put them back into the reuse economy.

CT: Well, thank you so much for making the time. Definitely appreciate it. And if anybody has any questions, they can always drop us a note and we’ll connect you.


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