Syracuse, NY -- The old-growth timber beams are stacked waist-high in a corner of CabFab’s woodworking shop.
Along with the nicks, nails and patina of age conferred by 100 years of holding up the former Lincoln Supply Co. warehouse on Otisco Street, in Syracuse, each slab of lumber bears a tag imprinted with a two-dimensional bar code.
The Quick Response code — QR for short — will stay with the beams along the journey to becoming end tables, cabinets and countertops.
If you “snap” the code with the QR reader on your mobile phone, you’re linked to D-Build’s website at d-build.org. The Syracuse-based site plans to add information on the history of the building the wood came from; the people who lived and worked there; the “deconstruction” workers who took it apart board by board; what else was made from that piece of wood; and a place to buy it and other pieces of furniture or art made from reclaimed lumber.
But D-Build’s ambition goes beyond documenting an object’s history.
By bringing together buyers, sellers, craftspeople and artisans, it aims to create a reliable market for reclaimed materials. That market could make it worth someone’s while to “deconstruct” a house, rather than tear it down and toss the debris into a landfill, where it will give off greenhouse gases as it decomposes.
Closing the loop between deconstruction and construction also could create hundreds of green jobs in Syracuse — and any number of Rust Belt cities with vacant buildings to take down and idle hands to put to work.
“There’s only so much of these materials,” said Rob Englert, a Syracuse industrial designer and a founder of D-Build. “We’re trying to tell that story. Don’t throw this stuff away, because it has value.”
Englert is collaborating with Chris Clemans, co-owner of CabFab, to show just how valuable this material can be. Clemans is launching a line of kitchen cabinetry that will be made out of wood reclaimed from local buildings.
The first example is going into the kitchen of Live Work Home, the innovative green house under construction in Syracuse at 317 Marcellus St.
CabFab is creating a display in its showroom at 124 Burnet Ave. that will explain how a pockmarked beam from the Lincoln Supply warehouse becomes furniture-grade cabinets.
“People need to be able to see, touch and experience to be able to fully embrace this,” Clemans said. “That’s why it’s a long road for a visionary like Rob and an organization like D-Build.”
The road starts at the Syracuse Center of Excellence. About a year ago, a consortium of Syracuse University, the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry and local businesses created an “innovation sandbox,” or iBox, at the center where academics and business people from various disciplines could play with ideas. The goal of iBox is to spark innovation, community development and sustainable business practices.
Englert, a principal in Ram Industrial Design Inc., in Syracuse, became involved with iBox through his connections at SU, where he taught industrial design for 10 years.
The group got to talking about deconstruction — the labor-intensive process of taking houses apart nail by nail, board by board, with the aim of reusing or recycling most of the materials.
Citing U.S. census data, Englert said there are 14 million vacant homes in the United States, containing materials valued at $75 billion. In Syracuse, there are about 1,500 vacant houses. Buffalo has 16,000 and Detroit, a whopping 33,000.
“This is standing lumber shrouded in house materials,” Carr said. “It could potentially be saved and used to build energy-efficient new homes all in the same area. It’s similar to localized farming — the idea that you would buy a tomato grown locally, so its carbon footprint is much smaller.”
At the same time, interest in green building is booming. By some estimates, the market for green building materials is expected to exceed $31 billion in the U.S. by 2014.
Demand for reclaimed materials also is growing. Builders get extra points for using
reclaimed materials under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design criteria.
What was missing is a place for buyers and sellers to connect. That’s where D-Build comes in. Englert described it as a mash-up of Craigslist.org (online classifieds), Ancestry.com (genealogy) and Etsy.com (a place for artisans to sell their wares).
“The reclaimed materials industry is a nascent industry, it’s not connected, all these people don’t know about each other,” Englert said. “They’re passionate about it, but they’re not techies.”
The power of the D-Build concept, Carr said, is in connecting the not-connected-yet players in the region.
“You start to identify new opportunities for product development that don’t exist on the market yet,” he said, such as tools to tag, scan and inventory the materials. “You save the lumber to create new houses and new furniture. You envision Syracuse being a hotbed of reconstruction and new product development.”
D-Build also appeals to the same impulse that moves people from Syracuse to flip over their dinner plates to see if they were made by Syracuse China.
“We live in this transient world,” Englert said. “What if you could have a rolltop desk made from your old boyhood home? That would be kind of cool.”
For now, the six employees of Ram Industrial Design work at D-Build on the side. The hope is to make it a self-sustaining business.
’’It’s good for the environment, the economy and the communities that are involved,” Englert said. “If we can get this working in Syracuse and then show it to (Mayor) Dave Bing in Detroit, this could spur all other kinds of opportunities.”