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From housing rubble, sprouts green furniture

A Piece of Cleveland goes beyond recycling to upcycle old-growth wood from demolished homes into new objets.

By Wendy A. HokeCorrespondent / October 29, 2008

ONE MAN’S TRASH ANOTHER’S ... TABLE: A Piece of Cleveland turns valuable old wood from demolished homes into new furniture. The APOC team (left to right): Chris Kious, Aaron Gogolin, Ezra Taxel, P.J. Doran.

William Reiter/Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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If you drove by the old Stanard School at E. 55th Street and St. Clair Avenue, it didn’t look like much. Just another old building lost to years of neglect and probably a frequent site for illicit activity. When the city slated it for demolition in 2007, the four guys at A Piece of Cleveland (APOC) were on alert. They knew that within the rubble of framing lumber, busted bricks, nicked doors, and scuffed wood floors destined for landfill were treasures to be mined.

The piles of maple flooring and old growth pine werewoodworkers’ gold, the kind of material readily found when the homes were built 100 years ago, but rarely available today.

In the maple they envisioned the beautiful blond wood chairs that today sit in their downtown studio. They saw cutting boards and chopping blocks that in the past year became a local culinary gift sensation, particularly on the bridal shower circuit. In old-growth pine, with its tightly wound concentric rings, they saw the contemporary pattern perfect for the countertops now installed in a customer’s home.

Every year in Cleveland, a thousand homes are demolished to make way for parking lots, businesses, and new homes, or to remove blighted remnants of the foreclosure crisis.

During the demolition process, most items such as concrete, brick, and wood are recycled – crushed and ground for other uses. But that process still brings it one step closer to the landfill because that material cannot be recycled yet again.

APOC takes the two-by-fours, framing lumber, doors, and wooden floors of those wood-frame homes and buildings and gives them new life – as chairs, lamps, tables, bookcases, cutting boards, countertops, and conference tables.

The wood that held up houses for generations will have new purpose that will last generations longer. This is “upcycling,” a term coined by designers William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book, “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.”

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It was a shared penchant for sustainability, history, and good design that brought APOC partners – furnituremaker P.J. Doran, carpenter Aaron Gogolin, housing development manager Chris Kious, and furniture designer Ezra Taxel – together last year in their upcycling business.

Their first venture was chopping blocks and cutting boards made of rescued wood. But it was the tag each item carried – with a researched story of where this “piece of Cleveland” came from – that caused them to sell out immediately. Inspired by the response, and realizing the market potential, they turned their attention to finding more raw materials for their products.

Most of the housing stock in the Cleveland area is made of wood, providing a ready supply. But they wanted to offer something a little bit more than another wooden chair or end table.

“The materials deserved the chance to have new life,” says Mr. Kious, “but their stories also deserved to be retold.”

“Anyone who builds green wants to tell people why it’s green,” says Mr. Taxel.

Using public records, APOC tracks a home’s ownership, square footage, year built, style, and other attributes. But some of the richest findings for the “rebirth certificates” that accompany each piece come from the stories of people in the neighborhoods where the deconstructions are taking place.

For example, In 2007, the City of Cleveland was tearing down a home on Cleveland’s near West Side to make way for a parking lot to accommodate off-street parking for the nearby commercial district.

Through A public records search at the county auditor’s office, APOC learned that the home was built in 1915 and owned by multiple members and possibly generations of the Zarrelli family.

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