Remodeling boom in D.C. area brings to light rich veins of old-growth lumber

It’s the most prominent thing in the room. The wood table is sturdy and spacious — eight feet by three feet — built of rustic old lumber with a grain that shines through. The best thing about it? All of its wood came from the Northwest Washington rowhouse where it sits.

“They’re old hand-milled two-by-fours that the house was made out of,” says Mike Iacavone, an artist who owns the 1920 house, in the Bloomingdale neighborhood, with his wife, Ali Jost.

When they bought the house, they knew it needed renovations, but they were determined to hold on to some of its old structural timber. Iacavone, 40, built the table — using a biscuit joiner and a lot of wood glue — with discarded lumber that the couple’s contractor had set aside for them.

Iacavone and Jost also wound up exposing ceiling joists in the kitchen, giving the room a farmhouse look and showcasing thick, 100-year-old planks. “We took out a wall and saw the beams, and they looked great, so I said, ‘Let’s not cover these,’ ” Iacavone says.

The couple may have simply followed their instincts, but they were spot on. The wood in many of the District’s rowhouses, particularly those built before the 1930s, is high-quality lumber cut from old-growth or even virgin forests that no longer exist in this country. That includes not only the flooring and trim, but also the internal framing wood, such as studs, rafters, and floor and ceiling joists.

It’s often the same kind of wood that was used to build barns in rural areas around Washington. But unlike reclaimed barn wood, which became popular more than a decade ago, the value of this wood isn’t widely recognized among homeowners and developers. And as the city experiences a remodeling boom, builders say, most of it by far is going into landfills.

“The wood [that was milled] at the turn of the century is probably two or three hundred years old,” says Andy Bohr, sales manager at Galliher and Huguely, a 100-year-old lumberyard in the District. “It’s more dense, a little more structurally stable, because these are older-growth trees.”

Unlike recently cut lumber, which generally has been grown over 10 to 30 years, the old trees had very tight growth rings, lending the wood strength and hardness — even in so-called softwoods such as pine and fir. Much of the framing lumber in District rowhouses is made of those softwoods. The flooring might be finished oak or pine, and doors and details could be American chestnut, a wood made rare by a century of blight.

Max Pollock is materials manager with Details, a firm that deconstructs buildings in Baltimore and the District to salvage their components. He says that although most old rowhouse lumber can be restored to good condition, one type of wood is particularly sought-after: old longleaf pine, also known as heart pine. “It has a rich color, nice smell, and the grain is much, much tighter than other softwood species,” Pollock says. “That’s the holy grail; it’s what we’re always looking for.”

Like many others in the building field, Pollock says much of that old wood — both longleaf pine and other varieties — is getting lost.

The District is experiencing a remodeling boom. In 2014, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs issued more than 8,200 building permits for additions or alterations to residential properties, almost double the number in 2010. There are few details available about those properties, but it’s likely that a considerable number of them were significantly renovated or even gutted. And because the District doesn’t have an obvious wholesale market for salvaged wood, it’s entirely possible that most of the lumber was thrown out.

As much as 80 percent of that reclaimable wood might be discarded, says Don Malnati, a general contractor and president of Renovations Unlimited. “If you’re going to do extensive work in a house, tearing out walls and floors, it’s easiest to call a dumpster company and have them take it all,” he says.

That’s particularly true when a house is renovated and resold, or flipped. Flippers usually remodel houses to appeal to the widest possible audience, and a not-quite-level floor or quirky old door probably won’t fit the bill. Tearing everything out and starting over often makes more sense.

Of course, not all of the wood in a house is worth saving; some of it may be rotted or cut by pipes. But one way to keep the good stuff is by strengthening the existing framing lumber, rather than removing it. “We try to leave most of the joists in place,” says Leroy Johnson of Four Brothers, a design-build firm. Over time, old floor joists can begin to droop, and rather than replace them, Johnson says, his company’s carpenters will add a piece in the middle to straighten and support them.

A contractor or homeowner might also remove wood very selectively. For example, if a staircase is sagging, a builder can take off the risers and treads, replace the beams underneath and then reinstall the outer elements.

But selective removal isn’t always possible. A homeowner or developer who’s interested in an open-plan house probably isn’t going to leave walls up just because they’re built with valuable old studs. Instead, reclaimable wood from the renovation can be salvaged and put to another use.

The possibilities are almost limitless. Marc Wallenstein, a lawyer, renovated his 1890 rowhouse, in Northwest Washington’s Shaw neighborhood, turning the second-floor bedroom into a bathroom. Doing so meant losing the room’s original pine flooring, so he used it to panel the walls of a nook in the new bathroom that contained the toilet. The result is a cabin-in-the-woods vibe, warm and cozy. “And to echo that design feature,” Wallenstein says, “we put some wood on the ceiling of the kitchen downstairs.”

Jay Chen and his wife, Tara, renovated their kitchen in Bloomingdale and found themselves with leftover ceiling joists they were loath to discard. So Chen, 32, cut, cleaned and resealed the wood, which he thinks is eastern white pine, and turned it into floating kitchen shelves.

Because so much old lumber is being discarded in the city, some homeowners have learned to look closely when they see a house being redeveloped. J.C. Callam and David Soo, residents of the Eckington neighborhood in Northwest, became interested in old wood while renovating their house, which was built in 1905 by Harry Wardman. Callam soon noticed that a nearby house, also a Wardman creation, was being gutted and flipped, so he spoke with the developer. “She said, ‘You can take whatever you want,’” says Callam, a flight attendant.

So along with oak molding and trim that he and Soo are storing for future use, Callam gathered 16-foot timbers from the attic that he thinks are old-growth Douglas fir. “I pressure-washed them, and they’re a beautiful reddish color, the most beautiful wood you’d ever see,” says Callam, 45. With those beams, he built a barn door that slides on tracks and installed it in the house’s “English basement” residential unit.

Now he’s got the wood bug. At another nearby house that’s being gutted, Callam asked the workers to save joists and other lumber; he plans to use the beams for a bed frame. “These guys are just chucking this stuff. It’s crazy,” he says.

It’s not necessary to be handy with tools to make use of salvaged lumber. Several companies in and around the District will create custom furniture and other household items for homeowners who provide the wood.

Mallory Joiner and her husband, Sean, gutted their Capitol Hill house and sought to do something with the salvaged old lumber. Eventually, they found James Navarro, a woodworker who runs Live Edge Studio, and he built them a dining room table using the floor joists, which they suspect are longleaf pine. At first, “the beams were so ugly, I couldn’t believe it. They were very dark, almost black,” says Joiner, a teacher. But Navarro sanded and stained them, and now, she says, “we are obsessed with the table.”

Firms that use salvaged wood to create such items as benches, countertops or decorative elements include Washington’s District Wood Co.and Kurtz+Atkins Design in Montgomery County. Vintage Lumber, north of Frederick, Md., will remill joists and other framing lumber to repurpose as flooring.

Homeowners and builders who want to make old wood available for others to use have a few options. Craigslist is one, of course; another is Community Forklift in Edmonston, Md., a nonprofit secondhand store for building materials that accepts donations of vintage lumber; and a third is the independent brokers who buy old wood from renovators and resell it.

The brokers often maintain a low profile and aren’t easy to find, though. One insists on remaining anonymous; he says he’s “swamped with work” and doesn’t want anyone else calling him.

He says he does the work as a labor of love, because he cares about beautiful old wood and wants to see it valued, not thrown away. “In another 10 years,” he says, “it’ll all be gone, and people will be saying, ‘What’d we do wrong?’ ”

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