Skeleton of Clement Street buildings will see new life

Skeleton of Clement Street buildings will see new life

Michele Ellson

Photos by Mike Rosati. Click photo for slideshow.

“If asked to describe myself, I’d tell you I’m an artist. I don’t know how I got into this industry,” Reusable Lumber Company’s Jim Steinmetz said.

Steinmetz recovers old lumber from demolition sites and sells it for reuse, a task his South Bay company is now performing at the site of the former Dow Pumping Engine Company on Clement Avenue, near the Park Street Bridge. He has amassed a wealth of knowledge over the 16 years he’s been in the recovery business – knowledge that flows in a torrent of factoids about carbon sequestration and wood quality over the generations, with little interruption.

“I’m pretty passionate about it,” Steinmetz said of his work.

The goal of that work, he said, is to dramatically reduce the demand on forests by getting as much recovered lumber from demolition projects like the one on Clement Avenue back into use as possible. That project, he said, could put as many as 140 tons of Douglas fir back on the market and into use.

“I’d like to see Ikea and Home Depot getting the end product out into the marketplace. That’s what drives me personally is those goals,” Steinmetz said during an interview this week.

Steinmetz started out as an environmental educator and activist around 1990, he said; his father was a contractor who owned and rehabilitated some apartment complexes, and Steinmetz helped out. He went into business for himself after the state began implementing efforts to cut the amount of waste going into landfills by half, efforts that have expanded to include laws designed to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases the state’s residents and businesses produce.

Lumber was one of the top materials chucked into California’s landfills in 2008, a state-published study released in August 2009 showed, accounting for 14.5 percent or nearly 5.8 million tons of the debris in the state’s waste stream that year, with more than a third of that amount being clean boards, pallets and crates.

While 65 percent of California’s solid waste is now diverted from landfills, Steinmetz said he thinks that only 20 percent of the wood that could be saved actually gets reused, in part because California cities don’t have the same institutional recycling programs for construction debris that they have for paper, glass and plastic. Representatives with the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery were unable to confirm the number, though a 2002 report from the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service put the amount nationally at 17 percent.

Nearly every city in Alameda County has adopted rules that require at least half of the debris from construction and demolition projects to be diverted from landfills in some way. Alameda’s city leaders adopted such an ordinance in 2002, applying it to projects valued at more than $100,000. But that's not true of other California cities.

“It’s still enough that we need those ordinances out there, we need them to be implemented and assertively enforced, to maximize what we get out of the waste stream,” Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery spokesman Jeff Danzinger said of the amount of lumber going into landfills.

Reducing the number of trees felled for new building cuts carbon emissions, and this is one of Steinmetz’s chief goals. Trees take in and hold, or “sequester,” carbon – about half of the composition of wood is carbon – releasing it when they are cut down and used. Fewer trees cut down means less carbon in the air, Steinmetz said.

Steinmetz said reusing lumber instead of cutting down trees fresh also reduces the amount of transport needed – and emissions made – to complete a construction project. He said the wood used in the reconstruction of the Portola Valley Town Center, which had been culled from a demolished school, traveled 80 miles, compared to an industry standard of 1,500 miles.

Reclaimed redwood and fir from older structures is often better quality than the wood used in newer structures because the latter typically comes from trees that were harvested younger, he said, and far less bug-repellent. Older fir and redwood trees are harder and denser, he said.

“When you cut young – it’s like going through a marshmallow,” Steinmetz said.

Most of the wood Steinmetz collects is between 128 and 150 years old. His collection includes 100-year-old piers made of Douglas fir culled from a site in downtown San Francisco.

In addition to the Portola Valley job – one of Reusable Lumber’s biggest – Steinmetz deconstructed Palo Alto pioneer Juana Briones’s home, which was built around 1845 using adobe stuffed into split redwood. Steinmetz sold one of the walls to a local museum and still has another, which he’s hoping to get into the San Francisco Museum at the Mint.

He said he has also developed a close relationship with the Jasper Ridge Biological Reserve at Stanford University, after providing recycled siding for a 2000 project. And Steinmetz, who's working with Crossroads Lumber of Madera County on the job, said he’s glad for the opportunity to save a tiny bit of Alameda history by preserving wood framing from the Dow facilities, which were built in 1909 and are Alameda's oldest industrial facilities.

“It means a lot to us,” he said.

Steinmetz said he saw interest in his work grow after the release of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” about global warming. He said the high cost of throwing old building materials away has also attracted interest.

“Loads of lumber gets stuffed into the Earth every day,” Steinmetz said. “We’re going in the right direction, but we’re going slowly.”

Anyone interested in purchasing some of the wood culled from the demolition project can call (650) 867-8970.


Submitted by Userz on Fri, Dec 21, 2012

Don't forget (clearcut) logging also removes forest habitat (ecosystems functions, systems, services, values, biodiversity, etc.).