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The Convergence of History, Beauty and Sustainability

By Ryan Waterfield and Sabina Dana Plasse

There was a time when wood was the most ubiquitous building resource in the United States; it was strong, affordable, and plentiful. There was a time when forests were packed with trees hundreds of years old. Varieties of oak, redwood, maple, chestnut, walnut, hickory, pine, fir—the possibilities were endless as were the resources. Or so it seemed at the time. As demand for lumber increased across the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries, our forests paid a heavy toll.

Today, with only four percent of our country’s old-growth forests remaining, old-growth lumber is a highly valued resource because of its beauty, quality, and strength. To procure that kind of lumber today, we have to go back to the source—well, the source we have left anyway: old barns, mills, fences, and other structures built when old growth was plentiful.

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The cabin was originally from the Little Lost River near Mackay. It was disassembled years ago, labeled and stored in another barn waiting to be used for something special. The logs are hand hewn Douglas Fir and the wood window jamb is corral board sourced in Carey, most likely from Idaho or Montana. PHOTO Ray J. Gadd

A smattering of companies began to specialize in the reclaimed lumber as early as the 1970s. However, it wasn’t until 1990 that the popularity of reclaimed lumber shot up. This upsurge was due to three fundamental factors: the lack of natural supply of old growth lumber, the economic advantages in deconstructing older structures for the reuse of lumber, and the fact that reclaimed wood added certain aesthetic qualities that people began to seek. With the culmination of these factors, the reclaimed lumber trend was born. And lately, that trend has been energized because of the rising commitment to sustainable building practices.

Ketchum’s Lee Gilman Builders, Inc. recently completed a number of projects that feature recycled products. “One project that stands out is one for which the owners of the home had acquired an original homestead cabin from the Big Lost River Valley that had been disassembled and stored for a number of years,” Nick Gilman explains. “Janet Jarvis of the Jarvis Group was able to design the master suite of the home to fit within the envelope of the cabin.” Lee Gilman Builders’ carpenters were then able to re-saw the original logs so that the logs could be repurposed as exterior siding and interior paneling that enclose a modern building envelope. “The logs matched up perfectly,” Gilman says. “And the overall feel of the room is exactly that of an antique and authentic homestead cabin. We also used reclaimed material extensively when we remodeled our office space, which is an authentic Ketchum cabin dating back to the 1880s.”

Tim Carter of Idaho Mountain Builders in Ketchum explains, “Reclaimed wood is available, and it often comes with a story from its past life. Many people are looking for ways to reduce their energy and resource-use footprint and reclaimed wood presents another option. It’s not a totally carbon-free product because it has to be trucked in from somewhere, but, at least, we’re re-using a material that’s already out in the product stream.”

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Environmental Resource Center gets a new deck in old cedar from an old granary sourced through IGL Recycled Timbers in Carey, Idaho, Built by Idaho Mountain Builders PHOTO: Joe Marx

Reclaimed wood has a natural credibility that cannot be reproduced, and it is very versatile lending itself to contemporary design quite well says Gilman. “As aesthetics are extremely important to our clients, we work very hard at incorporating reclaimed materials into our projects as authentically as possible. We add detailing, like beam pockets and dovetails where needed and use the right type of material for the given architectural requirements.”

When the aesthetic is important, reclaimed timber can provide an option without breaking the bank. “Reclaimed timbers and siding are a way to create a silver, weathered look that clients are asking for,” Carter says. “A lot of the woods and grains we can get with old timbers are hard to find now. Last summer the ERC wanted to add a large deck onto their office building in Ketchum. They didn’t want to buy a new wood material to use for the decking. The Building Material Thrift Store in Bellevue didn’t have enough donated material to cover the whole deck, so we contacted Chris Gammons at Idaho Glulam in Carey to see if he had something in his yard we could use. He came through with a nice material at a generous price point that met the ERC’s budget. The deck is beautiful and unique, and met the ERC’s resource use goals.”

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he most beautiful floor we’ve ever installed is reclaimed wide-plank Heart Pine treated with a simple wax finish. The wood itself is so gorgeous there was no need for heavy stains or other “ surface finishes.
Nick Gilman – Lee Gilman Builders

A broad network of resources are used to source reclaimed wood, from discovering the location of the product to milling. At Lee Gilman Builders, whose combined history of employees working in the mountain home building industry is over 50 years, sourcing regional companies is extremely important to them and their projects. There’s no substitute for authenticity. “Consistency and grading of the material can be tough and requires some extra care,” Gilman says. “As siding for instance, if a client is willing to let the wood ‘be what it is’ things are pretty straightforward. If a particular size and color value is required, it can take a great deal of time and extra material in order to achieve a more consistent look. As structural engineers are wary of antique beams’ integrity they often ‘over-size’ the beam to account for hidden flaws. In this case, we often substitute steel or a modern beam and then ‘clad’ the true structure in the recycled material.”

Lee Gilman Builders has been using recycled products in just about any way you can envision. “Reclaimed siding has been extremely popular over the past few years and adds tremendous character to a home,” Gilman says. “It also has real value as a ‘pre-weathered’ material that holds up to our local climate with little to no maintenance. We’ve used reclaimed beam packages in a number of different homes as well as using salvaged pieces for specialty items such as mantles and railings.” Lee Gilman Builder’s use of reclaimed wood for flooring packages is one of their specialties as modern wood lacks the grain density and character of old growth flooring that was originally cut over 100 years ago. “I feel the most beautiful floor we’ve ever installed is reclaimed wide-plank heart pine treated with a simple wax finish,” Gilman reveals. “The wood itself is so gorgeous there is no need for heavy stains or other surface finishes.”

Reclaimed products—especially wood—have a classic quality that works well with a variety of architectural styles and stays in vogue. “Reclaimed timbers often aren’t graded for structural use, which makes them difficult to use as structural beams,” Carter explains. “There’s more leeway for their use as structural columns. Reclaimed siding comes in various conditions, so it’s important to communicate with your supplier in order to be sure of the look you will end up with and that you calculate the correct amount of waste to account for.”

In the Wood River Valley, the trend for reclaimed wood is more popular than ever. “The value of adding reclaimed or repurposed materials to a project starts with the beauty and quality of the materials themselves, but the value of these types of materials really shines when you factor in the conservation of resources recycled material inherently imply,” Gilman says. “Natural resources are finite, and we always prefer to use materials and techniques that extend the lifespan of an existing material rather than use something new. We build our homes to last and starting with high quality materials that have innate integrity is a great place to start.”

So why is reclaimed wood so popular in the Wood River Valley? Gilman says, “The Wood River Valley has a sophisticated population base that tends to have a high level of social and environmental responsibility.” When you also factor the beauty, integrity, and authenticity of the materials themselves it is easy to see why reclaimed or repurposed wood is so popular here. And Carter says, “Maybe we’re looking for ways to blend into the surroundings. It’s like house camouflage.”