Reclaimed wood flooring wins out in home renovation

In renovating an old house, the flooring decision comes down to new flooring (relatively inexpensive) vs. old wood planks (more expensive but charming and recycled).

By , Correspondent

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    The construction crew starts to clean up for the day as the light dims at Sheep Dog Hollow, a 1902 farmhouse being renovated in Connecticut.
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With our bank account steadily draining away as we renovate Sheep Dog Hollow, it’s getting more difficult to make decisions that put the “green” of environmentally sound before the “green” of good old hard cash.

Our goal, as I’ve noted repeatedly, is to test the proposition that one can build in an environmentally sound as well as an economical manner. One of the first lessons we learned is that it can be done, but one needs to look at the word “economical” in a five- or 10-year time frame. So, for things such as geothermal heating and spray foam insulation, we opted to spend more now on cutting-edge technology to save heating and other costs in the future. It wasn’t hard to justify.

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But now we’re talking floors. We had hoped to be able to save the old floors at Sheep Dog, but alas, most were in such bad shape that it would clearly cost more to try to patch and repair what’s there than to simply put in new floors. And new wood floors from a properly managed forest are not only affordable, but also ecologically sound, according to Wood Floors Online:

Unlike most floor coverings, wood floors come from a natural resource that is sustainable. Long gone are the days when timber was cut down with little thought for the long term consequences on the nation's forests. Today most timber is cut from forests that are carefully managed to ensure continued resources in the future. In fact, according to U.S. Forest Service statistics, almost twice as much hardwood timber Is added every year through new growth as is harvested. Additionally, there is more standing hardwood timber today than there was 50 years ago.

So it should be a no-brainer that we put in new wood floors. But that’s not what we’re going to do. Nope, because Martin and I love the look of old, wide-board floors, we are opting to put in far more expensive, reclaimed wood planks. And we have support in this decision from Rudy Rzeznikiewicz, a self-described “mean old miserable coot” who sells those old, wide board planks at Brooklyn Restoration Supply in Brooklyn, Conn.

“No. 1, the wood was a better wood back then,” he says. “It was slow growth and had a tighter grain. Also, it’s not going to warp on you. Anything it was going to do it has already done over the course of the 200-plus years.”

A site called Reclaimed Lumber explains why the old growth wood is better than the newer, fast growth lumber:

Consider the hardships of growing in an old-growth forest. A tree grown on a tree farm doesn't have to compete for space and light, and it will be harvested before it gets very old, so its growth rings will be widely spaced. But a tree that grew in an ancient forest had to compete with other trees, so it grew more slowly. That's why old-growth timber is strong and its rings are dense.

Rudy has two chicken coops packed full of old-growth planks that he’s rescued from area houses and barns that were being torn down. There are thousands of such lumber restoration businesses that "harvest" wood from old buildings around the country (although only one Rudy). But a growing number of companies have begun to rescue old-growth timber that comes from some unlikely spots.

One is called Timeless Timber, which “harvests" this highly prized lumber without eroding the environment because our source isn't a forest. Instead we plumb the chilly depths of America's lakes and rivers searching for these treasures.”

In Wisconsin, it’s estimated there are more than a million logs at the bottom of Lake Superior that can be recovered. A case study of the Superior Lumber Co., which now harvests the sunken logs, describes them as essentially sunken treasures that can recovered and then “processed and sold to furniture makers, architects, contractors, instrument makers and the Japanese at incredibly high prices. The high prices are because there no longer exists the same quality of old growth lumber anywhere in the world that can compare to the lumber that was harvested by the U.S. and Canadian logging companies during the late 1890s to early 1930s.”

I know we wouldn’t be able to afford that elegant wood for Sheep Dog, but we’re going for some of Rudy’s recovered hard-pine planks, some of which are fully three to four feet wide. They go for $7 a linear foot. While it’s not as cheap as what you can find at some liquidators, it is an ecologically sound way to go. And besides, “the old floorboards belong in an old house,” says Rudy. “If it’s a reproduction house, then it doesn’t matter. But if it’s old, the new boards will stick out.”

And we don’t want anything to “stick out” at Sheep Dog Hollow.

Next: Why bother to conserve water when you have a pond, two streams and a lake within spitting distance?

Editor’s note: Alexandra Marks blogs on Tuesdays and Thursdays about her green and budget-friendly restoration of a 1902 farmhouse in Connecticut.

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