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Used Building Materials Grow More Popular - 2002-06-17

It's said that one man's trash is another man's treasure. That's especially true in the used building supply trade, where cast-offs from one re-decorated home or office might fit perfectly into another. Landfills in Massachusetts are becoming saturated with rejects from house renovations. So some local entrepreneurs have come up with a solution to the environmental problem, while also making home improvement more affordable.

A sprawling suburban home in Northampton, Massachusetts is going through a major renovation that includes a new kitchen, bay windows and modern fixtures. "We're always taking out windows and doors and cabinets and all sorts of things in perfectly good condition, or at least restorable condition, but can't be used on a construction site, said contractor Nelson Shifflet, who adds that on large projects, his crew can end up with 5-10 tons of perfectly usable materials to throw away. "Previously we would not have a source for these, and we can't store them in our warehouse." he said. "We just end up with a warehouse full of stuff that we took to the landfill anyway, and that's just a shame to see that happen."

Now Mr. Shifflet has a way to ease his environmental conscience, and save money on dumping fees. He takes his clients' rejects to the Re-Store, a new business in nearby Springfield that re-sells used building supplies. Set in an industrial section of the city, the store is filled with shutters, sinks, bathtubs, cabinets and vinyl replacement windows - most priced at about half the retail value. Store manager Holly Milton-Benoit says there's something for everyone. "Right now we're in the lighting and plumbing department, and we carry all different types," she said. "In chandeliers, we'll have something that ranges from ultra-modern with large globe lights and silver droops, to something a little more ornate, like a three-tiered tobacco-stained fixture that would be great for someone with high ceilings."

Ms. Milton-Benoit says the Re-Store stock is almost as good as new. "We tell people, if it's something that hurts you to throw away ... then it's probably something that we'll take here," she said. "We don't like to take things that are scratched or dented and beat on, because we're not a collection site for the dump."

"All the materials you see in our store if we weren't here, they'd be thrown away ... and we're just getting the top, very small amount. As we get bigger, we'll be able to capture more of that," said John Majercek, who founded the Springfield Re-Store, one of about 100 such stores around the country that belong to the Colorado-based Used Building Materials Association. They get most of their goods from contractors doing remodeling, or big building supply retailers that need to dispose of their surplus stock. Mr. Majercek says his operation not only helps conserve landfill space. It also makes home-improvement possible for more people. "Of course, the lowest income people don't own homes ... but once they end up purchasing a home, the home usually requires a lot of work to fix up, because by definition they're buying the most affordable home possible, which is one that hasn't been updated and fixed up," he said.

This social mission is one reason the Re-Store employs several Americorps volunteers, including 23-year-old Jose Galarza. Americorps is a government-funded program that supports young people working to improve low-income communities across the United States. Mr. Galarza is hoping the Re-Store will help revitalize neighborhoods like Mason Square, a poor section of Springfield where he lives. "It's a largely Jamaican neighborhood, tons of houses boarded up," he said. "Ideally if we can take the usable materials out of those homes, or at the same time, build those houses back, either way that would be useful to the community."

So far, the best customers at the Re-Store tend to be habitual deal-hunters, like Julie Blake. The voice teacher and her husband bought a so-called "fixer-upper" two years ago. She says the house needed a lot of work. "When we moved in, it was running on 60 amps [electric service] and [old-style] fuses.... We had to redo everything," said Julie Blake. "We put in a new furnace and on-demand water heater."

A regular customer at Re-Store, Ms. Blake estimates she's saved $4,000-$5,000 buying used materials to remodel the house. "We're putting in a master suite right now, and what has saved us the most money is a shower stall. It's a two piece, really nice. We got for $75 there, and retail would have been close to $350," she said. "Oh, and a few days ago, Re-Store got a really nice skylight in, so I'm going to have a skylight over my tub."

Julie Blake is not only buying from the Re-Store, she's adding to its stock by donating the old doors and windows she removed during her renovation. That kind of recycling is good news to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. The agency has given $200,000 in grants to the Re-Store and similar businesses in Massachusetts. State planner Jim McQuade says that support is necessary, as Massachusetts is trying to implement a ban on disposing certain kinds of solid waste in landfills. "Organizations like Re-Stores are going to play a key role in making the disposal ban work," he said. "They promote the use of valuable materials, they allow contractors to avoid disposal, and they help local communities, the economy and the environment."

But Mr. McQuade says the shrinking state budget could hurt funding for projects like the Re-Store, which still relies on grants and other donations. Re-Store founder John Majercek says he hopes the store will eventually become a profitable, self-sustaining business as solid as the homes his recycled materials help build.